Good intentions bad

yosemite cables

Hikers waiting to use the cables to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome/National Park Service photo

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.

The result?

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.”

Three hikers have died after being hit by lightning on Half Dome, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

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.









20 replies »

  1. John Muir would be sorely disappointed with the state of Yosemite and what the park service has done with it. There are plenty of beautiful places that few people ever see inside the park, but since most only go to the valley they will never see. The last time I was there I sat in a traffic jam for hours, we were coming back from the Eastern Sierra and it turned out it would have been quicker to drive around the park entirely. Yosemite in winter sure is a blast, the park is almost empty and when you wander off the open trails there is nobody for miles, not that I would advise that…

  2. Population 2018:
    CA – 40 million
    AK – 737,500

    The moral of the story – Skip Yosemite.

    • “On average, there are 126 sunny days per year in Anchorage. 
      On average, there are 268 sunny days per year in Yosemite Valley”…
      Maybe the moral of the story is the Sunshine and Stellar Granite are worth the crowds?
      But truth be told there is a LOT of wilderness still left in Yosemite N.P., just not on the most popular routes on the most popular summits in “the valley”.

  3. “Because it is there”, I have never understood that reasoning. I was just as competitive in jr high & high school. I did jr high football & track. High school X Country, wresting & track. My father climbed Mt. Rainier. Okay, got it, though putting oneself in harm’s way, is not logical. The more risks a person takes, the higher % of accidents and injuries, in the long run.
    Mt. Everest is warming up. The trash, human waste and dead bodies are being uncovered, and are being brought down the mountain. I bet that is a lot of fun. Instead of testing themselves to bolster their egos, maybe a little self medication might help. Only a suggestion.

    • The Wright Brothers, Apollo Missions, Captain Albert Berry, Lindbergh and Earhart, etc.. Why? “Because it was there”…
      Oh, it is heating up huh – “The climate of Mount Everest is naturally extreme. In January, the coldest month, the summit temperature averages about -36° C (about -33° F) and can drop as low as -60° C (-76° F). In July, the warmest month, the average summit temperature is -19° C (-2° F).”

      • Go ahead Bryan and make my day!
        I am speaking about people who take intentional and necessary risks. The guy who went mountain climbing by himself, got stuck had to cut off his arm, at his elbow. A prominent travel writer, went on day hike in Joshua Tree, got off the path climbed some boulders, slipped and fell, broke her pelvis. Could not move, drank her own urine to survive, spent 3 nights and 4 days before she was rescued. The bear lover in AK, who was eaten by a brownie. “Into the wild” guy who passed, cause he could eat.
        It is a fact that the snow and ice is melting and retreating on Mt. Everest, uncovering decades of trash, human waste and bodies. That is what I am talking about, while you get all your news from POTUS’s Twitter feed, Fox News & Fox & Friends. How is that working for you now? Bolster you self esteem and manhood?

      • Almost 300 people have died on Everest. Of course bodies will surface. As for Everest ice and bodies, it is all dependent upon annual precepitation, extremely dry and cold air, along with blistering winds exposing bodies. Also, In many regions of the world, glaciers, great rivers of ice are melting. From the Himalayan Mountains to other areas of our globe, we have documented the loss of glaciers. But there are regions in our world where glaciers are actually growing.
        The Karakoram Mountain Range’s snowy peaks lie along the border of India, Pakistan and China. Here you will find the infamous K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, next to Mount Everest. Its reputation as the “Savage Mountain” is well earned, with every fourth person trying an ascent losing their life.
        Scientists from the National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Grenoble have used satellite data that clearly shows glaciers in the Karakoram Range, lying west of the Himalayas, are putting on mass. This is a big story, especially with the erroneous report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. That report stated glaciers in the Himalaya’s would disappear by 2035. Studies found that precipitation over the Himalayan Range had increased in recent years, with rainfall predominate in the warmer summer months, thereby increasing glacier melt. Along the same vein, precipitation in the Karakoram Range occurs mostly in the winter months, falling as snow. “It’s been a source of controversy that these glaciers haven’t been changing while other glaciers in the world have,” said study researcher Sarah Kapnick, a postdoctoral researcher in atmospheric and ocean sciences at Princeton University.

      • Yes Bryan K-2 is a horrible mountain. Just the trip to it can be tough. I lost a great freind to that mountain. He tried to save some Koreans who were dangling upside down from ropes a snow slide knocked him to his death. Every one else had abandoned and gone on . He was First Irishman to summit. Jer McDonald

      • Opinion, seems like Ger was a lively professional who is missed by many. Sorry for your loss. A tragic story.

