When you think about rock climbing in Yosemite National Park, a climber clinging to a barren rock face – surrounded by a pristine natural backdrop, not another soul in sight – is a vision that often springs to mind. But it’s a wildly misleading one, as it turns out.  

A man attempts a dihedral pitch on El Cap in Yosemite National Park, California.
It may look wholesome, but there's a surprising amount of garbage hidden on El Capitan . Image © Corey Rich/Getty Images

Climbers from around the world have been unable to resist the siren song of El Capitan, the park’s crown jewel since the first team made the ascent in 1958. But rangers have noticed a considerable spike in public interest of late, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle – and though all those people aren’t coming into the park empty-handed, they do seem to be leaving that way. 

In order to get through a climb that can easily take a week or more, they’re carrying equipment, much of it heavy, as well as enough water and provisions to last the duration, and they’re leaving their garbage behind on the mountain when they’re through. “You get to this beautiful ledge and you’re sitting there looking out at the valley, then you notice it stinks and you look down and see all this trash,” Jim Herson, a 30-year veteran of El Capitan, told the Chronicle. “It really bums you out.”

Yosemite National Park at sunset
More than four million people passed through Yosemite in 2018. Image © Andy Kennelly/Getty Images

With more than four million people visiting Yosemite in 2018, some 51,000 of them as overnight hikers, it’s not surprising there’s some detritus left in their wake. What is surprising is how much of it there is, and where it’s being found. The park’s climbing rangers are constantly patrolling with an eye toward trash pickup, and over the years, they’ve grabbed everything from old ropes, shoes, and plastic water bottles to cigarette butts, used toilet paper, and even a months-old used poop tube. 

One man climbs El Cap while his climbing partner belays from a portaledge in Yosemite National Park, California.
During last year's Yosemite Facelift, 3,334 volunteers picked up 14,126 pounds of trash. Image © Corey Rich/Getty Images

“Last year, atop El Capitan, rangers uncovered one cache of gear that contained water bottles that had green algae growing in them and ropes shredded by nesting rodents. They cleaned most of it out earlier this year,” Gregory Thomas writes for the Chronicle. “On a trash-collection trip in July, they stumbled on loads of new deposits from climbers. [Climbing ranger Jesse] McGahey estimates they recovered 8000 feet of old climbing rope on that trip alone.”

And it continues to accumulate as quickly as they can pick it up. While cleanup efforts take place year-round, the big one is held at the end of September, a six-day event called the Yosemite Facelift. Each year, it draws a reported 2,000 volunteers – who wind up collecting some 15,000 pounds of trash. “Sadly, it’s not like, surprise, surprise,” McGahey said. “It’s more like, let’s go check the regular spots…. I call it extreme janitorial services.”

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