Thursday, March 5, 2015

Playing the Mount Whitney Lottery Part II: Timeline, Tips, and Lottery FAQ

The map on the floor of the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor's Center.  Note the position of San Francisco.  Perhaps the consequences of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder?

2015 Mt Whitney Permit Important Dates

February 1, 12:00 am EST – Mt Whitney Lottery begins.  Set up your free account at  You can choose as many  as 15 dates.  The date you choose is the date you enter the Whitney Zone / John Muir Wilderness.  Everything goes into the hopper and drawn randomly at the end of the lottery so being first doesn’t mean anything. You will owe a $6.00 non-refundable transaction fee at this time.  9:00 pm PST start on January 31 for West Coasters.

You need a multi-day permit to camp at Lone Pine Lake (Charles Hirsch photo)

March 15, 11:59 pm EST – Lottery closes.  That would be 8:59 pm Pacific.

March 23 – Results are in.  Check your account to see your dates.  You have from this date until April 1 to look at your dates, see what else might be available, and finalize your permit size. The results are "frozen" until April 1. Costs will be $15.00 per person on the permit. You can alter the size of your original permit downward without penalty but no alterations can be made upward until April 1 and only if there are availabilities.

April 1 – All permitting functions thaw out and become operational. will publish a “calendar” of all remaining availabilities including those generated by permit alterations up to this time.  This is also the time you can revise your permit upward if available.  Each addition person costs $15.00.  Do not accept your date until you know your permit size. Once accepted, any up or down movement in permit size will cost you.

April 30 – Last day to accept or decline.  You have until 9:00 pm Pacific to hit the “ACCEPT” button.  Don't white-knuckle this thing to the very last minute.  If the web slows down or you're looking for your credit card when the cutoff point arrives, the system locks and you lose your place.  This is also the last day to revise your permit downward without penalty.  Make sure you alter the permit size if necessary before accepting.  After hitting "ACCEPT," any downward revisions mean forfeiting the dropout's per-person fee.

May 1 – All unaccepted dates are released.  They become part of the availability calendar.  Note:  The calendar is “dynamic” i.e. availabilities can go down and up within a 24-hour period.  You may find no extra availabilities for your intended date, then manually refreshing the screen ten minutes later shows availabilities added.  Check often.

14 days before Whitney Zone entry date -You may receive an email reminding you once again to confirm your date.  This should happen whether you went through the lottery or not.  Tip:  There was a problem with this in the past so check your account two weeks before your date.

2 – 14 days before Whitney Zone entry date - Reconfirm as explained above.  Verify your group size or alter it as required.  Doing so allows freed-up space to hit the calendar as soon as possible so someone else can use it.  The USFS thanks you in advance.  Print out the confirmation and bring it with you when you pick up your permit at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center on the southern end of Lone Pine.  Throughout the process, follow all instructions on any correspondence to the letter.

48 hours to noon the day before Whitney Zone entry date for single-day permits - Pick up your permit.  Only the trip leader or alternate leader(s) can pick up.  Otherwise, your permit will be reassigned by lottery to a walk-up candidate by 2:00 pm.

48 hours to 10:00 am the day of John Muir Wilderness entry date for overnight permits - Pick up your permit.  Only trip leader or alternate leader(s) can pick up.  Otherwise, your permit will be reassigned by lottery to a walk-up candidate by 11:00 am.

Note:  Permitting and info – Inyo National Forest (760) 873-2483

Location map for permit pickup at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center

Frequently Asked Lottery Questions

Note:  New questions will be added to the list on an ongoing basis.

What are the Mount Whitney daily permit quotas?  160 people per day get to summit Mt Whitney by starting at Whitney Portal, the main jump-off point.  60 people get a multi-day permit, 100 people can climb on a single-day permit.  Single-day climbs via the Mountaineer's Route are part of the 100 per day quota but multi-day trips via the Mountaineer's Route are not part of the lottery at all.  10 people can climb Mt Whitney via a multi-day trip on the Mountaineer's Route which is part of the normal backcountry permit program.  See for details.

