Half Empty or Half Full?

Categories: Perspectives

Although the summit of Half Dome remains a symbol of the American Wilderness ideal, seeing photos of the 1,200 some people who hike the 8 mile trail to the summit daily during peak season is oddly reminiscent of a frenzied herd of cattle during feeding time. There seem to be two main issues rearing their heads in Yosemite National Park’s recently published Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan. One is regulating the sheer volume of visitors per day during high season, and the other is whether the metal cable “handrails” (that run the last 400 feet of 45 degree slick rock up the east face) are in compliance with the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Half dome
Let us preface by saying….rest easy. No one has suggested a permit should be required to climb Half Dome via a technical route or to use the cables as a descent from a technical climb. The main issue is regulating the hordes of hikers who are flocking to Half Dome. To this end, the Park will likely impose new permitting guidelines that would limit the number of users allowed on the towering granite monolith to 400 people per day (300 per day after 2013 ). Before the trial permitting system was implemented in 2010, approximately 400 people used this trail on weekdays, while about an average of 800 people used this trail on weekends and holidays. Virtually no climbers will be affected by this new policy, other than fewer hikers to negotiate as you descend the cables.

The metal cables have assisted recreational users to access the breathtaking summit of Half Dome for almost 100 years—they were installed by the Sierra Club way back in 1919. There is, however, some controversy surrounding their existence, as Half Dome lies within a federally designated Wilderness area. The Wilderness Act mandates that lands designated as Federal Wilderness be areas “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and that provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined” recreation. The Act also prohibits structures and installations “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area.” Even though the cables predate the Wilderness Act by 45 years, at least one advocacy group has suggested they are inconsistent with the Act and should be removed.

Half dome cables

So, while this issue should not affect the technical ascent of Half Dome by climbers, most climbing parties use the cables to walk off the summit. Without them, it would be a much sketchier descent, and would probably require bolted rappel stations. The Access Fund supports the continued existence and unrestricted use of the cables route for descending Half Dome but does acknowledge the need for the NPS to address concerns related to public safety and wilderness values.

The Access Fund urges you to weigh in on this issue. Yosemite National Park is accepting public comment on the Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan until March 15, 2012. If this issue is important to you, then make yourself heard!

Visit Yosemite’s website for more information on the plan and the comment page to add your input.

Blog Comments

This is the first step toward removal of all trails, bolts and fixed anchors in wilderness. Contact the parks service head, head of whichever advocacy group wants the cables down, your senator and congress rep to vote against this crazy idea.

Posted by: mike | February 06, 2012 at 04:16 PM

I say get ride of the cables. One propose of designated Wilderness is to allow people to challenge themselves. Building hand rails in the mountians allows more unprepared people to get over their heads in the backcountry. There are an average of 60 rescues a summer from Half Dome, due to hikers that are unprepared physically, mentally, and equipment-wise. Most park visitors are not climbers, and do not pay attention to signs or warnings. So, you get middle age sedentary people with history of heart disease out of their RVs to do a "hike" on a 45 degree slab, because it is called a trail and has cables for secuirity.

Eliminating the cables would increase to mental and physical cost of an ascent and many/most people would turn around at the slabs. Less people solves the overcrowding, which solves many of the ecological and social issues that forced the NPS to create a permit system in the first place. Climbers would not be affected since they could ascend and descend the 4th class slabs with ropes.

Yes, rappelling would be harder. But, come on, you just climbed Half Dome, now you're going to complain about a few pitches of low angle rapelling. If you want easy, why not build a via ferrata up the face.

Plus, who wants a bunch of fat tourists woddling around the summit after busting your butt all day to climb to the top. It's nice to appreciate some scenery and solitude of a summitt after a long hard day.

Posted by: duane | February 15, 2012 at 10:38 AM

hmmm, me thinks Duane is showing a bit o elitism here! The cable system is a historical venue and should be treated as such. Though I agree with the fact that there are people on this rock that should not be there. We all still have the right to use something that has been accessible to others. And we have the right to fail in doing so. What's next. No parking lots for those RVers you don't like anyway! Good intentions aren't always perfect solutions.

Posted by: jbclimbsnh | February 19, 2012 at 04:29 AM

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Posted by: web filter | April 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM

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