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Cables, fraud issues for Half Dome

It's an eight-mile hike from the Yosemite Valley floor to the 8,800-foot summit of the park's iconic Half Dome rock formation.

During busy summer months, hundreds of people a day make the trek, using the steel cables that guide visitors along the last four miles of the breathtaking ascent. The cables "allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment," according to the park's website.

The Half Dome cables are down for the season, the website added. A long-term plan dealing with the management of and access to the cables will be released shortly, it said.

Now two issues surround the geological wonder: fraudulent day passes and an effort to remove the steel cables from the sculpture formed by glaciers eons ago.

Over the past two years, park officials have started issuing a limited number of permits for the trail in an effort to curb dangerous overcrowding. However, officials are now grappling with ways to address illegal sales of the day passes. "We've had scalping issues with Half Dome," said park spokesman Scott Gediman. "We're looking at the way to do permits that alleviates the scalping — IDs, getting them in person."

Rick Deutsch, author of the hikehalfdome.com blog, said he was impersonated by someone using his Mr. Half Dome moniker to sell $1.50 trail permits for as much as $100 on the Internet.

"Some guy is going on Craigslist saying, 'I have permits, just contact me at mrhalfdome@yahoo.com,' " he said. "The bad guys went to my website and farmed email addresses. The park got really upset. They really wanted to nail someone and publicize that you can't do this."

The park is devising several draft proposals for making permanent changes to the Half Dome trail permitting process. Avid outdoor enthusiasts have been eagerly awaiting several draft proposals, which Yosemite Park officials have said will be out by January.

The final plan is aimed at addressing vegetation damage and soil loss on and around the trail as well as severe crowding around the "sub-dome" area, where long lines can form as visitors wait to use the cables during the final steep climb that leads to the top, according to the park's website.

"The primary motivation is safety, visitor safety," Gediman said. "In recent years we've had a lot of fatalities. Before the permits you had 700 to 800 people on some days. I know from experience when you're on the cables and there's gridlock and no one's going up and no one's going down — it's a scary situation."

While safety has ostensibly been driving the long-term planning and permitting process, Gediman said one of the proposals will most likely include taking down the cables altogether.

"The park has received feedback from wilderness enthusiasts to remove the cables for years," he said. "They feel that the cables do not belong in Yosemite's wilderness."

A national group called Wilderness Watch recently penned a letter to Yosemite officials arguing that the cables on Half Dome violated the rock's federal "wilderness" status.

"We recognize that the cable system has been in place for many years, long before the Yosemite Wilderness was designated," wrote George Nickas, executive director. "But like many traditional activities or uses, the system is no longer compatible with broader public goals for the area."

The letter cites a federal lawsuit, and the group's website reads: "Wilderness Watch is committed to citizen oversight, public education and when necessary, legal and legislative action."

Deutsch said he understands the ideology behind the letter but thinks the demands are impractical.

"We have 1,200 square miles of wilderness in Yosemite Park," he said. "Ninety-five percent is wilderness. If they want solitude, you can go less than a mile in either direction and no one will bother you. A group of people are trying to inject their will."

Wilderness Watch couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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