Michael J. Ybarra dies at 45; chronicler of extreme sports


Michael J. Ybarra, a former Times reporter who had recently chronicled his extreme-sports adventures for the Wall Street Journal, was killed in a mountain-climbing fall over the weekend on the edge of Yosemite National Park. He was 45.

A veteran mountaineer, he had set out alone to cross the craggy Sawtooth Ridge in the Eastern Sierra and summited the 12,280-foot Matterhorn Peak before he fell about 200 feet to his death, said his sister, Suzanne Ybarra.

His family reported him missing Sunday, and a rescue crew spotted his body Tuesday in a rugged area difficult to reach on foot, according to Kari Cobb, a park ranger. His body was found on the side of a mountain, his sister said.

Michael Ybarra: The obituary in the July 6 LATExtra section of Michael J. Ybarra, who wrote about his extreme-sports adventures and the arts for The Times, said that one of his final articles, on a gallery show in Venice, would appear Sunday in The Times. That article is on a Sonoma County exhibit of the art of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The article on the gallery show in Venice of photos from the Eastern Sierra is scheduled to run the following Sunday, July 15. —

“He died doing what he loved most,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

In a statement, the Wall Street Journal called Ybarra “an extraordinary journalist. In the best traditions of his profession he enlightened and engaged readers on a wide array of topics in clear, vivid prose.”

Although his outdoor pursuits were often inherently dangerous, he frequently joked about his fears and sometimes addressed them in his writing. A piece he wrote in May of last year for the Journal about white-water kayaking carried the headline: “When Death Is Merely a Paddle Stroke Away.”

The same month, Ybarra wrote about how he had “straddled the knife edge between caution and confidence” before falling during an icy mountain climb near Bozeman, Mont.

“Climbing in the mountains is serious business,” he wrote in the Journal. “Mistakes carry consequences — for yourself and for your partner. At night I lay awake wondering if I should just go back to gym climbing or find a more sensible sport, such as table tennis.”

About five years ago, Ybarra essentially decided to live on the road and out of his car to pursue his passion for adventure, said Bret Israel, Sunday Calendar editor of The Times, who met the writer when Ybarra interned in the Metro department in the late 1980s.

Ybarra was also the author of a noted biography, “Washington Gone Crazy,” that grew out of his reporting for The Times. The book tells the story of Pat McCarran, a former U.S. senator from Nevada who wielded power during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s.

When The Times named it one of the best books of 2004, the reviewer pronounced it “magisterial” and said Ybarra “meticulously traces McCarran’s rise to power” in creating “an indispensable … nuanced assessment” of a contested period of recent history.

The biography was also a finalist for the 2005 Times Book Prize.

Michael Jay Ybarra was born Sept. 28, 1966, in Los Angeles to Eugene Ybarra, a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator, and his wife Lillie, a social worker.

During his senior year at UCLA, the political science major began a yearlong Times internship in 1988 that included a stint in the Washington Bureau.

After earning a master’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley in the early 1990s, Ybarra held several internships and spent four years working for the Wall Street Journal but bridled at the constraints of a full-time job in a large organization.

As a freelance writer, Ybarra contributed to many publications, including The Times, where he wrote about the outdoors and art in the West for more than two decades. One of his final articles for The Times, about a gallery show in Venice of photos from the Eastern Sierra, will be published Sunday.

He was working on a biography of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and continued traveling the world to climb and kayak.

“At a time when many of his peers want to get rich, to climb the ladder of success and to be friended and Tweeted to every minute,” Israel said, “he marched to his own strong internal drum far from fashion or fad.”

Ybarra is survived by his parents, Lillie, of Woodland Hills, and Eugene, of Encino; his brother, Gary, of Woodland Hills; and his sister, Suzanne, of Los Angeles.

Services are pending.

Times staff writer Larry Gordon contributed to this report.