You’ve trained and you scored permits in the annual lottery, but you still can’t go to the top of 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney. The southern Sierra peak has been off-limits to hikers this spring, a temporary closure that’s evaluated each week by forest service officials who will decide when it’s safe to open amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“It is our busiest trail by far, by sheer numbers, so social distancing is very difficult,” said Deb Schweizer, spokeswoman for Inyo National Forest, which usually limits trail users to 250 each day between May 1 and Nov. 1.
No date has been set for opening the trails above Lone Pine, Calif. Forest service officials are canceling permits one week in advance of reservation dates.
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Day and overnight hikers usually seek permits for the popular Mt. Whitney Trail (11 miles each way, 6,000 feet of gain) distributed lottery-style months in advance of their desired date to go.
For the Whitney trail and other routes to open, the forest service is awaiting word from public health authorities as well as the local sheriff’s office, which oversees emergency responses. During the early season, hikers are required to have climbing gear and know how to use it. Those who try for the summit without proper skills pose a potential danger to search and rescue teams during the pandemic.
“The thing about Whitney is in summer it’s a non-technical site you can walk to the top without an ice ax or crampons,” Schweizer said. “But in shoulder season, it’s a technical climb.”
In mid-March, the local sheriff’s office issued a statement that told folks to steer clear of high-risk activities in the area, such as hiking, climbing, peak-bagging and skiing.
“If you get sick, lost or injured and require [search and rescue] assistance, the responding team of volunteers will have to break social distancing and state mandated isolation by sharing rescue equipment, radios and vehicles,” the statement said. “You will be potentially taking those rescuers out of service for weeks due to post-mission quarantine protocols.”
If you have a Mt. Whitney reservation? If it’s soon, it probably will be canceled and you’ll receive a refund from recreation.gov. It costs $15 for the forest permit and $6 for reservation fees. For those with reservations later in summer, you may get lucky and be able to go.
Schweizer said canceling one week at a time allows officials to resume issuing permits as soon as trails open. Currently the Whitney Portal Road that leads to trails and campgrounds at the base of the mountain are closed.
The Mt. Whitney permit lottery, which begins Feb. 1 every year, received a record 20,000 applications this year. In 2019, 34% of applicants were successful in receiving permits.
Also, the forest service has started issuing wilderness permits electronically for areas outside of Mt. Whitney. The new process for reserved and walk-up permits went into effect Monday. You’ll find details at the forest service’s website.
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