It's March 5.  The lottery started back on February 1.  Am I already shut out of my first date choice?  Nope. Since the Mount Whitney Lottery went computerized, it does not matter how early or late you are in making your application.  Everyone has an equal chance at their first date choice.  Nothing is tabulated ahead of time.  Once the lottery closes on March 15, the USFS takes a few days to check the integrity of the data, dump any obvious hoarders, bots, and other pests, certifies the results, runs their date assignment program, and sends out congratulatory notices to applicants.

What if everyone in my party applies separately?  Does that enhance our chances for success?  Quite the opposite.  According to the USFS, they filter actively now for duplicate or even similar applications for the same dates and alternates, even if each has a different name.  They were not clear on whether they allow one to go through or reject all of them entirely. The USFS wants everyone to get at least one shot to climb Mt Whitney.  So multiple applications will result in a waste of money and possibly no date at all.

Don't forget to make reservations at Whitney Portal when you know your permit dates
What are my odds of landing Labor Day weekend for my summit attempt?  About the same as winning Powerball while being bitten by a shark.  According to sources within the USFS, about half of the permit applications list Labor Day weekend as either a preferred or alternate date.  Tip:  Do yourself a favor and climb on a Thursday.  It's the least requested day followed by Wednesday, Tuesday, Friday, Monday, Sunday, and Saturday.  Weekend days are tough.

When I get my acceptance letter, I'm good to go, right?  Unfortunately, no.  Check the important dates above. You still have to pay $15.00 per person.  You have to accept your date.  You have to indicate no less than two weeks to two days in advance you and your party still intend to show up.  Then you get a confirmation letter good for a permit.  Take the confirmation letter to pick up your permit from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center as outlined above.  Tip:  Don't be a sport and pay everyone's fee in your group. They'll be less apt to show up when the time comes.  People will move heaven and earth to get their $15.00 worth if they pay themselves.

Do I have to go through the permit process to climb Mt Whitney?  No. There are two ways to circumvent the process.  First, you can log into on April 1 and start watching the rejected dates come back.  If someone you know has space on a permit where someone dropped out, you can latch on with them. By May 1, all unaccepted dates are released.  Some availabilities will trickle in after that if people are nice enough to give up slots ahead of time that won't be used.  Tip:  Check out the exclusive USFS study documents below regarding early cancellation numbers to get a feel for when they might occur.

Regardless, availabilities usually exist in May and October. May and June will usually require an ice ax and crampons because the trail will be covered in snow above about 11,000 feet. Occasionally the road to Whitney Portal will be closed in May due to snow.  The road has been closed into June as well.  October features very short days and cold nights with a chance of snow every day. If trained and prepared for the conditions, these are the times to climb in some solitude.

The second non-lottery scenario is cooling your heels at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center either the day before you want to make your summit bid (single day trip) or the day of entry into the John Muir Wilderness adjacent to the Mt Whitney Zone (multi-day trip).  Unclaimed permits get released to the public so it's possible to do an impromptu trip with a bit of luck.

EXCLUSIVE TO MT WHITNEY QUEST:  Check out the data on these two USFS-generated studies showing last year's cancellation and no-show patterns for both single-day and multi-day trips.  There were as many as 36 no-shows for one day during prime September climbing time so an impromptu trip is possible:

Day Use               Overnight 

What are the best months to climb Mount Whitney?  The last half of July, all of August, and all of September.  There's less snow, less bugs, and more stable weather.  Summit before noon if you can.  Otherwise the afternoon electrical storm / hail /blizzard will catch you in a potentially dangerous
situation on top of the highest point for 1,630 miles.

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  1. What I'm understanding, is if I have someone listed as my alternate leader submit for a permit, for the same day, to increase our chances, USFS may catch that and decline either that person or the whole party>

    1. That is correct. They were not specific regarding whether they would grant one permit or forfeit all of them. If you need clarification, use the USFS phone number shown in the article above. When I compiled the info, I spoke to the woman in charge of permitting. She reviewed both parts of this article. I made changes as necessary.


OK guys, let's keep 'er civil and mannerly. This is not a political site so diatribes of that ilk are not welcome and won't be published.