by CRAIG HILL AND JEFFREY P. MAYOR; The News Tribune
For a man who is about to lose a 36-year monopoly on Mount Rainier's most popular climbing route, Peter Whittaker was surprisingly upbeat Wednesday.
Mount Rainier National Park is releasing its long-awaited commercial services plan today, and at its heart are policy changes that allow two new companies to guide climbers along the Muir Route along with Whittaker's Rainier Mountaineering Inc.
The changes thrill most Northwest guide services, who have long wanted a piece of Rainier, although some say the park should have spread the wealth even more.
RMI's annual profit of $2.7 million will likely dip, but Whittaker, RMI's co-owner, said the changes are fair.
"I believe people should have a choice and this plan accommodates them," Whittaker said. "We are relieved that the plan has been completed.
"There aren't any surprises. We embrace the plan."
The plan won't likely change RMI's status as the largest guide company on Rainier. RMI is considered a lock to earn the top guide contract, which comes with half the climbing spots on the popular Muir Route.
The plan allows one company to have 24 climbers and guides per day on the route while two other companies get 12 each. Currently RMI's only restrictions are the 59 overnight camp spaces on the route. The companies will have equal access to other routes. The plan also limits the size of climbing parties to 12 climbers and guides on the major routes, and five on less traveled routes.
"The biggest impact will be more choices in guided concession operations," said David Uberuaga, park superintendent. "I think the competition will increase the suite of options for guided climbs. The two-day climbs will still be there, but you might have the option of a four- or five-day trip.
"I think it will spread climbing to the shoulder seasons a little more, because the daily limits are a little lower than they are right now," Uberuaga added.
Guide companies will bid for contracts this summer, with an announcement of the three guide companies expected in the fall. Among those expected to compete with RMI for contracts are American Alpine Institute, Alpine Ascents International, Mountain Madness and International Mountain Guides. All of them are based in Western Washington.
Climbers generally pay about $700 for a guided two-day climb. The park is expected to receive 4 percent to 5 percent of each company's gross revenues as payment. The plan also gives the park more flexibility in how those revenues can be spent, including paying some salaries for climbing rangers. Right now, revenue has to be spent on concession facilities like Camp Muir.
The new plan also will close the low-traffic west side of the mountain to commercial use. That is one of several commercial free zones the plan creates within the park.
"That is a lot of terrain, a third of the mountain almost," said Eric Simonson, a former RMI guide and co-owner of International Mountain Guides and Mount Rainier Alpine Guides. "… I'm hoping that will satisfy people who were concerned about commercial climbing services."
Simonson is clearly satisfied with the new plan.
"It's something we've looked to for a number of years," Simonson said. "It's finally real. All we've ever hoped for is an opportunity. We're asking for a level playing field and an opportunity to compete."
International Mountain Guides is holding a press conference today to announce its plans for pursuing one of the Rainier contracts.
Matt Schonwald of Seattle's Mountain Madness also is happy with the changes, but says they are still "limiting."
"It doesn't level the playing field," Schonwald said. "It just creates two more big guns."
Schonwald would have liked to see the park divide the 48 daily climbing spots on the Muir Route among more guide companies.
"I'd like to see it be more equal," Schonwald said.
Todd Burleson of Alpine Ascents International agrees, but isn't complaining.
"One or two good companies are going to be cut out," Burleson said. "… But this is a great thing the park has done."
While RMI argued in the past that safety could become a causality of competition, its competition disagrees.
"I think it will raise the standard of guiding on Rainier," Schonwald said. "It is going to work out great for the consumer."
"As the companies rub shoulders together everybody will benefit," said Dunham Gooding of the American Alpine Institute. "This is a really significant change. Everybody benefits from competition.
"The plan is pretty brilliant," he added.
During the plan's development, which began in 2002, the park received 1,900 letters and e-mails. That led to a delay of more than a year in the release of the plan.
"I knew being deliberate, making sure we listened to the public, would pay off. Knowing we have a better plan than the original is really good," Uberuaga said.
A review of the public comments showed 80 percent favored opening the Muir Route to competition. The overwhelming public opinion didn't go unnoticed by Whittaker.
"The public is getting what it wants," Whittaker said.
To learn more
The following documents are available through a link on the Mount Rainier National Park Web site at www.nps.gov/mora:
2005 Commercial Services Plan: The document serves as the blueprint for future guided commercial activities.
Finding of No Significant Impact: This is the decision document for the 2003 Environmental Assessment.
Errata for the Environmental Assessment: This document contains a list of changes to the August 2003 Environmental Assessment.
More information and paper copies of the plan and environmental assessment are available by calling 360-569-2211 Ext. 2303 or by visiting the park's Web site.
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