This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 258 (July 2019).
My first time up the Nose of El Cap is etched in my mind. I will never forget the yellow- gold shimmering of the upper dihedrals in the setting sun as my partner and I struggled towards the top. We felt like we were on the moon—cast adrift in a vertical wilderness. It shaped my life beyond words.
When I need to ground myself, I go climb El Cap or look at the images of it wallpapering my home and office. I have climbed El Cap 58 times, including four speed records, several sub-six-hour ascents of the Nose, an adaptive ascent of Zodiac, and two routes back-to-back in 19 hours. My career as an academic geologist arose from the Big Stone. I have written three peer-reviewed journal articles and produced a map describing its geology, given 10 talks at professional conferences, and coauthored the guidebook to climbing the big walls of Yosemite. El Cap is my second home.
A lot has changed on El Cap since I first climbed it, in 2008. The most notable difference is a dramatic increase in free climbers. In 2008, the big-wall free-climbing community consisted of a handful of mostly renowned climbers. Today, it is common to have a dozen teams simultaneously working Freerider throughout much of the year. The transition was amazing and inspiring to watch.
Along with the rise in popularity, however, has come a rise in poor behavior in the free- climbing community—behavior negatively impacting the experience of the majority of El Cap climbers and threatening all of our free access to the Big Stone. Fixed lines dangle all over the upper reaches of some of the most classic and popular routes. Ledges are often littered with haulbags, water jugs and equipment, much of it stashed for months at a time. During peak season, crowds of people rap Freerider to work the pitches, leading to traffic jams and conflict.
Given that the free-climbing revolution is just starting, things will get worse. The impacts are escalating, and are a fundamental principle of environmental management. If one person pees in a creek, the effects are unnoticeable. If everybody does, the creek becomes polluted. Now that there are more of us, we must self-regulate.
Fixed ropes on trade routes are particularly problematic. They hang in the way and can cover key holds for people leading the pitches. Haulbags and followers get tangled in them, and extra ropes clutter up already congested anchors. A highway of ropes leading to the summit diminishes the wild and free aesthetic most of us are seeking by climbing El Cap. A fixed line on a trade route is an inherently selfish act. The rope fixers are choosing to impact other people’s experiences to save themselves a bit of effort.
Per the 2018 Superintendent’s Compendium, property left unattended for more than 24 hours is considered abandoned and subject to being impounded. The park has historically tolerated the violations of this code posed by the rappel lines on the East Ledges, on the Death Slabs, and out of Heart Ledges. It would be a shame if we lost these lines because of the actions of a few people fixing lines on the most popular routes on El Cap.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Over the past few years, the increasing impacts have become a frequent subject of conversation among those of us who climb El Cap on a regular basis. Our group includes speed climbers, free climbers and ordinary people who want to claw their way up a few routes each year.
It is possible to free climb on El Cap without resorting to tactics that abuse the resource. Sean Villanueva, Nico Favresse, Hazel Findlay, Mason Earle, Brad Gobright, and Yuji Hirayama are top climbers who, for the most part, free climb on El Cap without fixing ropes from the top. This past November the Nose saw some incredible efforts. Keita Kurakami rope soloed it ground-up, and Connor Herson, age 15, successfully projected the route in day trips from the Bay Area. On each attempt, these people may not have had 100 percent free ascents, yet they still climbed El Cap mostly free—an impressive achievement by any standard.
While ground-up ascents are clearly the least-impactful style, not every climber can be as badass as those above. A certain amount of pre-inspection and practice is expected and it’s possible to go top-down in a sustainable fashion. Since most cruxes are near the summit, consider rappelling to those pitches with one rope and climbing out. If you must fixaline, be sure it is held out of the way by directionals and removed when you are not using it. When you go for your send, enlist a friend to haul and jug, eliminating the need to stash gear.
Poor behavior by the free-climbing community poses a real threat to our access to El Cap—a privilege many climbers take for granted. No user group in Yosemite is given as many freedoms as climbers. We are allowed to sleep in designated wilderness without a permit and engage in risky behavior that can result in expensive and dangerous rescues. These activities are fundamental to our freedom, yet many other parks limit them with regulations. Thankfully, as of now, Yosemite does not. In return, the park asks us to follow a few rules that are summarized by one simple idea: Minimize impact to the environment and to fellow climbers.
In October, I climbed the Salathé for what is likely to be the last time for a while—my wife and I are bringing a future El Cap crusher into the world. During our 10-hour ascent, three parties rappelled past us, we encountered ledges littered with garbage and stashed gear, witnessed a party toproping through the rap rings, and while climbing the runout 5.10 pitch, I was hit by ropes dropped by rappellers without warning. This is a far cry from the experience I had in 2008, adrift in the golden upper dihedrals of the Nose.
The ever-growing community must show some restraint. Consider other people’s experiences and the threats to access your actions pose, no matter how small. We are travelers in a vertical wilderness.
Roger Putnam is coauthor of Yosemite Bigwalls: The Complete Guide, and is an El Cap speed climber.