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No New Guides on Mount Rainier

By Peter Potterfield - June 1st, 2004

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Washington's Mount Rainier is one of the premier climbing destinations in North America. At 14,411 feet high, and draped in 35 square miles of glacial ice, the peak attracts each year more than 10,000 veterans and beginners to its broad flanks. But a much-anticipated overhaul of guided climbing on Mount Rainier has once again been delayed, according to Mount Rainier National Park administrators. A timetable presented last year stated a completely revised concession for guided climbing on the popular peak was to be announced this spring, with implementation scheduled for 2005. Now, according to park superintendent Dave Uberuaga, any changes to the current concession monopoly are pushed back until at least until 2006, perhaps later.

"The park's goal had been to release a final version of the plan by late winter," said Uberuaga in a prepared statement. "Due to the volume of comments received and the need to assure that all voices are heard, additional time will be required to assure that all of the comments are read and analyzed." The superintendent added that the park "intends to implement changes" to the guide concession in 2006.

The stakes are high. At issue is the most lucrative guiding concession in the country, a golden goose worth an estimated $3 million dollars per year in guided-climbing revenue. For more than 30 years, a virtual monopoly for guiding on the mountain has been granted to Rainier Mountaineering Inc.(RMI), founded in 1968 by Lou Whittaker and Tacoma lawyer Jerry Lynch. Beginning in the early 1990s, other guide companies began to challenge the long-standing monopoly, demanding access to at least some of the 3,000 to 4,000 people who choose to climb Mount Rainier with professional guides. The park has admitted change is necessary by recommending the inclusion of more guide services, but it has not acted on its own advice to grant wider access.

While RMI's sole contract on the Rainier guiding business has been renewed year after year, the park service did make an interim step toward multiple guide services in 1997. That year the park awarded "conditional use permits" to four additional guide services. Each of these permit holders is allowed to guide 36 clients per year up the Emmons Glacier route, on the opposite side of the mountain from the traditional and much more popular guide route, Disappointment Cleaver. That number of clients, however, pales in comparison with the remaining 3,000 to 4,000 climbers RMI is entitled to under the current concession, which gives it a virtual monopoly for all other paying clients.

The park itself has acknowledged the inherently unfair nature of the current situation, and has announced several times over the past decade that changes were imminent. Late in 2003, park administration announced that significant changes to the guiding concession were to be announced this spring, the culmination of a long process of public input. The recently announced delay in instituting the new guide regulations is the latest in a long line of postponed opportunities to make room for other qualified mountain-guide companies.

"It's frustrating," said Eric Simonson of Mount Rainier Alpine Guides, one of the conditional use permit holders. "For years, we've been trying to get the park to allow multiple guide services on Rainier. A good model for change is Mount McKinley, where a total of six guide services are allowed equal access to guiding on the mountain. A similar situation is long overdue on Rainier. The only winner in this latest delay is the current concession holder, who stands to gain millions."

"It's not a matter of the other guide services being greedy," said Todd Burleson of Alpine Ascents International, a conditional use permit holder which currently guides on Denali as well. "The concession on Rainier is big enough for three or four or five or even more guiding companies. You could split it up four ways and still have the four largest mountain-guiding operations in the Lower 48."

Critics often contrast RMI's currently monopoly on Mount Rainier to the more progressive guiding concession on Mount McKinley, in Denali National Park. There, six guide services share equally in the guide concession, among them the American Alpine Institute, Alpine Ascents International, and RMI. Daryl Miller, climbing ranger at Denali National Park, told recently that having multiple guide services is an approach that comes with many benefits.

"Rainier and Denali are different," Miller said, "but what I've found here on Denali is that having six separate guide services works very well. It works well because the guides function as our eyes on the mountain, they help us with rescues and they help keep the mountain clean. I'm sure there are differences between the companies, but when on the mountain the guides themselves work very closely with each other. It's seamless. Each company offers different specialties, and I see that as a positive thing. Some offer more serious opportunities to learn about big mountains, some offer international trips. They each offer a different experience. People have a choice. I think if, on Denali, we had only one service, both clients and students would be limited."

"Best of all," Miller concluded, "it's a pleasure to work with all the companies. Even though they are competitors in one sense, on critical issues they can all agree and reach a consensus. They really and truly love the mountain, and they work to preserve the quality of climbing on Denali."

