LAST OCTOBER, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell teamed up to tackle a new free climb on El Capitan, Yosemite’s premier granite big wall. Though the duo made headlines for climbing the Nose route in a gobsmacking one hour and fifty-eight minutes in 2018, fast enough to break the speed record, this project was something entirely different. Establishing a new free climb requires spending weeks at a time on the wall, carefully plodding and strategizing. Honnold and Caldwell’s route, called Passage to Freedom, shares a popular sleeping ledge with the Nose, called El Cap Tower. As the men worked on the line for nearly a month, they spent five nights bivouacking on the ledge.
“Every time we showed up, there were already six people sleeping there,” Caldwell says. “It smelled like urine. It was constantly a question of, How are we gonna deal with this ledge?”
It’s not just El Cap Tower. These days, many bivy ledges on the Captain are crowded and foul-smelling, says David Allfrey, a professional climber from Las Vegas. Zodiac, another popular route, even sports a brown streak of piss so large you can see it from nearly 1,000 feet below, he says. It looks like a natural discoloration in the rock, “but it’s 100 percent human urine.”
Crowds on Yosemite’s granite walls are nothing new, and El Capitan’s Nose route has long borne the brunt of those throngs. But the growth of climbing participation has accelerated in recent years and shows no sign of easing. Indoor gyms now attract roughly 5.1 million people annually, a phenomenon that helped the sport secure its Olympic debut this summer in Tokyo. And the 2018 films Free Solo and The Dawn Wall—both shot on El Cap, and starring Honnold and Caldwell, respectively—brought climbing unprecedented mainstream attention. The result has been a noticeable increase in traffic jams on Yosemite’s storied lines. To make matters worse, much of the park’s new traffic has converged on just two popular El Cap trade routes: the Nose and the Salathé Wall. It’s not hard to imagine this beloved playground going the way of Everest, where garbage, human excrement, and fixed lines litter the route from Base Camp to the summit.
It’s hard to calculate the scope of the current surge, as there’s no official count of the number of people who climb the Nose each year. Allfrey believes that the past few seasons have been especially crowded. Jesse McGahey, Yosemite’s lead climbing ranger, guesses that the number of annual climbers is close to a thousand. One day last fall, rangers counted 32 people on the Nose—enough to exceed the number of pitches on the route. “Everything changes when you have that much concentrated use,” he says. “It’s a pretty large impact that goes beyond merely climbers’ experience. It’s not like bats and other cliff-dwelling animals want to be around that kind of thing.”
In addition to the volume of climbers, it’s the increase in a specific style of ascending—free climbing—that is bringing the issues to a head. To free-climb a route means that you use gear like ropes, bolts, and cams for protection only, and not to aid your upward progress. (“Free” technically means free of aid.) Some free climbers will spend months, if not years, shuttling up and down the wall to practice the crux moves required to make a final free-climbing attempt from the ground to the top in one continuous push. To access and practice these sequences, it’s easiest to rappel down ropes that have been fixed from the summit. At the end of a long day, the climber then ascends those ropes to the top, a designated backcountry zone where a permit is required for camping. But many climbers apparently don’t realize they need one. This has turned the summit into an unofficial campground, replete with discarded water bottles, thousands of feet of fixed ropes, and food caches sometimes not even stored in bear bins.
The El Rapitan approach, as it’s called, is nothing new either, but the number of people who are employing it is. Some 15 or 20 years ago, free climbing was practiced almost exclusively by a small number of elite, full-time athletes. Now it’s popular among weekend warriors, which creates an eyesore of fixed lines and obstacles that other climbers need to contend with.
Not all free climbers condone the use of fixed ropes. In 2018, Jim Herson climbed the Nose with his 15-year-old son, Connor, who made the sixth free ascent of the route, becoming the youngest person to do so. The father and son team didn’t fix ropes themselves but still had to battle 600 feet of someone else’s fixed lines along the way. “I’ve been climbing El Cap for 30 years,” Jim says, “and times have changed. Things have gotten more crowded, and we need to think differently about how all climbers are approaching the wall.”
One solution is to establish a quota system for the Nose, an approach used in other popular national parks. In the Grand Canyon, for example, to maintain the pristine experience of river trips and reduce human impact on the environment, the federal government limits the number of boaters each season. In Denali, meanwhile, park managers have been issuing only 1,500 climbing permits annually for its 20,310-foot bucket-list peak since 2009. In Yosemite, though climbers do need a permit to camp in the backcountry and to hike the Half Dome Cables route, rock climbs don’t require permits, and according to McGahey, there are no plans to change that.
Climbers, who are against the idea of any regulation, are happy about that. And even Caldwell argues that a quota system isn’t necessary. “At some point,” he says, “when people see a party on every pitch, they don’t go up. It’s kind of self-regulating.”
Counting on the existence of crowds to turn off would-be climbers hasn’t worked on Everest, where photos of horrific summit-day conga lines only seem to attract more climbers, but Caldwell’s optimistic stance on self-regulation isn’t necessarily unrealistic. Climbers on El Capitan have had success with modifying their own behavior to address impacts. Until the late nineties, big-wallers would defecate in brown paper bags and toss them off portaledges onto the talus field below, where they were collected later or, more likely, left to rot. That practice became virtually obsolete once climbers began touting the use of WAG bags and PVC “poop tubes” affixed to their haul bags. The community changed its values, and what was once seen as a nuisance ultimately became standard practice.
It looks like a natural discoloration in the rock, says David Allfrey, a professional climber from Las Vegas, “but it’s 100 percent human urine.”
“You used to walk the base and there’d be poop everywhere,” Caldwell says. “That doesn’t happen anymore. The same evolution needs to happen with urine.” Which means climbers should bring a pee bottle along with their solid-waste kits, and never pee on bivy ledges.
“The overall ethic of climbers is pretty clean,” says McGahey, who helps run the Yosemite Facelift, an annual valley clean-up event that brings in more than 3,000 volunteers to collect upwards of 15,000 pounds of garbage in a single week. “You don’t find many cigarette butts or much micro trash. The old brown-bag method is almost nonexistent now. So many things have improved.”
But there’s still work to be done, especially when it comes to camping on the summit and using fixed ropes during climbing’s high season. The El Rapitan crowd needs to obtain the mandatory camping permits while also adopting stronger leave no trace practices. And aspiring free climbers need to stop leaving fixed ropes all season long—climb with a partner, rappel in, and climb back out. Yosemite climbing has long prided itself on its counterculture roots, bristling at the federal government’s intrusions on their Camp 4 lifestyle. But given the influx of new participants, efforts like these will be required if they want to keep park managers from stepping in and regulating their numbers.
In the meantime, McGahey is optimistic that climbers will rise to the challenge. “If we can get the community behind this push to change some of their behavior,” he says, “I believe it’ll happen overnight.”
Andrew Bisharat is the publisher of the climbing website Evening Sends. He lives in New Castle, Colorado. ■