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.