Leave it to the federal government to screw up something that wasn't that hard to fix - if indeed it needed fixing.
The "problem" is in Yosemite and involves its famous granite monolith, Half Dome.
At 8,842 feet above sea level, it begs to be "climbed." It sits so high that on a clear day, the rock can be seen by the naked eye from atop the Highway 99/Keyes Road overpass. Someone once said the Half Dome hike is "the one you can't die without doing, and the one you're most likely to die while doing."
I've scaled it five times, the first in 1979. At age 17 it kicked my butt. I returned in 2002, much older, but nonetheless capable.
An amazing number of us hikers have enjoyed climbing to the top of Half Dome. This tradition dates back to 1875 when Yosemite native George Anderson bravely became the first person to ever climb it. Within a month of his feat, others braved Anderson's rope. John Muir was reportedly the ninth person and was thrilled, it is reported, to make giant shadows of himself cast onto a hovering cloud near the top.
As California's population rose with visits to Yosemite, more people learned of the exhilarating - but also grueling - experience and accidents started happening. About 20 have died on the dome, mostly from falls or getting hit by lightning. The Park Service seems to think it's because of the cluster of people clinging onto the narrow cables at a single time. Actually, it has more to do with law of averages; more climbers will mean more deaths in time.
I'm all for making the climb safer. I'm horrified at the thought of anyone's death by falling but am opposed to limiting access. The U.S. Forest Service, for example could require all to read a safety sheet and caution against access on wet days. Rock climbing is inherently dangerous, especially if you behave carelessly. But you don't shut down entire freeways because people cause careless accidents that take lives.
When the federal government sought suggestions to improve Half Dome hike safety, I offered one fairly straightforward. When there is more traffic on the roads, government adds more lanes. The government could simply accommodate the crowds by drilling another set of holes and adding another steel cable to create two lanes for hikers. Possibly a third.
We're not talking a lot of space needed. The cables currently in place are as wide as a fat person or a backpack. There would be miniscule impact on the environment - although some environmentalists would think more holes and pulverized granite falling off the back would represent an environmental calamity.
Having lots of hikers hanging onto cables at any given time can be stressful, especially when you have an 8-year-old girl frozen to them and a panicky parent is coaxing her along and you're unable to go around them because the narrow width of the cables is a mere 2 and a half feet. Expanding cable access would reduce tensions, allow for faster traversing of the rock and handle the 400-1,000 per day who want to climb.
But no-o-o-o. Some bureaucrat enacted a ridiculous first-come, first-served online permit process that is impossible. The first process issued by the rock Gestapo called for hikers to have permits for only Friday, Saturday and Sunday climbs. So people skirted around that by going up during weekdays instead. That caused more crowds on Mondays through Thursdays (generally between noon and 3 p.m. when the crowd numbers climax). Thus, the system was altered to require permits for all days.
The permits were doled out on a website in an application process that would open up the first of the month for a climb in the following month. Thousands clamored for and snatched up permits in seconds. Because the permits were a mere $1.50 a pop, scalpers were hording them and then selling them for profit on craigslist. Or large parties were grabbing all they could. I've been unable to get a permit for three years now, my annual summer tradition shot to hell.
Alas, the government is trying a new remedy that won't make hikers any happier. They aren't adding more cables; they are trying to make the online permit process work better this month.
The new process is confusing and calls for a lottery of 300 per day at recreation.gov. Essentially one must sign up in March to be in the April lottery. One may list up to seven preferred dates to apply for permits. If a hiker applies more than once under the same name, those applications are voided.
I would imagine that if I am successful in the lottery I will feel better about things, but I expect it's going to end up with me being shut out again.
The permit process - enacted in 2010 - has failed to prevent deaths. Haley LaFlamme, 26, fell to her death on July 31, 2011 from rain-splattered rock. Ryan Leeder, 23, fell on Aug. 22, 2011. How many will die this summer?
Let us enjoy Half Dome. Just drill another set of holes and string a cable and we'll all get along just fine. The rock will be there forever. We won't; we are here today and gone tomorrow and we need to enjoy the planet. Even naturalist John Muir dismissed initial worries that man would ruin Half Dome when he wrote: "I have always discouraged as much as possible every project for laddering (Half) Dome, believing it would be a fine thing to keep this garden untrodden. Now the pines will be carved with the initials of Smith and Jones, and the gardens strewn with tin cans and bottles, but the winter gales will blow most of this rubbish away, and avalanches may strip off the ladders; and then it is some satisfaction to feel assured that no lazy person will ever trample these gardens. When a mountain is climbed it is said to be conquered - as well say a man is conquered when a fly lights on his head. Blue jays have trodden the Dome many a day; so have beetles and chipmunks, and Tissiack will hardly be more conquered, now that man is added to her list of visitors. His louder scream and heavier scrambling will not stir a line of her countenance..."