DonnV Posted June 25, 2004 Share Posted June 25, 2004 A buddy just sent me this. Look what was in the Wall Street Journal this morning: Mount Rainier Guide Hopes To Fend Off Competition Renowned Mountain Guide To Summit of Mount Rainier Fears Competitive Onslaught By JUSTIN MATLICK Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL June 25, 2004; Page B1 With more than 36 square miles of snow-covered terrain and a 14,410-foot summit that looms above Seattle, Mount Rainier is the most sought-after mountaineering trophy in the continental U.S. -- and Rainier Mountaineering Inc. has guided more climbers to the top, faster, than anybody else. Some who have done it say the 36-hour rush to the top and back makes RMI climbs feel more like boot camp than a wilderness experience. But every year about 2,000 climbers each pay RMI $770 for a shot at Mount Rainier's summit, contributing to the company's annual profit of around $2.7 million -- a gold mine by industry standards. "Most of our clients just want to get to the summit the fastest way they can," says Lou Whittaker, RMI's 75-year-old co-founder. That entails a one-day instructional course, after which the company's teams ascend to Camp Muir, a narrow rock ledge that juts out of the mountainside at 10,000 feet. After a rest in a tiny bunkhouse, those who still are up to it head for the summit in the middle of the night across crevasse-ridden glaciers, arriving at the top just after dawn. Before descending, there is only time to take a brief rest and snap a few pictures. RMI was granted exclusive rights to take climbers to the top of Mount Rainier in 1968 and still leads the vast majority of trips. But its business could soon be up for grabs. Mount Rainier National Park officials are considering a plan to end the company's near monopoly by splitting its Camp Muir express routes among three companies. While RMI is likely to be one of the three, Mr. Whittaker is no happy camper. "They want to cut my business by two-thirds, but they didn't give us much say in the matter," says Mr. Whittaker, a mountaineering legend who led the first successful ascent of Mount Everest's treacherous North Col route in 1984. The dispute over RMI's fate is part of a larger trend: Nationwide, the U.S. park service is working to wring more income from commercial enterprises, which generate more than $818 million a year and include everything from firewood sales to white-water rafting trips. Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga says political pressure on the park to boost revenue has increased in recent years, along with lobbying by companies seeking to cash in on the Camp Muir routes developed by RMI. The park is preparing its first overall commercial-services plan. "RMI has been a good business partner," Mr. Uberuaga says, but revising the concessions contracts "is just good management." Mr. Uberuaga says any of the climbing alternatives will increase park revenue, though he won't provide estimates, and he says any changes would better serve park users. The park has received 1,900 letters about the proposed changes in RMI's business, and 80% of those favor loosening RMI's hold, according to Mr. Uberuaga. Mr. Uberuaga and 11 other park officials meet regularly to discuss the Mount Rainier commercial-services proposal. The group has considered environmental-impact statements and other studies of how multiple guide services would affect both climbers and the mountain. Mr. Uberuaga says the committee is nearing a consensus and expects to announce its final decision sometime around Labor Day. If the group decides to open the Muir routes to more competition, the new guide companies would be able to take to the trail by spring 2006. Mr. Whittaker, who has climbed to the top of Rainier more than 250 times, says increased competition could undermine safety on the route. RMI doesn't oppose more guide companies on the mountain's longer, less-crowded paths but insists the safest plan would be to leave the Muir routes in its possession. According to Mr. Whittaker, RMI's sole access allows it to make unilateral decisions about gear storage, route selection and climbing schedules. In an environment where climbers must contend with hazards such as avalanches, rockfalls and altitude sickness, he says these decisions are essential to safety. "It's life and death up there," he says. It certainly isn't easy. Park officials say factors such as exhaustion, route conditions and bad weather force about half of the people who try to climb Rainier to turn around before reaching the top, and RMI says its overall success rate is about the same. Mr. Whittaker says guides face intense pressure from the hardier clients to reach the summit, and he fears the presence of other guides could increase this to a dangerous level. "When someone else is heading for the top, it's going to be hard for a guide to tell his clients to turn around," even if continuing means endangering the group, he says. RMI's competitors insist safety won't be compromised. Eric Simonson, a former RMI guide who now is co-owner of International Mountain Guides and Mount Rainier Alpine Guides, says increased competition will actually increase safety by putting pressure on guides to make the right climbing decisions. "We have to be safe because we know our business is at stake," he says. Mr. Simonson and other competitors also say that RMI isn't meeting consumer demand with its one-size-fits-all approach. They point to the popularity of climbs offered on Rainier's Emmons Glacier route, a more technical climb that usually takes four days. Each year, the park lets four companies take 36 clients each on the Emmons trail, and the trips are so popular that "they usually fill up in a couple of hours," says Gordon Janow, programs director at Alpine Ascents International, a guide company based in Seattle. Mr. Janow says each company tailors its trips to different clientele, and he says the same could be done for climbs on the Muir routes. For instance, Alpine Ascents caters to experienced mountaineers as opposed to the amateurs who typically climb with RMI. Mark Gunlogsen, vice president of Seattle guide company Mountain Madness, envisions using the Muir routes for a multiday mountaineering school culminating in a climb to the summit. "It would be a great training ground, and a good feeder climb for our other trips" such as to the Andes and Himalayas, he says. RMI has its fans -- though even they concede it isn't for everyone. Katherine Mathews, a 23-year-old Louisianan, made the climb last August and recalls wanting to abandon it after hours of navigating snowfields, rock formations and gaping crevasses. "I was breathing so hard that, at 12,000 feet, my lungs felt like they were going to fly right out of my skin," she says. Exhaustion already had forced 11 of the 23 climbers on her guided trip, including an Ironman triathlete, to quit. Her climbing partners persuaded her to continue on, and, at the volcanic crater just below the summit, the group huddled together while their RMI guide snapped a quick photo. "I couldn't even stand up," she says, "but now I feel like I can do anything." Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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