Rush hour on Half Dome. Photo: DirectCutter
I'll never forget the moment I first glimpsed the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. It was 2001 and I had recently moved to San Francisco for a job editing an outdoor sports website. Then the Internet bubble popped and I found myself trying to scrape together a living as a freelancer. I was on a solo roadtrip in early June, headed to Mammoth Mountain to test some snowboard boots. I rounded a corner on Big Oak Flat Road and the dome came into view. I literally, audibly, gasped. Then I started to cry. I had to pull off the road. I remember thinking two things: that is shockingly beautiful, and driving this road while gazing at this monolith is quite dangerous.
Also dangerous is scaling to the top of Half Dome, despite the fact that a cable banister extends up the final, steep 400-foot stretch to the summit. At least five people have died along the cables since 2006, according to the Associated Press. Most have slipped on the wet or icy rock during storms. To alleviate the crowding along the cables, the park announced its decision to roll out a system of day-use permits, which will limit the number of hikers accessing the two-mile section from the John Muir Trail to the Half Dome summit to 300 per day. The park expects this will reduce crowding on the cables, thereby making them safer as well as accommodating a faster descent to avoid an approaching storm.
The decision comes at the end of a multi-year Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan that included five management options, ranging from no change, to limiting permits to 400, 300, or 140 hikers per day, to actually removing the cables. Other options that were earlier considered but dismissed included adding another cable to give more aid to descending hikers, and actually removing Half Dome from Yosemite's wilderness boundaries. If it were not designated wilderness, park officials would not have needed to factor in the need for solitude, as required by the Wilderness Act.
Before the trail stewardship program started, the dome was seeing traffic rise to truly untenable numbers: up to 1,200 hikers in a single day. Good luck finding any semblance of solitude in that crowd. But it's hard to imagine the park would have ever considered lifting the wilderness designation—it would have caused such uproar. The NPS also would have caused quite a stir if it had gone to the other extreme and removed the cables altogether. In that case, only climbers could access the dome.
The wilderness advocates at Wilderness Watch think that would be just fine. "Though many current visitors to the top of Half Dome might not be able to reach the summit without the cables," it writes, "those visitors prepared for wilderness conditions and technical climbing could still do so. The crowding problems would be alleviated, and the wilderness character of Half Dome and its trail would be restored."
The Sierra Club installed those cables back in 1919 in order to encourage more hikers to try reaching the summit. I'm guessing that millions have done so, thanks to the aid. Would making the summit harder to access really restore its wilderness character? It might, insofar as the crowds would be kept to the valley floor (4.1 million people visited Yosemite National Park in 2011). But does that matter?
People are dumb. They feed wildlife. They take silly risks. They don't drink enough water. If they do, they toss their empty, single-use water bottles into the trees. If fewer people were able to access Half Dome, fewer dumb people would access Half Dome. But the same number of dumb people will still be in Yosemite, as far as I can figure.
But, on the other hand, maybe people who are so committed to see the world from atop Half Dome that they'll hike about eight strenuous miles to get up there and another eight to get back down will be transformed by the experience. Maybe some will be inspired to advocate for wilderness.
And maybe not, but the point is this: we've got bigger issues to worry about in (and outside of) our national parks. In other words, welcome to the Anthropocene. Climate change doesn't observe park boundaries. Glacier National Park is likely going to be without glaciers within most of our lifetimes. Forests are succumbing to drought and pests. Coastal parks are facing rising seas and increasingly fierce storms.
The hikers that visit Yosemite and other national parks might be damaging wilderness more by getting themselves to and from the parks than by treading on trails. A survey of Yosemite visitors taken in 2005 showed that 74 percent of respondents arrived to the park in a private vehicle, and just two percent arrived by bicycle. The National Park System is recognizing the impact of transportation but can only really change the infrastructure within its parks. Thankfully some outside agencies are starting to see opportunities to link parks with surrounding communities more sustainably, but every park needs programs like the Linx bus system, because, right now, private vehicles are the only tenable option most people have for accessing remote national parks.
Was driving solo to Mammoth Lakes to review a pair of snowboard boots back in 2001 a boner move? Probably. I could say, well, it's just about 500 miles of driving. Those carbon emissions are a drop in the bucket. Then again, buckets fill up with lots of drops.
NPS director Jonathan Jarvis told me last year that the park service has moved beyond the mitigation stage and is developing strategies to adapt to climate change. But bigger-picture stewardship in the park system is facing major budget roadblocks.
I appreciate the value and increasing scarcity of solitude and wilderness. I don't fault Wilderness Watch for taking its position. That's its mandate, really. The cables would never fly if they were introduced today—they violate the Wilderness Act, for one thing. But I think we should deal with it and pick more important battles.
—Mary Catherine O'Connor