LA’s Guide to Summiting Whitney, Part III - Food Storage: What to do about bears and your car.

It is hard to predict if you will see a bear during your visit to Mt. Whitney. On the one hand, Mt. Whitney and the Whitney Portal area, like most of the Sierras are home to many Black Bears and a lot of Black Bear activity. On the other hand, Black Bears are wild animals and as a general rule, do not like to hang out with humans. In the Sierras, Black Bears come in a variety of colors from a golden brown to a dark black. However, do not let the different colors fool you – there are only black bears in the Sierras. There are no Grizzly Bears, and no California Golden Bears; the first lives in a completely different habitat, and the second is extinct. Black Bears in the Sierras are generally not aggressive toward humans; however, some will engage in conduct known as a “bluff charge”.

In these situations, the bear will run at a person, expecting them to drop their backpack and run; the bear is then left free to pillage their bag for food. If this happens, I cannot stress the following advice enough: do not run! First, you will not be able to outrun a bear. Second, even if the bear is attacking you, you should either fight back or protect your vital areas. Third, if it is a “bluff charge”, the bear will stop before it reaches you, and then saunter off. I have seen this many times, and I have heard of it many times. As a result of these very active bears, Mt. Whitney and the Whitney Portal zone, like all National Parks in the Sierras, have strict bear food storage requirements. The food storage requirements devised by the Forest Service for the Whitney Portal area covers two areas: cars and people.

Cars: Under the law (and yes, you read that right), it is a crime to store food improperly in your vehicle in the Whitney Portal Zone, which is you will be park your car. The reason it is a crime is because it is against Forest Service regulations to feed wild animals (in this case bears). The reason the law applies to cars is because black bears in the Sierras have learned to break into cars to get food. And when I say “break into cars”, I mean that they can break into all areas of the car. Trunk, backseat, front seat, hood, and anywhere else they want to investigate.

How the bears break into cars is really quite ingenious. For the bear, it is a two step procedure. First, they hook their claws into any car window. Second, they simply pull it down. They are unfazed by breaking glass, car alarms, and just about anything else. They then climb into the car through the broken window, and then claw/chew their way into whatever other areas they are interested in investigating. In addition to totally destroying portions of a car to get at food, they also tend to use the car as their own private bathroom!

So, in order to avoid lots of property damage that your insurance may or may not cover, I highly recommend that you follow the Forest Service’s guidelines and store all “smellable” items that you are not taking on the trail in the bear lockers that are provided in the parking lot free of charge. What I mean by “smellable” items are those items that possess any sort of food type smell; such as toothpaste, lotions, sunscreen, shaving cream, bug spray, and of course food. Another reason to use the bear lockers is to avoid a ticket from the Forest Service. I guarantee that the Forest Service will ticket you for having a bear break into your car; which will leave you with: 1) a thrashed car; 2) a car that smells like shit; and 3) a large ticket for allowing the first two things to occur. This is not hype: as former national park service employee, and an avid mountaineer I have seen bears break into tons of cars, and it does happens on a regular basis, so, in short: just use the lockers that are provided.