The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 112: Ticket to Half Dome

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Is this national park attraction too attractive? How many visitors makes a wilderness not like a wilderness? This week on The WildeBeat; Ticket to Half Dome.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one twelve.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Half Dome is probably the best known mountain peak in Yosemite National Park. In fact, for many people around the world, this iconic landmark is the symbol of the park. And because it's so closely associated with the park, Half Dome is a popular attraction. The park estimates that fifty thousand people a year climb to the summit of Half Dome.

STEVE: I hiked up to the base of Half Dome one Sunday this past September.

THOMAS HERRERA: It's kind of intimidating...

STEVE: I met Thomas Herrera on his hike back down.

THOMAS HERRERA: have the very smooth surface of the rock, with the cables protruding from it, and when you look online sometimes they'll say that the angle of the surface is about forty five degrees, but when you look up at it, it's nowhere near forty five degrees, it's somewhere between sixty and maybe sixty five degrees.

STEVE: Rick Deutsch is the author of the book, One Best Hike, Yosemite's Half Dome.

RICK DEUTSCH: The cables have been up since nineteen nineteen. It was first climbed in eighteen seventy five. It's something that's there, it allowed the population to get up and experience things that they couldn't otherwise. So the cables are merely an aid.

STEVE: They may be merely an aid, but that aid makes a difference to many thousands of people. You see, without them, the climb to the top of Half Dome would require skills and cababilities that few people have. In any given year, only a limited group of rock climbers, probably less than a hundred or so, would be able to climb to the top of Half Dome. But climbing it, even with the steel cables, is still a strenuous trip. And there are risks.

SCOTT GEDIMAN: In Yosemite National Park, we have anywhere from twelve to fifteen fatalaties a year. And this is park-wide, and these are everything from natural causes; folks have heart attacks, things like that. We also have accidents, we have drownings, people fall off of cliffs, people do things they just shouldn't do.

STEVE: Scott Gediman is the spokesman for Yosemite National Park.

SCOTT GEDIMAN: And so with the Half Dome situation, the fact that we've had three fatalities in the last year, two of them were when the cables were down. People still go up there when the cables are down, it's highly, highly discouraged. ...and when the Japanese hiker fell to his death, it was the first time in seventy years that someone had falled to their death when the cables were up. We feel the park's responsibility stops at providing information, and providing information about the trail and the conditions and the altitude. And once the visitor hits the trail, it's the visitor's responsibility to take care of themselves. That, of course, is one of the characteristics of wilderness, is that visitors are self-sufficient.

RICK DEUTSCH: ...When you realize that no one ever fell until two thousand seven, off the cables when they were up for the summer, I think the cables are a safe, recreational item...

STEVE: This is Rich Deutsch.

RICK DEUTSCH: I think that once people start doing the Half Dome cable route, they get exposed to things like rock climbing. I know myself, I've never done rock climbing, I've kind of been, you know, wary of doing it. But having seen climbers going up now... and I think it makes me want to reach out and try to extend myself, and try to do more than just laying on the couch watching the video of something. I will be the first to say this is not an extremely easy trip. It's an extremely strenuous trip. The park service classes only the Half Dome hike in their guide book when you arrive at the park as extremely strenuous. This is not an easy day hike. People who go up without education, without any understanding of what they're in for, might think it's just a one-day hike and we can do it with one liter of water for three people... I highly encourage people to take two months to get into shape, get their boots in shape, if they have asthma, issues like that, to get a physical. So I definitely don't call this an easy hike. I think people that drive up one day, get a brochure and say, "Half Dome, I can do that." They're really mistaken, and those are the people that need the education... But it's common sense. Bringing enough water, having adequate shoes that aren't smooth-soled tennis shoes... Bringing gloves for the cables... It will take a good person twelve hours. A first-timer will probably take thirteen or fourteen depending on their age and condition.

KAREN HAMILTON: Actually, it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be,

STEVE: Karen Hamilton was another Half Dome climber I met on her way down.

