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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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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…)
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 cheynelempe.com.