American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Yossi Brain, 1967-1999

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

YOSSI BRAIN 1967-1999

When trying to write of someone when they are gone, it becomes necessary to call up a mental image, so as to have something to work with. In my mind’s eye, Yossarian Brain is standing, holding court in Mungo’s Bar in La Paz, Bolivia, his audience—i.e., everyone— looking toward him. He stands well over six feet, his blonde hair long and of Viking style, his head thrown back as a booming laugh drowns out all others. He is wearing an old black leather jacket of heavy metal vintage, and his trousers are of incredibly impractical red leather. In both hands, he holds a beer, and the story he is telling is both unbelievable and true. I suspect Yossi once saw the phrase “larger than life,” liked it and decided to make it his own. He was killed in an avalanche in September 1999, whilst climbing in Bolivia’s Apolobamba range. Here is what I know of his story.

I first met Yossi at University College, London, where he was studying a subject that as far as anyone could tell involved no work of any kind. He was from Walsall, in England’s West Midlands and he wanted to climb. He also wanted to drink and fight the government, so all-in-all university life suited him fine.

As far as climbing was concerned, his talents suited the mountains, where his stamina and sheer appetite for the outdoors stood him in good stead. On leaving college, part-time jobs and lengthy climbing trips sustained him for a while, and it was in this period that he first visited Bolivia. This lifestyle, though fun, did not give Yossi all that he needed, and by 1990 he had become focused on what was to become the third love of his life: journalism (in case you hadn’t noticed, climbing and drinking were the other two).

For the next several years, he followed the classic path of an up-and-coming political journalist, and by 1992 he was working for the Coventry Evening News, a major provincial paper and one step away from the nationals. At this point, his life took something of a dramatic turn. He was climbing in the Alps during the summer with school friend Mike Clarke when they somehow conspired to fall all the way down the 1000-meter North Face of Les Courtes. Remarkably, they both survived almost unscathed, but for Yossi the experience left a powerful impression and led to a new outlook on life. Within a few months, he had quit his job and was off to Bolivia where, with remarkable self-assurance, he had decided to set up a guiding agency.

The next few years were a struggle as he strove to establish himself and become accepted by the Bolivians. During this period, he managed a huge amount of exploratory mountaineering and began work on what were to become his trekking and climbing guidebooks. By 1997, business was good; he was the acknowledged authority on mountaineering in Boliva and responsible for more exploration than anyone. His trekking guide had just been published, and the climbing guide was nearing completion. He had become the regional expert and correspondent for many journals, including Britain’s High magazine and, of course, the AAJ.

At this time, he was operating the guiding business in partnership with girlfriend Ulli Scultz. Their break-up in the latter part of the year led to the closure of their Bolivian office, and Yossi becoming more focused on his writing and research. His Climbing Guide to Bolivia, published in 1998, was received with much praise, and, at the time of his death, he had virtually completed work on a guide to trekking in Equador. Yossi had also amassed a huge volume of historical information, and family and friends are at present working to collate and preserve this work.

In September, 1999, Yossi teamed up with three La Paz-based friends to try and grab a last new route of the season. Their objective was El Presidente (5700m) in the remote Apolobamba range. Yossi was climbing with Dana Witzel when they triggered the avalanche that caught them both. Their two friends were climbing nearby and saw the slope go. They were quickly on the scene, but both Yossi and Dana were already dead.

The Apolobamba Range is probably the least-visited Andean range in South America. Yossi was the acknowledged expert and had probably done more routes in the range than any other climber.

Yossi was a complex character, and it would be wrong to suggest he was perfect. He was thoroughly uncompromising and entirely intolerant of anything that got in the way of his passions. If you climbed, drank or wrote, he was your friend, and a good one. If you didn’t, then you were at best a potential client. His relationships were generally short and tended to end abruptly. He made enemies as well as friends, both easily and in great numbers. He had crossed swords, literally at times, with many a Bolivian, but in the end the country gave him a medal. He left a legacy of work that will leave generations of visitors to Bolivia and Equador indebted to him. You loved him or hated him, but I suspect even his enemies will miss him.

Andy MacNae

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