Alarmed by the deaths of four climbers on the world famous granite monolith since 2006, the National Park Service yesterday started requiring hikers to reserve permits to climb to the top of Half Dome on busy summer weekends and holidays.
"This has become a serious safety issue," said Kari Cobb, a park spokesperson.
The result: Permits for weekends and holidays in May and June sold out in 15 minutes after being put up for sale yesterday morning at 7 a.m.
Aspiring climbers can reserve permits for similar periods in July and August starting April 1 -- and for September and October starting May 1 -- by visiting the park service's online reservations service, or by calling 877-444-6777.
Park officials recommend that travelers set up a profile on the site several days before permits go on sale and sign on immediately at 7 a.m. the day the permits become available. There is a $1.50 processing fee.
Serious climbers who summit Half Dome routinely said they've been surprised in recent years by increasing crowds on the mountain.
"My husband and his brother climbed Half Dome in June 2009. This was my husband's fifth time making the climb and he commented on how much more crowded it was," said Carrie Padgett. "In June, they had a 45 minute wait because someone froze on the cables and felt unable to move up or down. We believe in free and open access to our public land and national parks, but even he felt something needed to be done."
Hikers will still be able to climb to the base of subdome, where a series of switchbacks about a quarter mile from the cables begin. Here they must present their permit to a ranger. Restricting access to the cables that 98% of climbers rely on to summit Half Dome is an interim measure.
Eventually, the park service could decide to remove the 91-year-old cables altogether, basically eliminating access to the summit of one of Yosemite's treasures for all but the hardiest experienced rock climbers.
"If they aren't there," said Cobb, "basically the only way to get to the top is by technical rock climbing."
But this decision won't be made until the park system puts together a plan with several alternatives to address overcrowding on Half Dome.
The new permitting process is considered an "emergency action" that circumvented the usually public hearing process because of a serious safety issue presented by Disneyland-type crowds that swarm over one of Yosemite's top attractions each year.
Park officials expect to put a permanent plan in place by the summer of 2012. Right now, they're not sure if requiring permits on weekends and holidays will prompt more climbers to try to summit Half Dome Monday through Thursday. If this happens, they may tweak the system further next year, Cobb said.
Climbers are concerned about how officials are going to enforce the permits, and also say they're unsure that reducing crowds near the summit will address safety issues presented by inexperienced climbers.
"I hiked Half Dome last season (July) with my brother and niece," said Mark Coker. "Boy, was it crowded on the cables at times. Permits, in my opinion, are the wrong solution to the real problem: it's very difficult for two people to pass each other on those treacherous cables."
Typically, up to 400 people use the cables leading to Half Dome's summit on week days during the summer and holidays. This number doubles on the weekends, when up to 900 people are on the metal railings, and more than triples on holiday weekends to 1,200.
In recent years, crowding near the top led to lines reminiscent of waits near the Hillary Step on Mount Everest.
"We've had cases where people climbed Half Dome and waited at the base of the cables for an hour and a half," Cobb said. "Once they're on the cables, they've been on them for an hour, when it should take 15 minutes."
Taking the 800-foot round trip on the cables can be treacherous, especially in bad weather, which can move in with little warning. Four climbers fell to their deaths from the cable area in so many years -- two when the cables were down. The cables are up during the peak season in Yosemite -- usually from the middle of May to the middle of October.