Rainier guiding opened to competition

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2005

YAKIMA, Wash. — The National Park Service will divide guided climbs of Mount Rainier among three mountaineering companies beginning in 2006, effectively ending a near-monopoly one company has held at the peak for more than 30 years.

The Park Service laid out the decision Thursday in a new comprehensive plan governing commercial services in Mount Rainier National Park. The plan encompasses everything from group camping and firewood sales to glacier climbs.

One company immediately announced plans to bid on a guide service contract, and more were expected to follow suit.

The concession plan comes after months of wrangling over the proposed division of climbing services for the 14,411-foot peak. More than 1,900 public comments flooded the Park Service last year, delaying a decision.

''The public process enabled us to develop a plan that will protect park resources while providing visitors with new opportunities to enjoy the park by increasing the number and types of guiding opportunities,'' park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said in a news release.

Encased in more than 35 square miles of snow and ice and rising more than 8,000 feet above the surrounding Cascade Range, Mount Rainier draws about 2 million visitors each year.

About 10,000 people try to reach the summit each year. Private climbers account for about two-thirds of those attempts. The rest have hired Rainier Mountaineering Inc., which has held the contract for guide services since 1968 and has led about 65,000 climbers up the peak.

Peter Whittaker, a partner in the company, said the decision was no surprise.

''The process showed that the public felt there should be a choice when it comes to guide services, and I think that's great,'' Whittaker said. ''Yes, it reduces our business, but you can't ignore what the public wants, and we think competition can be a good thing.''

Eric Simonson, a former guide for RMI and owner of International Mountain Guides, agreed. The three eventual contract winners will have different philosophies, styles of operation, programs and prices — all of which provide climbers more options, he said.

''This is of huge significance, not only for the other guide services that might be here, but also for the public, who now will have a choice,'' Simonson said. ''The public is the ultimate beneficiary.''

Broader climbing opportunities at the park have been years in the making. In 1997, the park began allowing other companies to lead climbers up Emmons Glacier, a popular route to the summit. Since then, four companies have led about 190 climbers up the mountain each year, a small fraction of RMI's market.

The park previously had no limit on the number of climbers each year. In 2001, more than 4,590 guides and clients attempted the summit. That number fell to 3,714 last year.

The new plan limits the number of guides and clients to about 6,000 annually, but encourages more climbs on weekdays and earlier in the season to ease weekend crowds.

The peak climbing season is July and August.

Under the plan, two mountaineering companies will divide about half of the 6,000 guides and clients; the other half will go to a single mountaineering company.

The climbing community widely assumes RMI will continue in the leading role, Simonson said. The other five leading guide services in Western Washington likely will bid on the remaining contracts.

Simonson said his company will bid on one of the contracts, which he estimated could boost business by as much as $1 million annually.

Whittaker acknowledged the losses to RMI could be significant and probably would result in layoffs for some of the company's roughly 70 guides.

RMI was founded by famed mountaineer Lou Whittaker, Peter's father. Peter's uncle, Jim Whittaker, was the first American to climb Mount Everest.

''It's a change, and I think that at some point, even though it doesn't necessarily represent our best interest, it represents the best interest of the public, certainly the National Park Service and other climb services,'' Peter Whittaker said. ''And the goal should be an experience as good as has been available, or perhaps even better.''

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