Niels Tietze fell to his death in a rappelling accident on Fifi Buttress in Yosemite Valley on November 16. Niels is the third son from the same family to perish young. I met Niels shortly after the death of his brother, Kyle. The family had asked for donations to the Himalayan Cataract Project in lieu of flowers. I reached out to the family to thank them and met the force of nature that was Niels. The youngest Tietze child came to observe a day in my clinic at the University of Utah. He was two years out from Westminster College and had just returned from his second season living in Camp 4 and working on Yosemite Search and Rescue. He said he was considering following his dad Chris’ path into medicine.
After finishing our last patient Niels politely said, “Dr. Tabin, I understand you like to climb; I’d love to join you sometime.” Thirty minutes later we roped up in Little Cottonwood Canyon. His crazy skills and strength were immediately evident. Despite the disparity in our levels he asked what climb we should do next. I suggested he rope-gun for me on Washerwoman Tower that weekend. He said he had to drive to Yosemite Sunday to take someone on a one -day ascent of Freerider, where he would lead all the pitches, and that he had a big party Friday night. He then quickly, and still politely added, “Dr. Tabin, I’ll pick you up at 4 AM Saturday,” During the four and a half hour drive we discussed philosophy, medicine and life. He was incredibly bright and extremely well read. He also told me that he had tweaked his ankle in a bouldering fall. He could still lead the climb but hoped I would hump the rope and rack to the base.
He unloaded a huge pack from his truck and helped me swing the pig onto my back. I sweated and staggered up the long steep approach assuming he had a gigantic rack for the six pitch climb that included long splitter hands, off hands and wide sections. Arriving at the base I opened the bag to find two ultralight 8mm ropes, a tiny single rack that would have made me nervous on a short 5.7 pitch, an enormous watermelon, a heavy cast iron machete to cut the watermelon and a large cooler filled with ice and six beers. A wry smile spread across his face as he watched me observe what he made me carry. Over cold beers and watermelon at the base, after a great climb, I graduated from Dr. Tabin to Geoff.
Niels wanted to experience all he could of life every day. He asked to help in our work delivering eye-care in the developing world. I told him there was not much he could do with just his EMT training for YOSAR. Niels went to Nepal and studied intensively to become an ophthalmic technician. In the midst of his course he took advantage of a long weekend to fly into the mountains, race to basecamp and do a one day up and down ascent of Ama Dablam with Ueli Steck, Freddie Wilkinson and Scott McIntosh. He then began working tirelessly in Africa helping deliver care to the destitute in remote regions. His compassion and caring extended to every patient, his passion for life radiated in all he did. He sucked all the marrow from life. After two weeks of 12 hour days in the hospital he’d finish a trip with hard first ascents of towers in Ethiopia or a run up Mt. Kenya or Kilimanjaro.
He was superb at all snow and mountain sports and a modern day cowboy, almost as comfortable in the saddle as on the slopes. Niels was manly and hirsute, growing facial hair faster than a Chia Pet. He sculpted the mustache, sideburns and beard to give a new look almost weekly. He did ranch work between ophthalmology trips. He was incredibly handy, able to take apart and repair an operating microscope with minimal tools, fix ranch equipment and repair fences. He climbed at a frenetic pace and was fully engaged with his friends and their lives.
Two years after Kyle’s death, his other brother, Eric, died in a fall while soloing the Grand Traverse in the Tetons. The grief of having lost both of his brothers devastated and tormented Niels. His parent’s grief became a major factor in his life. Our philosophic discussions deepened and darkened. Loyalty and family were top priorities. We talked of a possible career as a doctor. He took pre-med courses and did well enough in grades and MCAT scores that he could have gained admission to a top medical school. At the last moment he decided to defer his application and climb with close friends in Patagonia. He continued climbing hard around the world and excelling as an ophthalmic assistant helping overcome blindness in Africa.
Niels’ energy was infectious and highly contagious. He loved whatever climb he was on at the moment as the best of his life. His Yosemite accomplishments ranged from the Nose in a day as a teenager with his brothers, a free ascent of the Salathe (13c), El Cap and Half Dome one-day link ups, a night free solo of the Rostrum after an all day rescue with YOSAR and having worked all the pitches of a new 5.14 free route on El Cap with Mason Earle that they planned to lead from the ground up this spring.
His desert tower and Zion resumes were just as prodigious. He was the ultimate Indian Creek rope gun. He notched major first ascents in Africa and Patagonia and big walls in the Alps and Dolomites. Niels had recently purchased land near Yosemite and was working out the next phase of his life. He was scheduled to leave in a week to join me in Ethiopia for three massive cataract campaigns followed by 10 days of climbing in South Africa with Timmy O’Neil.
Niels Tietze was a master of the improvisation of life; answering every opportunity with “Yes! And!” He is massively missed.