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Updated: Yosemite’s Big Wall Permits Are Here to Stay

Progress or persecution? Yosemite's now permanent big wall permit program has met a mixed reaction in the climbing world. Here's what we know so far.

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On August 26, following a 2-year pilot program, the National Park Service announced that the big wall permit requirement in Yosemite National Park will become permanent in January of 2023.

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Town Hall Q&A

Last week, on September 7, the National Park Service held a town hall at the Yosemite Climbing Museum in Mariposa, CA, to field questions about the newly announced big wall permit plan.

The event began with a short presentation of the history of big wall climbing in Yosemite Valley, in which Park Ranger Jesse McGahey illustrated that trash on big walls is nothing new, citing Warren Harding’s reputation for leaving gear and thousands of feet of rope on his early ascents of El Cap during the 1950s. Rangers stated the purpose of the program, which takes effect in January 2023, is “to protect the wilderness character and natural conditions of Yosemite’s big walls and other climbing areas while providing the public with continued opportunity and access to overnight climbs.”

What data was gathered during the pilot program and how is it being used?

Since May 2021, when the pilot permit program went into effect, 350 climbers with half as many permits have been on El Cap. Information of this kind—how many people are in a party or on a particular route—can help climbing rangers assess and, if necessary, respond to situations involving weather, accidents, and environmental impact. Thanks to the permit system, for example, rangers knew that on Wednesday, September 7th, there were three parties on the wall climbing in 104-degree heat. This is the first time they’ve had this kind of information.

Information helps with cleanup efforts of on-the-wall garbage

Every year, mule trains and helicopters are used to remove rope and other materials from El Cap and other big walls, an expensive venture that requires extensive resources. Rangers say that because of the pilot program, they are able to perform more targeted cleanups, though they are seeing less garbage since the pilot program began.

This photo was used to accompany the announcement, leading many climbers to feel like the community’s stewardship values were being overlooked by an aggressive park service. (Photo: Eric Bissell)

Why did the park service accompany the announcement with a photo of climbers who were cleaning up trash on El Capitan?

Rangers responded that the photo belonged to NPS, and that it depicted climbing rangers, volunteers, and members of YOSAR performing the cleanup—i.e. that it was not, as was initially reported, a cleanup led by climbers. The photo was intentionally hyperbolic, they admitted, showing years of accumulated garbage, and was posted to prove a point so that climbers can help ensure “something like this never happens again.” Still, many climbers feel that, in using that particular photo, the NPS was preemptively aggressive, trying to imply that climbers as a community are bad stewards and therefore deserve the increased oversight that the park now plans to impose. During the town hall, rangers stressed that they are working with climbers using the minimum tool necessary to correct the problem.

Does the park service foresee implementing quotas on certain routes? 

The NPS says that there is currently no plan for a quota-based permit system, stating the intention for the pilot program was “a no quota, free, walk-up permit in-season (May through October), with self-registration available in the off season.” For now, they are using education and engagement to mitigate issues arising from increased overnight big wall traffic. By signing their permits, climbers agree under contract to follow current guidelines. As a result, rangers say they are seeing less trash and fewer rescues—though the system hasn’t been in place for long enough to fully determine the efficacy of the permit system.

Does the park service currently have a drafted plan for climbing permits in Yosemite?

No, the park service and climbing rangers are currently engaged in active conversation with the public to formulate a long-term plan for big wall permits in Yosemite. Rangers are hopeful that Yosemite NPS will follow in the footsteps of parks who already have a climbing permit system in place. Zion National Park’s express membership, for instance, allows climbers and visitors who frequently visit the park to reserve and print permits from home. Other parks like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park require permits for everyone recreating inside the canyon. Rescues there can take days and the canyon is very narrow, making helicopter rescues extremely tenuous.

The comment period is currently open via the Planning, Environment & Public Comment (PEPC) department of the National Park Service. Click here.

The next outreach event will be held live at Yosemite Facelift on September 22, 2022, from 3:00-5:00 pm. Climbers can continue to ask questions, find information, and provide their input during these outreach events.

Half Dome. (Photo: Miranda Fengel)
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The basics

The program is a response to the increase in on-the-wall traffic and trash collected by climbing rangers each year, according to the NPS website. “Cumulative effects of big wall climbing have led to degradation of wilderness values. Issues include proliferation of litter, human waste, abandoned property, improperly stored food, illegal fire rings and wind breaks, and preventable accidents.”

The permit system does not currently limit the number of climbers on a particular route, prevent access to routes, or effect the maximum number of days visitors are allowed to stay in Yosemite. During the current pilot period, there is no cost for climbing permits and no limit to the number of days spent on the wall. Leaving the wilderness area at any time invalidates the permit, however, meaning that climbers are required to bivouac at least one pitch off the ground and are not permitted to camp on the valley floor while the permit is in effect.

So what is the permit program actually intended to accomplish? 

Yosemite climbing rangers say they want to minimize impact on the walls. Representatives from the park service have expressed that the pilot program was intended to gather data that will “inform a long-term climbing management plan,” adding that it provides “valuable interactions between climbing rangers and climbers,” allowing the park service to educate climbers about wilderness preservation and search and rescue prevention. The National Park Service hopes the permit system will help them “develop a collaborative relationship [with the] climbing community to promote shared objectives of stewardship and safety.”

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Climber criticism

On social media, however, climbers are criticizing the park service’s portrayal of climbing ethics and the environment. The Yosemite National Park Service’s Instagram recently posted a  photo depicting large amounts of climbing-related trash that was removed from El Capitan, saying this was evidence that big walls needed regulation. What the post does not note is that the trash was removed from the wall by climbers, during a climber-led initiative, leading some to feel that the NPS is now twisting a climber-driven stewardship initiative to serve as evidence that climbers lack stewardship values. For years, climbers have been vocally frustrated about tourist congestion and trash, noting that even while the park service criticizes climbers, it has made few meaningful actions to curtail tourist impact.

