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.