YOSEMITE -- The permit process to climb Half Dome has made the iconic destination safer and more enjoyable, according to park officials.
But hikers making their way up the set of steel cables on the final 400-foot ascent must still cope with the inevitable moment when a nervous hiker freezes up, forcing the entire line into a vertical midair traffic jam on the side of the 8,800-foot granite monolith.
"The lady in front of me started screaming so I freaked out, and I just had to turn around and go back," said Christine Tidslevold, 21, who traveled from Norway with her family to tour California.
It is dangerous especially if you're not prepared, said Duane Poslusny, a law enforcement ranger who checks permits using an iPad at the area known as the Sub-Dome. "It's amazing how many people don't realize what a 16-mile hike with 4,000 feet of elevation gain really is."
However, the park's trial policy of limiting the number of Half Dome hikers has brought the average number of people gripping the cables at any one time down to about 50 during peak hours from roughly 175, according to officials.
"The cables (used to be) backed up like crazy," said Don Meadows, 48, who recently made the trip again with family after five years. "There would be people that would just get angry at other people."
Not only are there less people hiking Half Dome, but because of the permit requirement the average hiker is better-equipped, said Kari Cobb, spokeswoman for the park.
"Now you see people with appropriate footwear, food, water and maps," she said. "The amount of preparedness is considerably greater than before the permit system was in place."
Rick Deutsch, who recently completed his 33rd trip up Half Dome and maintains the blog www.hikehalfdome.com, said the permit process has made people take the hike more seriously.
"What the permits have done is make people think about preparation more," he said. "When you have to go through the permit process, you read all the warnings that they give, you watch the video that the park serv- ice has created and you train for it."
The permit process has also significantly decongested the 12-hour roundtrip hike. Today, hikers can expect to run into about 20 groups an hour, an encounter rate on par with other very popular wilderness attractions. Before the permit process, hikers would see around 60 groups an hour.
The park service currently allows about 400 Half Dome permits to be issued a day.
The permit process, which started in 2010, was amended this year to include a lottery system and a moratorium on transferring permits to address a brief problem with ticket scalpers.
This March an interested individual could apply through the lottery for a group permit for up to six people for days from May 25 and Oct. 8 -- the dates when the cables assisting hikers are in operation.
About 100 permits a day are reserved for hikers with backcountry permits whose itinerary reasonably includes the Half Dome hike.
Because of cancellations and underuse, permits are available two days in advance of a desired date through the lottery system at www.recreation.gov. About one out of five people are successful, according to the park service.
Park officials are currently in the process of finalizing the policy concerning the Half Dome permitting process. A final decision should be announced by early fall.
If everything goes as expected, the park service will cap the number of Half Dome hikers at 300 people a day.
By designating the desired number of people and not permits, the park officials hope to give themselves room to adjust the policy to address the discrepancy between permit holders and actual visitors.
Currently about 250 to 300 people hike Half Dome every day, according to park officials.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.