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Safety concerns lead to new Yosemite permit system for Half Dome cable access

The park will limit access on high-traffic days, requiring reservations at least a week in advance, for a fee of $1.50.

February 28, 2010|By Christopher Reynolds
  • Four fatalities have occurred in the last four years among hikers using the cables atop Yosemite's Half Dome peak.
Four fatalities have occurred in the last four years among hikers using… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Alarmed by crowded conditions and four fatalities in four years at hikers' cables near the top of Yosemite's iconic Half Dome, park officials are implementing steps to cut foot traffic in half on peak vacation days.

They are imposing a temporary permit system that limits summer weekend and holiday foot traffic to 400 people a day at the top of the trail. Instead of simply heading up the mountain, hikers will need to reserve a permit at least a week in advance by Internet or phone and pay a processing fee of $1.50.

That will guarantee access to the 400-foot cables that help most visitors climb to the top from late May through mid-October. The change doesn't affect technical rock climbers, who will be allowed to climb to the top of Half Dome via other routes, then descend on the cables without a permit.

The first permits, to cover hiking dates in late May, go on sale Monday. A rapid sellout is expected.

"There is a problem, and we need to do something about it," said park spokesman Scott Gediman, citing support from outdoor recreation groups including Access Fund and the American Alpine Club.

Park officials say use of the Half Dome cables has steadily increased over the last 20 years, sometimes resulting in perilous crowding when rain and the threat of lightning strikes force hikers to descend quickly from the summit.

On typical summer weekdays in the last few years, park officials say, 390 hikers and backpackers used the cables daily. But on weekends, rangers say, the figure has soared to an average of 800 hikers per day, and on some days 1,100 or 1,200.

On days like that, Gediman said, "we've had reports of people waiting an hour just to get on the cables, and then spending 30 to 40 minutes on the cables each way." Apart from the heightened danger near the summit, Gediman said, hikers on those days often don't get off the trail until long after dark -- another risk.

But in their bid to make the hike safer, park officials are stepping into thorny territory, where safety, resource preservation and beloved tradition are all in competition.

Those steel cables may not be natural, but they've been a permit-free part of the park experience, helping hikers bag Yosemite's most recognizable mountain, for more than 90 years. And until 2006, researchers say, just three hikers using the cables had died in 87 years, one of them of an apparent heart attack.

Even the coauthors of the definitive book on Yosemite deaths can't agree on the park's new move.

"If they are implementing a permit system in the name of safety, I think the Park Service is overreacting," said Charles "Butch" Farabee Jr., who served as a Yosemite ranger from 1971 to 1981 and co-wrote the 2007 book "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite."

"You can't ignore those four deaths," countered Farabee's co-author, Michael P. Ghiglieri, a veteran of many search and rescue operations in the Grand Canyon area.

"Statistically, it's very spooky, because there haven't been that many other fatalities in recent years in Yosemite." (Two of the four Half Dome deaths since 2006 were hikers who tried to use the cables in non-summer months, when the cables lie flat on the granite and rangers discourage visitors from attempting the hike. The most recent death came on a Saturday last June when hiker Manoj Kumar, a 40-year-old software engineer from San Ramon, fell to his death from the cables in crowded conditions during rain and hail.)

Yosemite has faced safety-preservation-tradition puzzles like this before. In 1968, rangers abandoned the long-standing "artificial attraction" of nightly "fire falls," in which glowing embers were dumped from Glacier Point for the entertainment of spectators in the valley below. From the 1920s until the 1940s, rangers staged nightly bear feedings at a flood-lighted viewing platform, charging admission and ferrying visitors by bus to watch the show. Only after many maulings of visitors did the park ban bear-feeding.

Because Yosemite is among the oldest national parks, "there are a lot of goofy traditions," said Ghiglieri.

Looming 8,842 feet above sea level and more than 4,500 feet above the valley floor, Half Dome may be California's most familiar mountain feature, one that lures hikers of all stripes uphill in the same way that the Grand Canyon's demanding Bright Angel Trail beckons them downhill.

Though early accounts called Half Dome "perfectly inaccessible," climber George Anderson conquered it in 1875 by drilling holes in the granite and placing bolts in them. Over time, adventurers blazed the Half Dome Trail, which is about 8 1/2 miles one way, gains 4,400 feet in elevation from the valley floor and typically takes 10 to 12 hours for a round trip.

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