Bonus Columns

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….

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