Last week I wrote about a divide in the outdoor community over how American wilderness areas can and should be used. But the whole mountain bike controversy isn’t the only fissure. The latest one deals with one of the most iconic places in the U.S.
Half Dome is one of the most photographed and visited natural features in the country, and for good reason. This massive granite monolith rises thousands of feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, with its glacially carved cliff face daring the most skilled climbers on earth to tackle it.
But it’s on its rounded shoulders that the most visitor traffic comes. Nearly a century ago, park officials installed a series of poles and cables to allow hikers to ascend the less technical but still treacherous slopes without the need of technical climbing gear or skill.
Half Dome, however, exists within a federally established wilderness area. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits the establishment of man-made structures or features within wilderness. The cables predate the law, so they’ve been grandfathered in, so to speak. So wilderness or not, this peak is one of the most accessible places in the park, just as long as you can stomach the steepness of the slope and the effort it takes to pull yourself up the cable route.
The National Park System wants to limit the number of people who can ascend Half Dome. According to an Associated Press report, NPS hopes to reduce the number of hikers scaling Half Dome’s cables from 400 a day during the height of the tourist season to about 300 (not long ago, that number had been an astounding 1,200 a day). The reason is that people get stacked up on the route, creating a hazard for folks who find themselves caught on its slick, exposed surface during storms. Half Dome is the wrong place to be during a storm, as wet rock is very unfriendly to climbers, and lightning is a major risk.
As you might expect, there are people who are opposed to this plan. And more still who think NPS should dismantle the cables altogether. Some quotes from that AP report:
“At the end of the day, if the visitors and users of wilderness aren’t willing to make sacrifices to preserve the wilderness character of these areas, then we just won’t have wilderness. We’ll have some Disney-fied version of it,” said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch.
And the other side:
“If people want solitude in Yosemite, there’s another 12,000 square miles to do that,” counters hiker Pat Townsley, a Bay Area resident who has been to the top nine times.
The battle lines are clear. Access verses preservation.
The story quotes others who make some interesting points. One point: The cables allow more people access to Half Dome, which draws more people out of their living rooms and into the outdoors. I like this argument, as I am a huge fan of getting people outside, moving, and learning to appreciate our nation’s natural heritage.
A counterpoint: If people really want to experience Half Dome on its terms, in its most natural state, they should be willing to commit to learning and practicing the skills needed to climb such a mountain. This is also a very strong argument to me. Wilderness areas are not theme parks. With the exception of Half Dome, they don’t have handrails. They are only as safe as the visitors who go inside make them – through preparation, respect and proper execution of wilderness skills.
There are other, similar examples of this conflict at play. Go to Longs Peak in Colorado, and on the final pitch to the summit, there are bull’s-eyes painted on the rocks to help guide climbers up the steep route to the top called the Homestretch. So much for route-finding.
And the climbing world is afire right now after a pair of mountaineers stitched together an amazing ascent of Argentina’s Cerro Torre, but then proceeded to remove all the bolts that had been hammered into the mountain’s sheer walls by another climber decades ago. Purists love it, but others are outraged.
It’s classic preservation versus access, a rift that continues to divide the outdoor community.
I’d love to stand atop Half Dome. But I’d love to be able to do it without the aid of handrails.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088