Half Dome cables in place in Yosemite

The most iconic hike in Yosemite National Park opened this past week when the Park Service announced that the cables are now in place on Half Dome, the giant slab of granite that is one of the most recognizable landmarks in that park.

During the summer months, the Half Dome hike has become a popular draw for Yosemite, so much so that permits are now required to make the 16-mile round trip hike to the summit. Along that route, hikers gain more than 4800 feet in altitude, which means that the trail gets extremely steep at some points. In order to make the trek safer and more accessible, the National Park Service installs metal cables each year. Those cables serve as hand holds for those making the trip to the top, helping them to ascend the more treacherous sections of the trail.

As you can imagine, the Half Dome hike is a strenuous one, and not just because of the physical challenges of the trail. During the summer, Yosemite Valley can get quite warm, which can cause problems for hikers who don’t bring enough water with them. Afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon either, and the last place you want to be when the lighting starts crackling exposed on a giant slab of rock at altitude.

But those that do make the hike are rewarded with fantastic views of the surrounding California countryside. The Yosemite region is amongst the most beautiful locations in any national park, and the summit of Half Dome towers above the area, offering a breathtaking reward to those that manage to complete the hike. It is well worth the effort.

[Photo credit: Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press]

Nat Geo explores Yosemite’s climbing culture

Yesterday we posted a story on five ways to explore national parks without using a vehicle, and one of the items that made the list was a suggestion to go climbing in Yosemite National Park. As noted, Yosemite is one of the greatest climbing destinations in the world, with towering granite walls that attract the best climbers from across the globe, something that National Geographic discovered recently when they visited the place.

Writer Mark Jenkins went on assignment in Yosemite Valley for a cover story in the May issue of Nat Geo. While there, he discovered some amazing athletes pushing their skills to the limit on Half Dome and El Capitan, two of the most well known and iconic big walls in the rock climbing universe.

Chief amongst these athletes (NG calls them “superclimbers”) is Alex Honnold, a 23-year old who has made Yosemite his personal playground over the past few years. Back in 2008, he stunned the climbing community by free soloing the 2140-foot tall Half Dome. For the uninitiated, when someone free solos they are climbing with just their chalk bag and shoes, and no ropes of any kind. For an encore in 2010, Honnold tackled both Half Dome and the 3000-foot El Cap, back-to-back, in just 8 hours.Honnold isn’t the only great climber that frequents Yosemite however, and Jenkins found a number of them on his visit. He reports that one morning while walking through the park’s notorious Camp 4, a popular site for climbers, he heard over a dozen languages being spoken, which is a testament to how popular the region is with the rock climbing crowd.

Jenkins, who first climbed in the valley back in the 70’s, discovered that things have changed dramatically since he climbed there. He found that amongst today’s climbers, it is all about speed, and they’ll eschew certain gear, such as backpacks, helmets, and other items, just so they can move more quickly up the rock face. This is quite a departure from the old days, when climbing legend Royal Robbins first climbed Half Dome. Back in 1957, it took him, and his partner, five days to complete the route. Today, Honnold can do it solo in just a little over 2 hours.

The full National Geographic article is available online by clicking here. It offers some great insights into the climbing world, which can be a bit mystifying for those who don’t “get” it. The story is actually a good read for climbers and non-climbers alike, holding up well to Nat Geo’s usual high standards. The article is also accompanied by a gallery of great photos that were shot for the story by by Jimmy Chin, one of the best adventure photographers working today. They capture the spirit of climbing in Yosemite very well and can be found here.

[Photo credit: Mike Murphy via WikiMedia]

Permits now required on Yosemite’s Half Dome everyday of the week

The National Park Service has announced that permits will now be required everyday of the week for the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite National Park during the 2011 summer season. The move is designed to prevent overcrowding on the trail that leads to the summit and is expected to make the steep hike safer for all involved.

Earlier this year, the park service announced that permits would be required on the weekends, but they found that that simply moved more of the crowd to weekdays. On average, about 400 people hike the trail on those weekdays, as opposed to about 800 on the weekends. With that in mind, the NPS capped the number of available permits to 400 per day.

To add another level of planning to the process, permits can not be obtained on site at the park. Instead, they’ll need to be purchased up to four months in advance through the National Parks Reservation System. The price of the permit is a mere $1.50, but you’ll now need to know exactly when you plan to make the hike and order your permit accordingly.

