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Considering a Hike up Half Dome?

Waiting to Climb Half Dome; San Fran. Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney

Waiting to Climb Half Dome in Yosemite National Park; San Fran. Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney

There is a great article in the San Francisco Chronicle this weekend entitled, "DANGER ON THE DOME". It's subtitled, "Overcrowding: Hikers swarming Yosemite's Half Dome create a bottleneck at the treacherously steep granite climb to the summit". I've never climbed Half Dome, and hadn't realized that a climb to the top could easily be accomplished as a day hike. I guess I'm in the minority of Yosemite travelers that didn't know this, because have a look at the photos in the article! Everyone is climbing that thing. In fact, the article says waiting to ascend may take 45 minutes or more. I don't think I'd feel too comfortable in that position, stuck on a 45 degree slope hoping the guy in front of you doesn't fall backwards. I mean, look at that, people are stacked on top of each other climbing those Park Service provided cables up the mountain.

The article gives focus to the dangers present hiking this challenging route. Among the dangers cited, people are arriving quite unprepared. Folks don't bring enough water, and their hiking gear is sub-par (did you catch the photo of the person climbing the mountain in sandals?). As you may recall, three people have died on Half Dome in just the last year, and according to the article, a fourth would have been a goner if his clothes hadn't caught on the cable before he slipped over the edge.

The article ends with some interesting facts regarding deaths in the park. While Half Dome has received some attention lately, people are more likely to die in water related accidents -- like falling from the top of a waterfall. Gruesome.


I don't understand why people who know little or nothing about climbing should be allowed to climb Half Dome. Easy solution - take the darn cables off the rock face. Personally, that would mean I'd probably never make the climb -- so be it. People are flocking to complete the feat only because they're available. Yeah, we could install safety nets, jackhammer stairs into the rockface, install telephones every 100 feet, pump water to the summit for those who didn't bring enough, install a giant lightning rod at the top, and hand out distress beacons as a public service, but what's the point? Does the Park Service have an obligation to facilitate people's sense of a thrill or rush? Then to have those same people urinate all over the mountaintop and feed marmots, squirrels and bears all their discarded food scraps along the way... no thanks, I'll spend my time elsewhere.

Can you imagine lightning hitting that cable while hundreds of people were clinging to it for dear life? What a spectacle that would be!

-- Jon

"Does the Park Service have an obligation to facilitate people's sense of a thrill or rush? "

Good question. What exactly is their role when it comes to facilitating anything?

I think the article talks more about stupidity than a real danger on Half Dome. Don't people prepare before they go out to a national park? My guidebook says in big letters that the hike up Half Dome 1. is VERY STRENUOUS, 2. is 17 miles round trip (compared with a mile or 2 for Mirror Lake, Lower Yosemite Falls, or even Vernal Falls, 3. should not be attempted when the cables are down or when there is even a chance of wet weather. The article mentions the possibility of day-trippers biting off more than they can chew. Why on earth would you want to do a "drive-by" of a national park, especially somewhere like Yosemite? And if you have to do that because of kids or other commitments, wouldn't you want to prepare beforehand to maximize your time and enjoyment?

Jeremy: The climb is dangerous... 3 deaths in one year. HalfDome is a magnet and the Park continues the more than 50 year tradition to make the trek "more available" with the cables. The ascent should be like many other climbs: only available to those with the skills and proper equipment. Encouraging the average person to attempt a difficult climb is willful negligence.

"I believe whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man's spiritual growth." ....Rachel Carson

I think NPS should issue back country permits with only a limited number of people obtaining them per day. This way people could actually enjoy the peace and solitude of the climb. It would also lead to being more prepared as you would actually have to do something ahead of time in order to climb. And I know this is not popular but a nominal fee for the permit should be charged. And before a lot of people get all up in arms about that comment think about it. You already need to have enough money to buy the right kind of shoes, gloves, backpack and food to make the journy what is another $20 for a permit. If you don't have the money for the permit then you don't have it for the shoes and other things you need so you are more likely to be unprepared. Charging for the permit could give the park service the money to help cover having a ranger stationed up there during the busy season and would help to offset the cost of rescuing someone in an emergency.

Common horse sense...PLEASE! This hike to the Dome requires some basic common sense, and with reasonable decent wilderness skills, and careful preparations. For gods sakes people...THINK!
Rachel Carson was right!!!

I think Half Dome has become too "easy" to get to and it's partially the fault of the Park Service and the concession. There are whole sections in the gift shops devoted to "I made it to the top" shirts, hats, belt buckles, mugs, shot glasses, etc. You can warn people all you like about the strenuous nature of the hike, but if you market it like a competition, you're gonna have out of shape tourists trying it in sandals without enough water or time in a lightning storm.

Removing the cables is admittedly tempting, but they've been climbing those cables for almost 100 years now, and going back would be very difficult.

The easiest and I think most effective way to solve the problem is to take it out of Day Hike status and issue wilderness permits (for Christ's sake, if the top of Half Dome isn't wilderness, where is??) Limit access for the sake of the mounds of garbage left on top every day, for the sake of those who get to the top safely and don't risk the lives of rescuers for their dumb errors and also for the sake of the wilderness experience.

I've climbed Half Dome 3 times, once as a 17 year-old in 1962, once again in 1970 when I worked and lived in Yosemite Valley as a park ranger-naturalist, and finally in 1993 when I took my son up the cables. In 1993, my son just happened to be the same age I was when I first hiked the cables to the top. That ascent was notably much more difficult than was the previous two.

Although in 1993, there was much more evidence of increased hiker use than during the previous two climbs, at no time did I experience crowds on the cables, at least not to the extent like they are depicted in the two photos above by Michael Maloney of the SF Chronicle. I suggest that perhaps the carrying capacity for Half Dome may now have been exceeded, especially if crowds like those in the above two pictures are becoming common-place.

In the backcountry, a hiker always accepts some risk. This risk may be small, say only a small fraction of a percent per outting. But if thousands of people take that risk, then actual fatalities will be elevated from a "might happen" status, to "will happen." It's the consequence of a very small risk per individual multiplied by large numbers of risk-takers.

Of course, in the case of the Half Dome cables, as the sheer numbers of risk-takers increase, so does the risk per person. Thus, an argument can be made for establishing a carrying capacity for the Half Dome cables based on annual use and numbers of fatalities per year.

A sign at the beginning of the cables warning of the risk of an ascent or descent at least turns a seemingly safe adventure (because of all the others venturing up the cables without mishap) into an informed voluntary risk. The question then becomes, given an increasing number of hikers using the cables annually, "how many fatalities per year on Half Dome should be considered an acceptable risk?"

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

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