Half Dome — Page 7

Crowds of Hikers on Half Dome's Cables

The Cables

Probably just about everyone has the same reaction when the cables first pop into view, leading wildly upward across Half Dome's smooth granite face: you've got to be kidding.

Maybe it's not really as steep as it looks—maybe it's just some trick of perspective fooling our eyes. No. That really is a 46° slab of granite you're staring at, steep enough that if for some awful reason you happen to let go, you will roll, skid, bounce, and fly all the way to Curry Village.

Approaching the Cables Andy Gets In Line Cables & Crowds Looking Down the Cables

Or thereabouts.

As if on cue, someone high above tries to pull out their water bottle, loses the handle on it, and we folks down below watch as the bottle goes rocketing downward, ping, ping, ping across the rocks, on its way to places unknown.

Today, the business of the cables is greatly complicated by crowds. At the bottom of the cables is a long queue of people waiting to get up. They don't seem to be moving. Higher up, the midsection of the cables is clogged with people. None of them seem to be moving, either.

Ordinarily this is the part where'd I say fair enough, turn around, and head back down. But I'm on a mission to photograph the whole route today, top-to-bottom, so unhappily I take my place at the end of the line and begin waiting.

As of 2010, the NPS has instituted a trial weekend quota of 400 permits per day for the Half Dome cables. Predictably, this new policy has shifted the bulk of the traffic away from weekends and toward weekdays—Mondays, to be exact, which is exactly what today happens to be.

Gazing upward, I bet I'm seeing at least 400 people gridlocked on the cables right now.

Bill settles down onto a comfortable rock nearby. He doesn't appear particularly inclined to join this rat race. I settle into my place in line and summon as much patience as I can possibly muster for what unquestionably is going to be a long, long wait. That this fiasco unfolds daily with so few fatalities is a testimony, I think, to how much luckier we humans are than we generally imagine.

What I am looking at right now is a complex and tightly-coupled system just begging to fail. With so many things going wrong simultaneously, it's hard to even know what to begin to fear. Just exactly how much weight can these cables bear, I wonder? Pack enough people on a suspension bridge, yard-thick cables and all, and the weight can collapse it. How about the collision of steadily eroding nerves and tempers? That can't be good.

Somewhere up there, it is rumored, someone has frozen and is blocking the way. Some folks begin climbing up the outside of the cables to get past the jam. This works until they get to the route's steepest part, which sends them scurrying back between the cables for safety, packing even more people into the most crowded section. I find myself expecting to see some sort of critical mass explosion—a mass panic, perhaps. But, as long minutes pass and pass, a tiny bit of movement appears, and this tiny progress seems to appease the angry crowd—for the moment, at least.

next: On the Edge

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.