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Yosemite Trashed. Facelift Cleaned It Up.

The summit of El Cap was a garbage dump of abandoned equipment with portaledges, static ropes, camping gear, 93 empty water bottles stashed under boulders, and cans of chili.

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A wet cold cloaked Yosemite’s granite monoliths as I pedaled from my volunteer site in the North Pines Campground to the Climbing Management office in Yosemite Village. Despite the rain I caught a glimpse of a newly flowing Yosemite Falls, which had run dry during the recent drought, and a rainbow cut a brilliant arc across the valley. 

I arrived dripping wet at the climbing office where a room full of climbing rangers, volunteers, and SAR siters helped me laugh off my soggy condition. No laughing matter were the hundreds of pounds of garbage strewn about the ancient geologic wonder of Yosemite, left behind by visiting tourists and climbers. We were there to pick it all up during  the Yosemite Facelift, a five-day event in late September where hundreds of volunteers fan out for the largest annual trash clean up in any national park. That day I was to collect garbage on the summit of El Cap with climbing rangers Matt Bernstein and Jonah Durham, and my fellow climber steward, Chris Hamilton. 

We grabbed haul bags and rain jackets and set off for the East Ledges, our “approach” to El Cap. We’d jug lines to the summit. Matt clicked on death metal as we hit the fixed ropes—I was thankful he was fast on the jugs and quickly out of earshot. 

Atop El Cap we spent hours gathering abandoned equipment including portaledges—yes, people actually dump portaledges after they top out—static ropes, camping gear, 93 empty water bottles stashed under boulders, and cans of chili. Wobbling under our garbage loads, we descended back to the Valley floor. 

Climbing rangers Cam King, Jonah Durham, and climber steward Trevor Hobbs remove abandoned fixed lines from Glacier Point. (Photo: Eric Lynch)

I had heard about the Facelift started by Ken Yager years ago and was stoked to participate, offering my time and energy to the beautiful park. Facelift is a partnership between the Yosemite Climbing Association and the National Park Service, and goes a long ways to ease tensions between climbers and rangers. Every Facelift morning climbers huddled over coffee in Yosemite Village and met the group they’d head out with that day, garbage bags in tow, while brands including The North Face and Patagonia set up booths to mend old clothing and give away schwag. At the conclusion of each day, a raffle rewarded the volunteer efforts, then it was off to evening presentations by pro climbers including Jordan Cannon, Nik Berry, Conrad Anker, as well as the local favorite, former YOSAR member and author, Lauren Delaunay Miller. 

I spent the days after El Cap participating in one of my favorite events, the Ask a Climber program every afternoon by the El Cap bridge where  “Jerry the Jet ” regaled the audience with tales from the big walls. Meanwhile, across the Valley, climbing rangers Matt Bernstein and Eric Lynch stripped down to their skivvies and snorkeled in the Merced River to retrieve a picnic table that had washed in from a high-water event years before. At the base of Yosemite Falls, a crew of volunteers spent four days removing graffiti left by vandals in June, while other climbing rangers and volunteers removed core-shot abandoned fixed lines below Glacier Point.

My final day of Facelift found me near the summit of Half Dome with climbing rangers, volunteers, and climbers Jordan Cannon and Carlo Traversi. Bushwhacking through manzanita we stumbled upon an abandoned cache that included an entire bear canister full of now-spoiled condensed milk. Yuck! After recovering yet three more bear canisters of spoiled provisions we focused our efforts at the base of Half Dome’s west face. There, we picked up numerous pairs of broken sunglasses, iPhones, GoPros, countless gloves lost or discarded by tourists on the Cable Route, and several pocket knives. 

Our community has come a long ways from the days of pooping in paper bags and tossing them to the base of El Cap during big-wall ascents, but it’s clear we still have some more ground to cover, as evidenced by all the ropes, gear and trash that was picked up during the Facelift. I’m inspired by the climbing rangers who work to educate incoming climbers and visitors on cleaner, lower-impact practices—if you are in the Valley, don’t hesitate to talk to them. Keeping Yosemite clean as a representative standard for what we can do is an ongoing work. The Yosemite Facelift is free to all participants and is open for everyone who wants to become a steward of the incredible place known as Yosemite National Park. See you there in 2023.

Climbing ranger Eric Lynch removes picnic table from Merced with other park volunteers. (Photo: Matthew Bernstein)