Saturday, April 18, 2020

Mt Whitney in the Time of Coronavirus

Revised 5/8/20

Everything was falling into place.  You picked your climb buddies, made a training schedule, understood the subtleties of the Mt Whitney Lottery, submitted your bid, received your dates and were just about to hit the "accept" button when KA-BLAAM!  A tiny little bug so small, more than five million of them fit on the head of a pin, came along and clouded your adventure.  So how does the COVID-19 pandemic really affect your Mt Whitney plans this year?

Get your pandemic sarcasm at

Unfortunately, that is a simple question with a complicated answer.  For instance, Inyo National Forest is technically open, deep snowpack notwithstanding.  However, California has travel restrictions in effect at least until May 15 but could go longer.  The state allows only essential travel for work, groceries, or hardware.  Travel for recreation is technically not allowed.  Plus, Sequoia-Kings Canyon (SEKI) National Park is closed.  The Main Trail after Trail Crest is SEKI jurisdiction.

Furthermore, The Park Service considers Whitney Portal a "developed area," as are other car-camping sites like Lone Pine Camp or Onion Valley.  It is very possible those areas won't open for camping until very late (like September) or not at all this year.  That makes it hard to acclimatize at the Portal for a few days or even stage a single-day trip.  Unfortunately, car camping locales are not high on the priority list in anyone's jurisdiction and won't be among the first (or even second) tier of allowable activities when we roll back into real life. 
There's no way to disinfect bathrooms after every use reliably so Whitney Portal will remain closed
 Hotel accommodations are closed in Lone Pine, Independence, and all the Eastern Sierra towns.  The Boulder Creek campground in Lone Pine can only host essential workers in RVs (like road construction gangs).  No private campground can take visitors.  Even the Alabama Hills (BLM land) are closed due to too many wanderers.  "Elevation," the Lone Pine climbing shop, is closed.  Call ahead at 760-876-4560 with your requests. They can arrange pick-up.  However, they will not outfit you for a trip deemed illegal by any jurisdiction.
Elevation during better times.  They're getting their mail-order thing together
Horseshoe Meadow may open in a limited fashion later this year, making it possible  to stay up high for a few days before climbing Mt Whitney but that's all up in the air.  Backside (western) approaches can't be done as long as SEKI remains shut. According to my well-placed, highly-informed sources, the NPS and Forest Service are working on at least three different plans for the summer.  They expect to release details some time next week.  They are also working on enforceable "Legal Forest Orders" ("you can go here but not there" stuff) which may change as the season goes on.

Another interesting wrinkle:

Mt Whitney (Inyo County) Search & Rescue (S&R) is the most active in the Sierra.  They're already busy this season plucking parties out of post-avalanche zones. Currently, all S&R personnel coming in contact with the public during a rescue must self-quarantine for two weeks.  They are picking and choosing who to rescue because they won't be available to assist people in worse trouble for 14 days.  

This summer, someone may use their PLB to call for a rescue and no one shows up.  It was made very clear to me that all parties on the mountain make reasoned, well-informed decisions about proceeding because they may be on their own. Of course, this assumes there will be a climbing season.  If there isn't, and you decide to sneak up anyway, you'll be met by a smiling ranger and a mandatory court appearance summons.  Have a nice day.

So what to do if you have a permit date before, say,  July 1 which is a date under discussion for opening the Main Trail?  My sources say, "Decline the date."  If you decline before May 1, you'll get a refund this one time because of extenuating pandemic circumstances.  You will be out the initial six-buck permit fee though.   

[NEW]  According to our "deep mole" at NFS, they will now refund even on accepted permit dates.  Here is the verbatim quote from an email: 
"I have verified the $15 per person that usually goes to support Inyo National Forest wilderness programs is being 100% refunded. Dates that were won in the lottery and have been accepted will be refunded if their date is impacted by closures."

As of May 6, 2020, the NFS has decided to open the Sierra backcountry on May 15.  However, all permits pulled for Mt Whitney or other permit-required areas up to May 31 will be refunded.  They need time to staff up and make plans for some type of physical distancing or other restrictions on heavy-use areas like the Main Trail.  Parties receiving refunds can reapply for available spots at a later date as they become available.

An example:  If your permit date is May 27, the NFS will rescind your permit and refund everything paid minus the $6 permitting fee.  If your permit date is June 27, you don't get a refund because technically, you will be allowed to climb even though you may opt out due to your own personal misgivings or the extra logistical challenges.

Speaking of which, there will be no place to stay or camp in the region.  Both Whitney Portal and Horseshoe Meadow campgrounds will remain closed until the NFS figures out a plan for cleaning bathroom facilities every hour or after every use in "developed areas" to reduce the chance of spreading the virus.  All hotels and private camps remain closed for the foreseeable future.  

The only option available is "dispersed camping" allowed in some public areas.  Conceivably, one could travel up a dirt road and find a place to stay.  However, if a sign exists reading "camping in designated areas only," or "private property" or "trespassers will be shot on site," that's a none-too-subtle hint the area you chose is not considered "dispersed."  

Another hint:  There is no dispersed camping allowed along Whitney Portal Road, Horseshoe Meadow Road, or Tuttle Road which is currently closed due to washouts.  Don't even try it.  Don't.  The Alabama Hills remain closed.  Finding a spot to camp with some elevation value to help with acclimatization will have to be your job, as Mt Whitney Quest's chief scribbler has been asked not to provide specific recommendations.  Evidently, the power, breadth, and scope of Mt Whitney Quest's awesome reach has the NPS trembling at the mere thought of our tens of readers descending upon various recommended locations and trampling them to smithereens.

Plans are afoot to eliminate the usual mandatory visit to the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Center to pick up permits.  They may be distributed by phoning the center at
760 876 6200 one week prior to your permit date.  Permit holders can make adjustments to their party size (upwards only if available, downwards always permissible) at that time or any time before.   [/NEW]

If you do decide to go for it anyway, there may be more abandonments than usual this year.  If you decide you're not up for all the extra drama, please give up your slot as soon as you're sure. Give someone else a chance to go.  Mount Whitney will still be there next year.

A bigger question lurks:

Even though the powers-that-be decided we can climb Mt Whitney, will it be worth exposing ourselves epidemiology-wise to an unknown population hailing from all over the world?  If you're contemplating a multi-day trip, you'll be sharing space with 59 other people over two small campsites.  Trail Camp is especially troublesome since flat ground suitable for shelters is at a premium. What's also at a premium is our ability to train for the thing in the first place.  Many of us are cut off from the mountains by travel restrictions.  We can run but unless you live at 11,000 feet, we don't get enough time up high.

Trail camp from the west

Take everything I just wrote with a grain of salt. Our everyday lives are a very fluid situation. Our recreational choices could open up or vanish.  Or both.  The fine folks at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Center are operating under the premise that some fraction of a climbing season with some fraction of the usual logistical resources will be possible this year.  The size of that fraction is anyone's guess.

Please "like" and follow Mount Whitney Quest on Facebook.