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Diary of a Yosemite Climbing Steward

Up to 3,000-foot vertical walls, 5,000 routes, 1,200 square miles, 150-180 days of climbing per year and two–count them: Jesse MacGahey, Ben Doyle–two full-time Yosemite climbing rangers. This year, they organized a grant-funded, volunteer-fueled program to help manage and protect the park’s climbing resources and bridge the historically wide gap between rangers and climbers. This series of articles is a record of the Climber Steward program’s inaugural year in the world’s most popular climbing area.

Climber Steward Cody Cavill on the Matthes Crest. [Photo] John Connor

I arrived in Yosemite through the back door, both literally via Tuolumne Meadows, and figuratively, as a volunteer reporting to Climbing Ranger Ben Doyle. As a Climber Steward, part of a fledgling program instituted this spring, I didn’t know what to expect. I had climbed in Tuolumne before, so I cracked a big smile as we drove through the Tioga Pass entrance to the world’s most famous climbing park, still amazed that this was the beginning of the next twelve weeks of my life: living and working in Yosemite as a volunteer. At the time, my supervisor Ben Doyle was out on a five-day backcountry patrol. He returned in a vivaciously good mood. The guy wore a wide grin and moved around camp like someone who just awoke from a fifteen hour slumber at sea-level, rather than the paltry 5 or 6 hours a night at 9000 feet that he had probably gotten. It would be eight days until I would see him again. Ben’s coming week would include an eleventh-hour rescue high on El Cap, in which the victim reached the summit just before lightning began touching down on nearby peaks. But he still wore that same wide grin. Ben would be my first introduction to someone who, at their core, exemplified what it meant to conduct SAR and maintenance in Yosemite.

NPS Climbing Ranger Jesse McGahey shoeing up for a climbing patrol. [Photo] John Connor

I officially began work as a Yosemite Climber Steward at 7 a.m. Sunday morning, August 5 with little fanfare. Sunday mornings in Tuolumne feature a popular event: Climber Coffee. Introduced in 2001 and funded by the American Alpine Club, Climber Coffee is a weekly meeting of climbers held in the parking lot of the Tuolumne store. Free coffee, tea, and hot cocoa are provided, along with the latest info on events, closures, anchor replacements and more. All of this takes place at 9 a.m. As volunteers, we were tasked with brewing and transporting the coffee. This particular time, there wasn’t anything groundbreaking to report. The raptor closure at Medlicott had recently been lifted, but that was all. A gathering of dirtbags seeking free java, road-trippers wanting the latest beta, and the occasional tourist just happening by, the gathering is a congenial scene.

Later that day, my wife Emily and I drove down to Fresno for her Monday morning flight back to the “real world” in Portland, Oregon. Monday afternoon, I hit the Fresno Trader Joes like a typhoon, enjoying the last of the strong 3G signals, and beat it back to Tuolumne as soon as possible.

On Tuesday morning, Ben Ditto, noted climbing photographer and fellow volunteer, recruited me for an unusual, but intriguing mission. The Medlicott closure, as it turned out, had debuted only months earlier. Park Wildlife Biologists believed the Medlicott pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons to be the highest-dwelling pair known to science. The closure had been lifted a week earlier, and Ditto was eager to investigate. From the ground, the site was obvious. We identified the nest by the telltale white streak extending below, and the accompanying but barely visible swatch of brownish nesting material. Snug in a horizontal alcove between two sets of anchor bolts, about 50 feet right of the Bachar-Yerian, the location was a somewhat puzzling choice; in the direct afternoon sun, it would have been atrociously hot. Ben and I walked over from the top of the approach pitch and spotted a sad sight: the body of a juvenile falcon, feathers still attached but desiccated and obviously long-since deceased. Although we climbed up to the nest, we knew at that it had been abandoned. Life is harsh enough for humans at this elevation, and much more so for. We may never know the cause for this young bird’s fate; raven, rodent, wind, rain, or an excess of warm sun could have caused its demise. To say that the death was premature is to falsely believe that the laws of nature should not apply to young things; a statement that goes against everything we know about natural selection. As a climber, I cherish the memories of interacting with nature, and the places and things I get to see that only few do. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I share these places not with another human, but with some proud animal. I humbly respect their right to be there. At Medlicott, I fervently hope that no climber bears any responsibility for the young peregrine’s fate.

NPS Climbing Ranger Ben Doyle out on a climbing patrol. [Photo] Climber Steward Bronson Hovnanian

Wednesday morning, we racked up at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead for a climbing patrol. My partner for the day was Cody Cavill, a third year college student from Montana, double-majoring in Environmental Science and Anthropology with a heavy minor in climbing. Cody had been in Yosemite for ten weeks, helping Ben and Jesse work in the Wilderness Center, issuing permits a couple shifts per week. Cody has a personality and grin as big as the sky is in his home state of Montana. As we hiked, he told me about how he began climbing, and the difficult decision he made to forgo a summers’ worth of wild land firefighting wages in favor of this assignment. Cody walked and talked while I tried to keep up and listen. The approach and climb to Cathedral Peak’s excellent Southwest Buttress went smoothly. In the bright sunshine, Cody and myself simuled past other teams towards the summit at 10,911 feet. Like many other Yosemite climbs, Cathedral is in danger of being loved to death. Since 2010, volunteers and park staff have worked to eradicate social trails from the summit ridge back to the base. Cody and I were there to see it for ourselves, while advising other climbers about proper food storage, and helping to ensure that everyone was having a safe and fun experience. From the summit ridge, we descended and traversed over to Eichorn’s Pinnacle for a few final feet of climbing up the stupendous North Face, surely one of the best “5.4” pitches anywhere. Both summits are classics, and while Eichorn’s could host half a dozen climbers easily, you wouldn’t want to sneeze too hard atop Cathedral.

Thursday afternoon, I went sport climbing with my friend Cheyne and his girlfriend Jessica. On Friday, after several days climbing at 9000’+, I was ready for a rest. The following morning, I’d report for trail service duty down in the Valley.

An NPS trail staffer and a Chevron Corp employee volunteer using a grip hoist to move a large rock, at the base of Royal Arches, to improve and stabilize the approach trail. [Photo] Cheyne Lempe

Saturday found me in The Valley with the specific aim of helping install a new approach trail to Royal Arches, one of the most popular and long Valley routes for mortal climbers. The route sits a short distance uphill from the Ahwahnee Hotel parking lot. Though the approach ranks amongst the shortest in a valley full of easy-access, there is a hill. On that hill live a number of oak trees. These trees have root systems and shed their leaves seasonally. Protecting the root systems that hold the hillsides is the key to preventing erosion hazards, ecological disasters, and approach nuisances. Creating a clearly marked trail that directs climbers away from the root systems is instrumental to protecting these hillsides. Although the hill is perhaps only a hundred feet tall, reworking it in order to preserve the native oaks requires step building, terracing, shovels, rock bars, sledgehammers, good old sweat and technical rigging in order to move rocks weighing in excess of 1000 pounds. On Saturday and Sunday, twenty Chevron Corporation volunteers, five NPS trail crew members, and a few climbing rangers and stewards, convened for the trail-building version of a Hail Mary pass: an all-out stop-gap attempt at mitigating the erosion at this popular site. Though there is more work to be done, Chevron Corporation effectively added a new climbing access trail to one of the busiest areas in the park through a program run by the Yosemite Conservancy, pairing volunteer groups with projects in the park. The new trail will be signed with a carabiner post and is in place now.