ElCap Report 5/18/2021

ElCap Report 5/18/2021 Special Report Wilderness Climbing Permit

Yo.. It has been a while since I wrote an ElCap Report as the Pandemic has locked many of us into our homes and out of Yosemite.  Recently the NPS released a new requirement for all climbers to apply for a Wilderness Climbing Permit (WCP going forward) if they spend one or more nights on a big wall climb.  Since everything over the elevation of about 4,000ft is considered wilderness, that applies to all big walls in Yosemite. Unfortunately, the roll-out was poorly handled and all it accomplished was hostility among many in the climbing community.  So, the ElCap Report (ECR going forward) known for its straightforward and credible reporting on all things ElCap (EC going forward) related, is going to give you the real dope on this latest eruption from the NPS. Understand, however that I am speaking only about the effect of the WCP on EC climbs, as I have no direct knowledge of any other climbs.

Today’s ElCap Report… written just for you… unique in all the world!

Right now… go to the Yosemite NPS website and real ALL the information provided about the WCP, so you will be factually informed, instead of a knee jerk emotional reaction to a few opinions you might have been misled by on the internet.

NPS stated objectives of the WCP Pilot program.  Paraphrased here.

  1. Help climbing rangers better understand use patterns on Yosemite’s Big Wall climbs.                                                                                              
  2. Increase compliance with existing regulations and to minimize environmental impacts through improved education.                                                     
  3. Gather data on numbers of climbers who are doing overnight climbs, along with what climbs are being done.

Comments on the stated objective #2.

  1. Head climbing ranger, Jesse McGahey, has publicly stated that wall climbers have not complied with existing regulations and thus the NPS has decided to implement their WCP Pilot program on May 21st 2021.                                                                                                                            
  2. As an example of climber cooperation, the following examples are offered.

In the past, some climbers, tossed haul bags loaded with gear, off EC so as not to have to carry them down the East Ledges descent. The NPS has regulations forbidding the tossing of ANYTHING off EC.  However, the NPS has made little effort to enforce that regulation.  This neglect is most likely a result of a staff that is too small to monitor the cliffs, so although they huffed and puffed, they never did anything much, even when told who and where the violations occurred.

  1.  A few years back, a climber at the base of Zodiac came withing 3ft of being hit by a bag tossed off the top of that area of EC.  The incident was reported on the ECR and got a full airing on the main climbing site at that time, SuperTopo.com.  A long and painful discussion ensued.  The community confronted the culprits who eventually got the message and pledged never to toss bags again.  Other climbers also took that pledge.  So clear and accepted was that message that bag tossing has virtually stopped.  This is an example of a regulation that NPS has no way to enforce, but the climbing community has taken upon itself to enforce.                                                                                                           
  2. Another example was the situation with human waste (“poop” going forward).  So disgusting was this conduct that climbers acted with the NPS to require that all poop would be carried off the cliffs.  Soon home-made poop tubes made their appearance.  Then various equipment makers made commercial poop tubes and poop bags that were readily available.  Now you would be hard pressed to find a big wall team that didn’t carry their poop on and off the cliffs. As a result, the classic “mud falcon” has become extinct.  What other user group, in Yosemite, are required to carry their poop back out of the wilderness area?  None are.  They could do it, if they wanted to, but don’t.                                                        
  3. The ECR once suggested that urine could also be carried out.  That is a problem no one, including the NPS, wants to tackle.  So, Mark Hudon and I had a conversation about urine on the routes.  As wall climbers know, the belays on most routes stink of urine.  Mark decided he would test the idea by collecting all his urine on his next climb and hauling it up and out.  The result was that he collected all his urine from 5 or so gallons of water consumed.  It amounted to 1.3 gallons of liquid in a couple of water bottles.  That was not a lot of urine to haul out.  Now, unfortunately, Salathe/freerider has seen the accumulation of bottles of urine on bivy ledges.  Some people feel that urinating on ledges is a smelly, sticky problem and so they collect their urine in bottles ….but don’t “bother” to take it out when they depart!  The NPS has no regulations on urine disposal, that I know of, and climbers are not much interested in addressing it … so it will remain a problem. But as it is unlawful to throw things off EC it is also unlawful to leave things on EC!   If you are going to the trouble of putting urine in bottles then for heaven’s sake, please take it out with you… otherwise who will?  The old myth that the rain will wash it all away in the winter has proven to be untrue.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

There are about 100 routes on EC.It seems, from what I have seen, that 98 of these routes have little to no problems with trash.  You don’t see trash on Zodiac, Mescalito, SSPO etc.  Salathe/Freerider and the Nose are the biggest problems.  Both routes have been over powered by climbers who have turned these routes into big sport climbs.  Both routes are plagued by Drop-ins and Day-trippers who practice pitches over and over and stay on the routes, stashing gear and food on bivy ledges so they can spend more time working the crux pitches.  Some leave fixed ropes hanging from the top and from 6 or 7 pitches off the deck so they can quickly get back to their projects and not have to haul kit up each time.  You don’t see this on many other routes on EC.  I think that NPS needs to concentrate on the two routes with the big problems.

