The Price of Paradise: Backcountry users struggle with strict enforcement of Mt. Rainier National Park’s winter access

My touring partner’s watch alarm rings three minutes after we unlatch a wooden door, climb over a snow bank and land belly first inside the guide shelter at Camp Muir, a cluster of shelters, huts, weather stations and pit latrines perched 10,188 feet up Mt. Rainier. In just a few months, the camp will be crawling with climbers eager to summit the Pacific Northwest’s highest peak and day hikers looking forward to a glissade down the Muir Snowfield that beats the heat better than any swimming pool.

But today, we have Mt. Rainier National Park—and the foot of fresh snow that has fallen the night before—to ourselves. Only a lone snowshoeing mountaineer follows us past Panorama Point, and he turns around long before we make the final push to Camp Muir. It’s there that we begin to feel the first effects of altitude, after starting our day near sea level, but we relish in the nearly 5,000 feet of vertical waiting for our ride down.

Unfortunately, there’s no time to admire the stone masonry of the alpine shelter, which turns 100 this year. That alarm signals our turnaround time and we hustle through our transition between gasps of air and gulps of water. But visibility is holding up, the next storm is several hours off, we have two hours of daylight left and the afternoon sun has not significantly altered the avalanche danger, so why the hurry? The dreaded 5 o’clock gate.

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An outing on the Muir Snowfield, Mt. Rainier National Park. [Photo] Alin Flaidar

The Road to Paradise

The Mt. Rainier National Park website brags that its Paradise visitor center—with an elevation of 5,400 feet—is “the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is measured regularly”, a claim to fame that would get any skier’s attention. Add the word “mountain” to the mix and suddenly “paradise” sounds like an apt description.

“Huge snowpack, long seasons, up to 12,000 feet [of] local relief and semi-Alaska style expeditions on a budget available, but lots of mellow terrain,” says Gary Vogt, a retired National Park Service employee who lives in Ashford, the park’s gateway community. “[There is] glacier skiing as a day trip [and] great tree skiing on stormy days.”

But all that white gold comes at a cost. “We spend more than $1 million per year moving snow,” explains the park’s Deputy Superintendent Tracy Swartout. “We spend eight times more on winter visitors than we do on summer visitors.”

From mid-November to mid-April, a gate controls access to Paradise from Longmire—elevation 2,761 feet. The 20-minute ride up is surreal in the best kind of Pacific Northwestern way, as towering pines and neon green mosses give way to Hokkaido-sized roadside canyons of snow and the Tatoosh Range’s jagged alpine, all capped by the glacier-encrusted crown jewel of 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier.

In theory, the gate is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. In practice, there can be delays up to two hours. The unknown morning variable coupled with a strict afternoon cutoff can make bigger missions a challenge. In our case, the lost time nixes any buffer for our tour and we arrive at the gate 15 minutes late after racing to the car and driving with my ski boots on.

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The ride down from Camp Muir. [Photo] Luke Humphrey

Violation of Closure

Luke Humphrey is a Microsoft engineer by day but has also notched 13 successful summits on Rainier, including ski descents from the top, and estimates he has skied in the park over 50 times. On February 24, he and two partners ventured for a midweek trip to Camp Muir. Like us, they waited out a 70-minute delayed gate opening. There was no precipitation the night before in their case, but Swartout says road crews were cutting down snow banks for safety reasons, a job they typically do on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Despite the delay, the trio continued with their tour plan. On their descent, one of Humphrey’s partners had a ski malfunction and injured his head falling on ice, requiring an on-mountain bandage job.

They finally arrived at the gate around 6 o’clock, where Humphrey says a park ranger was waiting with flashing lights. She asked for his driver’s license, car registration, and proof of insurance—as though he were being pulled over by a cop. “That changed everything at that point,” says Humphrey. “It was annoying, I was tired and wanted to go home.” He couldn’t find his proof of insurance and protested that the request was unnecessary.

The ranger issued him a $125 fine for “violation of closure” under federal code, which left Humphrey taken aback. “There were unforeseen circumstances,” he said. “I’ve never experienced this before, I was upset and surprised that she was going through with it.”

