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Rainier/RMI Article from WSJ


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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



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



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.



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



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



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."

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If 2000 people pay $770 thats $1,540,000 in revenue. I'd guess that Rainier is RMIs bread and butter. So maybe it's 2.7 million in revenue.

That's what I thought, but $1.2 million from the rest of the climbs and Summit Haus seams a bit small confused.gif The WSJ's usually excellent about sales, profit, etc.

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Interesting, Donn.


It's such a mess up there, as it is. I can't imagine more guiding outfits trying to squeeze into that route.


I'd guess that increasing competition will lower the all-around costs to the new climber, opening up doors to more, and ending up with more total climbers on the route (eventually.) Seems kinda crazy to me.

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$2.7 million. That's maybe possible. Apart from the summit climbs, they also have seminars that cost over $1300, Denali trips that coast over $4,000, etc. They also sell and rent a lot of gear.


But consider these interesting quotes from the WSJ article:


"...Mr. Whittaker, a mountaineering legend who led the first successful ascent of Mount Everest's treacherous North Col route in 1984."


Ask the Chinese and maybe even Mallory and Irvine about that. Big Lou wouldn't make such a claim. No sir!



"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."


I guess "developed" must mean building a plywood dormitory shack and taking over one of the old stone huts at Muir, and leaving some ladders and pickets here and there. And developing a trench to the summit?

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With 2.7 million dollars in either revenue or profit it seems that Lou could pay his guides above minium wage? I am not sure what the pay is at RMI for their first year guides but last time I checked a few years ago it was like 70$ a day. I hope they open the route up to other companies that actually pay their guides a reasonable wage. Or allow AMGA certified Alpine Guides to apply to guide other routes on the mountain.

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It's such a mess up there, as it is. I can't imagine more guiding outfits trying to squeeze into that route...

and ending up with more total climbers on the route (eventually.) Seems kinda crazy to me.


Actually, they won't be adding more guiding to the mountain, they will just be redistributing the same number of user days between more guide services. You can read all about it in the climbing management plan. From what I have heard, if RMI is divided in 3, those 3 guide services would be the three largest guide services in America.

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Is the new management plan viewable online? I'd like to check that out. I hope what you're saying, Billy, is right.


The problem is, what I'm reading in the WSJ article above, is that the effort to "wring more income from commecial enterprises" would almost have to come from more climbers, although maybe I'm missing something? I'm no business major, that's for sure wink.gif

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i went to several of the meetings regarding the climbing management plan, and IIRC, the total number of guided days on the emmons and dc remain the same, although there is a small increase allowed on some other rarely guided routes. there is also a "no guiding zone" more or less between the nisqually and ptarmigan ridge. the increased park revenues come because with multiply guide services vying for the available slots, the concession fees will be higher.

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