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The Upside of Climbing Permits—And Why They’re Here to Stay

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A recent wave of permits and regulations at major American climbing areas—Yosemite, Eldorado Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park—has climbers wondering if the sky is falling, and if our days of carefree, relatively unfettered access are coming to an abrupt end. Yet there may be positives to these changes, if we step back, look at the history of permitting, and take a big-picture view of the issues.

Yosemite National Park established its new overnight big-wall permitting system on May 21, 2021, and the climbing community immediately started buzzing. Rumors percolated through climbing gyms, local crags, and mountain-town breweries. Online comment threads exploded as climbers hypothesized that the National Park Service (NPS) wanted to line their pockets, or that the rangers would use collected data to enforce the 14-night peak-season camping limit. (To address a few of these rumors, the permits don’t cost money; there is no current daily quota; the NPS isn’t using this system to monitor how many days you spend in the park; weekend warriors can even pick up their permits the day of their climb. And, to top it all off, you can spend the night before and after your climb in the backpackers’ campground so you don’t even need to wait in line at Camp 4 or drive to El Portal to sleep in your van.)

“We’re not just doing this to have a new rule for you guys,” says Jesse McGahey, the Yosemite Climbing Program Manager. Rather, the protocol is meant to protect public land by generating data about overnight climbing usage (where use is occuring, how many users, timing of users, etc.), which will help inform a future climbing management plan—one that will be available to public comment prior to implementation. But perhaps most importantly, this system provides in-person education on wilderness ethics. Climbers must pick up their permits in person, letting rangers have “a Leave No Trace (LNT) conversation with every single person who is going to climb a big wall,” says the climbing ranger Eric Lynch. Hopefully, these efforts will create a greater sense of accountability among climbers to reduce the human waste, climbing equipment, and trash that accumulate each year on El Cap. (In 2019, volunteers at the Yosemite Facelift event collected 16,000 pounds of trash from the Park. Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, says that if he had to guess, the team collected 300 to 400 pounds of gear from the top of El Cap.) I think we can all agree that as outdoor climbing gains popularity, reducing our impact on public lands is crucial to ensuring we have access to these spaces for generations. And permits, as you’ll see, can help with this goal.

Permitting Systems on Public Lands 

Overnight permits have been required in other outdoor sports for decades. Mountaineers, rafters/kayakers, and backpackers have to secure wilderness permits before trips in certain national parks, forests, and other public lands. In some cases, visitors may obtain the permits at no cost simply by self-registering at the trailhead. However, many require advanced reservations and complex system navigation—especially for more popular areas. And in Yosemite, all other overnight users have to snag a permit before spending a night in the wilderness. Is there any reason we climbers should be exempt from these requirements? Plus, permits for overnight climbs aren’t even novel—they’re already required in Zion, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Enchantments in Washington State. 

A view into West Mountain, Hueco Tanks State Historic Site, Texas. Along with East Mountain, West Mountain comprises the two-thirds of the park that since 1998 has only been accessible by guide to mitigate impact to cultural sites and to the fragile desert environment. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

A significant case study in climbing permitting is Hueco Tanks State Historic Site in Texas. The park is rich with cultural history (rock art, grinding holes, pottery shards, etc.) and sacred to native tribes in the area. Visitors to Hueco once had unrestricted access to all three mountains. However, as the tragedy of the commons set in, social trails began to cause erosion of archaeological deposits and impact to vegetation in the fragile desert environment, and there was graffiti/tagging vandalism to rock art—not the act of climbers. In 1998, the Park created a mandatory reservation system, allowing self-guided activities in only one-third of the park (North Mountain) and requiring a guide to hike or climb in the other two-thirds. For self-guided visitors, Hueco Tanks instituted a short mandatory orientation to educate visitors on restricted areas, history, and the value of park resources. Less than two years later, more than 14,000 adults had completed the orientation and, according to the Park’s 2000 Public Use Plan, visitors demonstrated an “improved appreciation of the park.” 

Josh Haynes guided in Hueco for over six seasons and noticed that the majority of climbers treat the land with more respect once they understand the purpose of the reservation system. “They go into it with a different perspective: Rock art has more meaning and they’re pushed to think of the historical context a bit more,” he says. 

Local climbers also noticed huge environmental improvements after the Park limited daily visitation. “I first started climbing in Hueco in 2002 [four years after the Park implemented the new policies], and since then, the amount of vegetation that has grown back—and the amount of overall nature that has returned—is just phenomenal,” Haynes says. For example, the Park closed the Five Bimbos bouldering area on East Mountain in 2000 after it had been decimated by climber traffic. The Climbers of Hueco Tanks Coalition restored the native vegetation and established trail markers, and in 2017, the Park reopened the area to climbing. Now, Haynes explains that it’s a “booming little ecosystem and it’s really cool to see. If we [climbers] had free reign in Hueco Tanks today, I think it would be stomped to the ground.”