When asked if self-rescue—as Humphrey describes his on-mountain incident—would justify ranger leniency, Swartout says that it depends on circumstances.

“We’ve got rangers getting paid overtime to babysit a gate and it denies us additional funding to staff up for things like search and rescue,” says Swartout. “People don’t seem to connect that the closure is for safety not for pampering people’s experiences.”

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Luke Humphrey’s ski outing to Camp Muir on the flanks of Mt. Rainier ended with the backcountry skiing equivalent of a traffic ticket.

Roaring Thirties

According to Seattle-based ski mountaineer and amateur historian Lowell Skoog, “Paradise is the birthplace of recreational skiing in Washington.” His research has uncovered accounts of skiing as early as 1909.

“It was the roaring ’30s as far as skiing on Mt Rainier,” Skoog says. There were seasonal cabins and an inn. In April 1935, the first U.S. alpine ski team held tryouts at Paradise to qualify for the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where alpine skiing made its Olympic debut. That same decade, the Silver Skis Race from Camp Muir to Paradise pioneered the route that skiers like myself aim for 80 years later. The first regiment of the fabled 10th Mountain Division was also born on Rainier’s flanks, with troops training and bunking at Paradise in the winter of 1941-42.

But getting the gate open by 9 a.m. remains a challenge. On a Saturday outing in February, my party cooled its heels at Longmire for an hour. “At present, gate openings may be delayed or abandoned for capricious reasons, for limited staffing, for equipment breakdown, by bad weather, or high avalanche danger,” says Andrew Carey, a retired National Forest Service wildlife biologist who lives in Ashford and skis up to 100 days annually in the park, where he once kept up a ten-year streak of consecutive months skiing.

Swartout explains that road crews typically begin work by 5 a.m. and that last season, the average opening time was 9:14 am. “Our primary concern is visitor safety and employee safety,” she says. “We open absolutely as early as we can, but rangers won’t do it until it’s safe to do so.”

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The slog across the Muir Snowfield. [Photo] Luke Humphrey

Access Denied

The current status quo has deterred skiers from using the park. “Many of the people I skied with stopped going to Mt. Rainier in the winter because of the uncertainty of the openings and the angry crowds racing to Paradise when the gate opened,” says Carey.

Lower visitor numbers in turn might be affecting further limits to access. During the 2012-2013 season, the park experimented with Tuesday and Wednesday closures, noting that in the five years through 2014, there were less than 60 cars on average coming through the park gates.

In Carey’s opinion, “Access policy is determined by people not appreciative of the needs of backcountry users.” So what would it take to pry the gates open earlier and shut them later? “A certain amount of staffing or money that you can add to the operation, that would help,” Swartout says.

Carey thinks the nine to five policy is fine—as long as delays are kept to a strict minimum because of imminent severe weather, high avalanche danger, or road obstacles like downed trees. The first two are predictable based on forecasting, which should allow for 24 hours advance notice instead of an early morning guessing game.

For her part, Swartout doesn’t feel significant pressure for increased access. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever received a sustained request for longer hours,” she says. “I might get one or two calls per year about winter access, period.” As for strict law enforcement, she says, “I’ve not had complaints about ranger behavior.”

“There are complaints on social media, ” Swartout acknowledges. Forums like Cascade Climbers and Turns All Year are abuzz with such chatter.

The word is out and better communication with the park may follow. Meanwhile, every skier should remember that park rangers are, in fact, law enforcement and should be respected as such.

Fortunately, St. Peter—or is that St. Bernard?—is now manning the pearly gates. On Saturday, March 12, hours expanded from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. only on weekends, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

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A view across the Muir Snowfield. [Photo] Luke Humphrey

Greg Scruggs is a writer who recently relocated to Seattle, but misses the bitter cold of the northeast.

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Comments

  1. Mount Rainier National Park existed for over 100 years with winter hours and gates without a mean (and yes, she’s nasty and mean) handing out unconscionably high citations for being a few minutes late to the gate. In my opinion, the only logical conclusion here is that the current park management isn’t capable of running the park as well as 100 years of predecessors. Other data seems to support this as well.

