Shutdown effects in Whitney Portal

While politicians remain in a stalemate over the partial federal government shutdown, businesses in the Whitney region are stepping up to fill the void.

With Whitney Portal outhouses closed to use and the Visitor Center shuttered, Elevation Sierra Adventure Essentials in Lone Pine and the Whitney Portal Store are handing out portable WAG BAG toilet kits to visitors, free of charge.

“Anything to keep the poo down,” said Elevation owner Jon Turner.

WAG BAGs are a sealed biodegradable portable bag designed to allow hikers to carry out human waste. They are required for all hikers hiking Mt. Whitney.

“It’s important to keep the area as clean as possible and the impact to the natural environment to a minimum,” said Dave McCoy, a frequent visitor to the Whitney area.

Now, according to McCoy, there is one toilet open.

Since the Whitney Portal is located at the end of a county maintained road, visitors can still access the Portal and the store, said Doug Thompson, owner of the Whitney Portal Store since 1987.

The first day of the shutdown, Thomspon said, “people thought it would be a free-for-all,” not unlike the time before day permits were required in the Whitney Zone.

Search and Rescue teams were overloaded with calls on Saturday nights back then, he said—so much so that they even had a name for the phenomenon: the “Saturday night special.”

With a permit, visitors now must obtain a certain minimum of information before embarking into the wild, said Thompson.

“At least visitors would be forewarned that there’s risk out there, forcing people to make a conscious decision,” said Thompson.

But with the Visitor Center closed, people with permits issued before Oct. 3 were not sure what to do with their permit, and those with permits slated to be issued after the shutdown were canceled and refunded, according to the website.

For those with permits previously issued, Thompson advised visitors they could not enter the national park, which is encountered at Trail Crest on the Whitney trail and at the Notch on the Mountaineers Route.
While the national park has a mandated “hard closure” (meaning “no entry”), Forest land is not technically closed, it just has no services, said Thompson.

When Forest Service campgrounds closed, officials gave campers 48 hours to vacate, Thompson said. County campgrounds and the dispersed camping in the Alabama Hills will feel the increased pressure, he said, especially with the Lone Pine Film Festival coming up this weekend, Oct 11-13.

As for access to National Forest lands, Turner said officials told him, “If you could do it before without a permit, you can do it now without a permit.”

This basically means no overnight trips and no travel in the Whitney zone, said Turner.

“The closures have definitely been difficult for everyone,” he said, especially given this time of year is their last hurrah.

Local guide service owner Kurt Wedberg said they were forced to cancel a Whitney trip.

“We’re also getting a lot of people calling, some inquiring about trips we can’t do, but also just asking if their permit reservations will be warranted,” he said.

“I don’t think it has hurt our business much, but it’s stressful just figuring out what to tell tourists,” Thompson said.

He said he still sees cyclists, folks coming out on the John Muir Trail, and visitors coming to see the fall colors.

Thompson also said he is advising callers of the myriad sights to see (such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Bodie, Hawthorne, etc.) “just to see the remoteness of this area.”

The American Alpine Club scheduled an International Climber’s Meet in Yosemite Oct. 7-12, but was kicked out due to the shutdown.

But at the Portal, Thompson said, “They’re all over the walls!”

Tuesday, McCoy said, “it was an unusually slow day on Whitney. I am guessing a lot of people do not realize they can still walk up there, since the ranger station is shut down.

“I have a feeling that people are canceling their trips,” he said, “since they cannot get their permits.”