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Tue, Jan. 28

Johnson: Hiking permission, permits — Letter, or spirit of the law?
Hiking Arizona

“Let’s do Mt. Whitney,” my daughter said. (Another item on her bucket list). Great, but with only two weeks’ notice, a number of challenges presented themselves, like getting permits. Last minute arrangements are not conducive to standard protocols.

I hiked Mt. Whitney solo 40 years ago via the Mountaineer’s Route. I should have known better than to choose this route under the circumstances. I decided to rely on memory rather than consult the usual trail guides.

When you add it all up, dumb would be the best description of this little adventure. Not only did we get lost but tears flowed as we faced some unconventional terrain. We had to turn back. That’s when I received a citation for hiking without a permit in the Zone, the Whitney Zone that is.

The Ranger said it was just like a traffic ticket. “Just send in the money,” he said, almost $200. “Great, see you in court,” I thought. If anything, they were going to earn their money. My daughter and I would regroup and return in the off season to reach the summit with the necessary permits in hand and actually encountered the same ranger on the trail, though I don’t know if he recognized me or not.

My initial court appearance introduced me to the process and the very tough judge who nailed everyone to the wall that day as she heard case after case. She showed no mercy for such factors as financial hardship, the fact that someone was a student or that this was their first offense.

My trial was set for three months down the road. I did not expect yet another trip to California to address this matter. Truly the wheels of justice grind slowly.

As my trial began, the prosecutor explained that the maximum fine was $5,000 and six months in jail. Not like any traffic ticket I ever had. The ranger took the stand. I asked about the basis for the quota of hikers.

I showed pictures of developed structures in the Zone, feces, hiking gear left along the trail by permittees and trash, including their hiking permits, left on the ground as litter.

I suggested to the court that the quotas were purely arbitrary with no supporting evidence that more or fewer people impacted the wilderness any differently. The ranger said he did not know if the numbers were arbitrary.

He did say it was permissible to leave your gear on the trail for 24 hours but did not say how he knew the length of time gear may have been left on the trail.

The government’s lawyer said it was a simple judgment in his closing arguments. I said it was simple but not that easy. I upheld the spirit of the law while the government violated the letter of the law with their policies such as allowing gear to remain unattended along the trail and leaving permanent structures in the Zone.

I stressed the fact that I care about the resource and presented evidence to support this claim.

I packed out the feces and trash left by permittees. It’s not the number of hikers, it’s how much they care. You could have five times the quota and less impact with caring hikers.

The judge found me guilty but only fined me $25. The spirit of the law prevailed but get a permit to enter the Zone. You’ll be glad you did.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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