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Ken Yager’s multi-decade effort to establish a permanent climbing museum in Yosemite

By John Middendorf

The Yosemite Climbing Exhibit, 27 years in the making, is at last being allocated a long term location in the visitor center at Yosemite National Park. It has been a long process. In 1992, Mike Corbett and Ken Yager, both long time veterans of Yosemite, began preserving some of the past, realizing the rich history of Yosemite climbing was gradually becoming forgotten. The early tools and artifacts of vertical ascent were being lost as Yosemite climbing pioneers drifted further and further from the Valley.  

Corbett was “Mr. El Cap” back in the day, holding the record for routes climbed (over 30) by a wide margin. Corbett has always been an out-of-the-box thinker, and his many new routes in Yosemite are pioneering and imaginative. In 1985 we attempted the first one-day ascent of the Shield, only to be stopped by failing headlamps at Chickenhead Ledge, 300 feet from the top. During the long ensuing night, clad only in t-shirts, I shivered and suffered sleeplessly, while Corbett  snored through the night, unfazed by the cold and wind. 

Corbett’s toughness and determination were also exposed during our epic on the South Face of Half Dome, where we got caught halfway up in one of Yosemite’s worst spring storms. He required hospitalization during his hypothermic recovery, but was climbing walls again within a month (I on the other hand, gave it up for many years!). 

In 1989 and 1991, Corbett climbed El Cap and Half Dome with Mark Wellman — a paraplegic climber. Some of these ascents were televised, a rare event in the pre-MTV days of film. This media coverage provided Corbett with valuable  connections. Combined with the same creative vision and persistence applied to big wall climbing, the concept for a Yosemite climbing museum became firmly established. NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Disney’s Frank Wells became public supporters, and Corbett and Yager were given national publicity in a New York Times article in 1993 about their growing collection of climbing history.

Yager belays on El Capitan’s Muir Wall (Craig Perkins).

The rescue team

But at the time the park service was not amenable to a climbing museum in the Valley. In the 1990s many in the park service still considered climbers to be undesirables. “Climbers were still kind of hated back then, and the park just wasn’t ready for it,” Yager recently reminisced. For example, in 1984 Charles Cole and I were involved in a clash with Curry Company security guards: quietly playing chess in the Mountain Room, a public area at the Lodge, we were told to leave because we weren’t paying guests. Climbers generally laid low around authority in those days, fearful of getting evicted from the park, but we surprised the guards by peacefully refusing, and rangers soon arrived. The rangers were sympathetic as we had recently worked an all-day technical rescue together, but we still got kicked out. A few weeks later, I met with Ed Hardy, the head of Curry Company, with a few other rescue team members, and we negotiated a “Privilege Card”, a photo ID which saved 10% off purchases Valley-wide and granted access to Lodge showers. This official acceptance of the rescue team was a long time coming, but unpleasant harassment by a few gung-ho rangers toward the rest of Yosemite’s climbing population continued. This reached a peak during the “Chongo era” in the late 1990s, where ever more risky cat and mouse games with the rangers became the norm. I once had a ranger’s gun pointed at my head after trying to break up a fight between two climbers arguing about bolting in the parking lot.

Tom Frost, Ken Yager, and Royal Robbins in front of the Ansel Adams Gallery in 2011 (Becca Skinner).

Saving Camp 4

In January 1997, the Merced River flooded. Pressure from the commercial concession, which had lost some prime real estate near the river, led to a rushed plan to replace Camp 4 with luxury four-plex condo accommodations, clearly highlighting the insignificance of climbers in the park’s eye at the time. The Access Fund, perhaps seeing resistance as futile, had effectively signed off on the plan in return for access to Columbia Boulder, home to the world-famous boulder problem Midnight Lightning. But a small group of us ramped up efforts to prevent any such development in Camp 4 (Tom Frost later called me the “Chief Architect” of the fight to save Camp 4). In addition to suing the park service to do a proper Environmental Impact Statement on the plan, we also nominated Camp 4 for the National Register of Historic Places. The collection of gear that Corbett and Yager had been accumulating provided key evidence for the process of proving the significance of Yosemite climbing history, and Camp 4 was placed on the register a few years later. A small group of us, including Tom Frost, Jim McCarthy, and Yvon Chouinard, met with the heads of NPS in San Francisco to discuss the lawsuit. After the meeting, John Reynolds, the head of the Pacific West National Park Service (NPS) region, pulled Frost and me aside and privately thanked us for our legal action, as he unofficially supported our claim for traditional use over commercial development. He told us, “climbing is important, after all.” Another step toward climber acceptance accomplished.

