Making the day-long trek to the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park will be a bit trickier beginning this summer, as park officials have decided to limit to 300 the number of hikers allowed to reach the dome top each day.
And in a blow to wilderness proponents, the park declined to remove the cables that help hikers ascend the final 400 steep feet to the summit.
"The goal of the Selected Action is to best protect wilderness character while providing a range of wilderness experiences and enhancements to public safety," said the park's approved plan. "In the context of this popular, easily accessible wilderness area, solitude was considered to be an outdoor, recreational experience that was free from crowding. Reducing crowding will improve visitor experiences on the Trail and increase the public’s ability to more safely use the Trail by maintaining free-flowing travel conditions on the cable section of the Trail."
Half Dome long has attracted throngs of hikers -- some experienced, some not, some well-equipped for the task, some not -- and at times there have been accusations that the heavy, unregulated traffic to the top of the iconic dome has played a role in some accidents (some fatal) on the dome's steeply pitched shoulder.
To give you an idea of how crazy it has been reaching the top of Half Dome, in 2008 there were days when upwards of 1,200 people tried to summit the dome, according to Yosemite officials.
But traffic limits don't ensure the safety of hikers. During the summer of 2011, after the park had instituted a permit system to limit daily hiker numbers to 400, a 26-year-old California woman was killed by a 600-foot fall while working her way down the cables on Half Dome.
There had been calls for the Park Service to mothball the cables. The Wilderness Watch group had maintained that the cables don't serve a place in official wilderness. In arguing for the cables' removal, the group noted NPS policies that state, “Park visitors need to accept wilderness on its own unique terms….The National Park Service will not modify the wilderness area to eliminate risks that are normally associated with wilderness.”
"Though many current visitors to the top of Half Dome might not be able to reach the summit without the cables," Wilderness Watch officials added, "those visitors prepared for wilderness conditions and technical climbing could still do so. The crowding problems would be alleviated, and the wilderness character of Half Dome and its trail would be restored."
The plan taking effect this summer encompasses the two-mile section from the John Muir Trail to the summit of Half Dome.
Under the plan, tickets for the climb will be priced somewhere between $6 and $8 and be available through "a first-come, first-served reservation system, a lottery, or a combination of these options. Additionally, the NPS will reserve and distribute a portion of the day-use permits the day of or days before the hiking permit date to allow for more spontaneous use of the Trail."
Upwards of 30 tickets a day will be set aside for commercial trips.