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Why Hiking Half Dome Is a Must for Your Bucket List

Adventure
Why Hiking Half Dome Is a Must for Your Bucket List

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is breathtaking just to look at. Don't believe me? Take naturalist and Sierra Club co-founder John Muir's word for it, who was reportedly the ninth person to climb it. He described Half Dome as “the most beautiful and most sublime of all the wonderful Yosemite rocks.” I especially love that Muir refers to Half Dome and its surrounding massive granite peaks as "wonderful Yosemite rocks."

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Yosemite is one of the most popular parks in the country and Half Dome one of its most popular hikes. The granite crest known as Half Dome towers 4,737 feet above the valley floor (for a total elevation of about 8,800 feet). It's the park's most iconic feature. For the longest time, its summit was deemed "perfectly inaccessible." Then, in 1875 a man by the name of George G. Anderson made it to the top by drilling and placing iron eyebolts into the granite. By 1919, the park had installed cables on the last 400 feet, so that climbers could pull themselves up the incredibly steep grade of smooth granite to reach the top.

Today, thousands of people summit the granite peak every year, but park rangers warn, it's not for the out of shape, the faint of heart or for those with a fear of heights. The 16.4-mile round-trip hike can take 10-11 hours or more as you gain nearly 5,000 feet in elevation over the course of the hike.

The most famous—or infamous—part of the hike is the cables and with good reason. "Since 1919, relatively few people have fallen and died on the cables," the National Park Service says. I think that is supposed to sound encouraging. Of course, "injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly," the park service cautions. In fact, the park has to "assist" (read: rescue) hundreds of people on the trail every year. So before beginning the hike, it is imperative that you read up and watch this short video from the park service:

Once you've done that and you still think (like me) that this sounds like a lot of fun, then start making your preparations. A permit is required if you wish to go all the way to the top, so you will need to enter a lottery that the park service holds every March. Alternatively, the park service holds daily lotteries from May to October while the cables are up, and then awards a much smaller number of permits a few days in advance.

The hike itself is truly remarkable. It's recommended you start the hike early (around sunrise), which affords hikers beautiful views of the sun peaking over the granite bluffs that dominate the park's landscape. As you progress, you will take in absolutely stunning views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap and Half Dome, which if like me, you will look at and say, "Wait we're going to the top of that." And once you've finally reached the top, nothing can beat those views. At the top, hikers are rewarded with the most electrifying, panoramic views of  the Yosemite Valley and High Sierra.

Fair warning, the cables are harrowing to say the least—and I don't really have a fear of heights (though this trek made me reconsider that). They require quite a bit of arm strength, but the hardest part for me was the waiting. The hike has become so popular in recent years that the cables frequently become congested (though I'm told it's much better than the days before the permit system).

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There is only one way up and down the cables, and hikers have to let each other pass as they ascend and descend. This results in a lot of waiting, especially if someone freezes up out of fear or fatigue. Let me tell you, the waiting game is difficult to do on the side of a cliff at 4,400 feet with fierce wind gusts—especially when the climb is so steep that you can't see the top, but you're too afraid to look back down to see how far you've gone.

I will admit that my main thought climbing the cables was, "people are crazy for doing this. am crazy for doing this. I can't believe I'm doing this!" But the camaraderie on the cables was incredibly reassuring. Everyone is so encouraging and just a few words like "you got this" from those descending were all I needed to get to the top of that damn rock. And the descent from the cables is so much easier (I even looked down, though I didn't really have a choice).

That view from the top, though, makes it all so worth it. It's hard to put 4,800 feet of elevation into perspective. It's four times higher than the Empire State Building and even higher than the drop from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the bottom. That's quite a drop.

The view from the top can't be beat.

Actually, the entire trek from beginning to end made it all so worth it. You'll follow the Merced River for several miles to the top of Vernal Fall. Then, you'll climb higher until you reach Nevada Fall. After that, you get a slight break from all that elevation gain as you meander through Little Yosemite Valley. Once you work your way through alpine forests, you'll hit Sub Dome, where you learn how fun it is to climb up steep granite steps at 8,000 feet. And then, finally you'll hit the cables and then you're at the top.

That's all there is to it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience and well worth the effort. Just be sure to be prepared before you embark and plan on being incredibly sore for the next several days. But before you boast to all your friends that you're going to "conquer a mountain," I think it's important to note what John Muir said upon reflection of his hike to the summit:

When a mountain is climbed it is said to be conquered—as well say a man is conquered when a fly lights on his head. Blue jays have trodden the Dome many a day; so have beetles and chipmunks, and Tissiack [Half Dome] will hardly be more conquered, now that man is added to her list of visitors.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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