Taking the Yosemite Climbing Association to the next level
By Tracy Barbutes
In 2005, at the age of 19 and studying Italian in Padua, Italy, Allyson Gunsallus took a three-day excursion that was the genesis of her love affair with mountains. Every day on her way to classes she passed a bookstore and would gaze into the shop window that featured books about the Dolomites. Her curiosity piqued, she planned her first foray into the high mountains and jagged peaks.
Gunsallus (Yosemite Climbing Association’s Managing Director) was raised in Connecticut, where the state’s highest point is on the slope of Mount Frissell, at 2,379 feet. Though her parents were not adventure sports enthusiasts, they promoted outdoor experiences to her and her younger brother, through car camping trips and Scouting activities. Somewhere around 8,500 feet in the Dolomites, cold and uncomfortable, having naively worn cotton clothing and a soccer jacket that offered little protection, Gunsallus fell in love with her mystical surroundings. Standing on a scenic plateau in a storm, she recalled that from then on, “I knew I had to be in the mountains.”
Fast forward two years to 2007 and her first climbing trip to Tuolumne Meadows. There she discovered her spiritual touchstone and a devotion to Yosemite’s granite walls. Gunsallus believes everyone should have a place they are devoted to, that encourages deeper meaning and to be their best selves. In the years since, she’s fallen in and out of love, embraced the climbing community, and simply can’t imagine her life without Yosemite, aka “the center of the universe.”
For Gunsallus, climbing has been a bridge to a phase of feeling comfortable in her own skin, to saying what she means and meaning what she says. She has a vision that the Yosemite Facelift can use its platform to further additional conversations about corporate social responsibility.
In person, she’s an unnerving combination of beauty, brilliance and humility. She exudes poise, commitment and composure. This articulate, lithe, muscular 34-year-old with thick, dark flowing hair, graduated summa cum laude from Boston University with a linguistics degree. She has a master’s degree in Global Business Law, studied corporate responsibility, and is a California-licensed attorney with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from Duke University. She speaks five languages, taught English in Moscow, and was a legal intern with the Sierra Club in San Francisco.
“It’s not that I’m the best at any of these things. It’s that I can use all of my skills and background to help the climbing community,” she said in a recent conversation. She volunteers with Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA) nearly full time, as she balances a career in the pharmaceutical industry and her climbing expeditions throughout the Sierra Nevada and the western United States. “I’m lucky to have found her,” said Ken Yager, the founder of the YCA, the Yosemite Facelift and YCA’s Climbing Museum and Gallery in Mariposa. Since 2003, Facelift has annually run the largest organized volunteer clean-up in any national park.
Technically, Gunsallus found Yager. She hired him in 2012 to lead a Green Dragon tram tour of Yosemite Valley for her wedding guests. (Yes, she got married in Yosemite. She’s since divorced.) She claims that while Yager was sharing climbing history lore, he announced to her family and friends, “Gunsallus seems to be the most organized bride anyone’s ever seen.” It was a hint of what was to come.
“She’s a great partner and I couldn’t ask for anyone better,” he said recently. Yager has been climbing in Yosemite since the early 1970s and has been living in the Yosemite area since 1976.
Gunsallus began volunteering with Facelift in 2012 and quickly became a core volunteer. She took over the enormous task of organizing campground reservations for approximately 500 people, began raising funds and securing sponsorships, and quickly stepped into her current role.
Yager continued, “I realized very early on she is better at a lot of things than me. We complement each other very well. She is a very skilled, able person. She brings her own creativity and knowledge to the vision. I held off before having her do too much at first.” He laughed, “I didn’t want to scare her away. We’re kindred spirits in that she also enjoys the controlled chaos of Facelift. A lot of what she’s doing is making me look good, and a lot of times I get all the credit because I’ve done it for so long. YCA wouldn’t be what it is today without her input.” Ultimately, Yager wants her to “run with it.”
Where Yager has had a presence in Yosemite for decades, and had long envisioned creating a climbing museum, Gunsallus is relatively new to the climbing community. She doesn’t have his knowledge of local climbing history, but she understands his vision and passion and wants to see the dreams become a sustained reality
She said, “I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who could have done the work. I think the experience demonstrates how intergenerational partnerships can use different skill sets to develop community assets and relationships.” The 27-year age gap works for them.
Since 2016, when she became YCA’s Managing Director, she’s had a hand in removing nearly 50,000 pounds of trash from Yosemite during the annual Facelift event. But she sees YCA/Facelift as much more than trash removal.
She has a vision that Facelift can use its platform to further additional conversations about corporate social responsibility. She began incorporating panels like the one she moderated in 2019 featuring Tommy Caldwell. One of her goals is to develop thinking in the climbing and outdoor communities to attack environmental issues proactively.
“Look at what we can achieve when we’re inspired and dedicated to working together toward common goals. The idea is to encourage others who might have the same drive to identify similar opportunities.”
She didn’t arrive at Yosemite Valley until the spring of 2008 when, as she said, “I really wanted to develop my climbing apart from my boyfriend, so I climbed mostly with a female friend.”
Linda Jarit, Gunsallus’s climbing partner and friend since then, said, “I saw the light go on in Gunsallus, she had a very different skill set. She has incredible intelligence, and with her life and work experience, she saw an opportunity and then completely dedicated herself to it. Where a lot of people talk about wanting to get involved and make things happen, Gunsallus really gets involved – 100% involved. She takes action and makes things happen.”
Gunsallus reviews contract proposals for clinical trials through her work in the pharmaceutical industry. Having seen hundreds of proposals and budgets, she is able to use her corporate and legal experiences to shift YCA from a small, grassroots organization to a leading conservation organization with a national profile, bringing in and nurturing major sponsorships. She and Yager both see the value of being a productive partner with those who manage the park. They frequently partner with Yosemite Conservancy, American Alpine Club, as well as park representatives. Jarit continued, “I’ve been through a lot with Gunsallus. There’s a richness and a lot of depth to her. I literally watched her grow up, and I just learned she can play piano.” Gunsallus said recently, “Ultimately, if someone could be inspired to use all of their experiences to promote positive change in an organization or society – that’s really my goal. Being able to take all of my experiences – climbing, law, pharma – to help the community I love.”
“I hope that for everyone, they find a place to be devoted to and that they find a passion they can use as a way to become a whole person. I hope that everyone can see the beauty in spaces around them and in the place where they are right now because you never know what passion you’ll find, this year or next year, or how it will enrich your life and the places that you love.”
Allyson Gunsallus’s website is inspired by wild places and the community that has gathered around climbing, advocacy, and passion for the mountains. It documents her many pre-COVID, global and local adventures, as well as showcasing her art. allysongunsallus.com. Tracy Barbutes is a visual journalist and writer based near Yosemite National Park.