‘Climbing the wall’ – The big walls of Yosemite as a commons resource

In early 2015, there were numerous news reports of a significant climbing event unfolding in Yosemite valley, California – the first ‘free’ ascent of ‘The Dawn Wall’ route on El Capitan. Senior research fellow, John Powell from CCRI took great interest in this as he was once a fairly formidable climber himself. The issues associated with climbing also struck a chord with him, as at the time he was preparing materials for a series of short courses associated with commons management.

El Capitan

The recent free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley is a magnificent achievement. The 3,000 foot route was climbed over 19 days in late December and January by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, representing the extension of an ethical approach to rock climbing that has enabled climbers the world over to protect large rock walls without (for the most part) the imposition of intrusive forms of regulation by state bodies. Having been following progress of the climbers on the Dawn Wall while developing materials for a short course on ‘managing our common resources’ I was struck by the nature of big walls as a shared resource, but one that is managed through a code of ethics rather than through formal governance institutions like many other forms of commons (for example marine fisheries, shared grazing pasture, irrigation water).

What makes their climb significant is not just the sustained effort and technical abilities of the two climbers, but the fact they climbed the route ‘free’, that is by using ropes for safety (to hold a fall), but without the need to pull themselves up on artificial aids inserted into the rock[1]. Like many of the big wall climbs in Yosemite, when the route was first climbed (in 1970, taking 27 days), a large number of pitons, bolts, and rivets were bashed into cracks, flakes and even into blank sections of rock in order to make progress. The problem with this approach, apart from it being quite slow, is that the act of hammering pitons, or even aluminium nuts, into position damages the rock, making visible scars, and in some cases making it even harder for the next climbers who might come along. The result, at its worst, is a previously pristine area of rock that becomes littered with remnants of human passage (such as old ironmongery and aluminium chocks that once hammered in could not be retrieved), and the whole route scarred by hammer blows which break off the edges of cracks and flakes of rock.

There are several characteristics that make a ‘big wall’ like the 3,000 ft El Capitan a ‘commons’ resource. First of all it is not in private ownership, in this case it is part of a national park and owned by the state for all to enjoy, therefore more like a ‘public good’. More importantly there are shared ‘rights’ of access and use. For some people it is enough to stand on the valley floor and just gaze up at the sheer size of the rock walls rising vertically into the sky. Initially, of course, it was just this ‘awe-inspiring’ nature of the landscape that led Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Grant of 1864, the first piece of protective legislation, and later led John Muir to live in the valley and lobby for national park status, which was granted in 1890. For others, the attraction was always to scale the walls. This in itself can cause conflict: the resource is limited and there are only certain places one can go, or routes that can be ascended, and only at certain times of the year (too hot in midsummer, too cold in winter), leading to the potential for overcrowding.


Salathe Wall
Climbing the overhanging headwall, Salathe Wall, El Capitan.


On a big wall climb the ideal situation is to have the whole expanse of rock to yourself; threading your way slowly up cracks and around overhangs; alone in an ‘ocean of rock’ but totally dependent on each other, brings a sense of both joy and humility in the face of elemental nature. But there are also practical reasons. You certainly don’t want someone in front, who may slow you down or drop things on your head, and you don’t want anyone behind, watching your every move and pushing you to go faster. This means that in any one year only a limited number of people can undertake one of these climbs, and derive the benefits from ‘accessing the resource’. The resource is also easily damaged by: overuse of equipment (such as pitons as described above), by leaving bits of equipment in place, by chalk which identifies where the route goes, and by other forms of human waste that can leave unsightly stains on the rock. This is a shared resource and, like other commons, it can be degraded or ruined by ‘overuse’.

John enjoying some Pineapple on El Capitan

In many parts of the world commons resources have survived (for hundreds of years in some cases) through development of institutions that manage access and use of the resource through enforcement of rules and regulations. On the other hand, commons that are not regulated, where there are no limits or controls on use, are usually referred to as ‘open access’ resources, and tend to get degraded through overuse. Big walls are an interesting form of commons, as they remain ‘open access’ yet for the most part have managed to avoid deterioration. In most cases there are no formal rules or institutions regulating access to big walls (the permit system in the Himalayas is an exception). To a certain extent access is self-limiting to those with the capacity, equipment, and funding to undertake an ascent, but there has also been a huge expansion in the number of climbers since the late 1960s, resulting in the potential for overcrowding and damage. The way these ‘big wall’ commons have been managed is through self-regulation and peer pressure that forces adherence to ethical guidelines. ‘Leave no trace’ has always been a guiding light for climbers, but more important has been the notion of climbing in ‘good style’. To climb in good style means to minimise the amount of artificial aid required, to free-climb wherever possible, to climb quickly with minimal use of protection, and not to damage the resource in any way, leaving it in a pristine state for those that would come next[2]. Whenever these ethical guidelines are crossed, other climbers (and the climbing media) will seek to shame and embarrass the perpetrators, and for most climbers there is nothing worse than being told you have done a climb in poor style, with the consequent loss of respect from fellow climbers.


Improvements in equipment have also enabled standards to rise, resulting in free climbing of routes that once required significant amounts of artificial aid.   It is interesting to note that it was improvements in equipment (such as hard steel pitons) that initially opened up the big walls to being climbed, and it is further technological changes that have prevented deterioration of the more popular climbs. Inventions such as camming devices that can easily be inserted into and removed from cracks and micro-nuts that provide protection in the smallest cracks, have allowed climbers to protect themselves without using damaging techniques such as pitons; lighter and stronger ropes and karabiners, and soft rubber boots have enabled the completion of harder routes .   But above all, it is the self-regulating nature of ethical guidelines that have managed the resource, with their emphasis on free climbing and abhorrence of fixed aid ensuring that the rock is not degraded and will be available for generations to come. Now that the Dawn Wall has been climbed free it changes the level of ‘ethical regulation’ by creating even greater pressure for free climbing the big walls in the current ‘good style’.


The CCRI has launched a new series of short courses, which focus on different aspects of commons: their management, governance and sustainability. The course is sponsored by International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) and has been made possible by a development grant from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). It commences on 23rd March 2015 and more information can be found on the CCRI website.



View down - Salathe Wall
View down – Salathe Wall



[1] It should be noted, however, that the pair did insert additional bolts into the rock for protection in the event of a fall.
[2] Even in the late 1970s when the use of pitons and bolts was widespread, we felt the need to maximise the level of free climbing, and minimise the level of artificial aid (including the use of chalk).