“The climbing rangers have done a lot of good work to try to make [permits] accessible and not something that’s detrimental to actual access,” says big wall first ascensionist Kevin Deweese. But he adds that, “Climbers are not a massive user group compared to the overall number of visitors in the park. [And] if climbers are a small subset, then bigwallers are an even smaller subset of that small subset. As long as we are being good stewards, the amount of actual damage that we can do in terms of environmental damage is relatively small.”

(Photo: Dakota Snider)

In 2019, over 16,000 pounds of trash were collected during the annual Yosemite Facelift cleanup, an event founded by climbers to address the issue of garbage left by tourists in Yosemite Valley. The majority of participants each year are climbers who come to Yosemite Valley to preserve a place the climbing community holds sacred. The majority of trash collected during the event (and year-round) is a result of regular tourist traffic; however, hundreds of pounds worth of tattered ropes, gear, trash, and human waste are also recovered each year on popular trade routes.

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Collaboration between climbers and the park service

Ken Yager, founder of Yosemite Facelift and president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, supports the permit program, noting that nostalgia isn’t a good excuse for stagnation: “I’d like to homestead 200 acres on the East Side [of the Sierra], but I can’t. Those days are gone,” Yager says. “Why not work with the park service on a resolution?”

Collaboration between the NPS and Yosemite climbers is nothing new. During the 1960s, climbers worked with the park service to establish the SARsite at Camp 4, a mutually beneficial partnership that allowed climbers to stay in the park outside the two-week limit in exchange for volunteering to assist Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) with vertical rescue missions. The SARsite still exists, and its team enables the park service to respond to emergencies in areas accessible only to skilled climbers. As a result, YOSAR is now considered one of the best search and rescue teams in the world.

It’s also the busiest. With more climbers visiting the park each year, YOSAR’s job is only getting harder—especially as more climbers set their sights on obscure backcountry climbs. In these instances, permits may help YOSAR identify missing parties and locate climbers who need rescues. Since the pilot permit program began, climbing rangers have had the opportunity to gauge the abilities of permit applicants before they embark on a climb. They can also advise climbers about upcoming weather issues or common problems associated with particular routes.

But critics of the plan note that the effort to increase safety by implementing permits may have the opposite effect in certain circumstances. If the park service does ultimately limit the number of days a party can spend on the wall, climbers may feel the need to push on through exhaustion or poor conditions to avoid fines.

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

 

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Changing how and when people climb

The permit system has already changed the way people climb big walls, particularly for people like Deweese, who lives and works in the Bay Area. Deweese typically leaves the East Bay on Friday afternoon and arrives in the Valley by late evening. Prior to the permit requirements, Deweese used to bivy Friday night and then blast up his chosen objective before dawn the next morning. The current limitations during peak season, however, have completely changed his climbing routine.

Currently, you cannot get a permit unless you’re in the park. “[But since the rangers aren’t available until after 7:30 am and not available after 5:00 pm, the normal ‘hit the valley late Friday night, approach in the dark, and blast [at first light]’ schedule has been pretty much shot.”

Some say going virtual would allow climbers to print their permits ahead of time, saving time once inside the park and allowing them to process their permits on their own schedule. The current system in place for backcountry permits, for example, allows permit-seekers to meet rangers over video call.

But others argue that the process isn’t the problem—believing that the NPS’s goal is ultimately to control how and when climbing happens in Yosemite. Unanswered questions about how exactly the park service uses the data gathered for permits has left many climbers feeling uneasy. Yosemite-based photographer and Stonemaster Dean Fidelman, for instance, believes they will soon require insurance and formal certifications for all climbers in Yosemite.

“The NPS has made it much more difficult to climb or even enjoy Yosemite,” he says, adding that they’ve used COVID as an excuse to implement increasingly rigorous rules and lamenting that “no one wants to stand up [to them].”

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Where we’re headed

How the National Park Service will use the data to manage climbing in Yosemite in the future is unclear.  There are concerns about how the permit system could inflate data regarding the number of climbers who actually make it up the wall, and this could have negative impacts on people guiding policy at the highest level. Bailing off of a climb, for instance, is so common that it’s considered a classic part of the Yosemite experience—but these events could be counted by NPS as ascents. In 2021, Jim Hornibrook, who has spent several decades climbing in Yosemite, wrote an open letter criticizing this part of the pilot program: “As currently proposed, the permit system will give the impression that there are nearly twice as many climbers ascending El Cap as there actually are. This bad data may lead the Park Service to introduce quotas when the reality of the situation is quite different.”

And then there are the more general concerns about where Yosemite’s climbing is headed. What was once considered a fringe sport has become hugely popular, and the undeniable impact to wilderness areas like Yosemite is affecting access.

 

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What you can do

For now, open conversations continue between climbers, climbing rangers, and the National Park. The park service will be holding several events during which climbers can ask questions, provide feedback, and learn more about the Big Wall Permit Program.

The National Park Service will be accepting written comments through November 13, 2022. Comments can be submitted here.

Upcoming events include:

  • Virtual Town Hall: Wednesday, September 7, 2022, at 5:30 to 7:30 pm
  • Live Event at Yosemite Facelift in the Valley Visitor Center Auditorium: Thursday, September 22, 2022, at 3:00 to 5:00 pm
  • Virtual Town Hall: Sunday, October 16, 2022, at 3:00 to 5:00 pm
  • Informal outreach at the Bishop Craggin’ Classic on Saturday, November 12, 2022

More information, including a link to the virtual town hall event may be found here