Mount Rainier National Park officials have announced that after years of public input on the contentious issue, the virtual monopoly on guiding Mount Rainier may soon end. The recently announced plan calls for the introduction of two new guiding companies on the mountain, making a total of three. But while the long-awaited opening up of Rainier to competing operators may soon offer climbers their choice of guides for the first time in decades, the sharing of revenue still won't be made in equal measures. And a delay in releasing the final parameters for the new bids may preserve the status quo for yet another year.
"I'm obviously encouraged that International Mountain Guides, along with other guide services, will soon have a shot at the mountain," said Eric Simonson of International Mountain Guides, "but I definitely have some questions in regard to the fine print. What's unclear is how equitably these new concessions will by treated by the park."
Washington's Mount Rainier is one of the premier climbing destinations in North America. At 14,411 feet high, and draped in some 35 square miles of glacial ice, the peak attracts each year more than 10,000 veteran and beginning climbers to its broad flanks. But a much-anticipated overhaul of guided climbing on Mount Rainier has been delayed for several years beyond the park's own time-line for implementing its "preferred alternative" to increase the number of guide services allowed to operate on the coveted mountain.
In June of this year, however, the park announced that it would allow three guide services to operate on the mountain as early as Spring 2006. For the guide companies that are eventually awarded contracts, Rainier will be very big business indeed: The mountain is the most lucrative guiding concession in the country, worth a minimum of $3 million per year in guided-climbing revenue. Even when split three ways, each share would still be among the biggest guide concessions in the park system. Currently, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. holds the sole permit to guide on Disappointment Cleaver, the most popular summit route. (A handful of "conditional use permits" allows four other guide services to run very limited trips on the Emmons Glacier route, but those would be eliminated under the new plan.)
"The park's goal was to get new contracts issued by December 2005 or January 2006," said Chris Jones, concession manager for the park. "It frankly was an aggressive time-table, and now it looks like it will be March or April of 2006. We're still evaluatiing whether it will be feasible for the new guide services to make a start that year, or if it will be pushed back to the 2007 season. "
Jones confirmed two pieces of business remain before guide services could place their bids. The first is to figure out what Camp Muir, the current and traditional high camp for the most popular climbing route, should look like, and how it should operate under a multiple guide service environment. The second is to "develop a prospectus with guidelines for services making bids on the concession."
In June, the target date for the final prospectus was put as "late July," but that date has come and gone. Park administrators now say they hope to release the guidelines for new bids in the fall. At that point, according to Jones, the prospective guide services will have 60 days to submit a bid. After that, a panel of experts outside Mount Rainier will review the bids and select the offers deemed best suited. The panel, said Jones, will be convened at the regional office level, not the local level, to ensure a fair review of all the new bids free of local politics.
"We're aiming for about 60 days to complete the review of the new bids," said Jones, which would enable the park to issue contracts to the winning guide services by March or April--considerably later than its previously announced deadline of January 2006.
"The timing of the decision is going to affect how the new operators start up," said Gordon Janow, program director for Alpine Ascents International, one of the guide services bidding on the new contract. "We're pleased to have an opportunity to make our pitch for guiding on Rainier, and we will definitely pursue one of the open slots. We hope that the park can release the prospectus on time, and arrive at a final decision early enough in 2006 to allow the new guide services to ramp up. Otherwise it's going to be difficult for any guide service to start up a fully fledged operation by the beginning of the 2006 Rainier climbing season."
A delay in awarding new contracts could result in another season of monopoly guiding for RMI, a potential multi-million dollar windfall for the Ashford, Washington company. And even if the contracts are issued with sufficient time for the new guide services to be functional in 2006, the division of clients still won't be equitable. Under the park's plan, three concessions for guiding will be awarded, A, B and C. The "A" concession will be allowed twice the number of clients and guides per night at Camp Muir than the "B" and "C" concession. In essence, the "A" concession will be permitted to do twice the business of either of the other two.
"What's really unclear," said IMG's Simonson, "is whether the concessions will be treated equally, apart from the restrictions on user days. That's going to be the key consideration."
"Here's one of the questions that remain," Simonson said. "If the "B" and "C" concessionaires are forced to run expedition-style programs--carrying tents and stoves and fuel and food and ropes and hardware--each trip becomes in essence a mini expedition. That means huge packs, 60-pound packs, and that works fine for some clients but it precludes smaller, lighter people. If the "A" concessionaire can operate by using a bunkhouse at Camp Muir, and store equipment there, that means a much lighter load for their clients. That's going to put the other two guide services at a competitive disadvantage. These are the kinds of issues we are concerned about."
Although not a part of the new proposal, it is widely assumed by observers of this long-standing debate that the current concessionaire, RMI, will be awarded the coveted "A" concession, with twice the number of client/guide days. That will leave some of America's most capable and distinguished guide services competing for the remaining two slots. Operators based in the Pacific Northwest, including International Mountain Guides, Alpine Ascents International, and the American Alpine Institute, have all stated their intention to apply. Even Exum Guides and other services outside the region may throw their hats in the ring.
"It's possible, but unlikely," said Al Read, president of Exum Mountain Guides. "We are on the list to get the prospectus, and when that comes out, we'll take a close look to see if this makes sense for us. It is a good concession, but it coincides almost exactly with our season in the Tetons, and that's a time when our guides are working at capacity. We'll make the call based on the prospectus from the park."
"From a business point of view these new concessions are going to be attractive to guide services," said Dunham Gooding of the American Alpine Institute. "And the scale is large enough to be quite favorable for conducting a successful business on the mountain."
"These kinds of concessions are always sought after," said Janow of Alpine Ascents. "It's competitive on Denali, where we guide on McKinley with five other guide services, and it will certainly be just as competitive on Rainier."
"Clearly, the "B" and "C" contracts are going to attract the best operators," said Simonson. "You'll have a bunch of good companies bidding hard against each other. All these companies will do everything in their power to come up with the best bid."
Most of the operators vying for the concessions say they could begin guiding for the 2006 season, with a full-on operation or a more limited start up, depending on when the park announces the new contracts. For potential clients, that's a paradigm shift: As early as next spring, the 10,000 or so climbers who attempt the mountain each year will for the first time in decades be able to choose a guide service based on personal preference. Independent climbers get something out of the deal as well--a "commercial free zone" on Rainier stretching from Success Cleaver to Ptarmigan Ridge, where guiding is not permitted.