Tuesday, 28 July 2009

View from the top...

...is mainly a view of other people. Huge numbers climb Half Dome in Yosemite (pictured from nearby Glacier Point), and they spend lots of time on the summit. Not surprising, the views are amazing, and it's a great place to sunbathe. Plus everyone's shattered by the temperatures, the climb (4,800 feet) and especially the last few hundred feet, for which you have to pull yourself up cables.

There's an assumption that, being a litigious society, America is very safety conscious, except where guns are concerned. This isn't the case at the top of Half Dome. The cables are old, the posts they're attached to rattle alarmingly, and if you lost your grip on the cable, especially at the point where it starts to traverse across the slope, you'd reach terminal velocity long before anything stopped you. That said, there were no fatalities for 80 years, until 2006, but a few since, perhaps because the walkway is getting worn and shiny. Granite grips shoes well everywhere else. Some climbers make it look easy, a few others come prepared and clip themselves to the cable which makes it much safer, but I had my heart in my mouth watching a clearly scared 10 year old girl pulling herself up without them.

I asked a ranger about all this when I got down, and was told (a) that it's the wilderness and it's meant to be dangerous, they seem almost proud of it, the park bookshop has a book describing in ghoulish detail all the deaths-by-misadventure that have occurred in Yosemite's history; and (b) that because National Parks are federally administered it practically takes an Act of Congress to change anything about how they're run. I can think of several easy ways to make this cable ascent safer, given the numbers climbing it I'm amazed this isn't an issue.

Discarding your pack for the cable climb is one way to make life easier, but has its own risks. The local squirrels know all about this trick, and as soon as the owners leave they either burrow into the packs or just bite their way through them in search of grub. Several of my fellow climbers were in for a shock when they got back to their packs.

The descent was perhaps even tougher, because by then it was afternoon (I started at 7:30am, when temperatures are pleasant), and I was descending into the 100 degree valley floor. I took lots of water but had long since exhausted it when I got back to the highest drinking fountain, never been so glad to see one.

Felt I'd earned a lazy day after this, so have so far spent it in the spa at the Midpines hostel, where I'm staying. Back to San Francisco tomorrow, flying to Seattle the day after.

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