FRESNO — In an effort to better regulate the number of hikers using the cable system to the top of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park will begin requiring day-use permits for the popular climb when the cables are put back up in May.
This interim program, implemented by the National Park Service, is being done in an effort to address safety issues that have arisen from crowding, which has led to unsafe conditions and long waits.
The Half Dome day-use permits will be required only on weekends, including Fridays, as well as holidays. Four hundred will be issued per day, with 100 of those to be included in wilderness permits.
The permits are required for the use of the trail from the base of the subdome to the summit of Half Dome and include the Half Dome cable route.
In 1870, California's top geologist described Half Dome as "perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which has never been and never will be trodden by human foot." Josiah D. Whitney underestimated man's ingenuity. Five years after he wrote those words, a Scottish carpenter named George Anderson spent a week drilling eyebolts into the rock and setting fixed ropes on Half Dome's east face, the one hidden from the valley floor.
Today, Half Dome is nothing less than the signature Yosemite hike and one of the most famous in the world. On virtually every sunny day in summer and fall, hundreds of people reach the summit, grasping a cable handrail near the original ascent route to pull themselves up the treacherous final section.
Something had to be done about overcrowding on the Half Dome cables.
On that point, there's no room for debate.
But the solution the National Park Service came up with recently — limiting access to 400 permit holders on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays — is heavy-handed.
The interim program will be in place this summer and next before Yosemite National Park officials decide whether it becomes permanent.
To be fair, the park service didn't just randomly pick that number. In the summer of 2008, rangers did an extensive study on Half Dome Trail usage and produced a 110-page report that is equal parts enlightening and mind-numbing. (Read it yourself by going to www.nps.gov/yose and searching under nature and science.) In recent years, more people have fallen to their deaths from the Half Dome cables than at any period since 1920, when they were erected by the Sierra Club to provide summit access to visitors without technical rock climbing skills.
Before going any further, let's acknowledge that some of those poor souls ignored obvious warning signs ("Hmm, I wonder if it's safe to be grasping metal cables during a lightning storm."). Others heightened the risk by hiking in the off-season, when the posts that support the cable handrails are lowered to the granite surface.
But dangerous situations can exist even on glorious summer afternoons, almost all of them because of overcrowding.
Under optimal conditions, it shouldn't take more than five minutes for most hikers to ascend and descend the cables, which span about 440 feet on Half Dome's east face.
Go up there on a Saturday in August, when the cables resemble a caterpillar of people, and it can take up to an hour.
It doesn't take a philosopher to reason that the more time one spends on the cables, the greater the chance of a fall.
But allowing just 400 people per day — less than half the number who attempt the hike on a typical day — is far too restrictive. Especially since those permits will be available only if purchased months in advance.
A better solution would be to install a third row of cables next to the original two and create up and down "lanes." That way, if someone panics and refuses to move (as happens quite a bit), the flow of traffic would be impeded only in one direction.
Did the park service consider this option? Not even for a nanosecond.
Why? Because the area around Half Dome is designated wilderness, and no "improvements" can be made that affect the area's natural character.
Of course, that explanation, provided by park spokesman Scott Gediman, just raises more questions.
If the area really is wilderness, why are the cables there in the first place? Answer: They were built before the designation and therefore grandfathered in. How convenient.
And if the area really is wilderness, why are there permanent restrooms at Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall and Little Yosemite Valley? Answer: Because the trail would be completely gross (my word, not Gedimen's) without them.
To be sure, there are folks who'd like nothing better than to permanently remove the Half Dome cables. Given the chance, they'd also probably tear down the Ahwahnee.
And there are others who advocate a tramway from the valley floor to Glacier Point. (Ansel Adams among them, believe it or not.) When it comes to Yosemite, there's always room for argument.
But here's something that can't be disputed: The world's most famous hike just got even harder to do.