Climbers decry fee hike

Officials at Mount Rainier National Park want to increase the fee to climb the Northwest's tallest mountain by as much as 67 percent next year, and mountaineers aren't happy.

This week, park superintendent Dave Uberuaga will propose to the National Park Service that the fee for an annual Rainier climbing pass be increased from $30 to as much as $50. The increase is necessary to properly train climbing rangers and fund the climbing program, he said.

Uberuaga also might propose future fee increases – potentially ever year – based on the U.S. Consumer Price Index.

Three climbing activist groups sent a letter to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis on Sept. 7 protesting the increase, as well as a 150 percent fee increase at Denali National Park.

In the letter signed by the directors of the Access Fund, American Alpine Club and American Alpine Guides Association, the groups call the increases “unnecessary and unfair.”

“We fear that these added costs will make the unique mountaineering opportunities available at Denali and Rainier too expensive for many Americans,” the letter said. The proposed Denali increase would increase the fee to climb Mount McKinley from $200 to $500.

The letter also asserts that officials at both parks are trying to increase the fees without a period of public comment.

Uberuaga says he always planned to have public meetings after making his proposal to the park service.

The News Tribune obtained a copy of an Aug. 13 e-mail sent to park concessionaires from Mary Wysong, the park’s concessions management analyst. The e-mail states that “the park does intend to increase the climbing cost recovery fee to $50.00 starting in 2011,” pending regional approval. The e-mail states the increase should be finalized “by the end of September at the earliest” but makes no mention of a public-comment period.

The e-mail was sent as a courtesy to concessionaires who needed to set their 2011 rate and print promotional materials, Uberuaga said. He said he also asked climbing program director Stefan Lofgren to start vetting the fee increase with the guide services earlier this month.

“Now (activists have) gotten way in front of us, and we have to dig ourselves out of a hole,” Uberuaga said.

He said that when the fee increased from $25 to $30 in 2003, he held three public meetings and a combined 19 people showed up.

“But I think it’s important to always have public input,” Uberuaga said.

About 10,000 people per year climb Mount Rainier, and the climbing fees go to the Rainier climbing program, mostly to pay the salaries of the rangers, Uberuaga said. However, the funds cover only about 80 percent of the program, Uberuaga said, adding that already, not enough money is spent on training. The remainder of the funding “is cobbled together from other programs,” he said.

In the letter, the mountaineering groups say they believe the park is “unfairly shifting more of the burden of the park’s budget onto climbers.”

That isn’t true, Uberuaga said. After climbing ranger Sam Wick fell into a crevasse July 1, 2009, while patrolling the mountain on skis, the park began analyzing the program and how well its rangers were trained, Uberuaga said.

They discovered that the rangers lacked some training and that increasing climbing fees could pay for that training. The park already had hired two permanent climbing rangers to work six months per year starting in 2010.

The climbing program is in the midst of one of its safest stretches on record.

From 2006-09, there were no climbing-related fatalities. Two climbers died on the mountain this year. Climbing search and rescues decreased from 1.14 per 1,000 climbers in 1998-2005 to 0.49 in 2006-08, statistics show.

In 2009, the park’s climbing program and its partners – including the guide services – won the Andrew Clark Hecht Public Safety Achievement Award, the park service’s highest honor for public safety.

Most of the rescues and recoveries performed on Rainier since 2007, when the park expanded from one to three guide services, have involved guides.

The park has a separate fund for search and rescues; it is not fed by the fees collected by climbers.

Uberuaga is confident that if the fee increase is approved, it will be with public comment and support.

“I think eventually everybody will understand and support it,” he said.

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com