    • James,
      Let’s not forget that cardiac disease is still the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States.
      Here is a quote from one of Yosemite’s most prolific climbers who was the first person to climb the SW face of Half Dome back in 1946.
      John’s bivy on a small ledge on Half Dome was America’s first “multi day” climb.
      This “alpine style” of climbing would go on to pioneer the future of climbing in Alaska.
      He said:
      “I find that rock climbing is the finest, most healthiest sport in the whole world.
      It is much healthier than most; look at baseball, where 10,000 sit on their ass to watch a handful of players” — John Salathé, 1974.é

      • Johns ,1946 America’s first multi day climb ????? He sounds like a real quack , abandoning his own family eating grasses and preaching religion? Perhaps some confusion. Or someone tooted their own ( horn ) read Hudson stuck first recorded successful ascent of Denali . I’m sure that was by no means Americans first multi day climb perhaps you meant to clarify climb with a rope ? I’m not familiar with johns ascent but Yosemite and Alaskan parks are apples and oranges.

      • Opinion,
        I am not talking about walking up mountains which yes folks spent more than one day out on expeditions before 1946…
        Think sourdoughs.
        I am speaking of what would be a “technical climb” as in a vertical cliff.
        These multi day climbs were already taking place in Europe where Salathe’ came from.
        “In 1946, Salathé and Anton (Ax) Nelson climbed the southwest face of Half Dome. The two climbers spent the night on a small ledge, making it Yosemite’s first climbing route to require a bivouac.”
        Yes, ropes and harness are required for this.
        You may not like John’s vegetarian beliefs, but he was no slacker.
        Blacksmith by trade…John invented the “piton” that would revolutionize the sport of climbing forever.
        These pitons would revolutionize the AK climbing routes as well as steep faces on Mt Hunter and the Ruth Gorge would get their first ascents as Yosemite climbers like Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell came up North.

      • Thanks for clarification ! though it sounds like his horn is rooted pretty loud . People who don’t enter public eye have been doing amazing stuff for a long time . Not worried about vegetarian beliefs. More power to those folks. I’m not tough enough to subsist on a vegetarian diet . What makes me look at him askew was that he left his family.

      • Opinion,
        Hard to say why Salathe left his family?
        Lots of folks go through marital breakups…
        I have friends who walked away from relationships and ultimately seem a lot more pleasant…not sure what happened to John?
        As for John’s climbing achievements…I can tell you that to this day some of his routes are the most challenging in Yosemite.
        Even with today’s sticky rubber and modern ropes, etc….it is still hard to make it up these 1,500 to 3,000 foot faces in Yosemite.
        The Steck-Salathe route on the Sentinel in the Valley was my favorite route when I lived there.
        Honestly, Alaskan climbing and modern ice and rock routes in Alaska have been greatly influenced from Salathe’s “alpine style” of climbing and his removable pitons that he invented.
        Guys like Fred Becky, Yvon Chouinard, Jim Donini, Andy Embick all the way to today’s climbers like Fred Wilkinson and Alex Honnold all honed their climbing skills in Yosemite before heading north into the Alaskan Range.
        It is why climbers call Yosemite “The Center of the Universe”…
        If you ever want to watch a good film on Yosemite climbers than “Valley Uprising” is your best bet.
        It is free on Amazon with Prime membership.

    • Mykland, you seem a fairly reasonable cat. Why on earth do you constantly reply to the village imbecile? You must realize that if he was completely ignored that he would likely move to the Daily Planet or Must Read Alaska? He might even pursue a relationship with Fat Chance Art where he could comfortably suck on his thumb, or something.

      • Thanks Monk for the advice and suggestion, it is timely, since comm fish season is upon us. I may no longer have the time or energy to read and/or even respond to this blog.
        I do miss Bill Y., hope he is doing well!

  4. I can still remember landing on that shoulder of Half Dome with the helicopter when working for YOSAR…
    One of the hikers we rescued with a broken leg sued the Park Service and eventually resulted in them moving to the permit process.
    I believe El Cap is still permit free since the shear difficulty limits participation.
    Rocky Mtn N.P. also has a permit system for “The Diamond” on Long’s Peak and Mt. Shasta and Mt. Rainier require permits as well.

  5. Wow,unreal photo, now thats some experience!Guess things could be worse here.
    Perhaps man will wear down granite face before mother nature does

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