Nine years ago in the name of safety, the National Park Service went to a permit system that capped the number of day hikers and backpackers on the cable-protected trail that forms the last pitch to the top of Half Dome in California’s Yosemite National Park.
A statistically higher death rate on the Dome, researchers from the University of California, San Fransisco and the Stanford University School of Medicine are now reporting in a paper in-press for the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.
The permitting system did reduce the overall number of deaths on the safety cabled stretch of trail that climbs 480-feet to the summit of the Dome, but the death rate actually went up.
While the number of hikers using the cables fell 66 percent in the five-years after permits were required, the study says, the number of fatalities fell by only 50 percent from the five-years before permits.
The speculation is that the difficulty in obtaining permits might be causing people to take greater risks to make it to the top of the mountain thinking they might be facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Permitting has worked better on Alaska’s 20,310-foot Mount Denali, the tallest summit in North America. After the Park Service began requiring permits there in the mid-1990s, the death rate started falling.
It appears, however, to have leveled off in recent years. Denali permits, however, remain easy to obtain. There is a limit of 1,500 climbers per year, but that cap has never been reached. The mountain usually sees less than 1,200 climbers as was the case last year.
More than 20 times as many people apply for Half Dome permits. Only 20 to 25 percent win the lottery, which could be creating problems. The numbers for other incidents on the cables are even more striking than the higher death rate.
Over the course of the five years before permits, Yosemite reported 134 accident victims and 38 major incidents on the top of the Dome. After the number of hikers was reduced to only a third of those previously trekking to the mountain top, the number of major incidents did fall, but only by three to 35, and the number of victims injured in accidents actually increased by 22 to 156.
On the plus side, Park Service spending on search and rescue (SAR) operations in the area went down about $17,500 per year on average, and Park revenues, which were not reported in the study, went up.
There is now a preseason lottery for permits. It requires a nonrefundable, $10 fee to enter. Park Service data reflects 27,000 people applied for permits in 2017 and 19 percent were successful.
At that rate, the Park Service would have raised $218,700 – about eight times the average annual SAR costs – from would-be hikers/backpackers who didn’t get permits.
The original thought behind instituting the permitting system was that overcrowding on the cables was driving up the number of accidents. The data, the researchers led by Susanne Spano from UC-San Francisco reported, “strongly suggests that overcrowding is not the key factor influencing safety on Half Dome.”
Half Dome is within a designated wilderness area in Yosemite. A Half Dome Stewardship Trail Plan cited wilderness management as well as safety as a reason for instituting the permit system. Up to 1,200 people per day were using the cables before permits were instituted.
“Wilderness” versus wild
Lining up to use the cables, compromised “visitors’ opportunities for solitude,” the stewardship plan said.
How exactly the Park Service settled on 300 permits is unclear in the report, which included options for as many as 400 and as few as 140.
“At 140 people per day, maximum day-use levels are expected to always remain below the statistical model threshold for crowding, and there would be no delays while traveling on the cables even during maximum use periods,” the report says, which suggests there could be delays at any level above 140.
Three hundred people per day on most Alaska trails would not be considered “solitude”, but “wilderness” is too a large degree in the eye of the beholder and the location of the national park. Denali National Park and Preserve backpackers are restricted by permit to large units of the park where the number of hiking parties is limited to four to a dozen at a time.
The best argument for restrictions in Yosemite, the stewardship plan said, was that “crowding subjects hikers to long travel times and delays in ascending and descending the Half Dome Cables and may prevent them from getting down from the exposed section of the trail in a timely manner to avoid rain and lightning storms.”
The Park Service rejected the idea of simply removing the cables from the route, which would have discouraged a lot of hikers, as too dangerous from a public safety standpoint. It also rejected the idea of adding a third cable, so as to create an up trail and a down trail to speed travel.
“The NPS dismissed this alternative because reducing opportunities for solitude and adding development in wilderness contradict the objectives of this plan to protect wilderness character and improve the visitor experience in the project area. A third cable would allow continued, extremely high use of the trail resulting in crowding on the trail and summit, with encounter rates that far exceed any other wilderness area in Yosemite or in the U.S.,” the study said.
In terms of visitor use, Yosemite is at the opposite extreme from Alaska’s wilderness parks. Somewhere between 4 and 5 million people per year visit the California park.
Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, a park about three times the size of Yosemite, attracts about an eighth the number of visitors. And Denali is busy by Alaska standards.
Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the world, attracted only 87,159 visitors in its record year of 2012, according to the Park Service. Yosemite attracts 47,000 more visitors than that in the low-use month of January.