Remembering co-founder Mike Corbett and spreading its wings to go nationwide
“We’re getting big, that’s for sure,” says Director Timmy O’Neill about what is happening now with the Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA) locally and nationwide.
June 25, Mariposa, California It’s just past 1 pm, and it’s sweltering here in downtown Mariposa where I’m attending Mike Corbett’s celebration of life at the Yosemite Climbing Association Museum. We’re here to remember “Mr. El Cap,” a sports legend who scaled the monolith’s face 56 times. The man who brought Mark Wellman to both the summits of El Cap and Half Dome, making him the first paraplegic to do so. It’s an event that culminated in an invitation to the White House. In Mariposa, the audience is a who’s who of climbing, including free soloist Peter Croft, and big wall first ascensionist (and Corbett’s best friend) Steve Bosque.
Shortly into the memorial, someone faints from the heat and an ambulance is called. Once the patient recovers, the program restarts. The audience talks amongst one another; some haven’t seen each other for ages. It’s a reunion, though we’d all prefer to be meeting under different circumstances. Corbett was a dear friend to us for many years.
I’m here as part of the Curry kids’ scene, the tight group of late teens/early twenty-somethings who met in Curry Village in Yosemite Valley in the mid-90s. That’s when we met Mike Corbett and Ken Yager, co-founders of YCA. Back then, I often visited their museum displays. When YCA began holding park clean-up events called Facelift, I covered it in its third year for my first print story in Climbing Magazine. That was seventeen years ago. (Over the years, the annual event has resulted in the removal of over one million pounds of trash from the Park.)
Corbett and Yager started YCA together, with the climbing museum and trash cleanup events as the primary focus. Then, over the years differences pushed them apart. More recently they healed this rift and began working together again. Speaking to the audience in Mariposa, Yager talked about how happy he was that Corbett, his big wall partner since his earliest years in the Park, reconnected for the last year of his life when the two of them worked side by side at the museum. Yager talked about them making the fourth ascents of Zodiac and Tangerine Trip, then considered some of the most challenging and dangerous walls on El Cap. The decades passed, and Corbett settled in nearby Ahwahnee with his wife. Yager eventually settled in Mariposa and opened the climbing museums in his hometown and Yosemite Valley.
“I’m like a dog biting onto a pant leg,” Yager said to a packed audience at Corbett’s memorial, describing his relationship with the climbing museum and Facelift.
For two decades, Yager relied on volunteer help, but now, as he’s nearing the 20th year, he’s making massive improvements, including hiring staff, raising money, and going national.
As I saw firsthand with the memorial and the after-party held at the nearby Yosemite Boulder Farm, everything was very well organized. There a row of caterers served barbecue tri-tip and chicken near the dance floor as a band played. I walked up to Yager and said I was impressed. He replied, “This is what I do. I put on another event last week.”
Over the decades, Yager built the annual Facelift into the largest Yosemite gathering of the year, volunteering hundreds of hours to do something that gives back to the Park while making it fun. The film Free Solo premiered during one Facelift to a packed audience that went wild. After successful shows year after year in Yosemite, Yager is now taking it nationwide with Facelift Act Local.
Starting during Covid, when it was impossible to host an event in the Park, Yager and his board of directors began doing virtual clean-ups, where people could get involved via social media by tagging #faceliftactlocal with their images. That first year during Covid, 1,200 people were involved.
With the success of Act Local, Yager is now expanding, hoping to make clean-ups in various locations as consistent as his efforts in Yosemite. Though Yager is the president of YCA, he also takes input from general counsel Kristine Mostofizadeh and board members Beth Rodden and Emily Harrington. Mostofizadeh brings 20 years of legal experience to the non-profit. Rodden, one of the world’s top rock climbers, who has climbed in the Park since the 90s, has freed the Nose. She resides in Yosemite West. Harrington is one of the most diverse rock climbers on the planet. She’s a five-time US National Champion, a 5.14 rock climber, Everest summiteer, and accomplished skier who descended the world’s sixth-highest peak. She’s also the fourth woman to free El Cap in a day.
Other YCA staff members include Events and Partnerships Manager Karin Tarpinian, Event Coordinator Linda Jarit, Museum Manager Hannah Fleetwood, and Directors Tommy Caldwell, Timmy O’Neill, Sandy Russell, Don Mealing, and Jack Wurster. Plus volunteers Les Chou and Hugh Sakols greet guests.
Some weeks ago, I attended my first board meeting with YCA outside their headquarters in Mariposa. I arrived by e-bike and pulled up to the picnic tables outside the museum, where the crew discussed doing five main events a year and hosting virtual events around Facelift. They said that getting this moving and all the other balls already in motion would be challenging, especially with their next Yosemite Facelift coming up in five months.
“This is where we aim to launch it nationally at the state or national parks,” O’Neill says. “We can identify groups already doing it and help them help us. We brand it as Facelift, and then we work with underwriters.”
One day the team would like to see monthly Facelift events. Their first locations will include Rocky Mountain National Park, Mammoth Lakes, Salt Lake City, and Joshua Tree. Then Lake Tahoe, the New River Gorge and Red River Gorge, and the Shawangunks. Here volunteers will be “using trash pick-up to build community and make a habit with it,” continues O’Neill. There’ll be raffles and other incentives for participation.
“This is the beginning of the Yosemite Facelift going nationwide to Act Local Facelift,” says Tarpinian.
In addition to bringing Facelift nationwide, Yager plans to make the museum the center of the climbing scene in Mariposa. For months he’s overseen the construction of a concrete art scene by Chris Miller and Wes Segler. They created art in the backyard by installing meticulously painted concrete with black specks that blend into orange streaks that look like natural granite to the untrained eye. It resembles Yosemite’s grand walls and shows Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, complete with an actual waterfall. Yager envisions climbers showing up here on their way to the Park to peruse books from the extensive library, fill water jugs from a spout, and look through the museum where they can see one of only a few Stoveleg Pitons, forged from a junkyard stove and used on the first ascent of El Cap in the 1950s.
“YCA is here to stay. We’re building for the future,” Yager says. “Climbing and access to the Park will get more challenging as time passes, so we need to build a strong organization involved in the park policy. I’ve always been about partnering with as many different groups as possible. You’re much stronger that way.”
The next addition to the YCA museum in Mariposa is an adaptive climbing exhibit. “We’re getting busier and busier each week,” says Yager, “it’s crazy. Some days, it feels like people are in there all day long, and you’re always answering questions. We used to have days when it was slow; those days are rare now.”
YCA is funded entirely by tax-deductible donations. Donations can be sent to the Yosemite Climbing Association P.O. Box 2006, Mariposa, CA 95338. Or visit yosemiteclimbing.org to learn more or to donate online.
Main image: Ken Yager and friends gather at the Yosemite Boulder Farm near Mariposa to celebrate the life of Mike “Mr. El Cap” Corbett (Elizabeth Tucker)