Honky Saves

“HEY! ARE YOU OK?!” A voice shouted from just out of sight a moment later.  A lone free soloist was scrambling the Original Route, which in hindsight was embarrassingly close to us.  He made sure we were alive and unbroken from his perch halfway up the route.

I had taken a sizeable fall, pulling a piece of gear, badly banging my ankle and completely draining my last reserves of energy.  It was sunset and after spending several hours learning how to deal with a severely stuck rope, we finally got moving again but the daylight had quickly run out.  We were beat, we didn't know what to do, and we shouted for help.

“Ill be at the road in an hour!  Ill get help for you guys!  Stay safe, stay warm, You're going to be ok!” 

Within an hour the soloist had finished the route and run, full speed, to the road.  Without a cell phone he waved down a car, informed them of the situation, and initiated a full blown rescue with the Tuolumne Meadows division of Yosemite Search and Rescue.  

The night was long and cold as Andre and I traded off big spoon on the small ledge while trying to keep warm.  The rescue took hours, it is no small feat hiking thousands of feet of rope and equipment to the summit of Fairview Dome.  Finally at 4:00 in the morning a rope dropped past us and Park Ranger came rappelling into view.


Five years later, in June of 2010, I woke early in the morning in the Yosemite Search and Rescue site in Tuolumne Meadows.  Me and three other members of the SAR team had the day off and we drove an hour north to the Incredible Hulk.  I had spent the last 5 years obsessed with climbing, I graduated college, got a job at the climbing gym while getting my EMT and found a passion for climbing big walls in Yosemite Valley.  

The ‘Fairview Situation’ had been an embarrassing moment I never wanted to repeat.  I had invested countless hours into climbing since then, learning to get myself out of any situation I could get myself into.  I got my EMT and stumbled into a position on the very search and rescue team that had saved me.

We were just arriving at the base of The Hulk when two climbers came bounding up the snow slope and dug some gear out from under rocks at the base.  They laughed and joked with each other, turning their attention to my partner and I and the two women we were with.  I knew immediately who they were.

Matt Ciancio was the Mayor of the Hulk.  He would have never given himself the title but we never pick our own nicknames.  He was a rock climbing machine with a reputation that preceded him. He had climbed or tried all the routes on the Hulk that existed at the time.  We had been warned we would probably see him.

I hadn’t seen him since the day he initiated my rescue on Fairview.

Embarrassingly I introduced myself, “Matt Right?  You helped rescue me off Fairview five years ago.  I believe I still owe you a thank you.”  Matt lit up with laughter.   Matt knew exactly what I was talking about.  We shook hands and exchanged some jokes at my expense.  We headed up the classic Red Dihedral while Matt headed toward the hard and runout Astro-Hulk. 

Over the years, I would see Matt at the Hulk, in Tuolumne, Bishop or the Valley.  “What have you been up to? Where have you been?” He would always ask me bursting into a smile.

The last few times I saw him he was hiking up the East Ledges, headed for the summit of El Capitan.  The first time I saw him going up, small compact backpack on his back, I assumed he was headed to work on the Free Rider or Salathe.  Like many of us Matt loved El Capitan.  The dream of free climbing the big stone was intoxicating, all encompassing.

Finally we crossed paths in the same place, I was just getting down from a one day ascent of Zodiac, it was late afternoon and he was just heading up. “Bivying on the summit?” I asked him.  “Oh, no, we will be down before dark,” he said, patting his backpack with a big grin on his face.  I hadn’t known that Matt was into BASE until then, and I am sure it was obvious by the look of surprise on my face.  He laughed, smiled big, said goodbye, turned tail and scampered up the trail toward the summit of El Cap.

Matt was The Mayor of The Hulk, He was Honky. He was a Monkey. His face burst into a big, genuine grin every time I saw him.  He was kind and willing to take risks to help me and Andre without a second thought.  Matt will be missed by friends, family, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, the people and place that gave him life. 

Thank you for saving us on Fairview. Fly Free Matt,