The “trail” to the summit of Half Dome can barely be called that. A set of cables run up the side of the rock face, which give hikers something to hold on to as they pull themselves up the granite slab, which has wooden beams spaced out along the way. On busy days, the lines can be slow and if someone slips, it is easy to take down others with them. The new permitting system will hopefully take away some of the crowding, and make the entire experience a safer and more rewarding one for all involved.

If you’re planning a trip to Yosemite in 2011, you’ll definitely want to ensure that you get your hands on a permit for Half Dome plenty early. It is one of the most popular things to do in the park, and definitely worth the trip.It would be a shame to go and not be allowed on the hike.

[Photo credit: Sjoplin via WikiMedia]

Permits now required for Yosemite’s Half Dome

Hiker’s planning on making the trek to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park this summer will have to add a permit to their list of required gear. Earlier this week, the National Park Service announced that permits will now be required on all Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays for all hikers climbing above the subdome. The new guidelines further stipulate that a maximum of 400 permits will be issued on those days, which are when the summit cables are in place.

Hikers can obtain their permits as little as one week in advance of their climb or as far out as four months, but they are not available at the park itself. Instead, they will need to be obtained from the National Recreation Reservation Service for the price of $1.50 which covers the nebulous “processing fee”. Demand is expected to be very high, so those interested in making the hike to the top of the iconic granite dome are encouraged to nab them early.

Backpackers who have already obtained the necessary wilderness permits for Yosemite can add the option to go to the top of Half Dome at the time they pick up their paperwork with out the need to go through the normal reservation process. Rock climbers taking the hard way to the summit are allowed to descend the trail without the need for a permit either. I guess they figure you’ve earned it at that point.

The move to the permitting system came about following four deaths in four years on the trail. It is an attempt to make conditions on the route safer by limiting the amount of traffic. Traditionally, during the busy summer months, as many as 400 people will crowd onto the trail on weekdays alone, and those numbers swell to 800 on a typical weekend, and as high as 1200 on holidays. By limiting the numbers to just 400 a day, not only does the trail become safer, the impact on the environment is reduced as well.

Cockpit Chronicles: Domestic Duties

I can’t wait for our one European destination to come back to Boston in May. These crack of dawn departures don’t fit my circadian rhythm at all. I’m convinced in fact, that when I retire I may never again see the sun rise.

That said, it’s just so amazing to walk down the jet bridge and out the side door to start the preflight inspection and see the sunrise shining down the polished fuselage just as the light breaks through the horizon. Even after so many years it’s still enough to get you excited to climb once more into the sky, turn left to one-four-zero and pop through a thin cloud layer into the bright sun. For me, this is the best part of the job. Not the layovers or the diminished travel benefits, but the ability to fly an airplane I could never afford, to places I never thought of seeing with other pilots and flight attendants that I enjoy working with.

This morning’s flight down to Chicago was completely full. The captain, Roland, was someone who I hadn’t flown with before and we had two American Eagle pilots in the cockpit jumpseats. The 757 has two seats located just behind the pilots that are used for FAA checkrides or for extra relief pilots who sit there for takeoff and landing. But they’re most often used by pilots who are trying to get to or from work. Often these pilots work for a different airline.

%Gallery-21627%After passing through a series of checks with the gate agents, jumpseating pilots make their way into the cockpit and introduce themselves where the captain will look over their paperwork and I.D.’s. Most of these pilots are apologetic for crowding into our workspace for their flight to or from home, but I actually enjoy having them along. It’s nice to catch up with what’s happening at other companies, and since I’ve used the jumpseat at FedEx and other airlines so many times, I’m happy that we can return the favor.

The two Eagle captains filled us in on some of the details at their airline such as how much time it’s taking to upgrade to captain, where the senior bases are and some interesting rumors.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t flown into Chicago since 2005. Not much has changed, except for the renumbering of a few of the runways. A new east/west runway on the north side of the airport is being built, which meant they’d have to rename the two parallel runways from 27 Left and 27 Right to 27 Left, 27 Right and 28. It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds.

The weather was clear and calm, which allowed for a relatively quick turnaround of about an hour in Chicago. I didn’t even go into the terminal, since I had just enough time to do another preflight inspection and the cockpit setup tasks. The next leg was to Miami and just like the first one, it was a full flight, with two more jumpseaters.

We have a normal power setting and a maximum power setting that we use for each takeoff. Maximum power is used only when the runway is short, there’s any tailwind or if the winds are shifting significantly. Today, we had a slight tailwind, so a max power takeoff was required. Even with every seat full, the 757 was a rocket–climbing over 6000 feet per minute at a deck angle of 20 degrees and still accelerating.

