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Half Dome Chock-Full of Weekend Hikers

Parks: Visitors crowd scenic trail in Yosemite as long-needed repairs restrict weekday access.

July 15, 2002|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — They came in high-tech hiking gear and flimsy sneakers, donning bikini tops and religious garb. They celebrated birthdays and commemorated deaths.

Sweating, smiling, and at times cursing and crying, they braved dehydration, afternoon thunderstorms and throbbing knees to haul themselves up steel cables that traverse Half Dome's sloping northeast face, following a route first forged in 1919 by an awe-struck Scotsman.

Hundreds of hikers young and old made the grueling 16.4-mile round-trip pilgrimage Saturday to Half Dome's majestic cap, in a prelude to a summer of exceptionally crowded weekends at the park's best-known granite icon.

The Half Dome corridor is Yosemite National Park's most crowded under normal circumstances. But long-needed trail repairs that began July 8 and continue through Sept. 19 are restricting weekday access to the dome for the first time in decades--and possibly in the park's history. And that means even bigger weekend throngs on the dizzying cable thoroughfare.

Saturday marked the first weekend day since the partial closure took effect. Logjams on the cable ladder had some hikers panicking and others turning back in frustration. But to the majority of the white-knuckled hikers who inched like ants up the treacherous granite wall, it was a small price to pay for breathtaking park panoramas and a sense of personal accomplishment.

"It's the typical California traffic jam, but it sure is worth it," joked Bentley LaBaron, 25, of Oakdale, who made his third ascent up Half Dome on Saturday, this time carrying his 5-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, on his chest to the base of the cables.

In a two-hour midday stretch alone, as thunderclouds massed to the east, hundreds of hikers trudged up the final half-mile of crumbling hand-placed granite stairs to pluck gloves from a pile at the base of the cables and attempt the summit.

A few embarked from reserved campsites in Little Yosemite Valley about four miles below. But the vast majority hiked the full 8.2 miles--and more than 4,800 feet--from the valley floor to stand exhilarated on Half Dome's tilted peak 8,836 feet above sea level.

Park spokeswoman Deb Schweizer estimated that about 2,000 people embark on the hike on a typical summer weekend, although far fewer make it to the top.

Visitors have rearranged their weekday plans to hike the dome Friday through Sunday, when the trail restrictions are lifted, Schweizer said.

The well-groomed John Muir Trail winds from the valley floor through stands of Douglas fir and gold cup oak to Vernal Falls and its 320-foot vertical plunge. There, hikers can detour through the mist trail, soaked by a fine spray, past the top of the falls.

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Parade of Hikers

The Muir trail picks up again past spectacular Nevada Falls, where the rush of water creates its own wind, then levels out through broad Little Yosemite Valley--scattered with lodgepole and Jeffrey pine--before winding up to reach the base of the stairs.

Saturday's steady parade of humanity included boys with green hair, vacationing families with cranky children in tow and an occasional crazed athlete who ran nearly naked up the steep terrain. Hiking in their midst was an Old German Baptist Brethren church group--young women dressed in gauze bonnets, tennis shoes and long pastel dresses--in California to attend a church camp outside Modesto. The women, whose beliefs are similar to the Amish, turned heads as they gripped the cables to inch their way up the rock in antiquated religious attire.

"I would die if I had to wear all those clothes," said an exhausted Charlene Martinez, 20, of Garden Grove, who made the climb in a bikini top with two girlfriends. "I can barely walk as it is, let alone have a dress to trip over."

For decades now, conquering Half Dome's face has become a ritual of personal achievement and a backdrop to commemorate life's turning points. While only hard-core rock climbers can climb the flattened face tourists see from the Valley floor, the cable route has made the journey passable to just about anyone with stamina and guts.

In 1865 the United States Geological Survey characterized the dome as "perfectly inaccessible ... being probably the only one of all the prominent points about Yosemite which has never been, and never will be, trodden by human foot."

Just a decade later, Scottish carpenter George Anderson made the first recorded ascent, pounding bolts into the granite and connecting them with ropes to create the first ladder. Steel cables were installed in 1919 by the Sierra Club and replaced, first in 1934, then in 1984, by thicker cables, said park historian Jim Snyder. Wooden 2x4s are fastened to the rock under the cables, serving as a resting place for weary climbers' feet.

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