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Rock and risk

Deceptively well-trod trails. Naively ill-prepared climbers. It's no wonder people die up here. But, Renee Tawa writes, one ranger is out to make things right on the mountain.

October 14, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

Mt. Whitney — WHEN THE FIRST TWO STARS blink in the indigo sky, ranger Garry Oye pulls on a fleece hat, zips up his U.S. Forest Service jacket and turns to the west to wait. Soon enough -- before the spring hiking season begins, for sure -- he'll have to confront screams of outrage over the changes he plans to propose for this iconic wilderness. But for the moment, in the stillness at 12,000 feet, Oye plants his feet on the rocky ground and anticipates something much less stressful.

He keeps his eyes on the granite peaks of the eastern Sierra that still hold pockets of snow. In a twinkling, the range begins to glow in shades of amber and gold. Later, on this September night, Oye will roll out his 15-year-old sleeping bag on a plateau and sleep without a tent under a sky that is bright enough to read a map by. He'll awake to a bit of frost on the ground. Now, though, he seems as dazzled by the full moon as any of the 40 or so campers spread out in and around tents of every description in this clearing 4.7 miles from and some 2,500 feet below Mt. Whitney's summit.

"This is who I am too," says Oye, 45, gloved hands tapping his heart. "The wilderness means a lot to me. You just want everyone to come out and enjoy this. But there are limits."

That's the problem. People see Whitney as a place to push their limits, not have them constrained. It's a prize of a mountain, the kind by which lives are measured, passages are marked. The main trail binds the young and the old, the in-shape and the outta-shape, the old-school types who hang wet wool socks off their '70s-era backpacks and the newbies who clip cellphones on their ultra-lightweight, bomb-proof packs. Together, they arise to begin ritual summit bids in the chill before dawn, slogging or scampering past waterfalls, past meadows, past lakes and maybe a black bear or two. Look up at the dark mountain at night, and you can see their headlamps snaking higher and higher on the clean, well-marked trail.

But from a ranger's point of view, Whitney beckons too many ill-prepared hikers in search of a relatively easy conquest. "There's a perception out there that this is a cakewalk, and everyone and their grandmother could do it," says Oye, who is 14 months into his job as district ranger for the southern half of the Inyo National Forest.

Every day or so, the Inyo County Sheriff's search-and-rescue coordinators field at least one call about trouble on Mt. Whitney, Sgt. Randy Nixon says. He talks most callers through their emergencies, advising them how to help a friend through altitude sickness, for instance, by getting the person to lower ground. But occasionally, more action is required: So far this year, Nixon has summoned his all-volunteer squad 11 times to Mt. Whitney. In June, a 64-year-old Newport Beach man fell to his death after taking a short cut on the way back from the summit in the icy darkness, without a flashlight.

And each time a helicopter search or body retrieval is required, Nixon has to borrow a U.S. Army Black Hawk, a CH-47 Chinook or other military chopper capable of high-altitude flying; the tab, which can total up to $55,000, is picked up by the military.

As district ranger, Oye has the authority to set policy for the area he oversees on issues that affect his district only and, he says, concerns about safety, sanitation and serenity are spurring him to consider several changes in the rules that some backcountry enthusiasts already consider onerous.

For one, he would like to impose a screening system that would require hikers to meet with a ranger for a safety talk and maybe a gear check before heading up the trail.

In addition, he might break tradition and allow approved commercial guides to offer their services, under the theory that experts could help inexperienced people avoid trouble.

And finally -- at perhaps the greatest risk of stirring rebellion -- Oye is turning his attention to the trail's two solar outhouses. The toilets, which are open during peak season, from June through September, were added by the Forest Service in the early '70s. But Oye is thinking of removing one or both of them, adopting a mandatory pack-out policy, similar to the ones in place on parts of Mt. Shasta in Northern California, Mt. Rainier in Washington and other wilderness areas. Each year, the Forest Service flies out a total of 4,500 pounds of human waste -- the weight after the load is dried and drained, and that too involves risky helicopter flights, Oye notes.

For the time being, Oye is seeking public comments on the proposals and has made no decisions. He has scheduled meetings with guides and in a newsletter handed out with Whitney permits, raised the question on the future of the solar toilets.

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