One of our jumpseaters, Brett, was an Eagle co-pilot and the other was a 737 pilot for us. They were both commuting to work. We enjoyed chatting with Brett who was finishing up his first year at the airline flying the Embraer regional jet. His enthusiasm was infectious and when we found out that he’d be staying at the same hotel in Miami that we were, we insisted he come with us for dinner.

He was genuinely surprised when we covered his meal, but really, who’s going to let a first year Eagle pilot pay? The dinner at Norman’s (a shrimp BLT sandwich) at north Miami Beach was excellent.

Back at the Miami Beach hotel I went to my room and spent a relaxing night writing up a Plane Answers post for Friday. When I’m at home, I usually watch the kids while my wife gets some work done after I’ve been gone for the past few days. So I can only write in the late evenings after everyone’s asleep or during the layovers. Occasionally I can write while deadheading.

The next morning we met the van outside the hotel while it was still dark. Roland and I flew the early morning flight from Miami to San Francisco. Our flight attendants were based in Miami, so we met up with them at the airplane.

My favorite thing about these domestic transcon flights are the beautiful opportunities for pictures above the Rocky Mountains, Bryce Canyon and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We were kept lower than usual, due to the headwinds that were stronger up above us, so the view turned out to be perfect for a few pictures. Allow me to take you across the country, over New Orleans, Dallas, the Rockies, Bryce Canyon, Utah, Yosemite, and into San Francisco with this gallery:


I’ve never had any intention of writing a blog. I just started out sharing these kind of pictures, and the captions began to grow into blog posts. My English teacher would always say, don’t tell me, SHOW me! Well Mr. Park, here you go–I’ve got my camera right here.

The wind was really howling at the San Francisco airport, up to about 40 m.p.h., but it was pointed down the runway. Of course Roland rolled it onto runway 28 nicely.

Here’s where this trip started to look ugly. We arrived in San Francisco before noon, but we’d be leaving for Boston at 11 p.m. With just a bite to eat, and some well-needed sleep, we’d be flying all night to Boston.

Roland had a favorite restaurant that turned out to to be a bit of a hike, especially with the wind blowing from the bay right at us. I broke one of my self-imposed layover rules and didn’t bring my camera. I had no idea it would be such a scenic walk. The low res iPhone camera was all I could use to give you an idea where we walked.

When we made it back to the hotel three hours later, it wasn’t hard to sleep–even though it was in the middle of the day. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have more time there, since this was one of the best hotels in our system. More and more hotels are getting flat screen televisions, but this was the first I’ve seen with actual HD content. Not only that, but they included a panel where you can plug in your iPod, computer or mp3 player. Finally a hotel that isn’t clinging to the idea that guests are only interested in outrageously priced ‘on demand’ movies.

I enjoy flying at night. It’s usually smoother, and there’s far less chatter on the radio. After taking off from San Francisco, we were given a direct route to Albany, N.Y. which is the first point on our approach into Boston. This direct routing shaved off twelve miles from our original flight plan. That only amounts to a saving of three minutes but we were happy to take whatever they would give us.

Halfway through our last leg, I agreed with Roland that this trip was really much better than it looked on paper. No one likes to fly the all-nighter trips, but this one really wasn’t that bad. In fact, I prefer this flying over the early morning flights we have to Miami and then to the islands. But I just couldn’t see switching to domestic, since I’d miss the Caribbean and European flying.

Everyone has different priorities though, and that’s one of the benefits of working for such a large company. My brother is also a pilot here, and he prefers domestic flying for the most part. Recently the 777 captain position has become within his reach and he’s seriously considering flying from Chicago to our 777 destinations of Shanghai, New Delhi, Moscow and London. This would be a dream for me since it would at least give me something new to write about and it would also pay more, but Kurt’s really having to think it over. I may just have to jumpseat with him on one of those trips if he decides to take the plunge. Ten years ago I rode with him from Seattle to Tokyo when he was flying as a co-pilot on the MD-11.

I thanked Roland for a great trip as we waited for the bus to the parking lot. I then jumped in my car for the hour-long drive north to New Hampshire. My wife was just getting up with the kids and after a nice welcome home, I went upstairs for some sleep.

I was completely exhausted and delighted to finally fall into my own bed for a much needed rest…

Then crew scheduling called.

They let me know that I’d be needed for another trip in the morning. And of course, it left at o’dark-thirty.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.