Solutions?   One thing we can do, and I have pushed for years, is to somehow convince new climbers, who aspire to be Big Wall EC climbers, to learn the systems required to climb the “Big Two” by climbing a few grade V routes before venturing on the Big Stone.  BITD aspiring EC teams would climb the SF of the Column, The Chouinard/Herbert on Sentinel, WF of the Leaning Tower, and the Reg on the Dome.  By the end of those climbs they knew their gear and how to use it.  So, when they got to grade Vl they didn’t bumble and creep along on the most crowded routes in the Valley.  NPS needs to stress preparation.

Some conclusions from the above discussions.

  1. Trash is not a universal problem on all EC routes.  It is somewhat limited to the “Big Two.” There does need to be a push on educating those climbers who are not aware of the regulations dealing with environmental problems that come with climbing.  We know that NPS is unable to enforce some of  its own regulations.  These regulations are not just rules but guidelines and principles that climbers universally agree with and will support given the chance.  We need the cooperation of the NPS and they need our cooperation to make this and other programs successful.

Thoughts on the WCP Pilot program just instigated by the NPS.

  1. What is a Pilot program anyway? 
  2. A pilot program is a trial run to determine how a proposed program will function under anticipated working conditions.  It should be flexible enough to be revised to better fit the actual conditions it encounters. It is not cast in stone.  Those things that work will be kept and those that do not will be removed.  I assume you have read the information on the NPS site and will continue with that in mind.                                             
  3.  Reservations are an important aspect of the WCP.  The NPS says the following.                                                                                                    
  4.  Reservations can be requested 15 to 2 days prior to your intended climb.  It may take up to 48 hours to have your request approved by a climbing ranger.  If you have a valid reservation to enter the park, you can pick up a WCP without a reservation, in person, the day before or the day of your climb.  However, NPS would like you to register in advance if possible.                                                                                                      Timing of activation of the WCP.
  5. The world, the USA, and California are in the midst of a pandemic and thus extraordinary measures have been taken, to insure the safety of our citizens and visitors.  Yosemite, through the NPS have complied with the CDC and CA regulations during this crisis.  Like any business, the park has limited visitors by requiring a special permit to even enter the park. There are only so many of these permits issued so that is being used to control the number of visitors.  You just can’t show up like in the past.  Camping and lodging are restricted and as a result there are far fewer tourists and climbers these past two years.  The shuttle busses are not running at all and on weekends the traffic can be challenging.       
  6. Looking at the stated objectives above.  Focus on #3.  “gather data on numbers of climbers who are doing overnight climbs and what climbs are being done.”                                                                                                                                                                                                          
  7.  Since the present year is in no way a typical year, one wonders why the NPS chose this year to start the program?  Any data acquired will not be an accurate representation of the actual situation in normal years.  This year is a fluke and information gathered from it will not be valid for the stated purpose.  Next May is a more realistic time to start the WCP, when the extraordinary situation ends and things return to a normal level.  This would also allow some time for input from stakeholders and interested organizations.                                                                           
  8. The idea that accurate data can be gleaned from information on a permit is not realistic either.  Climbers are being asked to predict the future.  They have plans but no idea of how their plans will actually work out.  It is all extrapolation…. Not a good way to get data.  The WCP should be easy to get, with no paperwork or personal contact with climbing rangers.  Big Wall climbing is equipment intensive, and equipment is expensive.  Big Wall climbers have some money and I would guess that almost all have a so called, “smart phone.”   Most teams carry these phones with them on the wall, as a convenience and a safety item.  So, I suggest that the permit itself should be quite simple with basic information…. How many climbers in the team… name of the climb… anticipated date of the start of the climb.  All this to be done on a website make by the chief climbing ranger.  Thus, the permit itself is on the team’s phone and on the climbing ranger’s site.  No need for paperwork.  The permit should cover 2 weeks from the arrival.  Why 2 weeks you ask?  Most climbers have expressed the idea that it is not possible to know the exact starting, or ending date of a climb.  Safety, weather and conditions on the routes have a way of changing the best laid plans.  Two weeks should be enough for any vagaries to even out and allow a party time to get the route done.  So, what about data collection?  Forget the initial permit.  Data should be collected AFTER the climb, for only then will all the information be accurate.  So, there should be a Post-climb form that the party fills in after the climb.  This should be paperless also and as simple as possible.  It will also give NPS the opportunity to gather other data that is not part of the initial permit.  Example… team members… dates the climb actually happened… the route done or bailed from… the condition of the climb itself… any dangerous rocks… how much trash is on the route.  Other comments.  This can all be done quickly and efficiently on line.  No paper, taking only a few moments to fill out.  This saves time and thus money.  Climbers will not be put off if the post-climb report is fast and can be done at any time soon after the climb.  This is very possible and will achieve the desired result in data collection.                                                                                                                                                                                                         
  9. Now look at objective #1 again.  “To help climbing rangers better understand use patterns on Yosemite’s wall climbs.”                                           
  10.  For EC only.  It is actually already known which EC routes are the most used and popular.  As mentioned somewhere above, the Salathe/freerider and the Nose beat all other routes by far.  And they have the most crowding and trash problems.  Other climbs have from 0 to a max of about 8 ascents a season.  Actually, there exists a set of data, gathered over many years, of patterns of wall climbing on EC. It is a daily report that mentions not only the weather each day, but how many climbers are active and on what routes.  It records successes and bails too.  It is free for all to use as they see fit.  However, these past two years have not been recorded due to the constraints of the Pandemic.  It can be accessed at elcapreport.com.  However, accurate, up to date data will be available from the post-climb report.  So please Mr. Climbing Ranger, make the post-climb report fast and easy and reap the rewards in saved time, energy and accurate data.

