It’s hard to say what’s a more important sight to see on a trip to Yosemite Valley—a bear or a rock climber. After all, Yosemite National Park is the mecca of the rock-climbing universe, and only growing ever since the explosion of Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan.
In the early 1950s, Camp 4 and rock climbing in the Valley became synonymous with counterculture, with a lifestyle of resistance and flying under the radar, a movement which has evolved and become distorted plenty of times over.
While climbers and the National Park Service (NPS) historically haven’t gotten along, relations have improved in recent years. But a week ago, the feud was rekindled after the NPS announced a new two-year pilot program that as of May 21 will require climbers to get a permit in advance if they’re planning on spending the night (or several) on a big wall climb. This includes famous climbs like El Capitan, Half Dome, and the Leaning Tower, among others.
If the very idea of sleeping on the side of a wall, suspended in mid-air, thousands of feet off the ground, supported by a layer of nylon and some rope sounds jarring, you’re most likely not a climber. It’s actually common practice for big wall routes that are difficult to complete in one day alone.
And while necessitating a permit to sleep on the side of a giant wall might seem like a logical step in protecting the land and the people recreating on it—in fact, Yosemite is the last national park with big wall climbs to implement such a system, and climbing is the only overnight activity in the park that doesn’t require a permit—many local climbers view this move as a Trojan horse, one that they believe will lead to the demise of their sport as they’ve come to know and love it.
“They can kiss my ass,” Alex Barlow, a climber from Santee, California, told The Daily Beast. “I’ll come in the middle of the night if I have to. No one is going to tell me I can’t climb.”
Others see it as downright unnecessary. Tom Forestieri, a climber from Longmont, Colorado, told The Daily Beast: “It makes no sense. You can’t take a number like at a deli to climb a big wall. What if weather comes in and you have to wait until it clears up? Then you miss your window.” He added, “You don't need regulation to control the masses. El Cap does that all by itself.”
While the permits for now will not limit the amount of climbers on the wall, and will be free, Forestieri went on to question how the Park Service is planning to enforce this new regulation. “What are they gonna do, station a ranger at the top?" he asked. "It’s just stupid.”
Not all climbers feel this way—within a week, the feud has evolved into one between “uptown” and “downtown” climbers—bigger names and lesser known ones arguing over the future of the Valley. Some big-name climbers and climbing organizations like Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, have expressed support for the move, calling it “inevitable,” in an interview with the Fresno Bee.
The newspaper reported that Yager “doesn’t know what’s planned after the two-year pilot program, but doesn’t expect climbing permits to be limited anytime in the immediate future.”
Katie Goodwin, policy analyst for the Access Fund, told the Daily Beast that they are “cautiously optimistic that the park has good intentions for this permitting program.” She added that the biggest concerns she’s been hearing from climbers has been what the “true intentions of the pilot program are.”
“What we are trying to do with the permits is to minimize the impact on walls,” Yosemite climbing ranger Jesse McGahey told Climbing recently. “I want people to experience wildness and I want it to be as pristine as possible.”
McGahey told The Daily Beast how park employees have been more regularly removing bags of human poo from the top of El Capitan, as well as climbing equipment that has been left behind. The park has cited the permits as an effort to collect data on the large number of climbers in the park each year and their impacts on the landscape.
"We tried education only for a long time, and it just wasn't working," McGahey said. "There's been a longstanding exception to the requirement for permits on overnight climbs, and we decided it was time to address this issue." He added that, "This will definitely grow into a permanent system."
On the other hand, another coalition of climbers, like Jim Hornibrook, from Redwood City, California, believe federal government involvement is unnecessary and will only lead to all climbing in Yosemite being intensely regulated. “We’ve been a successfully self-regulating community for over 60 years,” Hornibrook told the Daily Beast.
Hornibrook described how whenever issues arose in the Valley, climbers were first to handle them. Examples include when Camp 4 was planned to be destroyed by the park service to be turned into a three-story employee housing unit, a cadre of climbers took legal action to have it listed on the National Register of Historical Places.
Similar action was taken when trash was becoming an issue in the park. In 2004, Yager began the highly successful Yosemite Facelift, a day dedicated to cleaning up the park with help from climbing volunteers.
“What’s the difference this time, that we need to have the rangers step in?” Hornibrook asked.
McGahey denied this claim, telling the Daily Beast: "They say they are self-policing but that's just not true."
And yet, perhaps the biggest issue isn’t even the regulations themselves, but the fact that the climbing community writ large wasn’t consulted. The Access Fund told the Daily Beast that they had been talking about the program with the Park Service for years, but only found out it was going to be put in place a week ago. Climbers like Hornibrook view this as a potential sign of things to come.
“I think if we are going to do something like this, we should hear more climbers’ voices beforehand,” Hornibrook said. “Even if celebrity climbers see this as inevitable, they should be responsible and use their voices to lead the charge in shaping the policy in order to ensure it minimizes limits to climber freedom while achieving the broader program goals.”
“After all,” he added, “we care about these walls, too. They’re sacred to us. They’re our cathedrals.”
"If they truly care about this place like they say," McGahey responded, "then they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure it’s pristine for future generations."