Ken Yager, founder of the Yosemite Facelift, brings together park service personnel, local concession employees, and visitors, to remove tens of thousands of pounds of trash annually from Yosemite.

And now in its 15th year, I recently got a chance to take part in the Facelift.

Yager and I make our way past various vendor tents and through thick crowds of people to find a quiet sitting area under the shadow of the Yosemite Falls Wall for an interview. As we walk, he’s stopped by a handful of volunteers who need a moment of his time. He tells me he’s recently been interviewed by NPR for Weekend Edition.

Facelift is also featured on USA Today and the LA Times.

Yager, whose father worked as a physics professor at UC Davis, moved to Yosemite straight out of high school in December 1976.

“My folks are proud of me now, but when I moved here my mom was really nervous that I didn’t go to college,” Yager tells ASN. “But I was so infatuated with climbing that I didn’t care what they thought at the time.”

One of more than 1,000 volunteers working to clean up the park during the annual Facelift. Photo: Courtesy Kaya Lindsay

Soon after arriving, Yager became a climbing guide and worked with the Yosemite Mountain School; he later started the Yosemite Climbing Association; then he started collecting items for a Yosemite climbing museum.

He’s also raised his three kids from his home in El Portal, located a few miles from the west end of the park.

In 2004, after decades of guiding and teaching “Leave No Trace” ethics to his clients, Yager found himself embarrassed by how trashed the park had become from the millions of annual visitors who simply didn’t clean up after themselves. Wads of toilet paper and diapers littered the sides of the road. Popular picnic areas had piles of garbage left in place, and even partially cleaned construction zones were trashed with debris. He took it upon himself to make a change.

Ken Yager is all smiles at the 15th annual Yosemite Facelift. (the author’s dog is in the background). Photo: Chris Van Leuven

“I got some safety vests, trash bags, and litter sticks, and rousted up some climbers. Then we went spent three days cleaning up. In that time, we filled 30 to 40 truckloads,” he says. Yager noticed that when the same volunteers showed up all three days, he knew he was onto something. From there the project gained momentum.

“The first time I did the Facelift, I realized this was a great way to bring the climbers, concession employees, and park service together,” says Yager. “Before that, climbers were outcasts – it improved the climber’s reputation relationship with the park.”

The next year, Yager extended the cleanup to five days, which he knew would help those with busy schedules get involved. Thirteen years ago, he started evening programs, bringing in notable speakers, showing films, and catering dinners, which drew in thousands of attendees. This time, the film Free Solo premiered at the Yosemite auditorium and theater followed by a Q&A with Alex Honnold, the star of the film. The shows were absolutely packed.

Over the years, volunteers have removed thousands of bags of common trash. The cleanup efforts are complex too, including the removal of abandoned buildings, hauling out asphalt, and staging clean-up efforts on El Capitan where climber waste is hauled out by the park service. One year, Yager organized the removal of a car that crashed off a cliff decades ago.

Kaya Lindsay shows how she feels about cleaning up Yosemite National Park. Photo: Courtesy of Lindsay

Today, Yager partners with 90 sponsors, including Subaru, CLIF, Tioga-Sequoia Brewery, The North Face, and Patagonia (his first event sponsor). And the volunteer hours keep pouring in. Over the first two days of this year’s event he got 1,100 volunteers who collected 3,000 pounds of micro trash.

In addition to cleaning the park, the event also brings together various user groups. That provides park unity, and since the volunteer hours are submitted to the government, the park is rewarded with funding for new projects. The Facelift is helping bring in $250,000 toward future projects in the park.

To date, his efforts have contributed to the removal of one million pounds of trash.

Looking back, Yager has never doubted his decision to spend his life in Yosemite. Being surrounded by striking granite walls and some of the best rock climbing in the world has allowed him to live passionately.

“I believe in passion. Otherwise, you go through life with regrets. I think if something wakes you up at night, then it’s telling you that you should go and do it. And you can never get that chance back,” he tells ASN. And the Facelift – which spawned from his desire year after year to do something – is most certainly his passion.

Climbers looking everywhere for trash. Photo: Courtesy of Kaya Lindsay

To learn more about volunteering with the Yosemite Facelift, visit yosemiteclimbing.org.

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