KAREN HAMILTON: ...and I wasn't afraid because I didn't look on either side of me, and I just went straight up. But, it does require a great deal of muscle strength in your arms, which surprised me... But I noticed a lot of people that were going up, if they didn't have it, they were struggling, and I saw them come down and up all different ways. Some on their butts, you know, just sliding down. Some almost on their knees. Some on the outside of the cable. Some almost crawling, but they all made it. There were no accidents or casualties while we were up there. And when you get up to the top, it's just -- it's incredible. But you're too tired to really enjoy it for a few minutes because you're [panting].

STEVE: So you're in what is called the Yosemite Wilderness. It's actually an area designated by congress to have protection under the nineteen sixty four Wilderness Act. And the Wilderness Act states that wilderness is set aside for primitive and unconfined recreation where people can find peace and solitude. Do you think that was part of your experience today?

KAREN HAMILTON: No. Because it's too many people... so I wouldn't say it's real primitive or for peace and solitude, no. ...And I would think, with the amount of people that we saw today, and we were told it's not that crowded on Sundays, that it takes a lot away from it.

SCOTT GEDIMAN: We do feel it is a wilderness experience, it does provide that for people.

STEVE: This is Scott Gediman.

SCOTT GEDIMAN: ...although the amount of people, I think, to a lot of individual visitors, ...they may feel that it doesn't seem like wilderness, but we still feel it does provide the wilderness experience as was intended in the wilderness act. ...And so, although there's a lot of people, and the numbers ...that go on that trail, are very, very high for wilderness, I don't know if they're the highest for any wilderness area across the country, but I'm sure they're certainly up there. And so from a management perspective, it's a challenge for us as park managers to maintain the wilderness character and also the wilderness experience for folks that are hiking along that trail.

STEVE: Scott says that in spite of the traffic, there are no plans for a permit system to regulate the day-use traffic on the Half Dome trail. Other popular high mountain peaks, such as Mount Whitney, do limit traffic using a permit system.

SCOTT GEDIMAN: ...and so the cables certainly wouldn't be built today, ...but I think when George Anderson actually installed those way back when, he created an attraction for people. And I hesitate to use the word attraction, but that's what it is... And so for a lot of people, they come here and that's something they want to do... and that's fine for the majority of people that go up there and they do it, and have a great time, and they have a great story to tell, and there's really no harm done.

STEVE: Laurel Boyers recently retired from a thirty-one year career maintaining and managing the ninety five percent of Yosemite Park that is wilderness.

LAUREL BOYERS: The Half Dome trail, ...because of the amount of use up there, you're generally with other people in sight, sometimes really close to you, in sight. So it's quite a different experience... What I would encourage them instead is to go do another part of the park... Do a real wilderness trip, because Half Dome, even though it is located in wilderness, it's designated wilderness, it's such an anomaly for this park, or for any wilderness.

STEVE: The last hiker I met on my way back down was Francis Engler. His larger backpack told me he was prepared for a longer trip.

FRANCIS ENGLER: I'm heading up the John Muir Trail, and I'm going to hike to the other side of Yosemite and then decide how I'm feeling, and maybe make it to Red Meadow, up the Muir Trail.

STEVE: You going to give a shot at climbing Half Dome?

FRANCIS ENGLER: No. No, ...I'd rather get back into the lakes back in the backcountry.

STEVE: Well, an awful lot of people are climbing Half Dome in a day. I've talked to dozens of them already. And for them, the idea of getting into the backcountry seems really extreme and something that they would never do.

FRANCIS ENGLER: That's funny, because I think like trying to hike Half Dome, you know, seventeen miles in one day is kind of extreme. So I'd rather just take a -- keep my pack with me and hike whatever I feel like hiking in a day, and sit down and fish afterwards, and read a book, I think that's less extreme than running myself all over the park in a day.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your experiences on the Half Dome trail, your thoughts about other over used wilderness areas, or any other comments you might have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to information about Rick Deutsch's book, other wilderness information about Yosemite National Park, and a extended version of this show, on our web site.

STEVE: WildeBeat members can download an extended interview with Yosemite's Scott Gediman from our WildeBeat Insiders web pages. For a limited time, become a WildeBeat member and get up to five books as thank you gifts, courtesy of Wilderness Press.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. You can help us help more folks to appreciate our wild public lands, by clicking on our support link to become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one twelve. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- Making Tracks in Utah.

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