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Granite Routes to Community Roots

Yosemite National Park may not have saved my life, but it definitely defined and gave it great purpose. When I first laid eyes on the impossibly huge, granite monoliths lining “The Valley”, I knew I’d always return to recharge my soul batteries. I sparked my lifelong passion for climbing, the dance of body and stone set to a wilderness soundtrack. Yosemite introduced me to the global tribe of adventure vagabonds. I recall walking wide-eyed through Camp IV, a babel of foreign tongues and clinking carabiners, eager to connect with anyone who could take me climbing.

Two men geared up in rock climbing equipment smiling and posing together Image via Timmy O'Neill

At 20 years old, I worked as a clerk in the Yosemite Village grocery store. I saved my checks to obtain the equipment required to make my dreams a reality. These early pieces of gear were the difference between waiting for something to happen and making it happen myself.

My fellow Yosemite Village employees became my first pool of potential belayers as I hauled myself and partners up the beckoning walls. The skills and fitness I developed in the “Granite Crucible”, as well as the international influence, empowered my eventual far-flung wanderings. And the decades of history, via the first ascent giants whose shoulders I high-stepped on, illuminated what was possible and the way upward.

I love risk-based problem solving, especially when paired with wild beauty; it is a synergy of person, place and purpose. And when I’m exploring those towering walls, the wholeness I feel in the land above the trees returns home with me. I don’t remain on the summit, but I bring the ‘summit-sense’ back with me.

A man rock climbing up a cliff face, wearing a red top and orange pants, and a white and red helmet Image via Timmy O'Neill

Those formative YNP years opened me to a life of adventure, where I gathered the tools and traits which would allow me to lean deeply into a life of giving back, an amazing return on my dirtbag investment. I fling the karmic boomerang forward with ‘friend-guide’ sessions, communal mentorship and more than a little time, talent and treasure towards NGOs that power the change I want to see and feel in the world.


Paying it Forward through the Yosemite Climbing Association

A collection of trash gathered from a Face Lift clean-up event Image via Yosemite Climbing Association

Over the past ten-plus years I’ve been the voice of the early autumn Yosemite Facelift, the largest clean-up of a National Park in the U.S. The Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA), the organization behind Facelift, was charted in 2003 with the goal of building goodwill between park users—primarily climbers—and park managers by demonstrating our willingness to clean it up and keep it that way.

Over the last nineteen years, for a five-day period, we’ve powered thousands of volunteer hours, informed of what to leave in place by the NPS archeology team, and what plants to remove by their botanists. We put our elbows into cleaning the walls of El Cap and the cables route of Half Dome in partnership with the YNP Climbing Ranger and Stewards program, and all the while we host a small army of volunteers via the NPS service projects desk - a fun, joyous and successful partnership.

In the early ‘90s, Ken Yager, the founder and visionary of the YCA, began his other passion: preserving the historical artifacts and stories from one of the most important wellsprings of world climbing. He started with the ‘Golden Age’, the ‘50s and ‘60s, and for the past thirty years he has visited collections that were squirreled away in attics, shelved in garages and boxed in dark basement corners. The cobwebs and moldering cardboard, when pushed aside, covered relics of the first ascents of the steepest, most forbidding cliffs. El Capitan’s Nose Route, first climbed in 1954 via the sheer will and audacity of Warren Harding, and his band of striving, proto-dirtbag miscreants, is now considered the most famous ‘Big Wall’ globally and is on the must-do, tick list for every aspiring wall rat. The tools, clothing and images from these historic ascents are displayed in the YCA’s museum in Mariposa, CA.

A man wearing a tan shirt, a black bucket hat and sunglasses standing in front of the YCA museum, with the YCA logo behind him Image via Courtney Konopacki

Yager has diligently preserved the Yosemite climbing culture to inspire and educate all who encounter these positive stories of people embracing ‘elective challenge’ and overcoming impossible obstacles. The museum is expanding its collection to highlight adaptive ascents, including the ascension bar used by Mark Wellman, the first climber with paraplegia to ascend El Capitan via 3,000 pull-ups. The ascents of women, recently chronicled by Lauren Delaney Miller in her book “Valley of Giants”, are on display with plans to amplify and more fully represent the female impact that ranges from “… forging pitons to climbing El Cap in a day.”

Personally, I can still dig through my crate of obsolete, yet precious, climbing kit and find inspiration from what I accomplished way back then and how far I’ve come. Holding my original belay device is like stepping back in time via a souvenir of the soul. The YCA believes in saving and celebrating that feeling.

A close-up of artifacts displayed inside the YCA museum Image via Courtney Konopacki

The twin missions of the YCA, preserving the past via our museum and programs while conserving the present via our stewardship and Facelift events, are coming to the nation. This fall, we launched 12 new locations with our Facelift Act Local, and for next year’s 20th Anniversary, we are taking Facelift across North America. Our goal is to bring community stewardship to not only the national park system but even more to the communities that serve and are served by the parks, to lean into the city micro-parks and regional parks and rec areas.

Looking Ahead

Ken and our staff at the YCA, five strong and growing, are excited to develop this organization and our Yosemite power to the next of many levels. One does not need to visit YNP to experience the Facelift, or travel to Mariposa to enjoy the museum. We are bringing it to you.

Over the past two decades of worldwide expeditions, I have become an expert ‘minimalist mover’, carrying only what fits in my backpack to camp and to climb. There is a simple beauty in having only what you need and needing only what you have. Plus, gravity demands it. Our goal is simple and streamlined: to care for our open spaces, albeit in the city center or back-beyond, and to foster communal health and shared purpose.

Now I can tap into ‘Yosemite Power’ by volunteering at the Facelift: Act Local events taking place coast to coast. The shared purpose of stewardship within our open spaces and parks underscores the ‘unity’ in community. As the executive director of the YCA I work for everyone who engages with our open spaces.

Life curves back on itself, like water evaporating into clouds, then condensing back to rain. My roots of adventuring in wild places run deep. I find great purpose in connecting people with likeminded experiences, as well as to caregiving for the places we go. It is a powerful combination that inspires me to act on the wisdom that love and service are the best way forward.

A man and woman rock climbing on a cliff face while posing and smiling Image via Timmy O'Neill