Shut Down But Not Out

Park ranger Jeff Gardner informs visitors of the closure of Yosemite National Park due to the government shutdown Tuesday, October 1, 2013.
Park ranger Jeff Gardner informs visitors of the closure of Yosemite National Park due to the government shutdown Tuesday, October 1, 2013. Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee / MCT

Climber James Lucas, of central California, has spent years preparing for a free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley – an achievement akin to breaking the elusive four-minute-mile barrier. But for all the obstacles Lucas has prepared for, one unexpected thing may squash his dreams, at least for this fall: the federal government shutdown. As the shutdown nears the two-week mark, the closure of the country’s national parks is having an unexpected effect on outdoor athletes. Hit particularly hard – along with the National Parks Service’s 20,000 furloughed employees – are the thousands of climbers who converge on the towering granite walls of Yosemite National Park during “Rocktober.” 

“October is the month when Yosemite goes off,” says Lucas, an avid Yosemite climber who was in the park when the shutdown went into effect last week. “There are a lot of cancelled trips and crushed dreams.”

Because of the matchstick-size handholds and unrelenting physicality of much of the climbing on El Capitan, the window is narrow – climbers must wait for autumn temperatures to cool enough to allow for maximal friction, but strike before winter storms bury the Sierras in snow. America’s most famous climber, Tommy Caldwell, planned to spend October preparing to make the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Cap – the sheerest aspect of Yosemite’s greatest monolith. Caldwell, 34, has already spent much of the last seven years rehearsing for the climb, which, if completed, many have speculated would be one of the hardest in the world. “As climbers, most of the time we’re off in the woods, and there aren’t a lot of government issues that directly affect us, ” he says. “This is a wake-up call. I wish our politicians weren’t such babies.”

“Climbers all over the world were really psyched for Tommy’s attempt,” says Andrew Bisharat, an editor for ‘Rock and Ice’ magazine. “This is like Michael Phelps training for four years, then showing up at the Olympics, only to find the pool’s been drained.”

Some climbers are just ignoring the closure altogether and remaining in the park illegally. Before rangers could round everyone up and ask them to leave, a handful of teams raced for the 2,000-foot walls and began their ascents. Amanda Fenn of Boulder, Colorado, started up El Capitan two days after the shutdown began. “It was weird being up there,” Fenn says. “It felt special to have the skill set to be able to escape.” After completing a routine four-day ascent of El Cap, Fenn returned to her car, only to find she’d been issued a $50 dollar parking ticket. Even now, according to Lucas, some climbers remain in the park. “If you’re low-key about it, and you don’t have a car, I think you can still go climbing,” he says.

“It’s disappointing to have to tell people they can’t use their public lands,” says Brandon Latham, a ranger in Denali National Park and a seasoned climber himself. Latham had planned to spend October teaching high-angle rescue courses in Yosemite and doing a bit of climbing for himself. “The ripple effect from this will go a long ways,” he says.

For now, Caldwell remains optimistic, though his public stature and the high-profile nature of his Dawn Wall project precludes any covert action. “The Park Service is in a tough spot, and they’ve been super supportive of our climb so far, so we won’t be sneaking up there,” he says.

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