    • Perhaps you’re not aware that it is Congress who writes the Administrative Committee of the Federal Register, which contains the laws and penalties for violation to which all visitors are subject while within the boundaries of federal parks, forests and public property.

      If you have concerns about these laws and/or penalties for violation of laws, I recommend you contact your state’s Congressional delegation.

      Further, ad hominem attacks on a federal law enforcement officer for doing their job undermine your argument.

      • Blaming park visitors for beating treated like criminals just shows that you have lost your way. How the rules are enforced is largely up to park staff, and you know that. For 100 years + the park had winter hours without writing huge tickets to visitors who were a few minutes late *and* without leaving a staffer at the gate to let everyone out. There are other ways to manage this that were employed successfully for decades.

        Oh, and being a nasty, intimidating jerk is NOT part of an LE “doing their job”. Especially when dealing with people who are injured (as in this article) or who had just descended from the summit in February (my case). That you think this is all okay is another illustration of the depth of the problem.

        Also, try posting with your real name if you are so sure of your position. Thanks.

        • Congress decides what constitutes a crime on federal lands.

          NPS law enforcement rangers receive their authority from Congress and attend the same Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy (FLETC) as other federal officers (BIA, Border Protection, USFWS, BLM, ATF, etc). They prevent, investigate, and detect alleged crimes, have arrest powers and are commissioned to carry fire arms. 205 FLETC gradutes have been killed in the line of duty, including one at Mount Rainier who was murdered before she could exit her vehicle.

          Am I reading that you’re angry you didn’t get special treatment during your visit? Do you make it a habit of making personal attacks against individuals when you are held to the same standards as everyone else?

          Your mention of 100 yrs of unincumbered previous winter recreation is inaccurate and void of historical context. Only the elite could afford to reach Paradise after the road was first constructed and even then, vehicles required the help of a mule team at several points along the way. The 10th Mountain Division used Paradise as a training ground during WWII. The Winderness Act wasn’t even passed until 1964 and Mt. Rainier’s Wilderness Plan wasn’t approved until 1988.

          Obviously we don’t live in the same world as we did 100 yrs ago. If we did, women still wouldn’t be voting and your average life expectancy would still be 49.6.

          I would like to know why Mr. Scruggs wrote this article seemingly without taking the steps to fully understand this and other LEO contacts at Mt. Rainier. A FOIA request would likely produce information germaine to this incident.

  2. Missing from this article is mention of the chronic and persistent underfunding of federal lands. This Congressional failure to adequately resource our national treaures is a disgrace. Maintenance backlogs, antiquated equipment (like the Mt. Rainier snowplows), and lack of money to ensure safe staffing levels are all a consequence of this fiscal shorage. If people like Mr. Humphrey want increased access then they need to be lobbying their federal representatives to fully fund public lands.

    I am glad that Mr. Humphrey was able to self-rescue. Had he not been so fortunate, LEO Lewis would have been the one working additional overtime preparing to lead or participate in a search and rescue operation – at no cost to Mr. Humphrey.

    Access policy is determined to mitigate serious injury and/or death – to visitors and park personnel. Every year Mount Rainier sees a number of fatalities, and many more rescue operations with a less tragic outcome because of the dedicated men and women who work there.

    The most recent reason the road to Paradise didn’t open? The same law enforcement staff being criticized for doing their job were working overtime and on their days off to rescue two stranded visitors (in separate parties) and recover the body of another. Our federal law enforcement officers deserve the respect and gratitude of everyone who has had the sublime pleasure of enjoying our public lands safely.

    • The price the enter the park for 80+ years was $5. It’s now what, $20? Plus a climbing fee that’s been raised several times as well. Oh, and there’s the guide service revenue that is used for boondoggle capital projects all over the park. And the giant and unnecessary Camp Muir project. My opinion is that it is definitely NOT about how much money there is, but rather how park management chooses to spend it. The way the gate was managed for decades required NO STAFF after hours. No cost, no staff, no egregious tickets, no visitors feeling abused.

      Oh, and I’d LOVE to see the data that were used to show that the average gate open time last winter was 9:14 AM. With as many days as there were where it just didn’t open at all, I’m not sure how that’s possible and would love to see.

