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Climbers Are In an Uproar Over Yosemite’s New Big-Wall Permit System. But Is It Really So Bad?

Starting on May 21, wilderness permits will be required for all those who climb overnight in the Park. We talked with the park's Climbing Rangers and the American Alpine Club to learn more.

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Editor’s Note: An update from Yosemite Climbing Ranger Jesse McGahey, published May 12, 11:15 am, appears at the bottom of the article


“What we are trying to do with the permits is to minimize the impact on the walls,” lead Yosemite Climbing Ranger Jesse McGahey told Climbing over the weekend. That was after the Park announced last week that overnight climbing in Yosemite will soon require a wilderness permit. 

“Last week, our climbing rangers carried seven Wag (poop) bags off the top of El Cap,” continued McGahey. “Each time we go up El Cap we come across abandoned equipment. I want people to experience wildness and I want it to be as pristine as possible.” Based on his 15 years as a ranger, he estimated that only five percent of big-wall climbers behave poorly by leaving behind discarded equipment and human waste. “We’re consistently cleaning up and climbing is getting really crowded in Yosemite. What we are trying to do with the permit is to minimize the impact on the walls.” He stressed that most climbers are doing everything they can to leave no trace.

Many in the community have voiced dissatisfaction over the new permit system. For example, Canadian climber Will Stanhope, a prolific Yosemite climber, told Climbing, “I think the National Park Service’s decision to implement a permit system for wall climbing is misguided and stifles the spontaneous nature of climbing in Yosemite. On the whole I think climbers do a great job of sharing the wall with each other and cleaning up after themselves.”

McGahey addressed several of these hot points that have come up since the recent announcement of the two-year pilot program. He stressed that climbing rangers aren’t dissuading big wallers from coming to Yosemite and that this new system isn’t intended as a way to keep a tally of how many times someone has visited the Park. Neither, he added, is it going to be used to determine if a climber  exceeds the seasonal visitation limits (14 nights between May 1 and September 15, and no more than 30 nights per year).

He said that the free permits allow climbers a way into the Park without needing to also book a general visitor permit, which also goes into effect on May 21. One reason why the Climbing Rangers require four to 15 days’ notice with applications for the new permit is to allow enough time for each request to be reviewed. McGahey said he and his fellow rangers would not stop parties from attempting popular climbs like the Nose—even if it is already packed—but he will inform teams of how many parties are expected on the route. “If we can, we’ll encourage people to disperse. We can tell them how busy routes are, but we won’t turn them away,” McGahey said. 

Lars Hedin on the Nose, El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. Photo: Barbara Davidson

“We also ask if this is their first big wall,” he added—again, not as any sort of exclusionary try-out or vetting process, but simply to glean more data.

Before announcing the new permitting system for big wall climbing, McGahey spoke with American Alpine Club Chief Executive Officer Mitsu Iwasaki. 

“Broadly speaking, we’re supportive of the Park’s effort to reduce impact through LNT (Leave no Trace) education and to better understand traffic patterns,” Iwasaki told Climbing. “In my conversations with the Park, data collected during the pilot will be used to inform a long-term climbing management plan. We’re working to ensure we are at the table for that conversation.”

“My first night on a Yosemite wall was over 30 years ago,” he said. “Even back then, when climbing was relatively small, we queued for popular lines and impact issues were already abundant. We’re delighted climbing is expanding and growing, but we’ve also been witness to growing demand and concerning impact across the Valley.” 

Wilderness permits will be available for pick-up behind the Valley Visitor Center near the Yosemite Climbing Museum (opening soon) until October 31. After that, permits will be available by self-registration at the Valley Visitor Center. 

McGahey said that the in-person pick-up would provide valuable face-to-face interactions with visiting climbers, many he’s known for years. He expects turnaround time with permits to be quick, especially with frequent visitors. 

Photo: American Alpine Club

Permits can be used for up to four people. They will come with an additional night before or after the climb, allowing climbers to stay at open spaces in the backpacker’s campground. An additional permit will be required to re-attempt or climb another big wall in case of retreat. 

“I see it as a potential for a really good partnership with the Park Service in the future,” said Ken Yager, founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association that organizes the Park’s annual Facelift clean-up event. Now in its 18th year, Facelift has removed over 1,000,000 pounds of visitor trash throughout the Park. Yager believes this new communication channel between the Park Service and climbers will decrease overcrowding on routes.

“I look at it in a positive way,” Yager said. “Why not embrace it and work with the National Park Service to preserve these climbing routes for future generations?”


 

Update. May 12, 11:15 am.

After speaking with McGahey, he had a few updates regarding the program. He said:

The main thing is that if you don’t need a reservation—if you already have lodging, camping, or are a park resident, you can walk up and get a permit the day before or day of your climb during posted hours.”

This is in response to some of the feedback the climbing rangers have received. They want to work with the climbing community as much as possible to come to solutions that work for everybody. Climbing rangers are continuing to look into minor changes to the pilot program. 

Having a reservation will help us speed up the permit process. If you already have a valid entry into the park, you can get a wilderness permit the day before or the day of your overnight wall and you don’t have to use the reservation system. 

We’re looking into solutions for weekend warriors so they won’t have to pick up a permit in person. There is one solution that is open 24 hours a day for climbers doing walls between October 31 and April 30. During that time, they can get their permits through the self-registration kiosk. We are looking at other ways to issue permits in the future. Part of the purpose of the pilot is to see what system will work best both for climbers and to protect Yosemite’s wilderness character. 

This page has been updated and expect other updates as this new system gets further refined: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm

For inquiries or feedback, climbing rangers welcome emails to yose_climbing@nps.gov. We’re accepting feedback and we’ll continue reaching out to the climbing community to help improve our system. 

We stress that the reservation system is in place to address the Covid restrictions. We were going to do a walk-up-only permit process, but with Covid we had to have a way for climbers to get in and have a parking place for their vehicles. Climbers would need an overnight parking permit anyway with the Covid restrictions. The climbing rangers were concerned that the climbers would not have access to climb their planned walls.