What it Takes to be a Climbing Ranger in Yosemite
Jesse McGahey remembers his first season in Yosemite: "I was just a dirtbag climber at Camp 4. I thought I was a good climber." As it turned out, "good" elsewhere meant "just OK" on Yosemite’s granite. So he kept returning, improving, and after seven years, he became a climbing ranger.
What’s a climbing ranger? Well, it’s a lot like a wilderness ranger, except with scalers instead of trekkers. The daily grind involves Leave No Trace education, search and rescue, paperwork, coffee with climbers, and what he calls "extreme janitorial duties." You can imagine the melancholy of a big-wall climber who tops out in a soiled bedroom.
First and foremost, McGahey considers himself “a steward of the vertical wilderness.” Under his harness are six summits of Half Dome and more than ten of El Cap. Still, when he thinks back on the most exciting moments of his climbing career, his modest inner ranger does the talking: “The Yosemite Facelift is my annual highlight, when park staff and visitors come together to support the Leave No Trace Ethic.” This clean-up event happens during the week of National Public Lands Day. In 2010, volunteers collected 172,307 pounds of detritus. More than 80% of it was recycled.
He says of his climbing stories: “None is more exciting than the last.” But there is one that sticks out — for its irony, not its thrill.
When a cascade of stone came down on Yosemite’s Curry Village on October 8, 2008, park officials had to find answers quickly, so they went questing for the rock guy. But geologist Greg Stock was in an unlikely spot: 2,000 feet up El Capitan’s Mescalito route. McGahey had taken him for a vertical stroll.
As McGahey tells it, the decision was made to pluck Stock from the wall. “It’s the only time someone who was safe and unharmed had to be rescued,” he says with a giggle. Specialists helicoptered to the top of El Cap, intercepted Stock, and lowered him down four days’ worth of wall in about 30 minutes.
Despite its intimidating cliffs and deep-rooted climbing communities, McGahey says Yosemite is a great place for intermediate newcomers who want to experience some classic rock. He calls historic Camp 4 “one of the greatest gathering places for climbers in the whole world.” There’s even a bulletin board where people post requests for everything from rides to belay partners. He hosts Climber Coffee here every Sunday. If you make it out, you can meet him yourself.