An Interview with Ken Yager
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Editor: Thank you for speaking with us, Ken. It is an honor and we truly appreciate it.
Let me start out by congratulating you on receiving the prestigious David R. Brower Conservation Award for Outstanding Service in Mountain Conservation, at the 2015 Annual Benefit Dinner in New York.
How does it feel to have your hard work and innovation recognized by the entire climbing family? It must have been thrilling!
Ken Yager: Thank you. I was surprised when I received the phone call and invitation to come to New York City. I feel like there are a lot of people that deserve the award. I was flattered and very honored. I was fortunate enough to have met David Brower several times and was impressed by him. To be associated with an award bearing his name is quite an honor and I will treasure the experience throughout my lifetime.
Editor: You had spoken before about how the Yosemite Facelift started many years ago. And if my notes serve me correctly, at one point, you were guiding some tourists in Yosemite and showing them some beautiful spots when you came to a location that was not quite as clean as you’d want a tourist to see: there was refuse, and all kinds of trash at that spot and you said that you thought, this place should be clean! It shouldn’t look like this…
How did you go about getting your community’s attention about doing something to clean the places that were so revered by everyone in Yosemite?
Ken Yager: For many years I was bothered by the amount of trash in the Park. Not just trash left by the visitors, but also construction debris left by contractors. Year after year it was building up, to the point that you could hardly go anywhere without running into it.
While working as a climbing guide I would get extremely embarrassed by how much trash there was in the woods at every turnout. It appeared that folks felt it was ok to clean your car out and dump it in the woods as long as you couldn't see it from the road.
It was not unusual to find bags of household trash, beer bottles, fast food containers, emptied ash trays, and of course toilet paper everywhere. In 2004 I was finishing up a day of climbing with a client and we stopped to do Highway Star.
During the short approach we were literally tiptoeing through an endless sea of toilet paper. I was seething. At the base of the climb we ran into Eric Rice who works for Patagonia. We were talking about how bad the trail was and how there is no way we were going to put toilet paper in our climbing packs.
I decided then that I could always be pissed off about it or I could try to do something about it. I told Eric that I was going to gather some litter sticks and trash bags and try to recruit some people to take care of the worst areas.
Eric said he could offer some Patagonia items as incentive for the volunteers. Three weeks later I drove my pickup to Camp 4 with all the supplies and started asking the climbers to help me. It appears that others were as disgusted as I was.
We spent 3 days cleaning up around the Park. We found between 20 - 30 truckloads of garbage. The amazing thing was how much fun we had doing it. Each year since, the Facelift has grown and I have added more elements to it to make it fun.
In recent years we have been finding a lot less trash which is great. Last year it was a little over 13,000 lbs. We have branched out to working with NPS on other Service Projects.
Editor: That's incredible! How many years has the Facelift been a staple of the conservation aspect of Yosemite, with you spear-heading the effort each year?
Ken Yager: This year will be the 12th annual. I have organized every one, but I couldn't do it without a lot of help.
Editor: And approximately how many folks show up to help each year?
Ken Yager: We have about 2,000 unique volunteers per year and average about 600 participants per day.
Editor: You have also talked about the creation of a museum so that the climbing history of Yosemite is well preserved and folks can come in and look at all the priceless artifacts and memorabilia that you have collected for a long time.
It is impressive that you wish the museum to be free and available to all, and that no one will have to buy tickets to visit it. It will surely pull in more tourists to Yosemite who will without a doubt make it a part of their travel itinerary!
Ken Yager: This is a project I have been working on since 1992. I feel that Yosemite should have a permanent climbing museum. The problem is finding a space in the Valley for a museum.
The last exhibit I did in the Park was titled Granite Frontiers. It was up for a little over 4 months and over 70,000 people saw the exhibit. The majority of the visitors were not climbers, they were people that wanted to learn more about it. People were fascinated by the stories.
Over the years I have collected over 10,000 items. I formed a non-profit called Yosemite Climbing Association to provide ownership of these items. YCA's mission is to make these items available for public viewing and interpretation free of charge.
The collection includes an 1875 George Anderson spike from Half Dome, the Richard Leonard notebooks from the 1934 first ascents of Lower and Higher Cathedral Spires, John Salathe's rack, equipment from the first ascent of the Nose of El Capitan, etc... I just hope that I can see a climbing museum in Yosemite during my lifetime.
Editor: And you most definitely will, I'm sure. How did you and your family find New York? What were your impressions?
Ken Yager: It was the first time that any of us had been to New York City and we loved it. I generally am not very comfortable in cities but found it very interesting with a lot of fun stuff to do. I would go back.
Editor: At the annual AAC dinner did you get to meet and talk with your contemporaries whom you may not have seen in years?
Ken Yager: I saw some folks I hadn't seen in a while and met others that I had not met before. It was a pleasure to meet Reinhold Messner, Sir Chris Bonington, Kim Schmitz, and many others. During the dinner Kim Schmitz was seated next to me at the table. I enjoyed talking to him during the evening. We have a lot of mutual friends but had not met before.
Editor: That's wonderful. You also met with Reinhold Messner and there is a photo of the two of you talking about something. What was that like?
Ken Yager: It was sort of unreal. I had known about him since I started climbing in 1971. He looked exactly the same as the pictures I had seen of him when I first had read about him. I think I have aged a lot more than he has. We talked a bit about climbing museums and he gave me some good advice.
Editor: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us and again, congratulations on receiving a much deserved award.
Interview conducted by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Editor of the Facebook Climbing Page 'An Interview With '.
Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
Interview © Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
1st Photo courtesy of Ken Yager and 2nd Photo Credit:Jesse Shotland/American Alpine Club. (Special thanks to Whitney Bradberry of the American Alpine Club.)
On the Cover: Ken Yager
Winner of the David R. Brower Conservation Award for Outstanding Service in Mountain Conservation
Date of Cover: March 11th, 2015