Although the summit of Half Dome remains a symbol of the American Wilderness ideal, seeing photos of the 1,200 some people who hike the 8 mile trail to the summit daily during peak season is oddly reminiscent of a frenzied herd of cattle during feeding time. There seem to be two main issues rearing their heads in Yosemite National Park’s recently published Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan. One is regulating the sheer volume of visitors per day during high season, and the other is whether the metal cable “handrails” (that run the last 400 feet of 45 degree slick rock up the east face) are in compliance with the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Let us preface by saying….rest easy. No one has suggested a permit should be required to climb Half Dome via a technical route or to use the cables as a descent from a technical climb. The main issue is regulating the hordes of hikers who are flocking to Half Dome. To this end, the Park will likely impose new permitting guidelines that would limit the number of users allowed on the towering granite monolith to 400 people per day (300 per day after 2013 ). Before the trial permitting system was implemented in 2010, approximately 400 people used this trail on weekdays, while about an average of 800 people used this trail on weekends and holidays. Virtually no climbers will be affected by this new policy, other than fewer hikers to negotiate as you descend the cables.
The metal cables have assisted recreational users to access the breathtaking summit of Half Dome for almost 100 years—they were installed by the Sierra Club way back in 1919. There is, however, some controversy surrounding their existence, as Half Dome lies within a federally designated Wilderness area. The Wilderness Act mandates that lands designated as Federal Wilderness be areas “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and that provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined” recreation. The Act also prohibits structures and installations “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area.” Even though the cables predate the Wilderness Act by 45 years, at least one advocacy group has suggested they are inconsistent with the Act and should be removed.
So, while this issue should not affect the technical ascent of Half Dome by climbers, most climbing parties use the cables to walk off the summit. Without them, it would be a much sketchier descent, and would probably require bolted rappel stations. The Access Fund supports the continued existence and unrestricted use of the cables route for descending Half Dome but does acknowledge the need for the NPS to address concerns related to public safety and wilderness values.
The Access Fund urges you to weigh in on this issue. Yosemite National Park is accepting public comment on the Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan until March 15, 2012. If this issue is important to you, then make yourself heard!