Corbett left the valley about that time, leaving Yager the reins, which continued the museum dream and kicked the idea into a higher, continuously grinding gear. After the meeting in San Francisco, Yager realized that the external support for a climbing museum was all there, but  the final obstacle was to firmly establish climbing as a valid and historic activity in the eyes of internal Valley authority figures. Given the history of conflict between rangers and climbers, Yager knew this was a tall order. He also had an ace up his sleeve: the patience of a big wall climber and a burning desire to preserve and show Yosemite’s priceless climbing artifacts.

Yager working on a stunt for a movie in the late 1980s. Dave Schultz was paid to take a 120-foot fall off the top of El Capitan and Yager was a safety advisor (Dave Schultz or John Harpole).

A short history of Ken Yager

Yager was once the epitome of the “Valley Dirtbag.” He arrived in 1976 with a few hundred dollars in his pocket and quickly learned the means to remain in the Valley in order to pursue his passion for climbing. He lived in caves under boulders and constantly evaded the rangers, some of whom considered it a personal mission to evict as many as possible “non-traditional users of the park” by citing them for the most trivial misdemeanors, resulting in unaffordable fines for a cash-poor climber. Although the rescue team was an option, where full-time Valley residence was thinly accepted and earnings from rescues could provide enough pasta and oatmeal to survive (if combined with “scarfing” abandoned scraps left on tourists plates in the cafeteria). But Yager felt the rescue team’s requirements of frequent training and being on call 24/7 would cramp his style, and needed to find alternative means of making enough money to reside in the Valley. During the cold winter of 1977, after an airplane crashed with three tons of marijuana in the High Sierra, Yager sensed opportunity. The crash was known to the FAA, DEA, NTSB and other federal agencies, and the NPS did what they could to secure the site, but a severe Sierra storm curtailed their efforts, and word got out among the climbers that the coast was clear. A gold rush soon followed. Yager became part of a team that included the leading Australian climber of the day, and headed up to extract a bale of high quality cannabis from the frozen lake. But exchanging the bale for money became a living nightmare. These were not professional drug dealers after all, they were just climbers looking to fund their Yosemite climbing habit. They borrowed fellow climber John (“Yabo”) Yablonski’s old VW Bug and traveled cross country searching for a buyer for the jetfuel-soaked weed, which involved several close encounters with the law and suspicious motel managers in cheap roadside dives. After securing a room, they attempted to dry out the stinky weed with heat lamps before it got too moldy. The adventure of exchanging pot for cash got too intense for Yager and he bailed somewhere in the middle of California, abandoning his treasure, with only bus fare to get him back to Yosemite. He was used to risking life and limb on the big walls of Yosemite, but risking ten years in jail was not his cup of tea. The dirtbag lifestyle was wearing thin. He took up a seasonal approach, gaining a respectable presence by working part-time for the Valley utility company, Westcon, and for winters joining the night crew at Mammoth Ski area.

During those years, Yager maintained a full climbing schedule: Yosemite big walls and free climbs in the spring and fall, and prolific new routes in the cooler Eastside and Mammoth areas during the hot California summers. Yager’s solid approach to climbing, now called the “traditionalist” style, has been consistent even to this day. “Ground up routes have a personality, and are just that much more memorable when you run it out and stance it on lead,” said Yager during a recent phone interview. Even at the height of the divisive controversies during the dawn of Yosemite sport climbing in the late ‘80s, definitely the most contentious and uncomfortable era during my own time in Yosemite, Yager somehow remained neutral and continued to be close friends with all, soothing flare-ups in the community, and setting the best example by simply and steadfastly continuing his own style of climbing by establishing quality new routes enjoyed by all. His desire to contribute in a meaningful way has never faltered, and over the years he has continuously earned community respect with his consistently positive and inclusive attitude.

Yager at the 2018 Facelift (Kern Ducote).

The Facelift

Though the NPS’s allocation of any space for a permanent climbing exhibit continued to stall during those years, the collection expanded. Yager cold-called the families of past heroes of climbing such as Raffi Bedayn, Dick Leonard, and David Brower to solicit items. Active climbers from the ‘60s such as Glen Denny and Jerry Gallwas also contributed and reached out to old friends. And anyone with significant climbing memorabilia trusted Yager with their treasures, knowing that he was focused on the long game of creating an exceptional exhibit.  