  3. I’ve spent hours sitting there in the morning waiting for the gate to open. Extremely frustrating, and yes it has discouraged me from going there in the winter.

    The best alternative would be for them to open the gate early, and leave it open late. If they can’t do that, then they should just stop plowing the road in winter, leave the gate locked, and let people ski in and camp, with no services. That wouldn’t cost them a cent. There would only be a very limited number of skiers willing to make the long slog, but those willing to do it would have access.

    • Greg scruggs says:

      GPMD — I interviewed Deputy Superintendent Tracy Swartout over the phone for this article. I asked her about the incident and she said that the NPS does not comment on specific incidents. She did offer to connect me to the Chief Ranger. I made that request, but she did not respond to it by press time. As for a FOIA request, that would have been beyond the scope and timing of a short news article for the web publication, but it is a good idea for the future.

      To your point about funding, Swartout acknowledged that in our interview and there is one quote to that effect.

      DUNCAN — My sources told me that the NPS must plow the road, otherwise the accumulated seasonal volume of snow would threaten infrastructure with collapse (Glacier Bridge, Paradise Inn).

    • I am sure the Rangers would love to not have to deal with the road in the winter, however I believe it is a structural issue with bridges and buildings. I know if I worked there I would be sick and tired of entitled individuals complaining about a gate. Shouldn’t the people recreating make their plans appropriately. Hundreds of visitors each week successfully follow the rules. Why should one person’s bad experience lead to such a negative view? Yes they self rescued, fantastic. However, as someone else has mentioned here in the comments, if they were not able to self rescue, the free to them services would have been at a minimum initiated by the ranger who wrote the citation. It seems to me based on what the article states, that the ranger was reasonable. The driver was not able to provide proof of insurance, many agencies would impound the vehicle for that. To receive a citation for failing to follow the rules seems reasonable. Lastly, NPS Rangers are federal law enforcement officers, and legally allowed to ask for the information that the article states they are not.

      • Greg scruggs says:

        Scott — The article does not state that NPS rangers are not legally allowed to ask for a driver’s information. In fact, the end of the article states, “Meanwhile, every skier should remember that park rangers are, in fact, law enforcement and should be respected as such.”

        • “They finally arrived at the gate around 6 o’clock, where Humphrey says a park ranger was waiting with flashing lights. She asked for his driver’s license, car registration, and proof of insurance—as though he were being pulled over by a cop.”

          This implies that they do not understand the authority or jurisdiction of National Park Rangers

  4. Archangel says:

    I am sorry that you do have the super awesome staff and volunteers at Rocky Mountain National Park. My many decades of climbing and sking at RMNP have always been with staff that do everything possible to be helpful. And nothing like the ego tripping officious GPMD.

    I climbed Ranier for the first time last summer. An appalling scene of catering to wealthy tourists and pretentious park staff.

    • You also have law enforcement at Rocky.

      • Archangel says:

        What’s your point? They are great. I have volunteered many years for the USFS in the adjoining Indian Peaks Wilderness and worked with LE there including a fatal air crash. My career has been LE related. Sounds like Rainier needs some Congressional hearings and oversight. I have some high level contacts and will see what I can do to make that happen. I suggest everyone organize towards that.

  5. David McNeel says:

    I was just in Sedona this past week. I had to go through an access gate to a trail head parking area. After parking I noted the time and the sign that said the gate closed at 6pm. I had a nice hike up to a stone arch in the hillside along Soldiers Pass trail. After returning to the car my hiking partner and I noticed the gate was already closed at 5:50pm. I had a nervous flash of energy pass through me as I wondered if we were locked inside for the night. Fortunately as we approached the gate I could see that it was an electric gate and when we passed over the ground loop it opened automatically for us. Why couldn’t something like this be installed at Longmire? It would eliminate a ranger having to be there to let folks out of the park and still keep others from entering after hours. These gates are not expensive and easy to install.

    • gary vogt says:

      Interesting idea about the gate, but the Rangers rarely are the ones opening for stragglers. That’s usually the night clerk at the Longmire Inn. Most late folks are not cited, especially on weekends. Certain weeknights, the ranger simply blocks the downhill lane after closing time and fills their monthly ticket quota, no excuses.

