On the main route up Mt. Whitney, the journey of a thousand-plus steps begins with a single permit. No matter how hard you've trained or how far you've traveled, without one you're pretty much stuck at the bottom with a bad case of summit fever. And if you go up without one, you risk a whopping fine of $250 or more.
But the process of getting one of the permits issued each day during the quota period -- limited to 115 for day hikers and 60 for overnight backpackers -- can be as daunting as slogging up the trail.
It starts as a lottery, except you don't get to pick any winning numbers. Beginning in February, you can request a certain date between May 1 and Nov. 1 (if you're smart, submit at least three or four alternatives), but there's no guarantee you'll get any of your choices.
In May, the post-lottery leftovers morph into a plain old reservation system.
For some, the month-plus wait for confirmation can be nerve-racking, as Mark Brunke, 46, of North Hollywood discovered when he decided to get married on top of Mt. Whitney eight years ago.
"Everyone in our party applied for a group permit for six people for certain dates. Then we just hoped for the best," he said.
The "best" turned out to be July 30, 1995 -- a big snow year that made conditions tough for the nine-member wedding party. The switchbacks were still covered in snow, and severe icy winds knocked over bride Gloria Garcia, whose leopard-patterned wedding outfit remained buried under heavy clothing.
Permit quotas on the Mt. Whitney Trail didn't start until the late 1970s when this wilderness area started showing signs of overuse.
Since then the hikers have kept on coming: In 2002, 18,000 people headed up the main trail during the peak season.
Here are dates to keep in mind for the 2004 hiking season, though the system is subject to change:
Feb. 1: This is the first postmark or fax date that will be considered for entry into the lottery; submit earlier and your request will be tossed. Include $15 per person (check or credit card number) and an application form (from the Web site or requested from the Forest Service).
Feb. 15: The lottery begins and requests are processed. Allow at least four weeks to receive notification. This is not your permit; you still have to appear at the Mt. Whitney Ranger Station in Lone Pine in person to pick it up.
May 1: The dates that were not filled in the lottery go up for grabs. To reserve, you can call, fax or mail in your request. Tip: Go to the Web site to check permit availability that's posted on a day-by-day basis. You can call and snag a permit instantly with a credit card.
Same day: You can show up and try to get a free reissued permit (ones that went unclaimed) that are handed out at about 10 a.m. for that day. This isn't practical for day hikers unless you plan on being on the trail all night.
A few final tips on how to "win" the lottery: Groups of up to 15 are allowed, but permits are easier to get for smaller groups. And weekday requests are more likely to succeed than weekends.
For more information, go to www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo and click on a quick link labeled "Mt. Whitney" or call (780) 876-6200. Requests may be faxed to (760) 873-2484.