Posted by: GeekHiker | January 7, 2013

Half Dome & The Wilderness

Skimming the recent news on the web a few days ago, I ran across this article about the cable route that goes up the back side of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.  The article talks about how the National Park Service has decided permanently to keep in place a plan limiting the number of people who can ascend the cable route each day to 300, through a permit and lottery system.

I was reminded of when I last hiked Half Dome, over 15 years ago  While I haven’t been back to do it since, it’s a hike that still brings back some pretty vivid memories.  (I’d share the pictures with you, but I was shooting film back then and they’re all in storage at the moment.)  It was a long day, leaving from the Valley and ascending 4,000 feet up, past Nevada and Vernal Falls, through Little Yosemite Valley, then scrambling over the rough staircase on the shoulder before finally facing the narrow path of two cables climbing up the granite.  As you ascend, clinging to the narrow cable, the rock drops off smoothly at a 60 degree angle, all the way to the Valley floor.  It’s one hike you know you don’t want to slip on.

The reward?  As small as it looks in pictures, the top of Half Dome has about 17 square acres of space to run around and explore.  It’s fantastic.

I agree with the decision to keep the numbers limited.  I hiked Half Dome on a weekend in the fall and the crowd was relatively small, but summer weekends over the years would often find the cableway packed with people.   Worse, due to the crowding, some would walk on the outside of the cable, rather than between the two; one misstep or missed hand-hold would be disastrous.  Given the dangers of overcrowding combined with a relatively dangerous location, limits are a good thing.

Oddly, I found myself at a disagreement with the environmentalists cited in the article.  Half Dome is situated in a designated Federal Wilderness Area and, as such, nothing man-made like the cables should be there in the first place.  And, when you read this description in the article, they do sound pretty bad:

There is no doubt that if the decision were made today, there would be no braided steel cables and stanchions drilled into Half Dome. Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, and 20 years later designated 95 percent of Yosemite, including Half Dome, as land that should not be altered by man.

That passage makes the cables seem like a permanent structure, but they’re not.  In fact, they’re removed each winter and put up again each spring.  The only permanent thing is the damage that’s been done to the rock itself: the holes drilled to support the cable.  Everything else is strictly temporary.

Now, admittedly: drilling a bunch of holes in Half Dome sucks.  Were anyone to propose doing the same thing today, I’d find myself squarely on the side of the environmental groups and oppose any plan that would allow such a thing to happen.

But I find myself taking the long view in this case.  The really long view.  The holes are there, and they’ll be there for our lifetimes and generations after us to come.  But in the centuries and eons that lie ahead the same processes that created Half Dome in the first place, the weathering of the layers of rock that make up the dome, will continue.  Eventually, the rock will wear away, and the surface of Half Dome will be as smooth as it ever was.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for preservation, and believe strongly in the idea of wilderness.  I’m also a person with a strong practical streak.  The granite that was in those holes can’t re-form.  They’ll erode away eventually.  Is it wrong to continue to use them now?  If they allow those of us who aren’t able to enter the rarefied air of the rock-climber to ascend Half Dome, is that such a terrible thing?  I don’t think it is.  In fact, I would wager that more than a few who have returned from that hike, who crossed the acres of space at the top and looked out over Yosemite Valley and crawled out to the edge to take in the super-scary downward view, came back with an even greater love and respect for places like Yosemite.

I know I did.

I will admit, though, that there was one other memory of that day that didn’t occur on the trail or at the top.  I still remember arriving back at my car at dusk, and heading straight over to Curry Village, where I bought myself and entire pizza and pitcher of soda.




  1. Like you, I usually side with the environmentalists but also agree that in this case it makes sense to keep the cables. Nice write up.

  2. My folks visited me when I lived in Albuquerque and we took a cable car to the top of the Sandias; they were not the only people in the cable car who commented on “those poor people” hiking up the trail.

    Anyway, agreed on the cable, not least because likely many more people feel protective of Half-Dome than would had they not been able to zip to the top. Sometimes compromise really is better than purity.

    As for the pizza and beer, I remember pigging out after a marathon hike (26 miles) in the Tetons. Ahh, sweet reward.

    • Awesome story! I will admit though that sometimes, when trudging up a particularly grueling section of trail, I am a bit jealous of the birds…

      And yes, pigging out is fun. But more fun when earned. 🙂

  3. I heard about that here on the radio the other day. I’d like to do that in the next couple years.

    After I hiked to the top of my first 14er here in Co the wonderful people sitting next to us on top cracked open a beer and shared it with us, it was great. 2nd best beer I had was this fall when a friend and I went rim-to-rim across the Grand Canyon in a day. We stopped at Phantom Ranch and shared a Tecate. Sure hit the spot.

    • It is an amazing hike. I need to do it again.

      I’d love to do rim-to-rim, though I’m not in as good of shape at the moment and would need to work up to it. I have to admit, though, overnighting at Phantom would be my preference…

      • I spent two nights @phantom the first time I hike it. That was great. It was nice to have a day on the bottom without the outside world to clear my head and sight see. But rim to rim was something I always wanted to do, and then I found someone else dumb enough to take the challenge of rim to rim in a day and couldn’t pass up the chance.

  4. First off, I love that you ate pizza and soda for dinner afterwards. My girlfriends and I did the same thing down in Oakhurst.

    Climbing Half Dome still – 5 years later – remains the scariest thing I think I’ve ever done. And having people come down while you’re going up is pretty terrifying. I think the climber limit idea is a good one. But I would be a little heart broken if they ever took the cables down. As much as I believe we should leave wilderness untouched, part of why I love that idea is so I can go enjoy it! And it doesn’t get much more enjoyable than taking in the view from the top of Half Dome!

    • It is an amazing hike. I really must do it again. I wish I was one of those people who was organized enough in my life to do it on a regular basis, every five or ten years or something like that.

  5. I’ve been to Yosemite twice but never made it on a hike. The first time I was just driving through and it was crowded (labor day weekend). The second time it was too hot (100+). I will
    Be back some day to do half dome if my body holds up.

    • I know that people from 8 to 80 have gone up, so I think you’ll make it somehow. Besides, if you wait long enough and give erosion a little time, the Dome might be a few microns shorter when you get there!

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