Why Is There So Much Trash on Top of El Capitan?

El Capitan at Night
Courtesy of Michael DeNicola

It’s late September in Yosemite Valley when the Climber Stewards and several volunteers made their way to the top of El Capitan. “El Cap” as it’s known to climbers, is a 3,000-foot wall of granite and a defining feature in Yosemite Valley. El Cap is one of the most popular climbing destinations in the world and was most recently free-soloed by Alex Honnold.

Every year thousands of rock climbers make their way to the valley to participate in the Yosemite Facelift trash clean up event. This event was founded on the principles of stewardship, and conservancy by Ken Yager. Ken, a long-time rock climber, was tired of seeing Yosemite trashed by those who claimed to love the park. Rock climbers have come a long way in recent years, and most climbers today have strong beliefs about leaving no trace and packing out trash.

Walking on top of El Cap

The Climber Stewards and Climbing Rangers are a branch of Yosemite National Park who help manage trails, go on climbing patrols, and educate park visitors about climbing. During Yosemite Facelift 2018, this group of volunteers decided to hike to the top of El Cap to assist in the trash pick-up where very few other volunteers would have felt comfortable searching for trash.

What they found was a heartbreaking amount of trash.

Climbing Rangers survey the trash on El Cap

Brandon Adams, one of the Climbing Rangers, described it this way: “We started pulling some of it out and it just kept coming and coming. I’d seen other caches, and I knew there was a lot [of trash] up there, I just didn’t know how much.”

Adams, an accomplished big-wall climber himself, had seen piles of trash on top of El Cap before but hadn’t known how much they would find. The crew had intended to find things like energy bar wrappers, a few old ropes, empty water bottles, and dirty toilet paper, all things that are commonly leftover from climbing excursions. What they found instead was overwhelming.

Finding stashed ropes

“We took about 12 haul bags worth of trash out of the Salathe Cave last fall, and this summer we took out another six. We almost got all of it. This fall we’re going back up to get everything during Yosemite Facelift,” Adams tells ASN. “I didn’t know how far back the cave went because it had always had trash in it. It turns out it goes back quite a ways.”

Alec Tilley, a Climber Steward from that season, said, “I found an absurd amount of water bottles, thousands of feet of rope, old gear. It was a mess.”

A Cave full of water bottles

Volunteers found water bottles, old ropes, carabiners, cams, slings, bolt kits, pots and pans, shoes, fanny packs, backpacks, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, lighters, ultralight stoves, belay devices … the list goes on.

Adams was obviously frustrated with the situation. “This was particularly sad to me because it was very obvious that it was climbers that had left this trash behind,” he says. “I know that we can do better.”

Old Ropes and a pot left on El Cap

It’s common practice (and sometimes a lifesaving courtesy) for rock climbers to leave the water they don’t finish behind for fellow climbers to drink. However, if no one comes up after to drink the water and pack out the bottles, the plastic bottles pile up. If the water is left for too long, mice will get into it or the water will spoil. On that day, volunteers found water bottles dated back to October of 2016.

Water bottle with the date 'October 26th, 2016' written on it
Old gatorade gone bad

The problem isn’t that climbers are malicious or lazy. But there are a lot of misunderstandings about climbing ethics in a national park that sees more than 4 million visitors each year. Free climbing big walls is becoming more popular than ever – (Not to be confused with “free soloing” which has only been achieved once on El Cap so far.

“Free climbing is coming to El Cap,” Adams says. “Very high-level climbers will stash things at the top of El Cap while they’re projecting, and those stashes sometimes go un-retrieved. New climbers see the pile and just think it’s abandoned. It gives people the idea that they can leave their stuff up there. After enough years go by you find giant piles of trash.”

Ropes left on El Cap

It can’t all be explained by misunderstandings, however. The number of sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and climbing gear, shows us that groups of climbers made it to the top and never bothered bringing anything back to the ground. It should also be mentioned that most climbers who make it to the top of El Cap, typically already have over 70 pounds of gear with them. Even if considerate climbers would like to pack out trash from previous groups, it would be dangerous and nearly impossible for the exhausted, overburdened climbers to take a significant amount of trash back down to the ground.

Sleeping pads left on El Cap

“There’s a fine mix of people going up there,” Tilley tells ASN. “There are people active in the valley who are going up there to work big projects and are kind enough to bring all their stuff down. But a lot of the gear that’s left up there is from shorter-term visitors who don’t realize what they’re doing has a lasting impact.”

“Last year we were cleaning up from many years previous. But this year was a bit better,” says Adams. “If there’s not already a pile people are much more likely to take stuff home.”

A bolt and a hanger left behind on El Cap

The climbing community has a responsibility to pack out their trash because unlike other sports, the only people who will be able to clean it up will be other climbers.

There are plenty of resources for rock climbers who would like to be more proactive about leaving the rock better than they found it. Leave No Trace, an organization focused on the protection and preservation of our natural spaces has a list of 7 Principles to guide you through a ‘no impact’ climbing expedition.

There are also events like Yosemite Facelift, where you can get involved in cleaning up climbing areas, as well as volunteer organizations like The Climber Stewards that help climbers in stewardship practices for rock climbing areas like Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park.

“There’s already a movement toward better stewardship, we are becoming better at caring for places that we love,” says Adams. “But there are always areas we can do better, you should always try to leave as little sign of your passage as possible.”

Old Cams and carabiners on a sling

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