Climbers Describe Yosemite Post-Shutdown

10/9/13 - Despite the government closing all national parks, we've heard reports of climbers sneaking in to climb, aggressive behavior from tourists toward park rangers, and other bizarre behind-the-scenes activity. We spoke with local climber and writer James Lucas and Yosemite Search and Rescue member Cheyne Lempe—who are both legally in the Valley at the moment—about what it's like on the ground in Yosemite and how the place is quickly returning to its wild roots.

Describe your specific situation and why you're still in the Valley.

James Lucas: The National Park Service closed Yosemite National Park on Tuesday of last week [October 1]. The government furloughed employees deemed non-essential. As a longtime Yosemite climber, I embody the spirit of Yosemite. I’m essential.

Cheyne Lempe: Anyone who works in the park is allowed to stay throughout the government shutdown. I work for Yosemite Search and Rescue, and it's business as usual for us. We are still on call if someone needed to be rescued.

Explain your experience with the actual shutdown—were climbers kicked off El Cap? How was it announced to all of the park goers?

Yosemite Park Closed

The government shutdown, which officially began on October 1, 2013, caused the closing of all national parks, including Yosemite. Photo by James Lucas

JL: I rappelled into the boulder problem two-thirds of the way up the Salathe Wall [on El Cap] at 6 a.m. on Tuesday. After climbing the pitch, my partner and I heard a boom from the meadow: “Government shutdown. Yosemite closed. No recreating.” There was an immediate congo line up Heart Ledges to start the Salathe. After summiting, climbers were asked to leave the park. I stopped climbing after that.

CL: The rangers in the park informed all visitors that because of the government shutdown, they had to leave the park. The rangers got out a megaphone and broadcasted to climbers on El Cap that there was a government shutdown, but they could still continue their climb. There's a guy currently rope soloing El Cap, and he has been up there since this whole debacle started!

Can you describe what it's like with no people there?

JL: Normally, there are buses driving around, cars parked in the middle of the road, trash littered on sidewalks and in the woods. Now, there’s a lot of granite. There are trees. There are squirrels and deer and raccoons and bears. Yosemite is quiet and really nice.

CL: This past week has honestly been one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had in the park. It's almost eerie how quiet it is. I live in a tent cabin in the back of Camp 4, so the constant noise of car alarms, traffic, screaming children, and drunken hollering from all the people is nonexistent. Last week Camp 4 was completely full, now there are only a few abandoned tents. I've been noticing more of the subtle beauty of this place.


A rare sight, indeed: Camp 4 without several dozen tents and hundreds of people. Photo by Cheyne Lempe

What does it feel like to be a climber in the Mecca of American climbing but not be able to get on the rock?

JL: There’s a lightning bolt on the hood of my Saturn station wagon. I rally the climber’s version of the General Lee around the park like I’m a modern Bo Duke. Waylon Jennings cranks on my stereo every time I pass El Capitan, “Someday the mountain may get him, but the law never will.”

CL: Technically, the rule is "no recreating in the backcountry." Single-pitch cragging or bouldering isn't considered backcountry, so we are still allowed to do that. We can't drive our cars anywhere because all parking is blocked off, but I always ride my bike anyway. It's a bummer that I can't go climb El Cap right now, but I've been here for so long that a few weeks of not being able to do a few routes I've wanted to do isn't the end of the world.

What's the most bizarre thing you've encountered since the shutdown began?

JL: The domesticated Yosemite deer, so accustomed to cars and cameras, allow tourists to approach surprisingly close. I’ve chased the deer for 12 years, hoping to run my fingers through their fur. This would be the year I’d catch one, I thought. I’m stronger, fitter, faster. Then the Government closed Yosemite. I’d never seen a fox in the Valley. Two crossed my path last night. A bear sauntered 20 feet in front of my bike this evening. This morning, a deer paused for a moment and bolted into the woods before I could even begin to sprint. If the shutdown continues, Yosemite may become wild again.

CL: In the same day I saw a bobcat, a bear, and a coyote. It feels a little more wild here without the hoards of people harassing the animals. The obese ground squirrels must be hungry! There aren't people around to feed them Doritos.

What do you think will happen as soon as the park opens back up?

JL: People will trickle back in. A lot of climbers canceled their fall plans because of the closure, so I suspect that it will be a slow season in Yosemite. Last time I checked, no one was sitting at the gates.

CL: Everyone will be so psyched. Fall is one of the best times to climb here.

Are people sneaking in and climbing?

Yosemite National Park

Lucas says that though climbers are sneaking into the park, Yosemite has remained quiet and peaceful throughout the shutdown. Photo by James Lucas

JL: Yes, but not nearly as many as one would hope. People like to romanticize about guerrilla-style recreation—sneaking into the park and going ballistic on the walls—but few people actually do it. People are climbing in Yosemite right now, but they’re extremely discrete about it.

CL: There is a law enforcement ranger at the entrances to the park, so it's hard to get in unless you work here.

