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Ken Yager’s annual cleanup event comes of age in 2012
By Haven Livingston, Photos courtesy of Yosemite Climbing Association

Ken Yager on El Cap's Muir Wall. Photo: Craig Perkins/

For twelve years, Ken Yager worked as a climbing guide among the grand cathedrals of Yosemite National Park. He shared with his clients the joys and beauty of climbing in this world famous playground of rock, but as years went by, he saw this beauty increasingly marred by the carelessness of visitors and fellow climbers. From granola bar wrappers and climber’s tape to the inevitable human waste piles, trash was taking over one of the most spectacular natural wonders of our nation.

On his way to climb Highway Star with a client in 2004, Yager’s tolerance for trash reached maximum capacity. “The place was full of toilet paper and poop, and here I am trying to show my client how wonderful the park is. It made me so mad,” he said. This gross encounter motivated Yager to create an event that has been beautifying Yosemite Valley ever since. Within three weeks, he staged a multi-day cleanup. He recruited climbers from Camp 4, help from the Park Service volunteer office, and organized evening entertainment with donated raffle prizes. The event, dubbed the Facelift, was a runaway success with 300 volunteers helping out and at least twenty truckloads of trash removed from the Park.

Fast forward to 2012 and the ninth annual Yosemite Facelift is projected to host at least 1000 volunteers over five days of cleanup throughout Yosemite. Evening events are still a big part of this year’s program with live music, raffles, a screening of the Reel Rock Film Tour, and presentations by Alex Honnold and Conrad Anker.

Yager admits that extending the Facelift clean up to five days is pretty exhausting to organize, but the benefits are well worth it. The schedule allows more locals and park employees to get involved, and it has also become part of the curriculum for local school kids. “It creates incredible momentum,” Yager said. “People see the trash being added to a giant pile each day. Seeing the cumulative effort motivates them to work harder.” The giant pile also intrigues tourists who know nothing about the Facelift and this helps create future volunteers.

The efforts are paying off: in the early years of the Facelift, over 30,000 lbs of trash were removed from heavy use areas in the Park; now only about 4,500 lbs are collected each year. This doesn’t mean there is less work to do. Volunteers can sign up for special projects like stabilizing climber access trails or working to remove industrial sized trash problems like old Half Dome cables. Yager has observed that once an area is clean it tends to stay clean longer, and areas with some trash seem to accumulate additional litter.

Facelift volunteers with collected trash.

Thousands of pounds of trash are collected annually.

A load of trash collected by Facelift volunteers.

Yosemite Facelift attracts all kinds of volunteers.

Though inspired by climbers, all types of people participate and benefit from the work. Yosemite Facelift’s main clean up areas are focused on road pullouts and heavily visited areas. People who wouldn’t normally mix get to know each other by working or camping side by side and some even form long lasting friendships. Yager noted one family who came from Switzerland for three years in a row to be a part of the event and says he’s watched other friendships form between people who only see each other once a year at the Facelift.

In 2006, the Yosemite National Park Superintendent awarded Yager the Yosemite Award – an award given when someone has exemplified dedicated stewardship to the Park. During that year, 25,000 lbs of trash and recyclables were collected, seventy- seven miles of roadway were cleaned, and the NPS valued the work completed by volunteers at $166,978.

Yosemite, of course, is the biggest beneficiary of the Facelift and the National Park Service does not overlook the importance of the cleanup. The Park Service began partnering with the Facelift in 2011, and the event has been a National Public Lands Day event since 2005.

Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of the Facelift for Yager is that relations between the Park Service and the climbing community are improving. Climbers represent a significant percentage of Facelift volunteers, and their actions demonstrate that they care about the whole park, not just climbing areas.

Crag Conscious
To learn more about the Yosemite Facelift visit the Yosemite Climbing Association at or at Yosemite Facelift on Facebook.

It’s not hard to convince people to visit Yosemite, even if it is to pick up trash, but other areas need your help too! If you want to clean up your favorite crag, contact the local climbing organization to find out what you can do. If there isn’t one, contact the Access Fund for information about their Adopt a Crag stewardship program and for help developing strategies for land management.