On Half Dome…

The next time you come across a California state quarter, take a close look at the design. The mountain you see depicted is Half Dome.

And this is the view from the top.

I had the opportunity to climb Half Dome during a side trip I took while on my PCT hike in 2007. The venture ranks as one of the most exciting experiences- in a summer full of them.

Approaching from the east on the John Muir Trail, I set up camp in the Yosemite backcountry and woke up at dawn to walk the final two miles to the climb. Rising through the forest I came upon a steep rock staircase leading to the open subdome on the back side of the monolith. From there I was able to access the famous Half Dome cable system; a precarious ladder of sorts providing a four hundred foot vertical passage to the summit. The system consists of support posts anchored into the stone and a pairof cables about four feet high to provide hand grips. Two by four boards are set between the posts allowing rest steps every twenty feet. If you have fear of heights or uncertain grasp, this is no place you want to be.

As I arrived at the cables, there was a group of five or six hikers, deliberating this very thought. It was certainly an intimidating sight, but too intriguing an opportunity to pass up. I dropped my pack, made my way to the cables, and carefully began my ascent. Pulling each arm in alternating fashion I lunged onward, walking like Spiderman up the near vertical granite wall. Every so often I’d pause and cautiously relinquish my weight to a wooden step, marveling at the view and the absurdity of the feat. At one point, my heart threatened to beat out of my chest, but channeling a never before realized inner Lamaze coach I calmly moved on.

Reaching the top was absolutely euphoric. I took some time to giddily explore the vast open cap of the dome and shared in camaraderie with three or four others who had previously arrived. The views were astounding, dropping off thousands of feet to the valley and encompassing the surrounding grandeur of the Sierra Nevada range. However, despite the well earned indulgence in this purest of natural highs, I couldn’t linger long. Storm clouds were building and it was soon time to face an impossibly more daunting task- climbing down.

The descent was manageable with the confidence and acclimation of those steps before, but stressful with the arrival of new hikers who had begun their climb. Traffic flows both ways on the Half Dome cables, and when two climbers meet, one has to swing to the side and let the other by.

Fortunately at this still early hour, I only had to share the route and squeeze past a couple of others. It went smoothly enough, but the encounter left me reflecting on horror stories I’d heard of the crowds which converge on busy summer afternoons. True to the lore, as I continued the eight mile hike down to Yosemite Valley I met a solid progression of day hikers, huffing toward Half Dome with conquest in mind.  Many seemed ill suited to be making this hike, and none showed concern for the darkening sky. It was then that I realized how insane the cable route truly was. The thought of hundreds on the wall at once, like two lines of ants clamoring over each other to go up and down, sent shivers down my spine. I couldn’t believe, especially in this age of eager litigation that the park service could allow the cables to remain.

This point has been driven tragically home time and again. Dozens have died on Half Dome. Two hikers met their demise in separate incidents the season I was there. One, a Japanese tourist, had slipped off the cable and fallen hundreds of feet to his death just a week before. There have been many struck by lightning, some victims of heart attack, and even those washed over nearby Nevada Falls when taking a break from their hike and (incomprehensibly) deciding to wade in the stream. Some of these incidents have been the result of legitimate unavoidable circumstance, the risk of any venture into the wild. Others, you have to think, should have never happened.

We live in a culture so sheltered that people tend to lose a sense of personal accountability. When removed from the established safeguards of civilization, some fail to recognize the need to take safety measures into their own hands. Ironically, this represents one of the true blessings of wilderness travel. It’s the opportunity for self awakening, to build understanding in the importance of your own decisions and confidence in facing challenges beyond conventional control. As a backcountry traveler you should always be prepared to make the right choices. Unfortunately, proximity to services sometimes allows those unwary of this requirement to venture to places they’re not ready to be.

Though the eight miles of trail which separate Yosemite Valley from Half Dome represent a moderate distance, it hasn’t been enough to deter hordes of tourists from attempting the trek. The hike has become one of the most popular attractions in an already overcrowded park. It was estimated in recent years that 1,200 people a day were trudging up the trail during peak season. In light of this all, it was only a matter of time until the park service had to step in.

In 2010, Yosemite National Park personnel implemented an interim permit system for Half Dome climbs. This action is representative of an interesting crossroad we’ve reached in administering our public lands.  On one hand it doesn’t seem right to limit access to these sacred places that were forever set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” On the other, we are loving some of the more popular areas to death, and it’s difficult to enjoy an authentic experience with throngs of people crowded around.

The 2010 plan temporarily capped Half Dome access at 400 hikers a day. Meanwhile, a study was instituted to establish a long-term plan. The findings were released last month and a proposal is currently open for public comment. Amongst many options considered, five primary alternatives were weighed. These included anchoring a second cable system, issuing permits in the range of 400, 300, or 140 a day, or removing the cables all together. The Yosemite National Park website has a fascinating interactive look at the impact of each of these considerations. You can view that here.

The current proposal, likely to be put in place in 2013, will limit Half Dome climbs to 300 people a day. A simple permit system will not be enough to insure those who obtain this privilege will demonstrate proper backcountry judgment, but a brief orientation requirement might educate the uninitiated of potential dangers. Safety should increase with less crowding on the cables, and people will be aware of the threats of lightening and slippery rock.

Furthermore, this limitation should help to curtail some of the other problems associated with heavy trail use. Vegetation loss and soil erosion has resulted from intense traffic, and wildlife has become habituated to human contact. The wilderness experience that so many seek has been gravely compromised, and hopefully with fewer people this will be restored.

While I’m hesitant to get behind regulation that will ultimately prohibit many access to a natural wonder, in this case, it needs to be done. I think one of the biggest disappointments, in my mind, is that these actions will almost certainly deprive PCT hikers from the experience I had. As a long distance hiker, you just don’t have the scheduling flexibility to agree to be in a certain place on a given date. Especially considering the need to apply for permits months in advance. This impromptu excursion proved to be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my hike. Perhaps I’m biased in saying that anyone who walks the thousand miles from Mexico deserves the same opportunity, but I wish some concession could be made. The park service could incorporate allowances based on the wilderness permits thru-hikers already obtain, but it’s unlikely as problems would surely arise.

In the big picture, I guess this is just one of those cases when sacrifices need to be made in the interest of greater good. Looking back, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had, and will always cherish the knowledge of what it feels like to stand atop that iconic dome.

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4 thoughts on “On Half Dome…

  1. Oh man, I remember that view from the top of Half Dome looking down all too well. What an amazing place. I also completed the hike before they instituted the new permit system. It’s a shame, but that’s just the way things are. That idea of putting up a second set of cables intrigues me. The rock face at the current set of cables is extremely slippery and worn down after decades of use. I’m thinking they’ll have to set up a new set of cables at some point, might as well do it now.

    • Yeah, I’m not sure how they would handle installing a new cable system, especially within the legal constraints of designated wilderness. One thing is for sure, though- that’s one of those views you’ll never forget! Thanks for the comment.

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