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Scaling back flirtation with death on Half Dome

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POSTED February 12, 2010 3:00 a.m.
Sanity is about to return to one of Yosemite’s most enduring features – Half Dome.

The National Park Service is going to start requiring permits from May 21 through mid-October for those who want to hike to the top of Half Dome on Fridays, Saturdays Sundays, and holidays.

Like much of Yosemite’s more famous destinations Half Dome is becoming severely overused.

The concern isn’t environmental as much as it is too many people with a large number being inexperienced and unprepared. A death a year has happened in the past four years from people falling off the slick side of the treacherous granite featuring a 44 percent average grade to cover the final vertical gain of 400 feet.

Despite warnings that gloves should be used before starting the hike, many weekend tourists don’t bring them. They are also often wearing footwear that makes ascending - and descending – the steep steps with only the help of two steel cables a dangerous proposition.

Complicating it are the sheer numbers with as many as 1,200 hikers on a given weekend day or holiday. It should be a 15-minute trip to the summit. Huge crowds made worse by those trying to reach the 8,842-foot high summit who are either frail or not in decent shape turn what should be a 15-minute trip up or down into a 90-minute one-way odyssey that often has serious consequences.

Deaths, near fatal falls and people being stranded on top due to not being equipped to deal with inclement weather when descending Half Dome in such conditions are ongoing problems.

The two-year trial period for permits will allow only 400 hikers a day on Half Dome on weekends or holidays.

Half Dome is a challenge. There’s little doubt.
But nothing can turn the challenge of covering the last leg of the 8.5-mile one-way hike into a stressful experience better than being caught behind a petrified child or someone who is having extreme difficulty climbing and breathing.

Yet you can understand why someone who has spent the good part of the morning and early afternoon hiking 8.5 miles isn’t about to back down from the last 400 feet of elevation gain spread over a 900-foot long stairway that is dangerous under the best of conditions. The permit system should discourage those who hike Half Dome on a whim.

Limiting the number of people allowed on the trail should work. It’s been effective in the Mt. Whitney Wilderness Area where no more than 185 people are allowed at any given time.

Even so, it often seems like Mt. Whitney is crowded. Many more people, though, and the narrow trails that lead up the spine of the Sierra to the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,496 feet would be even more treacherous.

And even with the Mt. Whitney permit system, you sometimes get day hikers who go in unprepared.

They seem genuinely shocked that they can’t secure water along much of the route that is above the tree line or the fact the sun is a major issue or that one might have thought to bring along basic items such as food and even emergency first aid kits.

People should be encouraged to access national parks and wildernesses. Even so, some who have blasted folks they call “nature snobs” for advocating caps on people allowed to transverse relatively pristine areas need to understand that without reasonable limits on access you run the real good chance of destroying places like Yosemite for future generations.

The cap on hikers on Half Dome is long overdue.

What needs to be done next is to come to an agreement on significantly reducing vehicles – starting with banning day visitors in private cars – that can access the valley floor.

The National Park Service shouldn’t be pressured to treat Yosemite National Park as if it is nothing more than an au natural Disneyland. Real concessions need to be made about controlling the number of visitors as well as cutting back vehicle access by using parking facilities outside the park and relying on a bus system.

A balance needs to be stricken between access and stewardship as well as safety.

Issuing a limited number of permits on weekends to hike Half Dome is a step in the right direction.
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