Mt. Whitney is more than a hike

Reaching the summit of Mount Whitney, a lifelong goal for legions of hikers, requires more than determination and healthy lungs.

You also need to scale a mountain of paperwork.

OK, that's an exaggeration. The application process is more like a foothill than an actual mountain, but it sure is complicated. Confusing, too.

There are reasons, though. The highest point in the lower 48 states at 14,497 feet (geologists still argue over the exact height), Mount Whitney is the most sought-after summit in the Sierra Nevada, if not the entire country.

Each year, about 20,000 try to scale the peak -- less than a third actually make it -- with the vast majority of attempts coming from Whitney Portal, the main trailhead located 13 miles west of Lone Pine.

With so many people vying for the summit, Inyo National Forest officials have implemented a strict quota system for trips from May 1 to Nov. 1.

Bottom line: You must have a permit to climb Mount Whitney during its busiest period, and the best way to ensure you'll get one is by submitting an application -- and soon.

Applications for the Mount Whitney Lottery must be postmarked in February to be considered for the 2008 quota period. They are available online (see the accompanying box), must be accompanied by a $15 per person fee and must be submitted by mail. No faxes or e-mails are accepted.

With thousands of people applying, the best way to increase your odds of securing a permit is to provide a range of alternative entry and exit dates. It should go without saying that the chances of getting a permit for the Fourth of July or Labor Day weekend are significantly less than getting one midweek.

All applications are included in the lottery. When your application is drawn, a reservation is made if quota space is available for the requested entry date. Results are sent by mail and available by April 1.

What happens if you miss the lottery or your application gets rejected? You can either check back (after April 1) for a calendar of available dates or hope to get a walk-in permit, which open up through cancellations or no-shows. For the best chance of getting a walk-in permit, show up at the Interagency Visitor Center on Highway 395 just south of Lone Pine by 11 a.m. the day before your proposed hike.

(From personal experience, I've had good luck getting walk-in permits on weekdays, even during July and August. But success is not guaranteed, so keep your options open.)

This year, the lottery also extends to hikers or climbers wishing to avoid the main trail and ascend Mount Whitney in one day via the Mountaineers Route or East Face. The lottery does not apply to overnight trips that enter along the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek.

For hikers who follow the main trail, the biggest decision is whether to climb the peak in one day or camp overnight.

Despite the length (22 miles, round trip) and difficulty (6,100 feet elevation gain from the trailhead), more people are completing the hike in a single day than ever before. While this requires an early start -- parties should depart Whitney Portal no later than 4 a.m. -- day hikers aren't encumbered with tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear.

Those who choose to spend two or three days on the trail carry heavier packs but enjoy a looser itinerary and get to spend more time lounging on the summit, where views extend hundreds of miles in every direction. There are two designated campsites en route, Outpost Camp and Trail Camp, which are first-come, first-served.

Since all latrines have been removed from the Mount Whitney Trail (including the famous privy near the summit), hikers are required to pack out their human waste. Sanitation kits called Wagbags are available free of charge when you pick up your permit.

Because climbing Mount Whitney requires so much planning, it's easy to overlook the hike itself. Bottom line: It's a beast, harder and more sustained than just about any designated Sierra trail.

To physically prepare themselves for Mount Whitney, Central California residents can choose from several shakedown hikes that provide a taste of what they'll encounter. Examples include Yosemite Falls, Four Mile Trail and Half Dome (all in Yosemite National Park), Lookout Peak and Copper Creek (Kings Canyon), or Alta Peak (Sequoia).

Despite the cumbersome permit process, the rewards are well worth the hassle. One glimpse from the rocky summit, and you'll agree.

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