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- The Half Dome at Yosemite National Park has seen at least 290 accidents and 12 deaths in the last 15 years.
- Most recently, a 29-year-old biochemist fell to his death during a thunderstorm in May 2018.
- Yosemite authorities initially believed that deaths were likely caused by overcrowding on the summit, so they began issuing permits.
- A new study reveals that permits may have actually increased safety risks for individual climbers.
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In the belly of Yosemite National Park lies a granite dome that’s more than 8,800 feet high. Near its summit are twisted metal handrails that allow hundreds of daily hikers to ascend to the very top — a spot once considered inaccessible to humans.
Though the rock formation, known as Half Dome, has become one of Yosemite’s most iconic symbols, it’s also one of the most dangerous hikes in the US. From 2005 to 2015, Half Dome’s perilous climb has prompted at least 140 search-and-rescue missions, 290 accidents, and 12 deaths. (This excludes data from 2010, when the park issued a new permit system.)
On an overcast day in 2006, a 25-year-old hiker from New Mexico was descending the summit when she slipped and fell 300 feet to her death. The following year, two more people died while hiking during inclement weather. One of their bodies was found 1,000 feet below the base of the handrails. The other body, belonging to a man who tried to bypass other hikers while ascending the trail, was airlifted from a crevice in the mountain.
More recently, a 29-year-old biochemist fell to his death during a thunderstorm in May 2018. Like the others, he slipped and lost his footing, but it was never determined if weather played a factor in his death.
Prior to 2010, Yosemite authorities believed that deaths were likely caused by overcrowding on the summit. On peak days, as many as 1,200 hikers could be found attempting the steep climb. To control for Half Dome’s popularity, the National Park Service instituted a rule in 2010 that allows only 400 hikers on the summit per day. Three hundred of those hikers are required to apply for a daily permit.
With fewer people on the mountain, authorities figured, hikers wouldn’t be forced to stand during the middle of their climbs, which could lead to fatigue. A smaller crowd might also mean that the trail wouldn’t become bottle-necked during poor weather conditions.
But a recent study from the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine found no evidence that the permitting system had reduced the number of deaths, accidents, or search-and-rescue missions.
According to the authors, this means that overcrowding is probably not the main cause of safety issues on the mountain. The authors also found that poor weather conditions such as rain or wind didn’t post a major threat to hiker safety.
While more research is needed to determine the cause of accidents, the authors proposed an interesting theory: Because Half Dome limits the amount of hikers on the mountain, people who receive a permit might view it as their "one chance" to attempt the climb. This could potentially encourage risk-taking behavior, or push people to continue climbing even when they no longer feel safe.
"If anything," the authors write, "the use of permits appears to have increased the individual risk."
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