Despite Increased Safety, People Keep Getting Hurt at Yosemite's Half Dome

An iconic location was being overrun, and an attempted fix didn't solve the problem.

yosemite half dome
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty ImagesGetty Images

America's National Park Service is one of the country's most popular features both internally and internationally, with over 318 million people visiting in 2018. One of the is California's Yosemite, known for its waterfalls, giant sequoias, and hiking trails. But a new study shows that safety measures implemented to help visitors at one of Yosemite's most heralded sites haven't been helping.

Yosemite, like several other national parks, from overcrowding for years. The causes are somewhat indeterminate: boomers retiring and looking for cheap vacations, the "perfect shot" Millennials, and Gen Z-ers on Instagram, and state-funded tourism campaigns for the parks have all likely played a role in the parks explosion.

Among the most popular victims of the boom has been Yosemite's Half Dome. 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, the Dome is "a Yosemite icon and a great challenge to many hikers," according . The trip takes around 10 to 12 hours, punctuated with metal cables for climbing the last 400 feet vertically.

Scaling the Dome is not a feat for the novice, and in 2010 Yosemite officials thought they had a winning idea—hold a random lottery to issue permits to visitors to hike up the dome. Overcrowding was already beginning to be a major concern, with injuries becoming more apparent, and it's a for the unprepared. From 2005 through 2009, the area saw 85 search-and rescue (SAR) incidents, 8 fatalities, and 38 major incidents.

Requiring a permit for the last bit with metal cables seemed like a good idea. It would hypothetically lower the numbers on a crowded and dangerous part of the park, with the potential to weed out novices.

However, according to a new study in , the permits did no such thing. While the permits lowered the number of hikers in the area by 66 percent, it made hiking the region no less dangerous. From 2011 to 2015, the same area saw 54 SAR incidents, 4 fatalities, and 35 major incidents. Statistically speaking, especially when considering incidents fell in the park overall during the same time period, that's no difference at all.

There are multiple possibilities for why the permits failed to do their job–one theory is that winning one makes a hiker more focused on the hike rather than their own safety, since they know the chance of winning another permit is rare. The permits might also attract hikers who ignore the warnings about difficulty, focused more of the exclusivity of the hike. Regardless, the authors say, their study "strongly suggests that overcrowding is not the key factor influencing safety on Half Dome."

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