Original El Capitan climber talks about the historic feat
Ken Yager has been collecting artifacts since the early 1990s used by rock climbers in Yosemite National Park in hopes the park would someday get a permanent rock-climbing exhibit.
More than 25 years later, the National Park Service has promised to make Yager’s dream a reality.
A letter of intent was signed for Yosemite’s first permanent rock-climbing exhibit, to be housed in the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. Yager hopes it will open by Memorial Day 2020. Fundraising has started and design firms will be interviewed this week.
The exhibit will showcase the history of rock climbing in Yosemite, which started in the 1800s and includes famed conservationist John Muir. Rock climbs completed in Yosemite have been key in developing climbing as a sport. The world’s best climbers continue to flock to the park to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
The late, great Royal Robbins of Modesto will have a place in the exhibit, Yager told The Modesto Bee by phone Friday. Robbins had many climbing achievements and urged practices that did not damage the rock faces. He and his wife, Liz, started what became known as the Royal Robbins outdoor apparel company. He died in 2017 at 82.
“There’s no doubt that he was a big part of Yosemite climbing history,” Yager said.
He told The Fresno Bee that the exhibit will be interactive. Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, wants visitors to be able to hop on a portaledge — a hanging tent used by climbers who spend multiple days on big wall climbs — and try to place climbing equipment into a crack.
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said the exhibit is a “long time coming.”
“We are very excited to partner with the Yosemite Climbing Association,” Gediman said, “and to tell this important and integral part of Yosemite’s history. … Rock climbing has always been popular here in Yosemite, and over the past several years, its popularity has not only increased, but the appeal has really increased. People are always asking about rock-climbing routes and famous climbers.”
Yager said the documentary “Free Solo” — about Alex Honnold becoming the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without the protection of ropes and climbing gear — winning an Oscar earlier this year helped put rock climbing in the mainstream.
“Suddenly it’s a lot different,” Yager said, “and climbing will be in the Olympics. It’s a whole new ball game now. That’s why it’s more than ready for a climbing exhibit in the park.”
Yosemite Conservancy and the American Alpine Club are fundraising for the exhibit. There’s at least $200,000 from donors for the project, but around half a million is needed to “do it right,” said Frank Dean, conservancy president.
Some climbing equipment collected includes hammers and ropes used by John Salathé, considered the “grandfather” of big wall climbing in Yosemite, Yager said, and the climbing shoes Lynn Hill wore when she became the first person to free climb The Nose route on El Capitan in 1993.
Yager previously organized a well-received, temporary rock-climbing exhibit in the Yosemite Museum called “Granite Frontiers.”
“It was amazing how many people that weren’t climbers who would go in there and read everything,” Yager said. “People were spending hours in there.”
Yager said the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, near the Yosemite Museum, was chosen for the new exhibit because there wasn’t space for it in the museum year-round due to other rotating exhibits.
Yager also helped start Yosemite’s Ask a Climber program so visitors could get more information about climbing. Additionally, he’s the founder and organizer of Yosemite Facelift, a massive annual volunteer cleanup in the park hosted by the Yosemite Climbing Association. The association is fundraising for those efforts and others. It will open a storefront in June in Mariposa, at 5180 Highway 140, where more climbing artifacts will be displayed.
The American Alpine Club will induct Yager into its Hall of Mountaineering Excellence during a June celebration in Colorado. He started rock climbing at age 12.
“As a kid I pushed it a little bit maybe, and I think it was because I grew up thinking I was going to go to Vietnam, that I was going to get drafted and not be able to shoot anyone,” Yager said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to live past 18. … Climbing was my whole life and I felt like it kept me out of trouble. … I feel like climbing kind of saved my life in some ways and I want to give something back to climbing.”
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.