  6. Backcountry skier says:

    Swartout is a lier, I have wrote several complaint letters to the park and our congress about the lack of winter access into the park. Most of the LE out of paradise are simply cops that can’t get real cop jobs. From my experience they enjoy ruining people’s day at the park. The 9:15 average opening time is also a complete lie. I along with most backcountry riders have long given up on trying to ride there in the winter, it’s unfortunate because it’s a beautiful place. Park management should be ashamed of themselves.

    • It sounds like you know nothing about the law enforcement operation of the National Park Service. Google is your friend.

  7. gary vogt says:

    Most people would probably be surprised to learn that employees of the National Park Service consistently rank their own managers among the worst in the federal government in annual surveys, with the lowest score yet last year. Note all the red boxes in management categories:
    http://bestplacestowork.org/BPTW/rankings/detail/IN10

    At Big Cypress, they’re expanding ATV trails and exploring for oil in the last habitat of the Florida panther. Effigy Mounds was plundered by it’s own managers. But I think no national park in the country has been managed worse than Mount Rainier for the past two decades. The Paradise winter access problems are just part of a larger pattern; they lead the league in locked gates. No park has reduced access more on 2WD roads formerly open to the public. No other park closed entirely to public entry (but not concession climbs) for six months to complete a visitor center that was a year late and ten times over inital estimates, then blamed the closure on flood damage that could have been repaired in a few weeks. No other park in the country has protected and promoted a superintendent who took a six-figure bribe from a concessioner he managed, then increased that concession’s share of the guiding ‘pie’:
    http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/mount-rainier-park-ex-official-scrutinized-on-land-deal/

    Until just a few years ago, there were no daily hours; the last ranger leaving Paradise would leave the gate combo on your windshield. One could even photograph the sunset without a blaring bullhorn ordering you to leave. Frequent closures, even more frequent delays, and poor communication have cut November-April visitation almost in half despite the explosion of snowshoeing & backcountry skiing in past 15 years. The 70’s NPS had record snows, half the staff, twice the visitors, beater surplus equipment from Bremerton Navy yard, no 4WD vehicles, no cams or telemetry or reliable radios, but they did have the managerial will to open the road and serve the public far better than the current crowd. One of the favorite recent excuses is “insufficent staff…”, despite the fact that the park staff expanded from 125 to 172 FTE over the past few years. For one skier and climber who, like many, has given up on winter trips to Paradise: “Mount Rainier has gone from Northwest icon to a symbol of bureaucratic incompetence..”

  8. Mike Dawson says:

    It’s not just Rainier, unfortunately. Olympic National Park has severely cut back winter access to Hurricane Ridge and Deer Park in recent years. The problem with unreliable and unpredictable access is that less and less people risk driving several hours to find themselves locked out, and the lower visitation rate helps justify the Park’s position that it is too expensive for such a small number of users. The broader problem is that parks and public lands are now treated like a fringe benefit that can be cut as an “austerity” measure. Sure, sometimes belts need to be tightened, but let the public have a voice in how those cuts are made.

  9. These park service and Forrest service folks don’t seem to understand that they only have jobs because we use these places. They have lost their way, like much of the federal govt. Park users would be better served if these lands were managed locally by the state which is typically more responsive to constituent needs. The parks service has zero obligation for rescues so they could eliminate that and plow roads instead. Starting to clear roads at 5:30 is a joke. I hope they are ashamed of the poor job they are doing at MRNP. Take away the badges and power to arrest and they’ll probably learn they need to treat taxpayers using the park with respect if they want it in return. If MRNP got rid of the gates and LE rangers they’d have more funds for maintenance and clearing roads.

    • Historically, any area with anything worth any $$ that was managed by local pols was plundered. Do you want every square inch of national forest and park logged, mined, and roaded? Because that is what would have and still will happen if they are managed locally.

  10. I once got ticketed for picking up skiers who were hitchhiking at the Nisqually bridge. Seemed like a warning might have been reasonable considering I did not know it was against the law in the park.

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