The story of Half Dome today is one of continued inspiration, but also of meticulous management to retain the integrity of the Half Dome experience for all. The National Park Service works to provide access to hikers and climbers while also protecting access for future visitors and protecting the unique summit habitat.
A Mountain of Data
Managing a mountain involves lots of data collection. This data includes: the number of applications to hike up the cables; the number of climbers sleeping at the base; the movement patterns of overnight hikers venturing into the Half Dome area; the success of the flora and fauna eking out a life on the summit; the number of bear-human interactions in the Half Dome Trail corridor; and the value of gear destroyed by bears trying to get human food. Collecting all of this data requires scientists, researchers, rangers, databases, and lots of charts. Interpreting this information and turning it into policy requires lots of committees and public hearings.
Half Dome is a different place than it was when George Anderson first ventured onto its summit. There were no committees or permits then. However, these modern changes have come for a reason: Half Dome is more popular than ever.
The 2016 Yosemite season saw 51,010 applications to climb up the cables. Each application can include up to 6 people. The odds of getting a permit hovered around 12% overall. More people apply each year, and thus the chances of getting up the mountain decrease as well.
The number of overnight backpackers heading into Yosemite’s wilderness grew 10% between 2015-2016 to 70,357. Many of those passed through the Half Dome corridor at one point on their trip.
The Future—Keeping Half Dome Wild
With more people than ever wanting to visit Yosemite and struggle their way up the Dome, whether via the cables or a steep rock climb on the Northwest Face, it is more important than ever to educate visitors about protecting the resource through simple Leave-No-Trace actions. What are these principles?
- Plan Ahead & Prepare (As evidenced in the discussion on deaths on Half Dome, all of us can benefit from more preparation.)
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces (Staying on established trails reduces erosion.)
- Dispose of Waste Properly (If you pack it in, pack it out, including toilet paper. Bury feces 200 feet from water sources.)
- Leave Artifacts and Natural Objects You Find
- Minimize Use & Impacts of Fire
- Respect Wildlife (In Yosemite, improper food storage often leads to the euthenization food-habituated of black bears, especially at the Little Yosemite Valley campground that is base camp for many Half Dome hikers.)
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Our actions outside of our parks also affect these lands. Global climate change from human-caused emissions will impact Half Dome. Data from the last 30 years documents a pattern of year-on-year warming. Climate models predict that temperatures in central California will be five to ten degrees Fahrenheit higher by the end of this century. This temperature change will be most profound at higher elevations. Reduced snow packs will affect water supplies for Californians because the snowfields and glaciers of the High Sierra act as huge, natural reservoirs. Higher temperatures and smaller snowpack will also threaten species such as the Lyell salamanders that live on Half Dome’s summit.
The use numbers suggest that humans will play a big roll in the evolution of Half Dome’s story in the coming decades. Yes, there will be the occasional rockfall that changes a climbing route. But the geological story is on a much slower timeline than the human and ecological stories. Will ever-growing numbers of people want to ascend the mountain? From a broader perspective, will the outdoors and our parks, in general, continue to grow in popularity? Will rock climbing continue its meteoric rise from a fringe activity to a mainstream sport? These questions beget more questions. As more climbers aspire to ascend Half Dome’s vertical spaces, will accidents increase as well? At what point will park management be forced to limit the number of people entering the park to protect the natural resources? Will climate change herald the death of those stoic summit hermits, the salamanders?
We can even branch into the philosophical with these questions. How will technology affect people’s desire to climb Half Dome and other famous peaks? Today, people can “hike” the Half Dome Trail using Google Maps. Will this decrease or increase the desire to ascend this landmark?
It is important to recall McAllister’s original intent when he constructed the Cables Route. He wanted to inspire love and care for nature. Hopefully the 50,000 hikers a year attempting the route are discovering love for the wild places of this world and learning to care for them.
All of this pondering aside, we can be confident that Half Dome is not going anywhere. Cultures come and go. Governments collapse. Cities rise and fall. Half Dome, Tis-sa-ack, will be there in a thousand years and another thousand after that, standing guard, tearfully, over the sacred valley the Native Americans called Ahwahnee.