An Open Letter to the National Park Service and Yosemite Climbers from Touchstone Climbing CEO and Founder Mark Melvin

The Current State of Big Wall Climbing in Yosemite: Reservations, Permits, Quotas, and Cleanups

At the September 2022 Yosemite Facelift meeting, the National Park Service (NPS) updated climbers on an ongoing project to evaluate overnight big wall reservations, permits, and quotas.

According to the rangers there, current big wall use, while in the Wilderness, does not pose threats significant enough to institute quotas. Permits are currently required for overnight wall ascents. But they’re largely used to teach LNT (leave no trace) and talk newbies out of making The Nose their first big wall climb.

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As big wall climbing was being invented in Yosemite in the mid-20th century, the ranger-climber relationship started out rough. Few rangers were familiar with the sport, and they often appeared to view climbers as a nuisance. Thankfully, this relationship has evolved. A decade ago, Touchstone helped finance the first climbing ranger position. Now there are five rangers that understand how climbers think.

As climbers, we think the current system is actually pretty cool — we can ask what parties are on the wall, who might be going up the same day, what days we might have a route all alone, and maybe, with some nudging, whether parties ahead of us will be slow as molasses. (Unfortunately, some current proposals, such as quotas and reservations, will ruin this system.)

In addition, the LNT talks appear to be making a difference. Only a small percentage of trash collected this year was from climbers. And the NPS reported that of 12 illegal fire rings removed at the top of El Cap last year, none had been replaced so far.

How Climbers Can Help

Here are some ways we as climbers can maintain and even strengthen the LNT trend:

  • When climbing, take abandoned bottles, wrappers, and other trash with you
  • Don’t make fire rings
  • Don’t leave water bottles
  • Take all your bodily waste down with you

NPS maintains that big wall climbing, and maybe even climbing in general, is the least restricted activity in the Park system. Let’s give them a reason to keep it that way.

The Touchstone community has been climbing in Yosemite for decades. It’s like our second home, which is why we continue to support Yosemite climbing as a financial contributor to the Yosemite Climbers Association and Facelift. We love Yosemite and want to maintain the ecosystem, as well as open and sustainable access to it, for perpetuity.

Suggestions for the National Park Service (NPS)

Here are our suggestions to NPS for how to do so:

  • NO QUOTAS: As long as the LNT trend continues, let crowding be the climber’s problem.
  • Create metrics — e.g. # of fire rings removed, # of water bottles collected, etc. — to track if things are getting better or worse.
  • Develop a list of LNT Ambassadors: They would need the permit, but not the talk, and could get the permit without physically checking in. They are expected to report on trash seen and removed on their ascent. Only experienced and proven big wall climbers would be eligible, people that could be easily shamed if necessary.
  • Keep climbing exempt from’s system: LNT talks have nothing to do with reservations, and involvement in the system will morph into demands on climbers that destroy the culture of spontaneity inherent in the sport.
  • Consider two maintained fixed safe ropes for safety: (1) East Ledges, (2) Heart Ledges. Use camouflaged static tough ropes. Call them rescue lines. Touchstone will pay for spools of rope.
  • Allow one or two stashes for unused water at the top of El Cap: Touchstone staff will remove them on any schedule NPS desires. It is very hard not to want to leave water if you have some left. Alternatively, utilize one drum, or a natural element of some sort, which climbers can pour extra water into.
  • Limit the number of guides allowed: And allow only accredited ones with conditions. This will help keep underground guiding from escaping notice.

Save Yosemite Valley’s Camp 4

decorative imageSign the petition to keep the iconic walk-in Camp 4 campsite from being added to the digital reservation system on Camp 4 is historical, it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its significant role in the history of rock climbing.

Sign the Petition