By Audrey Fraizer
Ken Yager jumps down from the seat of his work truck intent on spending the next few minutes giving in to his passion for trash.
“If you want to talk, you better do it now,” says big wall climber Jim Painter from behind the Yosemite Climbing Association booth set up at the 2011 Yosemite Facelift. “He might not be so easy to find later.”
Yager skirts the crowd, apologizing for his haste, and heads toward the booth. He checks supplies and asks questions.
“How many have signed up?”
“Do we need more bags?”
“What areas still need coverage?”
“Take a Clif Bar,” he says while handing the peanut butter, macadamia nut, and blueberry bars to the people lining up at the volunteer table. “And a water bottle.”
The high-energy snack bar and aluminum water bottles are just part of the package offered volunteers waiting to sign-off on the plastic bags, pincers, maps, and gloves on this, the first of three days devoted to picking up trash Yosemite tourists leave behind on trails, off trails, at scenic outlooks and visitor centers, and campgrounds.
Although a lot of the stuff is accidentally deposited—like the fruit labels stuck on apples and oranges—much of the litter isn’t. Cigarette butts, toilet paper left to decay with what’s underneath, and plastic water bottles are common items in the waste stream left by many park visitors who apparently still take an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to trash. All of it’s an eyesore.
“I told a water company that we wouldn’t accept plastic bottles,” Yager says. “I turned down their donation. I didn’t want anything that would be left behind and a lot of those (empty plastic water bottles) we find on the trail.”
Last year, 2,000 Facelift volunteers netted 44,000 pounds of junk from a national park the size of Rhode Island, which in the past has included difficult-to-forget-you-dropped-stuff such as punctured air mattresses, empty propane canisters, and busted up camp chairs.
Yager expects the number of volunteers and the pounds of trash they retrieve to increase this year and in subsequent facelifts because projects climbers and Yosemite National Park rangers keep adding to the pick-up list. In addition to paper and plastic stuffed into bags, crews driving Bobcats and dump trucks remove chipped and broken trail asphalt, non-native plant species, and abandoned building materials.
Volunteers report arrowheads, tin cans, and other objects of historical interest to park archeologists; they are left where they’re found.
Yager became a trash collector eight years ago. He grabbed 38 other climbers equally sick and tired of messy campsites and climbing routes and arranged the facelift to coincide with National Public Lands Day.
“We were getting really upset about picking stuff up and at people for doing it,” he said. “Instead of staying negative, we turned it into something positive.”
Facelift 2011 drew 3,000 volunteers, including the die-hards planning vacations around the five days of hauling garbage accentuated by rock climbing films, prize drawings for climbing equipment, and, of course, climbing.
People have fun and the event keeps growing, Yager said. But he also admits it isn’t totally altruism stoking the cleanup campaign, at least from his climber’s point of view.
“Not everyone shares the same beliefs about climbers,” he said. “This is a good way to show the respect climbers have for this park. It’s not always about climbing.”
Yosemite National Park draws thousands of climbers of every nationality every year eager to conquer the big walls of Half Dome and El Capitan and, quite frankly, hang out with other climbers congregating in Camp Four near Yosemite Village. Yager survived his first year in Yosemite on nickels and dimes from redeeming returnable glass pop bottles. “Try living on that,” he says.
Pocket change isn’t enough to live on, but it’s close enough for someone who lives to climb. Ask why Yager climbs, and you might as well ask why he breathes.
Yager was 17 with four years of rock and wall climbing under his belt when he took his first shot at El Capitan, America’s largest monolith. He descended partway into the climb. The next year, he returned and climbed to the top four times just to show himself he could. Since then, he has scaled El Capitan more times than he can count, guided climbing groups, and volunteered for search and rescue. He organized the Yosemite Climbing Association.
For the past decade, he has been chasing funds to build a climbing museum honoring Yosemite Valley’s central role in developing modern rock climbing. Collecting the flotsam and jetsam trailing visitors is his most recent effort to keep his plan in action.
“I want to set a good example for the climbers,” he says while dashing back to his work truck. “Preserving the park and its history is what matters most to me.”