As it has been for decades, Yosemite National Park is the climbing mecca of the universe, attracting visitors from all over the world to challenge themselves against its massive granite walls. The crowning achievement? El Capitan—the great monolith in the sky. It’s the Everest of rock climbing, the tallest, most famous, and most challenging. Though there's no official tally of how many climbers visit Yosemite annually, the National Park Service estimates 25,000 to 50,000. The once comparatively small group of counter-culture athletes, as seen in the movie Valley Uprising, has blossomed into a mainstream sport, with close to 8 million climbers in the U.S. alone. But with increased usage comes greater impact, including both personal and human waste. Up until two years ago, climbers didn’t have any regulations regarding big wall climbing. But in May 2021, the Park Service implemented a pilot program, the Yosemite Big Wall Permit Program, requiring anyone planning to spend the night on a route to register first.
Having spent many years of my life on Yosemite’s walls, I know first-hand how impressive they are. The Nose has beautiful golden rock with cracks you can sink your hands into. One section looks like Texas; another resembles a boot. It’s steeped in history, with climbers coming to bask in its natural beauty since 1958.
NPS enacted the permit program to protect Yosemite’s vertical walls from litter, such as abandoned property (stashed ropes, approach shoes), human waste, fire rings, and so on. The goal is to “preserve the natural conditions for wildlife, vegetation, and water quality at the base of walls, on the walls, and their summits,” according to the NPS website. The permit system also educates climbers on “Leave No Trace principles and preventative search and rescue.”
Now, climbers must register to do the Nose on El Cap, Half Dome, Washington Column, Leaning Tower, and a few others. Not everyone is happy about the decision.
“This is a huge deal for Valley climbers,” says climber and writer Peter Beal. “It interferes with trip planning and on-site decision-making, and was implemented with no public comment or waiting period.”
To address the comment and public outreach issue, the Park Service hosted virtual town hall events starting September 7, 2022—including this year’s Facelift event on September 22. Another event will be coming up on November 12 at the Bishop High Ball-Cragging Classic.
“How we will address the issue in the future depends on what we learn from public comments happening now and park managers’ analysis of the cost-benefit of various options,” says lead climbing ranger Jesse McGahey.
“Most of Yosemite’s big walls begin in designated wilderness,” McGahey explains, “but due to the variables involved in this activity, a wilderness permit system for overnight walls has not been implemented in the past. We're completing our two-season pilot but have not decided if we will require permits in the future.”
He said the range of options includes:
Going back to no permit requirement.
Self-registration year-round with additional outreach and education efforts.
Self-registration during the off-season and in-person during the high season.
A hybrid of self-registration, in-person pick-up in peak season, and a print-from-home using a system such as recreation.gov for frequent wall climbers.
"I was on top of El Cap last week and saw positive changes," says McGahey. "I haven't seen any fire rings, and I didn't discover any illegal caches."
Since the pilot program began, 1200 permits were sent to 2,600 people, McGahey adds. Of these, 175 were for the Nose, and 200 for routes on Washington Column that use Dinner Ledge. McGahey believes roughly half the teams attempting the Nose retreat for various reasons. “It’s way more difficult and involved than they thought it would be,” he says.
Climbers doing single-day ascents don’t need to register for a permit. That means the routes can still get overcrowded, but looking up at the wall for other parties and being flexible with route choices can help alleviate this issue.
In mid-October, driving past El Cap bridge, I see 90 percent of the parking spots (several dozen) filled, and many climbers on the wall. A photo from that night showed 24 headlamps on the face. It’s hard to call this an increase, as I’ve seen these many parties on El Cap back in the mid-90s, but perhaps it’s a change in style that's occurred. It’s safe to say climbing interest has exploded in recent decades. This is likely due to new climbing gyms and mainstream films like The Dawn Wall and Free Solo.
The human waste issue has continued, too. Despite the annual Yosemite Facelift event, where the Park Service and visiting climbers scour the Park for trash on the walls and the valley floor, these issues have persisted. Some teams spend all season rehearsing moves on El Cap to make free ascents of the formation, meaning they’re continually on and off the wall, and leave camps and stashes on the summit. Others discard trash mid-route, such as behind a 30-foot section of a flake at Camp 6 on the Nose. But there are signs of improvement, including at the Camp 6 flake, where there are now fewer discarded bottles of urine.
But overcrowding continues to be an issue. Just last week, a climber I know got stuck behind four parties on the Nose and retreated, but not before his partner got hit by two pieces of falling gear from teams above.
“I like the permit process, honestly,” says professional climber Heidi Wirtz, who once held the female Nose speed record and climbed El Cap overnight this year. “It was simple to get, it’s free, and you don't need to go to a permit office. They talk to you about not leaving trash on the wall, and carrying your human waste up and off.”
“At this time, if we decide to move forward with permits, they won’t be subject to a quota," Adds McGahey. "If too much crowding exists in the future, we could revisit the issue.”