International Mountain Guides Climbing and Mountaineering Expeditions
The Yakima Herald-Republic
April 21, 2005
The Yakima Herald-Republic

A choice to the top


It's official: Beginning in 2006, climbers attempting to reach the summit of the state's highest mountain with the help of a guide service will have a choice. The question is, who will get to be the choices?

Mount Rainier National Park today will release its Commercial Services Plan, one that is arriving a year later than originally planned and for which numerous climbing guides have been anxiously awaiting to put in their bids.

"Everybody keeps asking me when this thing is coming out, and I've been telling them I'll believe it when I see it," said Rob Veal of Cascade Alpine Guides in Sammamish. "Well, now I see it."

The bid prospectus is tentatively scheduled to go out this summer, with contracts awarded hopefully by November and implementation in time for the 2006 climbing season, said Chris Jones, the park's concessions analyst.

The biggest change on tap: Three guide services, instead of one, will have significant concession contracts on all of the primary routes. For 37 years, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) - has been the sole concessionaire on the popular Muir route.

Since 1997, four other outfits — American Alpine Institute (Bellingham), Alpine Ascents International (Seattle), International Mountain Guides (previously known as Mount Rainier Alpine Guides, Ashford) and Cascade — have been authorized to lead climbs on the Emmons Glacier routes, albeit with a limited number of clients.

Very limited: 36 clients and 12 guides each, total, over four climbs for the entire season.

"With just those 36 spots," Veal said, "I probably turn 200 to 300 people away every year."

Now Veal expects to be one of what could be a sizable number of bidders for what will, in actuality, be two spots. It isn't written anywhere officially, but the general consensus of all concerned is that RMI will not only be one of the three concessionaires, but they will be Concessionaire "A," the largest of the three.

"A" will have as many climbers on the Muir route — up to 24 clients and guides per night, 3,336 user nights per year — as Concessionaires "B"and "C"combined. (The mountain's other routes, including Emmons and Kautz, will be split evenly among the three, with each getting 160 per year on Emmons, 120 on Kautz and 40 on other routes.)

Still, even getting in as the "B" or "C"service would be a cash cow for any guide service, which is why outfits with hefty international businesses and extensive Himalayan resumes like Alpine Ascents and International Mountain Guides will be among the bidders.

"It's huge for a guide service of any size," said Gordon Janow of Alpine Ascents. "Obviously, the idea of being able to run such a huge amount of people in one place and focus in that way is a great asset to controlling risk and running a business.

"It brings people into the fold, and you get a chance to demonstrate your abilities with a new client. And if they like that one experience, they'll maybe go on to the next with your service."

That experience aspect is critical in the climbing industry, said Eric Simonson of International Mountain Guides, who said his company had restructured in anticipation of the concession-bidding process.

"The guide business is really built on relationships. It's not the same as shopping for widgets on the Internet," Simonson said. "So if a customer has a good experience with a climbing experience, in all likelihood when they want to go climbing again, they'll choose to go with the same guide service again."

Dunham Gooding of American Alpine Institute, which will also participate in the bid process, said having multiple guide services on the mountain would be good not only for the choice it gives the client, but the outside information it gives the guides.

"I think as the result of going to three concessionaires rather than one," Gooding said, "RMI will become a stronger company. Whenever guides (from different companies) work side-by-side with each other, they always share information and work with each other. Any company that works in isolation is put at a definite disadvantage.

"This will be the dawn of a new era in many regards - choices for the public, and RMI will have the opportunity to share ideas and have intimate communication with other companies."

And who will those companies be? Both Matt Schonwald of Mountain Madness and Simonson expect the front-runners to come from among the cadre of experienced Western Washington-based outfits, including their own. Schonwald said he wouldn't have minded seeing the client pie split into more than the three huge pieces.

"It's still not much competition," Schonwald said. "It's still three large companies on Rainier. We're a medium-sized guide service by most standards, especially in this state, and even 400 days on that mountain would have a significant impact on our business - 1,600 days is a lot.

"If that's 1,600 client days, if you have a summit climb for three days with four people on it, that's 12 user days for every trip - and with 1,600 total, that's 100-plus summit climbs. That's a lot. That's an enormous amount of revenue to generate, an enormous amount of clients."

And still it pales in comparison to the volume RMI has enjoyed; its guides have led 65,000 clients on Mount Rainier without ever having to look over its shoulder and deal with another guide service. Now they will.

"Competition, we support that. I think there should be a choice for the visitor, and I'm excited to move ahead," said RMI director Peter Whitaker. "I see a lot of information being passed (between concessionaires). I see it as a symbiotic relationship. It's going to take a lot of communication, and we're looking forward to working with the two new guide services.

"We work that way up in Denali (Alaska's Mount McKinley). I mean, Todd (Burleson of Alpine Ascents), Eric (Simonson), Dunham (Gooding)... it's a fairly small community. I think there will be challenges, but there'll be communication."

The long-awaited plan generated unprecedented park-user response, Jones said — about 1,900 letters and e-mails, compared to fewer than 200 when the park overhauled its general management plan, plus the hundreds of people who turned out at public meetings.

In addition to multiple guide-service choices, the new plan also figures to ease the weekend crowding, essentially forcing the guided climbers to do more weekday or non-peak-season scheduling. The Muir route's daily guided climber limit will be 48, down from 59 — but up from 36, the limit originally considered during the planning process.

"Actually, there's room for growth (on total trips)," Jones said. "The number of climbs being done right now"- 9,251 attempts in 2004, down from the 2000 high of 13,114 - "is below the maximum set in the plan."

In addition to selecting the three primary concessionaires, the park will award another 18 single-trip guide permits to other outfitters.

© 2005, Yakima Herald-Republic. All Rights Reserved.

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