On an incredibly clear, early autumn morning, the aging Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) van bumped along Tioga Pass Road, taking precariously tight turns at an alarming speed. Twelve of us were crammed in the back, chattering and bracing ourselves against the van’s interior walls. When the road was no longer passable for vehicles, we all hopped out and unloaded 12 empty haul bags at the start of the trail leading to the summit of El Capitan. But we weren’t going climbing. We were going to pick up trash.
For the past 15 years, climbers have gathered in Yosemite National Park for a weekend in September to clean up the garbage left behind by the millions of visitors over the summer season. The story goes that Ken Yager was working as a guide for the Yosemite Mountaineering School at the time, and got tired of seeing toilet paper and cigarette butts on his way to various cliffs in the Valley. Eventually, he got some friends together and organized a group to tackle the task of cleaning up anything they could find around the park. The cleanup, which is now known as Yosemite Facelift, has since grown in size. Last year, 3,334 volunteers showed up and retrieved over 14,000 pounds of trash.
In this narrative, climbers are selflessly cleaning up after park visitors. But climbers are also part of the problem. Our numbers are increasing every year, and our impact can be seen in the trash littering the base of El Cap and the plastic water bottles shoved in cracks on popular routes.
In past years, the Yosemite climbing rangers, along with volunteers, have addressed the issue of trash left by climbers on trad routes, like the Nose and Freerider. This year, the goal was to clean up the top of El Cap, where ropes, gear caches and bivies lay forgotten, left over from free-climbing attempts.
Back at the end of Tioga Pass, our group—which included climbing rangers, wilderness rangers and climbers—shouldered our old, tattered haul bags and set off on the gently downhill trail that leads to the summit of El Cap. After a 12-point turn at the narrow end of the road, the YOSAR van peeled off, bumping along the eroding asphalt back up to Highway 120.
Seven sweaty miles later, we exited the woods and were met with a sweeping expanse of trees, brilliant blue sky and streaked-golden granite peeking out from the top of Ribbon Fall. The smaller features of the Valley appeared in miniature from our position, 3,000-feet above. The coarse granite sand crunched under our feet and the wind blew fiercely as we convened on the true summit, a quarter mile from the cliff’s edge, before fanning out in search of trash in the caves and crevasses that line the edge of El Cap.
At first, it was a few water bottles, small pieces of plastic and some faded webbing, stuck in a tangle of manzanita. Then, as we neared the top of the Salathé Wall, someone spotted a dry bag under a small overlap. The rope inside was brand-new, so we left it in place, realizing how confusing this task was and wondering—for the first of many times that day—where the line between trash and cache actually was.
Next, someone found a bear canister wedged behind a boulder, along with a crunchy, degrading stuffsack full of quickdraws, cams, carabiners and slings that were slightly outdated, but still in working order. The bear canister, on the other hand, was full of rotting food, half disintegrated and moldy.
I made my way to the Salathé Cave, an incredible spot close to the edge, but protected by a balcony of manzanita. Gritty white sand cut into my knees and the manzanita tugged at my shirt as I crawled into the main part of the cave, which is really more of a porch with an overhanging boulder above and a sandy floor below. There, I found three ratty, mouse-chewed foam pads held in place with a small rock. To the left, at the far end of the cave, were two large dirt-covered tarps, also held down by rocks. A dirty bowl, spoon and a bottle of Cajun spice mix lay to the side of the pads. All of this was obviously garbage; the pads were falling apart, the tarps slowly degrading in the wind. We shook out the ratty sleeping bags, disappointed and disgusted by the waste. Neither the spice mix nor the spoon was salvageable.
From above, I heard someone shout for reinforcement. They’d found the mother lode. Three of us scrambled to the cave above and peered in to see mounds of ropes—some coiled, some in dry bags, some in tattered garbage bags—filling the inside of the cave. The sight was strange in contrast to the stark white granite slabs and gnarled juniper that make up the rest of the view atop El Captain.
We were all climbers up there, and we’d probably all stashed gear somewhere before, but the sight forced a hush over the group. It’s one thing to hide a single rope under a boulder for a day or two, but seeing a mountain of ropes forgotten and unused felt like we had stumbled upon a micro version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
We began pawing through the massive pile of rope, overwhelmed and annoyed both by the rope’s existence there and by the fact that we had volunteered to carry as much of it as we could fit in our 70-liter haul bags down the East Ledges. I had expected to fill my bag with plastic bottles and micro trash, not mountains of tattered cord, forgotten after someone’s free-climbing attempt years ago. We cursed under our breath as we shuttled the ropes out of the cave and into the bright sunlight.
Annie, a wilderness ranger and climber who in summer patrols the Yosemite backcountry, breaking down fire rings and checking backpackers’ wilderness permits, said, “Can you imagine if backpackers were doing this? If there were caches in other parts of the Yosemite Wilderness with hundreds of pounds of backpacking gear?”
No, we couldn’t. We’ve gotten away with a lot as climbers in the Valley, but on that day, it caught up to us a little bit. We pride ourselves on being intimately close to the rock we touch. We bushwhack through rarely visited parts of the Valley, climb through trees, and encounter bats and birds and frogs on the wall.
So, what made it okay to create a garbage dump in a cave atop one of the most inspiring, proud walls in the world? It’s good to have the vision, inspiration, motivation and everything else that it takes to free climb El Cap, but sometimes maybe these forces overpower our ability to see the scale of our impact.
As a community, we’ve generally improved. It is no longer common practice to throw shit off the side of El Cap; nowadays, most climbers pack out waste instead. But we still have plenty of room to grow.
Perhaps it’s time we rethink the way we treat the summit of this wall, which has given so many of us such profound experiences. The Salathé Cave is just one example. There are many other boulders and caves that hide rotting sleeping bags, old food and core-shot, forgotten ropes. We may not think the rules of the Park Service apply to us, but they do. Our trash is no different than the trash left behind by the tourists below.
We cleaned up 500 pounds of trash from the top of the Salathé Wall that day. Thousands of feet of unused, forgotten rope still remain on top of El Cap, and more has piled up over another season. This year at Yosemite Facelift, volunteers will continue cleaning up the top of El Cap, and hopefully we can work toward breaking the cycle of turning caches into trash.
Yosemite Facelift 2019 will take place from September 24–29. For more information, check out Yosemite Climbing Association.