Who are the Yosemite Climber Stewards? They’re a group of talented rock-climbers who volunteer their time to help take care of the vertical wilderness, as part of a grant-funded program supported by our donors.
The “Stews” spend at least three months in Yosemite working on a variety of projects – restoring access trails, cleaning up left-behind ropes and gear, monitoring the peregrine falcons that nest on the walls, and educating fellow climbers and park visitors about ecology, routes up the rocks, Leave No Trace ethics, and more.
Chris Gay, who has spent two seasons (2016 and 2017) as a Climber Steward, is dedicated to giving back to the park and to inspiring more people to become caretakers of the natural world. We checked in with Chris to find out more about the life of a steward on and off the walls.
What inspired you to become a Yosemite Climber Steward?
I started rock climbing after moving to California in my twenties. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Yosemite, where I’ve experienced some of the most fulfilling days of my life. When some friends told me about the opportunity to volunteer in the park as a Climber Steward, I knew I had to apply.
What’s it like to live and work in Yosemite?
To live and work in Yosemite is a gift. Our collective open spaces have so much to teach us and have a capacity to heal.
Working as a Climber Steward has been a truly fun volunteer experience. A typical day might start with a few quiet moments on my own, watching the sun rays sweep down Royal Arches while having a warm beverage. After a quick breakfast I pack up for the day and bike to a nearby crag. If it’s a rest day from climbing, I sweep along the base interacting with climbers and discussing things such as Leave No Trace ethics or proper food storage. Otherwise, I might climb a few pitches with another “Stew” checking the terrain and getting familiar with routes, gathering information that I can share with other climbers.
After patrolling, we usually make our way to the meadow below El Capitan and meet up with another Climber Steward or climbing ranger to start the day’s “Ask a Climber” program. We set up telescopes focused on the big wall, and spend the afternoon sharing the wonders of climbing with park visitors. When people get an up-close look at the climbers on El Capitan, their eyes light up, and their amazement is palpable. Many visitors have told us that Ask a Climber was the best part of their trip!
What are some memorable moments from your experience as a steward?
I’ve had the chance to work with different groups of volunteers to restore approach trails to popular climbing areas, which has been a really inspiring and satisfying way to give back to the park and my climbing community. Working with Paradox Sports was another really rewarding experience. Each year, Yosemite’s climbing stewardship program works with the Paradox team to help adaptive climbers, including veterans who might be new to rock climbing, access and experience the park’s walls. Overall, the memories I’ll cherish most from my experience as a Climber Steward will be the many opportunities I’ve had to share this lifestyle, of interacting with the outdoors and protecting our national parks, with other people.
What have you learned and taught as a steward?
At the Ask a Climber program, visitors’ most common reaction to seeing big-wall climbers is “They’re crazy.” That frequently expressed sentiment taught me that when we don’t understand others’ actions, we can be so shocked that we label people before taking the time to understand them.
As a Climber Steward, I got to help share information and answer questions to make those “crazy” climbers more relatable. I don’t have all the answers, though, and have most of all enjoyed creating dialogue among climbers and non-climbers alike about the importance of open spaces in the 21st century.
What are some simple things that people can do to protect Yosemite?
A great first step to protecting the park’s beautiful ecosystem is to take a really close look at how small behaviors affect the environment. Simple things like staying on trails or packing out food wrappers might seem small, but if everyone takes those same actions, the impact can be huge. Recognizing how our collective behavior shapes the landscape will help us all make better decisions as we explore Yosemite’s walls and wilderness areas.
Why is it important to have a dedicated Climbing Stewardship program in the park?
Rock-climbing is integral to the identity of Yosemite National Park. The Climbing Stewardship program continues to be a bridge between the climbing community and the National Park Service, and is a testament to the voice climbers have in deciding how to protect the park and maintain its accessibility for visitors from all walks of life.
What’s your favorite climb? What’s on your bucket list?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite. Hobbit Book (on Mariuolumne Dome, in Tuolumne Meadows) may be a contender, or any other route named after J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world. Or maybe Nutcracker (on Manure Pile Buttress, in Yosemite Valley). It’s so sweeeeet! Then again The Nose of El Capitan sure is a hoot. One day I hope to head up to British Columbia to climb in the Bugaboos.
During his 2016 season, Chris took advantage of a few days off-the-clock to climb Washington Column. In his August 2016 ClimbingYosemite.com blog post about the experience, “Perspective on the Prow,” he pondered the classic climber’s conundrum: Why? Why climb? He leaves the question purposefully unanswered, but offers this glimpse into the world above the Valley floor:
Working our way up steep prows of earth, we notice birds no longer gliding above but arcing and drifting below. How did we come so far? On the rock we blend into the environment, our wilderness. In doing so it becomes easier for us to experience our place on this planet. We are reminded we are but a part of it. Not modernly severed from, rather inseparably responsible for.
As a Climber Steward, Chris has gotten to share that perspective with countless people in the park, inspiring them, one conversation, climb and telescope view at a time, to feel deeply connected and committed to the natural world.
Our thanks go out to Chris and all the Yosemite Climber Stewards for their time and hard work, and to our donors for supporting this program in the park! If you're interested in becoming a Climber Steward, or know someone who might be, visit the Yosemite Climbing website (climbingyosemite.com) to learn more and apply.
Main image: Chris on a climbing patrol in Tuolumne Meadows. Photo: NPS/Kyle Queener