The administration of Rainier National Park itself has stated that the situation on Rainier should be amended. After years of study, the park finally proposed in 2003 opening up the guiding concession to at least three guide services. In the bureaucratic language of government, a Draft Commercial Services Plan released in August 2003 featured a number of "alternatives" to the current monopoly for RMI, but the park's "preferred alternative" was Guided Climbing Alternative number three. Among the features of this innovative proposal were those that allow three guide services to share equally in commercial guiding on Mt. Rainier, a situation that would stimulate innovation and healthy competition among guide services. In addition, this preferred alternative would allow for a limited number of "single use permits" to certified guides not affiliated with the concessionaires, a measure which would allow other guides (from Europe, for instance) to come and climb on Rainier with their own clients.

Under the recommended plan, independent climbers who don't use a guide service would also benefit. The "preferred alternative" would create "commercial-free zones" on selected routes on Mt. Rainier, which would allow private parties the opportunity to climb in greater solitude. The plan would also cap the total volume of future commercial climbing on Mt. Rainier at current levels, a move that would help preserve and protect the environment that both guided and non-guided parties will share and enjoy.

Many in the Cascade climbing community were heartened last fall when the proposal was announced by the park. The preferred plan seemed to foreshadow genuine change: after three decades of single-service guiding, the park at last seemed serious about making substantive changes to the long-standing monopoly. A series of meetings were conducted at four locations around Washington during 2004, where superintendent Uberuaga and other park officials explained the draft commercial services plan to the public. Officials used the discussion to solicit input from the attendees, and invited everyone to offer feedback on the "preferred alternative." The deadline for public input was November 25, 2003, with a decision on whether to accept the preferred alternative slated for February 2004.

Even skeptical observers, who have seen opportunities for change come and go over the past decade, thought that these announced deadlines would ensure that a substantially revised guiding concession would be in place in time for the 2005 season. With the park itself recommending that three guide services be granted equal access, it was clear the long-awaited shift from a monopoly to open participation by multiple established guide services was about to become official.

But in March 2004, just a month before the new plan was to be announced, the park superintendent issued a surprise statement saying that an unexpectedly large response to the draft proposal had delayed a decision on its preferred alternative. The reason, according to a park spokesman, is that the 1,900 responses it received were more than expected. As a result, the administration needs extra time to "evaluate the responses."

"The comment period ended in November 2003," said Chris Jones, concession manager for the park. "We hoped to have the plan finished in February of this year, but the number of responses--about 10 times what we expected--has pushed that back."

Individuals who had lobbied for years for a change to the guiding monopoly wondered why, if the comment period ended in November, the park waited until March to reveal that the response was bigger than expected. Skeptics are further concerned that special interests might have circumvented the process by soliciting a number of sympathizers to deluge the park service with slanted comments, essentially "stuffing" the ballot box.

"We have to pay attention to public opinion," Jones said, "but we also go by substantive comments about the proposal. So this is not a pure voting process. We try to protect the public from any special interest that might try to sway our opinion."

The announcement means that the process of overhauling the concession has been delayed for at least a year, and if past history is any indication, potentially much longer. The superintendent admitted that, "It is unlikely that the final plan can be completed before the summer of 2004." But as Jones warned, the full process will take much longer: "If changes t o the alternative are deemed necessary, we'll have to do a second economic feasibility study, which could take up the three or four months." The park admits that changes to the guide concession could not be implemented earlier than 2006, but offers no assurance that changes will be made at that time.

The beneficiary of the surprise delay is RMI, which maintains its solitary hold on the vast majority of guided clients for at least another year. Estimates on the value of another year of monopoly guiding range from $1 to $3 million dollars.

"Sure, it's the status quo," said Peter Whittaker of RMI, "and you can argue that's good for us. But the delay makes it's hard for us to plan future capital investments in our business because we don't know with certainty what the future holds. And we don't know if the investments we made recently can be sustained with a drastically lowered number of clients."

"With this year-long delay we'll continue to operate as before," Whittaker said, "and that's good for RMI. But from the point of view of a long term business plan, we would just as soon see the process completed." Whittaker added that he supports changes that allow additional opportunities for guided climbing on Mount Rainier. "Change is coming to Mount Rainier, I understand that," Whittaker said. "The guide services that most likely will end up here are ones we work with on Mount McKinley. We respect them, they are good guys."

"We do feel that the preferred alternative is a little too much," he said. "We were hoping not to have our business downsized so significantly. That alternative called for three entities to divide up our business, and that's a substantial change. We're hoping that the park will review the comments carefully and use this time to perhaps come up with something less drastic. I know the future on Rainier is one without a dominant guide service, as has been in the past. I just hope to see that the process takes place in a reasonable way."


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