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Profile: Ken Yager, Winner of the David R. Brower Conservation Award

Ken Yager at his home in El Portal, California, located 15 minutes from the entrance to Yosemite National Park.

[Photo] Julia Reardin

It was love at first sight when Ken Yager met Yosemite Valley for the first time in 1972. Living in Davis, California, 13-year-old Yager and his parents drove five hours east in the family car to Yosemite. The first thing he wanted to see in the Valley was El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-high granite monolith that loomed above the valley floor.

Yager began climbing just the year before, and El Cap was all he could think about. He knew the storied history of the great wall, including Warren Harding’s first ascent with eight partners plus support crew between 1957 to 1958, finishing it after 12 days on the wall. When they got to the Valley, Yager asked his parents to pull the car over so he could run to El Cap’s base a quarter mile away and simply touch its hard stone. “I wanted to move there right then,” he says.

Landscape influences who we are, particularly as climbers. The places where we live, travel and climb help shape behavior and thought. For Yager, that touchstone place since his initial 1972 visit is Yosemite Valley. That first youthful impulse to move there stayed with him as a teenager. He kept climbing, doing harder routes and drawing inspiration from Yosemite’s pioneer climbers. Sometimes he skipped classes at Davis High School and caught rides or hitchhiked to local crags.

The day after getting his driver’s license at age 16, Yager drove to Lover’s Leap, a hunk of granite in the High Sierra, for a day on the rocks. He headed home after climbing, stopping to pick up a hitchhiker, who turned out to be his hero–Warren Harding. Yager asked a lot of questions during the drive, and Harding graciously answered them. By the end of the drive, they made plans to climb together.

Yager, who’s authored 300 hundred routes in Yosemite and on the Sierra East Side, on his route Tiger by the Tail, 5.12b, established ca. 1991.

[Photo] Walt Shipley/Ken Yager Collection

On their first outing the pair visited Phantom Spires, a lonely collection of towers and buttresses perched on a mountain ridge above US 50 in the Sierra. Yager slogged up the trail, his heavy pack filled with ropes nuts and hexes and the water, while Harding carried a smaller pack laden with undisclosed contents. At the cliffs, Yager noticed that Harding’s boots had holes in the soles that had been repaired with generous amounts of epoxy. The epoxy caused them to slide unexpectedly on the smooth granite, so they decided that Yager would do all the leading. After climbing two pinnacles and drinking most of their water, they called it a day.

“I still hadn’t seen what was in his pack,” recalls Yager. “Then he offered to hang out and make a campfire. From his pack Harding pulled out four beers, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, hot dogs, a jar of mustard and two real-glass wine glasses.” The beers were long gone by the time the sun slipped over the western horizon, and Warren had finished off most of the wine. Neither of them packed a flashlight and they stumbled back to Yager’s car under darkness. That day of climbing, conversation, and campfire left a lasting impression on young Yager. Afterward, he continued climbing with Harding.

Yager, after serving his rock apprenticeship under Harding, finally started living his Yosemite dream by moving to the Valley when he was 17. In the winter of 1976, 17-year-old Yager failed on his first attempt to climb El Capitan but by the time he turned 18, he had climbed its big wall four times. Now he guesses he’s climbed El Cap around 60 times but notes, “I never wrote it down or kept track of ascents.” He made a lot of those ascents while working as a Yosemite Mountain School guide over eleven years, when he guided the monolith three to six times a year.

After listening to Harding’s stories and being part of Yosemite Valley and Camp 4 in the 1970s, Yager was aware of the Valley’s significance in world climbing history. His passion for climbing culture led to the Yosemite Climbing Museum, which he started collecting for in 1992 with Mike Corbett, with displays of climbing gear and memorabilia at the Ahwahnee Hotel and the Mountain Shop. Interest in those exhibits encouraged Yager to start the non-profit Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA) in 2003, with the goal of building a permanent museum that celebrated Yosemite’s unique role.

Warren Harding during the first ascent of the Nose of El Capitan, 1957. Yager, at age 16, picked up Harding when he was hitchhiking. Harding’s influence on Yager is one of the many reasons Yager started the Yosemite Climbing Association.

[Photo] Bill “Dolt” Feuerer/Courtesy Yosemite Climbing Association

Since the early 1990s, Yager amassed over 10,000 Yosemite climbing artifacts, cataloging and storing them in cardboard boxes in his garage. These include rock shoes worn by Lynn Hill on her landmark 1993 free ascent of El Capitan’s Nose and a spike used by George Anderson on the first ascent of Half Dome in 1875, a mere five years after some wag proclaimed that the summit “never will be trodden by human feet.” The collection also contains two massive iron pitons fashioned from stove legs that were used on the first ascent of the Nose in 1958. These crude pitons, pounded into the Stoveleg cracks, are perhaps the most famous pitons in the world.

Despite the efforts of Ken Yager and the YCA, there is still not a permanent climbing museum in Yosemite Valley. “The problem,” says Yager, “is finding a space in the Valley for a museum.” The association’s last exhibit, called Granite Frontiers, was seen by over 70,000 people in four months at the Yosemite Museum. Then it went to the Autry National Center, which was “extremely crowded,” says Yager. “The majority of the visitors,” Yager says, “were not climbers, they were people that wanted to learn more about it. People were fascinated by the stories. I just hope that I can see a climbing museum in Yosemite during my lifetime.”

Yager’s love for Yosemite and its big walls fostered a deep and caring connection to this place where he has spent most of his life. Yager remembers walking up to a climb with clients and being disgusted by toilet paper and trash scattered at the cliff base in the early 1990s when he worked as a guide for the Yosemite Mountaineering School.

“It was embarrassing and I wasn’t about to pick it up with my hands. So one day I got some litter picker-uppers and trash bags,” Yager says. After that he began picking up trash left by tourists and climbers and in 2004 he started Yosemite Facelift, an organization dedicated to keeping the Valley clean. Since then, Yosemite Facelift has annually run the largest organized volunteer clean-up in any national park, removing over a million pounds of trash from Yosemite in eleven years, including tons of asphalt, candy wrappers, dirty diapers, old tires, scrap metal, steel cable, and abandoned climbing equipment like rotting slings and old fixed ropes.

This unfaltering dedication to keeping Yosemite spotless and to preserving the park’s climbing history earned 56-year-old Yager the prestigious David R. Brower Conservation award this past January. The award, established by the American Alpine Club in 1991, recognizes both leadership and commitment to environmental preservation, particularly of climbing areas and mountain regions.

Sources: Julia Reardin, Ken Yager, SuperTopo: Yosemite Sport Climbs and Top Ropes,