Half Dome via the Cables

Waterfalls, Wires, & Waiting in Line

Yosemite National Park: Half Dome's East Face and Cables

HALF DOME, CALIFORNIA — it is perhaps the most famous hike in the United States. Every Summer, thousands attempt the 16 mile round trip from Yosemite Valley's floor to Half Dome's 8836-foot summit.

Along they way they will travel through some of Yosemite's most inspiring terrain, passing not one but two major waterfalls and countless jaw-dropping vistas. But the route's main attraction is its finale: an exposed, makeshift stairway constructed of wires, poles, and wood.

Glacier Point - Half Dome and Yosemite Valley
Half Dome - At the base of the cables
Half Dome Cables - 46° Granite
Half Dome - Northwest Face Exposure

Normally, ascending Half Dome's 46° east face would demand technical rock climbing skills and equipment. But, thanks to the cables installed in 1919, hundreds of hikers climb Half Dome every day.

I vividly remember my reaction upon first seeing the route's cable section: I was astonished and terrified. Astonished that such a flagrant hazard could exist in modern-day, liability-adverse America; terrified I was actually going to go up it.

In its Half Dome hiking guide, Yosemite National Park says, "Since 1919, relatively few people have fallen and died on the cables. However, injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly."

That's not an entirely reassuring endorsement.

The cables are indeed dangerous. People do indeed die on the route. Fatalities, however, tend to occur mostly in the off season, when the cables are down, and even then in relatively low numbers given the route's astounding popularity.

Park Rangers install the cables every summer, typically by the end of May, and take them down every fall, usually by October.

One wonders if there will come a year when they cables remain down permanently. The most basic argument against the cables' continued existence is that they enable people to go where they otherwise would not. Instead of thousands of people crawling up Half Dome's east face every year, there would be but a handful, as with the other climbing routes on Half Dome. The circus would be closed.

On the other hand, the best argument in favor of the cables is that they enable people to go where they otherwise would not. Given the obvious safety concerns, that reasoning may sound simpleminded, but the vast numbers of people who climb Half Dome (and the effort they give in doing so) suggests there is something essential to be found here.

To be sure, the cables would never be built today—liability and environmental impact (in a National Park, no less) would see to that. But, thanks to those mad geniuses of the early 1900's, we have a storied route upon which 'relatively few' people die, and thousands upon thousands enjoy what is likely to be the single most memorable wilderness experience of their lives.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

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