Have you taken this opportunity to skateboard/bike/skinny-dip somewhere you never could?

JL: Nope.

CL: No comment.

Do you feel sorry for the rangers?

JL: Instead of their normal duties, the rangers are dealing with traffic, tourists trying to sneak past barricades to photograph squirrels, wondering when they’ll receive their next paycheck and how they’ll support their families. Sounds less than ideal to me.

CL: The YOSAR team works closely with rangers, and a lot of them are our friends. It's a bit ridiculous to hear that people are getting really angry at them. They are just doing what they are told to do, and the rangers want the park to open back up just as much as everyone else.

The sign on a ranger station. Photo by Cheyne Lempe

James, will you be redrawing/re-erasing the lightning bolt?

JL: Hadn’t thought about that much. Would anyone care if it were gone right now?

What do you miss most about tourists in the Valley? (insert comic rant here…)

JL: Nothing.

CL: I want everyone to be able to enjoy the Valley just as much as I do, but it's unfortunate that some of the visitors are disrespectful to the park. The day will come too soon when I again have to narrowly avoid flattening the tourist who ran in the middle of the road to take a picture of a squirrel.

James Lucas is a longtime Yosemite climber, with many challenging first ascents and first free ascents in the Valley. Lucas' writing can be found on his blog Life of a Walking Monkey.

Cheyne Lempe is s 22-year-old climber from Aurora, Colorado, who currently works for Yosemite Search and Rescue. He's climbed all over the world; visit his blog at



Previous Comments

Just saw a video on Nat Graphic about maybe 6 men climbing El Capitan and being caught in the middle of an electrical/lightning storm. Apparently there were some injuries or deaths. Couldn't catch it all because the grandkids were here. Seems as tho a man has written a book about the trip. From what I could catch, it sounded like "Shattered Rock". Could you enlighten me on this? It sounded so interesting, I'd like to read it. Thanks, Jim Drake

Jim Drake - 01/20/2014 5:16:40

You are entitled to be a pompous arrogant as long as you're a talented climber demanding public atention through uselessly provocative "personality manifestations". Aside from that, anyone can pick interesting/usefuland /or entertaining information from this article.

Andre - 10/16/2013 7:27:48

I can see how if you misunderstand James Lucas's sense of humor/personality he could rub you the wrong way. Personally, though, I think he is a talented, passionate, and highly entertaining voice in climbing. All I really know from him was his interview on Chris Kalous's Enormocast, but I found his story to be both inspiring and hilarious. His "Yosemites Next Top Idol" on the Dirtbag Diaries is great too, if you like that kind of satire.

Mike B - 10/13/2013 3:37:11

There were a number of us rope soloing up there. I was up on Muir from the friday before the shutdown until the Saturday after. It was crazy to watch the valley empty out. Pete was up there as well on Horse Chute/Horse Play, and there was this guy Mike on Zodiac. There were other parties at various points across the wall, although it certainly did empty out compared to normal. The last party on the Nose topped out on Saturday after the shutdown I believe, and it was eerie to see the whole Nose without a single party on it... I didn't hear any loudspeaker directed at climbers when I was up there, but just because I didn't hear it doesn't mean that it didn't happen.

Matt - 10/12/2013 1:23:27

Mark- My partner, Matt Ciancio and I heard a megaphone announcement from the meadow. Sorry if you missed it. You may have been busy climbing, while I was just sitting around spraying.

James Lucas - 10/12/2013 12:12:55

Thanks for the nice words guys.

James Lucas - 10/12/2013 12:06:06

IMHO, dirtbag climbers who think they have exclusive rights to a national park are far worse than the tourists who visit national parks. There are plenty of places in California and beyond to climb where you won't encounter a single tourist. If you don't like tourists leave Yosemite and your take your silly viewpoints elsewhere (directed mostly at JL).

grump - 10/11/2013 4:29:07

James Lucas?!.... Really?

Ty - 10/11/2013 2:47:51

Pete was up there before it started and will probably still be up there when it ends. Vertical camping in solitude.

crag rat - 10/11/2013 7:36:18

There were no megaphones used to inform climbers on El Cap. I was on El Cap at the time. Jorge had been down for a week before the shutdown. Cheyne is the real deal, honest and humble. James is less so.

Mark Hudon - 10/10/2013 6:13:26

James Lucas was a poor choice for an interviewee

T - 10/10/2013 1:41:21

Very poorly written and researched. And does anyone actually enjoy hearing James Lucas spray all over himself?

sbd - 10/10/2013 1:11:22

No megaphones were used. There was no conflict w/ rangers. Climbers were largely allowed to do their thing and leave. JL and CL are spraying.

Yosemite Climber - 10/10/2013 12:32:32

What about base jumping and wingsuit flying? Are people jumping? would they be charged if caught? Is there anyone there to charge them?

Adam - 10/10/2013 11:44:07

that guy rope soloing was/is Dutch climber Jorg Verhoeven

remy - 10/09/2013 11:41:17