Crowd control and wilderness redux at Half Dome

Posted: Sep 2, 2014

Every year, from sunup ‘til sundown, from Memorial Day into October, there’s a traffic jam of sorts high above the Yosemite Valley floor. The trek to the top of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park’s iconic peak, is a destination hike for people from all over the world. The trail, which ascends nearly 5,000 feet over seven to eight miles, is crowded with upwards of 1,200 people per day vying for panoramic views of the High Sierra from the granite cap.

Concerned about safety, visitor experience and wilderness impacts, the National Park Service (NPS) is now considering permanently limiting the number of people per day that can ascend the final portion of the Half Dome Trail to the summit. This 400-foot section is made of steep, smooth rock that, without the aid of the existing cable system, or technical climbing gear, is treacherous. Lose your footing here, which is easy enough when it’s wet, and your next stop would be the valley floor.

In 1865, J.D. Whitney, California’s state geologist, called Half Dome, “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.” Little did he know that, a decade later, Yosemite guide George Anderson would become the first person to summit Half Dome, laying the ground work for the cables, poles and planks that were anchored to the rock in 1919 and remain in use today.

Visitor use on the Half Dome Trail has steadily increased over time. The average number of people arriving at the base of the cable system on Saturdays from 1992 to 1994 was 575. By 2006, visitor counts on Saturdays reached an average of 760. By 2008, the highest use was on Saturdays and holidays, with an average of 925 people per day. On the busiest survey day in 2008, 1,200 hikers were bottle-necked at the sub-dome, heads tilted upward in anticipation of their turns to plod on.

In 2010, the NPS implemented an Interim Permit System which required a maximum of 400 climbers on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to have a permit. It worked like a charm, except for having the effect of displacing weekend climbers to weekdays. If they didn’t score a weekend permit, people just climbed the Dome on Mondays and Thursdays—raising the weekday average to 635 hikers per day. That resulted in the NPS making permits necessary seven days a week in 2011.

This year, permits also will be required seven days a week and 400 hikers will be allowed (300 day hikers and 100 backpackers) each day on the Half Dome Trail beyond the sub-dome. Permits will be distributed by lottery via Recreation.gov, in an attempt to limit scalping, which was a problem last year. At a sub-dome checkpoint, rangers will compare registration information on their smartphones against hiker IDs.

One of the main issues leading to the limit is safety. The more bodies jammed into the 400-foot-long cable track, the longer it takes for people to ascend and descend that section which takes, on average, 83 minutes in each direction. This heightens the likelihood that people will get fatigued, frustrated and/or caught in summer storms, which move in quickly there. In 2009, thunder and lightning engulfed Half Dome on one busy Saturday, killing one person and precipitating the retrieval of 41 other hikers from the cables by search and rescue.

In the Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan Environmental Assessment, the NPS also considers the effects of high use on visitor experience and on “wilderness character.” As anyone who’s been caught in back-ups on Colorado’s more popular 14ers knows, enjoyment generally decreases relative to the number of people on the trail. On a busy day on Half Dome, the cables could be more densely populated than a New York City block. The masses transform what is federally-designated wilderness into Disney World.

This raises important questions about the management of these areas that, while originally established as national parks with less-strict mandates, are now managed as wilderness areas. In 1984, Congress designated 95 percent of Yosemite National Park, including Half Dome and the Half Dome Trail, as a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS).

The NWPS was created in the legislation that established the Wilderness Act of 1964. That act defines wilderness as a place that should retain its “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” What’s happening at Half Dome has clear physical impacts that defy wilderness character, including damage to vegetation, wildlife habituation and litter and feces along the trail corridor.

The act also addresses more subjective concepts of wilderness, saying that the 109 million acres in the NWPS should have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Clearly, at Half Dome—and in other designated wilderness areas like Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone—the aesthetic ideals of wilderness, by some people’s standards, are being crowded out.

As visitation to wilderness areas increases, how much or little should the park service do to bring these areas into compliance with the Wilderness Act? At Half Dome, the management options under consideration run the gamut from allowing a free-for-all to removing the cables entirely. What are your standards for wilderness? Tell the park service by March 15.

~Heather Hansen

Comment on the Half Dome EA.
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