In summary.

  1. Make the WCP permit fast and easy, on line, with no paperwork and no personal contact.  It should not take up to two days to get this permit… it should be automatic from the website.                                                                                                                                                                     
  2. Make the WCP good to cover the next two weeks from the arrival date.                                                                                                                    
  3. Make the post-climb report fast and easy so it will be completed by almost all teams.  This is where your data will come from.                               
  4. Delay the implementation of the WCP until next year in May.  This will provide time for review by interested parties and then we will not have to deal with the special circumstances of working during a pandemic as it will be hopefully gone by then.  We hope there will be no entrance permits or limits on visitors by next year.                                                                                                                                                                    
  5. The initial permit should be available on line at any time of day.  No physical permit.  All information will be done through the website.

        6.  jessee_mcgahey@nps.gov  would love to hear from anyone having input they want considered for this matter.


In closing…. The NPS controls the park, visitors merely pay for it.  They can do as they wish in this case, with or without our consent, the 1964 wilderness act gives NPS to right to impose regulations to protect the wilderness.  It is beneficial to all of us to cooperate with each other.  Climbers want to do the environmentally correct thing and keep the park clean and as natural as possible.  So, we need to make our input known and also let it be known that we want to cooperate.  A few simple fixes could make the WCP program a success.  We want NPS to make things simple and easy to save their time and to make the program something that all climbers can get behind and support.

So that’s the way it is on this lovely 18th day of May 2021.  I hope to be around for the Fall season this year and hope the WCP will be held back until next May so it will be a success.  Sorry about the numbering above... my website doesn't like Word much and it is difficult to change it.  Patience please!

Capt. Tom signing off for now.


Great info

Thanks for your summary and thoughts. Anyone curious about this new system should read this post. I really got a lot out of it.


Well said

Thought that was a very measured response with a number of really great points Tom. It’s really upset me this permit system, so it’s pleasing to read a common sense logical response with implementable solutions.
What scares me is the looming number quotes and costs that will be applied after the “trial” period.
I pray with all my heart this never happens.
Hope your well and see you again some day when Joey B let’s just back across the pond!

Callum Coldwell-Storry

Fantastic summary

Brilliant write up Tom. You are absolutely correct that there is very little environmental impact on any big wall routes with the obvious exception of the "Big Two". One would think that NPS would want to catalogue the traffic patterns on these two routes, including in-a-day parties and in-however-long-it-takes-to-free-it parties, so that they could develop a conservation plan for these most-impacted areas. Cataloguing all overnight climbers is just boorish overkill. I certainly hope Jesse and his fellow rangers see your post as it contains all the salient and rational reasons for why this is a ridiculous idea, especially at this time.

Thanks for the post

It's been a while Tom, glad to know you're still active when stuff comes up :)

Keen to work with the park service to develop this app

I am a software developer and big wall climber. I would be keen to work with the climbing rangers to develop the web app described above to record data and issue permits. In fact I would absolutely love to do this. Tom, if you happen to know who I could contact about this, let me know. Scott Guinn guinnscott111@gmail.com


Climbing ranger Jesse McGahey would probably be the man to talk to about this.  I do not know if he read this ElCap report..... so.... jesse_mcgahey@nps.gov   would love to hear from you or anyone with input on this matter.

Start a petition?

While I’d prefer to do away with the permits entirely, I agree that there is a better way & time to initiate a pilot program like this. I’d be happy to sign a petition if you started one with your thoughts above. We had a telecommunications company try to drop an 80’ “silo” two lots from us & they withdrew their plans after ~250 neighbors signed a petition against it.

- Tim Kelly

Upright and Ambulating

Encouraging to see this report site back up.

Good point

I hadn’t thought about how ridiculous it is to impose a fact-finding program to figure out use patterns in the middle of a pandemic. Good point, and it exposes that part as a lie by the park service. It will, after all, be terrible data until the more general reservation system is phased back out.

Good insight

As always, Captain Tom provides a clear view of the face of El Capitan.
Thanks Tom!
John Middendorf (twitter@johnmiddendorf4)

Try again.

Obviously, collecting info is just a fake reason. Now they will have to think of a better one.