Thursday, March 27, 2008

New Visitor Center Sneak Peek

Being a "Mount Rainier VIP" (did you realize that volunteers are labeled "VIPs" because they are "Volunteers In Parks?") allowed me to recently take a private tour of the new Jackson Visitor Center and remodeled Paradise Inn.

Both are still under construction (which has consumed the Paradise upper lot for the last 2 summers) but thankfully, that construction is drawing to a close this year. The Paradise Inn will re-open in May and the new Jackson Visitor Center is scheduled to re-open this October.

Exploring the bowels of a major construction site was a fascinating and educational experience. The first notable surprise was how many people were actually involved in the project, and the variety of different tasks they were all doing.

Project safety manager Derek Burr (my tour guide) says there are about 30-40 people working on the visitor center site on any given day. The various specialists include (but are not limited to!):

  • Heavy equipment operators
  • Carpenters
  • Pipe fitters
  • Sprinkler pipe fitters
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
  • Sheet rock workers
  • Earth workers
  • HVAC technicians
  • Iron workers
  • Sheet metal workers

Another interesting fact about the visitor center construction site is that it features a "Dance Floor." Not your Saturday Night Fever variety, but a giant platform -- nicknamed the Dance Floor -- that is suspended 24 feet in the air. Above that false floor is another 24 more feet of scaffolding that enables workers access to the fifty-foot high pitched ceilings.

Burr notes that working on the high ceiling was one of the most challenging elements of the project. The Dance Floor was created because they couldn't fit a "lift" inside the doorway of the building.

Another cool feature of this project -- designed to address the weather challenges of Paradise -- is a scaffolding that extends beyond the roof-line by 10 feet. "That way that people can work on the outside of the building from the inside, without being killed by snow falling off the roof,” says Burr.

There are even more people working at the Paradise Inn-- 40-50, says Burr. The goal is to rehabilitate the 86-year old building so that it retains its rustic feel but can better withstand the ravages of time and weather.

To make the building stronger while keeping the historic atmosphere, many of the original beams, planks, and logs in the walls and floors were taken out, reinforced with concrete and steel, and then put back. The Inn has seen a lot of wear and tear over the years. Earthquakes and large snow-loads have made the floor uneven, pushed on the walls and created gaps and even some trenches throughout the structure.

One such trench in the corner of the dining room was so big that Burr wondered if “they were gonna dig up some skeletons?” Seriously though, an NPS archaeologist did examine the area and thankfully, no skeletons were found (Remember... Redrum...).

One big challenge for this type of construction project is to keep employees working at Paradise. "It's not an easy job," says Burr. To those of us who visit Paradise for those gorgeous views and hikes, it might be hard to imagine what could be so difficult about working there. (It beats a cubicle, doesn't it?) But the commute is quite long and many of the workers reside in temporary housing. And then of course, there is always the threat of crashing your truck on a slick icy road that is threatened by avalanches, or the joy of digging it out of the snow daily.

Burr, however, has enjoyed the job and his surroundings. "Some people don't even like to look at the view. But I take as many pictures as I can." Photos by Burr, Agiewich and NPS.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

What happened to all of the winter climbers?

This winter has delivered some rather amazing weather and snow conditions. As we've noted, Mount Rainier has seen its fair share of extended snowstorms and extreme avalanche conditions. But lately, that trend hasn’t been the case. Over the past few weeks, the mountain has largely been blessed with beautiful days and clear nights. Swarms of visitors have been making the most of these sunny skies, warmer temps and rather calm weather. Ski and snowshoe trails lace the Paradise area and virtually every prominent vista has a few down-hill tracks below them.

Even the boot and ski track up to Camp Muir has been pretty deep on recent weekends. But what’s noticeable is the lack of boot and ski tracks venturing beyond Camp Muir. With only a few weeks left in March and the remaining days of winter rapidly slipping away, we’re wondering "What happened to all of winter climbers?"

During the last "normal" winter '05-'06 (loosely defined as Dec 1 March 31) 185 climbers attempted the summit on Mount Rainier. This winter ('07-'08) our climbing attendance has precipitously dropped to a lowly 42 attempts! One wonders, is this a trend? After reviewing the past six years (with the exception of last winter when the primary road was entirely closed), the next lowest attendance was '03-'04 when only 104 climbers attempted to summit. That number is more than double what we're seeing this year. So what gives?

Of the 42 climbers this winter, only 6 have been successful (a 14.3% success rate). That success rate falls within the historic average during the same time range (Dec 1 – March 30). The winter high on Mount Rainier was 23.3% during the '06-'07 season (oddly enough when the road was closed) and the low was 1.6% in '05-'06.

The big story, however, is the notable drop in the number of climbers attempting the summit. This data backs up the anecdotal observations of those who frequent the Park. They say that people are just not coming in as large numbers as they used to. With the exception of a few busy weekends this winter, the park has not seen the overall visitation that is normally expected.

Taking into account this season’s well publicized avalanche concerns, this is somewhat understandable. Let’s face it, December 2007 and most of 2008 have been a tough year for positive Rainier press… The winter started with one avalanche fatality and was promptly followed by numerous road closures and other warnings about how high and extreme avalanche conditions were. Certainly, the media picked up the tempo. There was plenty of coverage in every major newspaper including even the New York Times.

At the main visitor centers, the most common questions received relate to the weather and avalanche conditions. Many people are calling to check if "the Mountain" is even ‘OPEN’. YES, "the Mountain" is "OPEN" and by all accounts "the Mountain" is looking pretty darn good on these recent clear days.

So, here are those climbers stats for the past few winters. These cover December 1 - March 31. By the way, we normally consider winter attempts from Dec 21 to March 20 (or whatever the exact "winter" season is).

2007-2008 - 42 climbers - 6 summited
2006-2007 - 17 climbers - 4 summited
2005-2006 - 185 climbers - 3 summited
2004-2005 - 208 climbers - 32 summited
2003-2004 - 104 climbers - 4 summited
2002-2003 - 230 climbers - 36 summited
2001-2002 - 137 climbers - 14 summited

As a reminder, the uphill gate at Longmire closes nightly at 5:30 pm. The downhill gate closes the road at 7:00 pm. Generally, the Longmire gate re-opens every morning after the road has been cleared of snow. Sometimes that's as early as 8 am, but during storms, it can be as late as noon! Call the NPS general information line at (360) 569-2211 and select #1 for road and weather conditions. If you’re coming up to climb, check out the registration page too. Keep in mind that there is NO self registration this winter.

Thanks to Monica Magari for her help with crafting much of this post! Photo of Eben Reckord heading towards the upper Nisqually Icefall by Ben Kurdt.