For 45 years, Ken Yager has scaled the walls of Yosemite National Park, where—to succeed—he’s learned to travel lightly as he ascends their faces, which can take upwards of a week or more. With practice, he’s discovered how much water he’s needed to drink each day, how much food to eat, and how to dispose of human waste safely and correctly. He became a minimalist out of necessity; if he carried too much, he’d never make it off the ground.
Yager learned to apply that same type of mindful, minimal resourcefulness to building the nonprofit Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA) in 2003, which he compares to climbing walls. “You have to make due with the tools you have,” Yager says of founding YCA, which has museums in both Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa, Calif., to help preserve the park’s rich climbing history, “whether it’s time, money or energy.” With the latter, Yager started the Yosemite Facelift to help the park maintain a future for Yosemite climbing. At first, 360 people showed up; now the annual event is the park’s biggest get-together of the year, where everyone picks up trash and attends community events.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Facelift, which Yager spearheaded after getting fed up with coming across visitors’ used toilet paper stashed in the woods. Back then, he worked as a guide for the Yosemite Mountaineering School and was embarrassed by the human race’s total disregard for the environment. People were leaving human excrement at the base of walls he was guiding, and micro-trash accumulated, such as candy bar wrappers, cigarette butts, and plastic bottles.
For the first years, Yager recruited his friends in the climbing community, and with them, he filled the back of his maroon Toyota pickup truck four times. The community included 120 volunteers from the historic climber’s campground Camp 4. The event grew to include park service personnel, concession workers, and park guests. Within a decade, his efforts removed more than 1 million pounds of trash.
During the peak of COVID in 2020, and to help slow the spread of the virus, Yager and YCA started Facelift Act Local, where he urged participants to select a local area to pick up trash and to spread the word through their communities. After the success of Act Local, which went global, this year Yager’s expanded Facelift to include: Joshua Tree National Park, Mammoth Lakes and South Lake Tahoe in California, and the New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. There will be 20 to 25 other Facelifts in 2023, including Canada and Mexico.
Below are Yager’s tips on taking care of our public lands, whether on the walls of El Capitan or a family hike on terra firma.