Yosemite Facelift about ten years ago (Ken Yager).

But Yager’s desire to contribute expanded into a new idea in 2004: instead of fuming about the increasing trash and raw feces around the Valley like many other visitors, he spontaneously organized a massive cleanup, recruiting hundreds of climbers and dubbing the event the Yosemite “Facelift.” Facelift has since become a model of cooperative user group action in shared public lands, and is being expanded to other parks. Facelift has also created new breakthroughs in climber relations. One participant stated, “Facelift is a gift to climbers. What I discovered at last year’s Facelift is that picking up trash in the Valley makes me happy. Part of Ken’s legacy is making other people happy.”

Happy climbers make for good citizens. Tommy Caldwell once introduced Yager to some visiting European climbers as “the guy who started Facelift,” but received a muted response as they had not yet heard of Facelift, so Tommy clarified as “the guy who made rangers like climbers”, which was much better understood and appreciated. Yager’s work in Yosemite has earned him the coveted AAC David Brower Award for conservation and preservation of mountain regions, and he has also been inducted into the Hall of Mountaineering Excellence for his significant contributions to climbing history. 

A hook presumed to be forged by John Salathe that was found by Glen Denny at the base of the Lost Arrow Chimney (Ken Yager). 

Priceless artifacts

In the past decade, climbing has transformed in the public eye from a wild card extreme sport to a legitimate athletic pursuit, with the top climbers receiving national accolades and features in Oscar winning films. Meanwhile, from the inside, Yager has been developing his skills as presenter-in-chief, as curator and exhibit designer. Though there had been a few public showings of the collection in the early years, in 2008 Yager ramped it up with a major exhibit called “Granite Frontiers” at the Yosemite Museum, which had averaged over 500 people a day, and over 70,000 visitors in total, studying and browsing the collection. And since then he has organized shows in many other venues to wide acclaim. Yager has a knack for presentation, using a variety of multi-media and hands-on exhibits, including hand and finger cracks for visitors to crank their fingers in, portaledges to experience the restful times, and a Camp 4 picnic table where all good big wall plans begin, complete with “topos” (maps of climbs), and buckets of weird looking gear and me-chanical devices.

John Salathe’s drill and handle (Ken Yager).

The permanent Yosemite Climbing Exhibit is scheduled to open at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center by Memorial Day 2020, and will certainly stand as the most significant proxy for the acceptance of Yosemite climbing as a valid part of American history. This was thanks to Yager’s persistence, combined with the creation of strong partnerships with the Yosemite Conservancy, the American Alpine Club, and of course the National Park Service. I look forward to at last seeing hand forged big wall tools from the 1940s like John Salathe’s hook, lost during the 1946 first ascent of the Lost Arrow chimney near Yosemite Falls. I also look forward to seeing some of Doug Robinson’s “stoppers,” the first experimental clean climbing gear designed to eliminate the damage caused by pitons. This gear was featured in a 1974 National Geographic article celebrating the first clean ascent of a major big wall in Yosemite. 

A clean climbing catalogue with articles describing the art of piton-less climbing (Steve Wunsch).

For Yosemite climbers, the significance of presenting these priceless artifacts in one permanent exhibit within Yosemite Valley cannot be overstated. Like the sword of Aragorn in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, these tools reveal a mythic history that the general pubic is just starting to understand. Thank you Ken Yager for playing the long game.

Yager talking to Warren Harding at a party for the late Yosemite legend in 1993 (Errett Allen).
The Granite Frontiers exhibit at the Autry Museum of the American West in 2008 (Ken Yager).

Grant Hiskes once found an old block of wood at the base of El Capitan’s Excalibur route decades after the first ascent. To anyone else, it would only appear to be a decent firewood find; to Grant, who thrived on climbing stories around a campfire, the block of wood held magic and inspiration and recalled Steve Sutton and Hugh Burton’s inventive solution to overcome the impossible wide cracks on a mythical new route on El Capitan’s southwest face. These fierce “off-widths” had repelled many other suitors of that spectacular line in those pre-cam days, and the wood blocks (probably offcuts from one of Hugh’s carpentry jobs) were at the time a wild idea that succeeded. Then again, just maybe, those guys knew about the coins de bois used on much earlier first ascents in the Alps. Is there a historian in the house?