This story appears in the Fall/Winter edition of the Yosemite Conservancy Magazine, and was written by Lauren Hauptman.
It all began with a conversation in 2021. Yosemite Conservancy’s then–Director of Projects Ryan Kelly convened a meeting with Yosemite climbing rangers to discuss the idea of holding a diversity-oriented climbing event in Yosemite — United in Yosemite. Included were representatives of the Conservancy, the National Park Service (NPS), the Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA), and the American Alpine Club (AAC), which already had a strong relationship with the park.
They put together an advisory group of leaders from affinity groups in the climbing space nationwide, as well as other community members. They had a mission of providing meaningful and culturally appropriate mentorships for climbers from historically marginalized groups, so they can be empowered to achieve their climbing goals, thrive among community, and develop strong relationships with the land. The group held a planning retreat in June 2022.
“We spent five days together, three of which were very focused on talking through issues related to creating a welcoming space for communities with really different identities and really different needs,” says Yosemite park ranger Jesse Chakrin. “We also had to navigate just running a festival, which it turns out, is a lot of work!”
The group’s challenge was to create an event that was welcoming to those who didn’t already feel a part of the climbing community, for whom Yosemite felt daunting.
“How can we create an environment where you can enjoy the space as a climber at any level — as a beginner, as an intermediate — and from any background?” asks Katie Coit, director of projects for the Conservancy. “Climbing in Yosemite can feel so intimidating!”
The first steps were to seek funding from Yosemite Conservancy and begin “deep work” in trust-building with the community.
“We wanted to be really up front about what our goals and intentions were, and then do our very best to follow through on our words,” Chakrin says. “Because trust, especially with groups that have often been systemically marginalized, is hard to build and easy to lose. We knew we needed to have many people involved from the beginning, so the community members knew our goals here were not to do something performative, but to do something real.”
The five-night United in Yosemite festival, celebrating diversity in Yosemite climbing, took place June 23–28, 2023. It was an enormous success against a backdrop of the global conversation about identity and access and how people fit into spaces — including national parks, which have a charge of being open for and to everyone. Participants attended free of charge, and the festival received more than 300 applications for the 100 available spaces, which were distributed by lottery. Organizers reserved 15% of tickets for members of the seven traditionally associated Tribes of Yosemite and 10% for people with disabilities. Travel stipends were also available via application.
The final event was a true collaboration among the NPS, the AAC, and the Conservancy, in partnership with Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service, Queer Crush, ParaCliffHangers, Brown Girls Climb, Climbing for Change, and Yosemite Climbing Association. Thanks to funding from Conservancy donors, they were able to hire an event coordinator, who provided crucial continuity among organizations, work groups, volunteers, clinic and workshop leaders, and participants. United in Yosemite also received support from Parks Project, Rab, Arc’Teryx, Luno, Wondery, Farm to Crag, All Rise, and Protect Our Winters.
“Yosemite is a notoriously intimidating and difficult-to-navigate location for any visitor — let alone if you’re trying to climb up rocks safely,” says Shara Zaia, manager of AAC’s Climb United. “That being said, this event didn’t feel like just a climbing festival. It not only supported education about climbing practices and skills, but it also celebrated the community’s passions for the arts, stewardship, and advocacy. The power of this event was that it reflected the perspectives and lived experiences of so many different people and organizations. It was truly a team effort.”
The organizers hope United in Yosemite will become an annual event and expand to parks beyond Yosemite.
“One of the things Yosemite is really good at is being an entrepreneurial test bed for ideas for other park areas,” Chakrin says. “We have a lot of capacity to try out new things, because we have amazing support from the Conservancy to be experimental. The goal is to talk to other national park areas that have significant climbing communities to see if we can get at least two or three other parks to host United events.”
The strength of the collaboration and community support is a testament to the success of the event.
“Despite how difficult and complicated it is to access the park, for the future of conservation in our national parks, it’s important for the resources to be accessible to all who want to visit,” says Eddie Espinosa, director of community programs for AAC. “And with events like this one, we can learn and share information on how we can best make that possible.”