Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

The Guardian

Free solo … with a permit: will Yosemite’s new rules put a damper on climbing culture?

The national park is instituting a permitting system for overnight rock climbers. Many see it as inevitable as the sport gets more popular Climbers camp overnight as they summit the Dawn Wall in Yosemite national park. Photograph: Alamy For years, rock climbers Graham Ottley and Keith Bouma-Gregson dreamed of scaling the 2,800ft (853 meters) pillar of granite known as the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite national park. In early May the pair finally got their chance, making a climb that required spending two windy nights camped on tiny ledges with harnesses holding them to the rocks. But Ottley and Bouma-Gregson realize that soon it may not be as easy to enjoy Yosemite’s anything-goes climbing culture. The national park is preparing to bring in a first-of-its-kind permitting system for overnight rock climbers, citing an effort to collect data on the large number of climbers who descend on the park each year, and concern for climbing’s effects on the park’s unique landscape. Some worry the move will rein in the free-spirited culture that made the park a renowned playground for climbers. But many climbers also see the permit system as inevitable, considering how popular the sport has become. While the park doesn’t keep stats on how many individual climbers visit every year, it estimates they cumulatively account for 25,000 to 50,000 days of park use each year. Recent documentaries such as Free Solo and The Dawn Wall have publicized the beauty and adventure of climbing in Yosemite, drawing even more visitors. Yosemite’s famous rock formations have made it a global destination for climbers. Photograph: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images “We miss the old days when you could do what you want and have free rein in the place,” said Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association. “But the park service is doing its best to respect the spirit and freedom of Yosemite climbing. This is an opportunity to engage with the park service and get some rules in place that we can live with and that could make things more livable and fun in the future.” The permit system will take the form of a two-year pilot, requiring climbers to register four to 14 days in advance for overnight climbs. The park will issue an unlimited number of free permits to climb the big walls, such as El Capitan and Half Dome, on overnight trips, creating a system that rangers hope will allow them to collect data on climbing trends for future planning. The National Park Service web post announcing the permit system last week, said climbing’s growing popularity was having increasing effects on the park environment, including disturbance of cliff-dwelling animals, litter and “the visual blight of chalk marks, pin scars, bolts, rappel slings, and fixed ropes” on Yosemite’s famous rock walls. “The impacts of your actions may seem insignificant, but when multiplied by the thousands of people who climb here every year they can have a significant, long lasting effect,” it said. The sport, even for experienced climbers, also comes with considerable risks. More than 100 climbing accidents occur in Yosemite each year with 15 to 25 of those requiring a rescue, according to the park’s website. A park analysis of injuries between 1970 and 1990 estimated that 2.5 climbing deaths occur each year. In 2018, the veteran climbers Jason Wells, 46, and Tim Klein, 42, died in a fall from El Capitan. Hans Florine, another record-holding climber, broke both legs in a fall a month earlier and climber Quinn Brett was paralyzed in a 100ft fall the previous October. All were participating in speed-climbing ascents that have recently become more popular. Climbers camp on a big wall on El Capitan. Photograph: AP In an interview with Climbing Magazine the lead Yosemite climbing ranger, Jesse McGahey, said park employees have regularly had to pick up abandoned climbing equipment and bags containing climbers’ poop off the top of El Capitan. “What we are trying to do with the permits is to minimize the impact on the walls,” he said. “I want people to experience wildness and I want it to be as pristine as possible.” Mitsu Iwasaki, CEO of the American Alpine Club, said his club supported the pilot program, which will allow rangers to educate climbers picking up permits on the principles of “leave no trace”, the environmental philosophy climbers are supposed to adhere to on the mountain. “The permit process adds an extra bit of logistics to planning a climb,” he said. “But we think it is easily offset by the benefits of allowing the park to educate users and to gather data for future planning.” Some park users said it was curious that sleeping on rock walls is one of the last things in Yosemite to start requiring a permit. Permits are now required for everything from overnight wilderness hikes to day trips up the backside of Half Dome. Starting 21 May, visitors will need a reservation to enter the park even for day use, in a temporary, summer program to reduce exposure to Covid-19 that first went into place last year. Yosemite user Kevin Nicholson, said the internet had made natural wonders much more accessible than they used to be, making permits for popular attractions necessary. But he said some permit systems, like the one controlling the number of people on the backside of Half Dome, have improved the experience for visitors. Graham Ottley, left, and Keith Bouma-Gregson climb Half Dome in Yosemite. Photograph: Courtesy of the subjects “I remember climbing the cables on Half Dome in 1998 when I was seven and it was like the [Los Angeles] 405 freeway in rush hour,” he said in a Facebook post, responding to the park announcement. “Since implementing the permit system, it’s more enjoyable and less reckless. People just need to learn to deal with it and adapt to the digital society we have built for ourselves.” Longtime climber Ottley, who is the general manager of Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, said it remains to be seen how user-friendly or unfriendly the new system will be. Last weekend, as he and Bouma-Gregson prepared to rappel down from the top of the Lost Arrow Spire, they felt like they were getting a last taste of total freedom. “We knew this reservation system was coming and we wanted to get the route done before it adds to the level of complexity of the logistics,” said Ottley. “It was a great way to remind myself how much I love this beautiful place.”