Overcrowding and the Value of the Permit

Permit systems like the reservation system in Hueco Tanks are designed to promote stewardship and to enhance user experience. Nicole Roque, the Community Outreach Interpreter at Hueco Tanks, says that the general attitude toward permits had been positive from all park visitors, including climbers. While some climbers get frustrated when they can’t get into the park on a busy weekend or during peak winter season, most appreciate the experience once they learn to navigate the system. In contrast, say, to unregulated and often-overrun areas like the Kraft Boulders in Vegas or the Happies in Bishop, “When you’re in Hueco, you feel like you’re actually in nature, so I think in that respect, you definitely appreciate the reservation system,” Haynes says. 

Moreover, most climbers know through experience that fewer crowds make for happier climbers; as crags become overcrowded and trashed, veteran climbers become bitter. (I once heard a climber lament that pretty soon the Forest Service was going to “build a café” at the Inner Town Walls in Index because he arrived to find one other party there. I sure don’t want to see him in Yosemite!) Should we really let the crowds run wild just to preserve the freedom of the sport? 

And then there’s the harsh reality: Climbing looks a lot different than it did 10 years ago. While you and the climbers you know may not throw your wag bags to the ground mid-route or consider bolting over a petroglyph panel, many new outdoor climbers have never learned how to behave on public lands or in wilderness. But it’s not just newbies improperly disposing of human waste or leaving micro-trash; most of the trash on top of and on El Cap comes from elite free climbers leaving fixed ropes and stashes of gear and water. Ten years ago, a couple of Yosemite locals leaving their rope behind may not have been a big deal. But it’s a numbers game: More outdoor climbers means more disrespectful recreators means more impact overall. 

If you can just waltz up to the base of El Cap and start climbing, you may neglect park-specific LNT regulations—like no fires on top of the monolith—simply because you don’t know the protocol. Permit systems allow rangers to interface with climbers. During these brief permit meetings, they can pass on local etiquette standards and instill a sense of accountability to the resource.

The Future of Permitting 

Yosemite Valley
A tranquil moonrise view into Yosemite Valley. Whether we climbers like it or not, permits might be here to stay in certain areas—so how can we work with land managers to preserve as much of our freedom to climb as possible? Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

It would be naive to dismiss the possibility that restrictions might continue to tighten until climbing El Cap looks nothing like it used to. Lottery systems and six-month-advance reservations are commonplace in popular permitted hiking areas like the Wave at Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona, so it’s natural to fear that climbing permits will suffer the same fate. But climbing rangers like McGahey understand the nuances of big-wall climbing and the importance of adjusting your timing to the weather conditions. So they, says McGahey, want to “give people flexibility and provide them with every opportunity to be safe on their climb.”  

Plus, in permitted hiking areas, decades-old capacity restrictions are beginning to ease and the daily visitation caps are increasing. This year, the Wave nearly tripled their permit allotment from 20 people per day to 64. In Yosemite, permit regulations are already shifting. The Park Service originally stated that climbers needed to make a reservation four days in advance of a big-wall attempt, but they quickly changed it to two to accommodate last-minute climbs. These changes are minor, but they demonstrate that permit systems aren’t set in stone once they’re created and that land managers do work to balance resource protection with recreational use. As Yager puts it, “Quite honestly, we’ve had it easy for so long, so we shouldn’t gripe too much. We should get involved and work with them.”

The permitting issue doesn’t need to be approached with an us-vs-them mentality. Land managers are not all evil bureaucrats out to restrict climbers’ ability to access the places they love. (Honestly, that type of thinking is a bit similar to don’t-tread-on-me libertarians who believe the government is out to take away their every last freedom.) But part of the job of the NPS and other land agencies is to protect natural and cultural resources. And let’s be real—climbers aren’t exactly the paradigm of self-regulation. One look at climbing history will tell you that. (Think Fred Beckey and Eric Bjornstad climbing on Navajo land after the tribe had banned the activity.) So, until we start to prioritize the common good over purely self-interested desires, permits may very well be the most effective tool for protecting our wild spaces and crags. 

Hannah Singleton is a freelance journalist who writes about the outdoors and public lands. After years of hopping around the West guiding backpacking trips from Yosemite to the North Cascades, she now resides in Salt Lake City where she runs, climbs, and is a little closer to her one true love: the red rock desert.