YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — A rocky trail and hundreds of feet of twisted metal cables might not immediately conjure an image of something worthy of historical preservation.But when the trail leads to the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and the cables allow armchair wilderness lovers to ascend the once-inaccessible granite monolith, the significance was enough for a spot on the list of National Register of Historic Places.
The designation at the end of August went virtually unnoticed, but the Half Dome was still on the minds of hikers and wilderness advocates, who are awaiting the park’s final assessment of a plan to permanently limit access to a place on many outdoor lovers’ bucket lists.
The park is weighing the hike’s incredible popularity – one of the busiest of any trail in the National Park’s federally designated wilderness areas – against the protections from the intrusion of man in wild areas. One option under consideration is removing the cables that assist climbers up and down the steep granite.
“Clearly handrails and other aids aren’t appropriate in the wilderness,” said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, which has threatened to sue to have the cables removed and argued against them during the plan’s comment period.
On the other side of the argument are those who point to the 45-degree angle of the slick granite dome, once described in the mid-1800s by geologist Josiah Whitney as “perfectly inaccessible.”
“I’m ecstatic about the listing,” said Rick Deutsch, who has written a book about the climb and will make his 35th ascent this weekend. “It’s recognition for the cables and another chit on the list of reasons to keep them up.”
The “Half Dome Cables and Trail” join the Fullerton, Calif., post office, the Island City, Mich., historic district, and the shipwrecks of many Minnesota inland lakes and rivers that were successfully nominated this go-round to the National Register maintained by the National Park Service.
“Historic preservation is like managed change,” said Edson Beall, a historian with the park service. “It doesn’t stop change, but in this case it definitely offers protections. So the short answer is yes, it offers protections.”
Some protections, but not complete protection. In fact, three nationally listed stone-faced bridges spanning the Merced River in Yosemite Valley are being considered for removal because they impede the flow of the waterway designated by Congress as “wild and scenic.”
This year, in anticipation of limiting access to Half Dome, the park instituted a daily lottery for the 400 permits that officials have deemed a safe number to make the final summit daily – a measure expected to be made permanent when the plan is released in about a month. In the past, up to 1,200 people crowded the cables, lining up like cars in gridlock. That meant they were unable to make a quick escape when showers or snow blew in and turned the polished granite as slippery as ice.
“The hike and the cables have become such a part of the Yosemite lore that the listing doesn’t change the way we manage them, but it validates the significance of the cables and the hike,” said park spokesman Scott Gediman. “It’s one of the most iconic hikes of any hike in any national park.”
In 1919, the Sierra Club installed the first cables along the eastern flank of the 400-foot final ascent so visitors without rock climbing experience could hoist themselves to the summit to drink in stunning views of Little Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, the endless Sierra and the Valley floor. In 1984, the cables were removed and replaced, but the National Register application said “they maintain their original design, location and material composition and are therefore compatible within the historic district.”
There is little doubt that installing a handrail on a natural feature in a wilderness area would have not happened in modern times. Wilderness Watch successfully challenged a plan at Olympic National Park in Washington to rebuild and replace trailside shelters that collapsed under snow, and when the Forest Service there sought to replace a fire lookout tower and turn it into a visitor station.
“It does draw more attention when it’s listed,” Nickas said of the Yosemite cables. “But in the context of wilderness, it doesn’t change the requirement that wilderness be maintained without structures necessary for wilderness preservation.”
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