Instead, Park Service policies that promoted preservation kept a mountain that was once seen as the Northwest's best site for a ski area from becoming a Sun Valley, a Whistler or an Aspen.
Finally, even the modest rope tow permitted by the park was forced out.
Some bitterness lingers over skiing's long downhill slide at Rainier.
Dick Vanderflute was president of the last company to operate rope tows on the snowy slopes above Paradise. But at the end of the 1975 season, the company packed up in disgust - the victims, Vanderflute said, of pressure from park officials who no longer saw downhill skiing as compatible with park goals.
"Our problem was the National Park Service. They wanted us out of there. It was pretty obvious," recalled Vanderflute, a longtime ski instructor who since 1965 has owned Parkland Sports. "They harassed us to death."
Rainier officials see the loss of the rope tow differently. John Wilcox, the ranger who oversees the park's backcountry areas, said downhill skiing at Rainier withered in the 1970s largely because of severe weather and competition from more-developed ski areas.
"But you could also say the park welcomed this change, because ski areas and national parks are kind of incompatible," Wilcox said.
Downhill skiers and Mount Rainier officials were at odds almost from the moment the sport spread from Europe to the United States in the late 1920s.
The region's pioneer downhill skiers quickly saw Rainier's long slopes as an ideal location for a world-class resort, complete with a grand hotel and a permanent chairlift that could whisk skiers to 10,000 feet. Union Pacific Railroad Chairman Averell Harriman even considered Mount Rainier as a location before deciding to build his lavish ski resort at Idaho's Sun Valley.
Initially, Rainier's slopes accommodated the new sport. In April 1934, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sponsored the Silver Skis Downhill Race on a challenging 5-mile route from Camp Muir to Paradise. The following year, the first U.S. Downhill and Slalom Championships were held at Paradise. Soon after, Austrian-born Otto Lang arrived to form the region's first ski school.
Park officials, however, soon turned cool to ski promoters' grander plans. Accommodating the record crowds at Paradise was a challenge in winter, when snow removal is a constant problem. The park also lacked adequate parking, lodging, avalanche control and facilities to treat ski injuries.
Moreover, skiers' emphasis on speed, thrills, competition and ski-lodge frivolity often made them unwelcome visitors in the eyes of many park officials. Even more suspect were ski race spectators, who viewed the unique mountain as little more than a sports arena.
Park officials resisted pleas to allow construction of a permanent chairlift at Paradise. Yet, they did allow three men - Jimmy Parker, Chauncey Griggs and David Hellyer - to set up a seasonal rope-tow operation. The motors and support poles were taken down at the close of each winter, leaving nothing to mar the scenic hillsides in summer.
The first equipment went up in late 1937. A new gas-powered, eight-cylinder Mercury engine spun automobile wheels that pulled a loop of 1 1/2-inch Manila rope. The tow could haul 250 skiers an hour from a spot near the Guide House to the saddle of Alta Vista.
In the days before lift tickets, the tow operators charged skiers 10 cents a ride. Dimes often slipped through gloved fingers into the deep snow, where they waited until the spring melt.
"In the spring, there was a whole lot of silver on the ground there," said Hellyer, now 85. He and his wife, Connie, would later establish Northwest Trek.
A T-bar was added in 1940, and a ski lodge was completed at Paradise in December 1941. Other rope tows were installed for a time above Narada Falls and near Cayuse Pass.
Lean resources during World War II curtailed winter use. But by the early 1950s, ski clubs and their supporters were again lamenting what they saw as the national park's refusal to develop the mountain to its fullest. Politicians and newspaper editors took up the skiers' cause.
Historian Theodore Catton said National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth literally put his job on the line when he stood firm against calls for a chairlift.
"For the first time in Mount Rainier's history, the Park Service was telling a whole constituency - in this case, downhill skiers - that their activity was inappropriate for a national park," Catton said.
Contentious disagreements lasted until the 1960s, when development at other ski areas finally diverted attention from Rainier.
But the modest rope tow stayed. It was operated by the Rainier National Park Co. until 1966, at which time the concessionaire wanted out of what it saw as two marginal enterprises. The company combined the winter ski tow with the summer climbing guide service, then looked for an operator.
A five-year contract went to Kendall Mountain Inc., which had formed in the hope of developing a ski area near Snoqualmie Pass. The corporation's president was Jack Melill, a Mercer Island schoolteacher who had worked for 10 years at Rainier as a seasonal ranger.
Running the summer guide service was profitable, Melill recalled. But losses during the winter at the ski rope tows erased the profits from guiding.
"We were losing so much money on the ski area," Melill said. The Park Service "made it really tough to do business up there."
Melill's contract required his company not only to tow skiers but also to operate the facilities of the new visitor center. The roof leaked and heating the building cost a fortune. Fresh food shipped from the lowlands sometimes spoiled when the road to Paradise could not be plowed.
Tickets for the rope tow cost $2, but to get to the slopes skiers had to first pay the park's $2 entrance fee. The combination made the total price comparable to what skiers would pay to use the chairlift at Snoqualmie Pass.
After two money-losing winters, the corporation's stockholders voted to get out of Mount Rainier. "They didn't understand it much. They were just people who wanted to make money," Melill said.
John and Evelyn Anderson took over the business and managed to split the ski tows from the guide service. When the Andersons opted out of the ski business, Dick Vanderflute stepped in.
Vanderflute, now 70, had been a ski instructor since 1956. He and nine others each put in $1,000 to buy and run the company, which they named Paradise Ski Tows. Vanderflute was president.
The company's equipment hauled skiers 450 vertical feet up the mountain with four ropes, three of which were linked to electric motors housed in a small, tepee-shaped building that still stands near the Paradise restrooms.
Crews would arrive Friday night to begin digging out the grooming machines and tow ropes, which sometimes were buried under 10 feet of fresh snow.
Skiers arrived Saturday and Sunday mornings. Many were beginners who mastered their turns, stops and tucks at Paradise before moving to longer, chairlift-equipped runs at Crystal Mountain or White Pass.
On good weekends, "We would fill the parking lot," Vanderflute said. "We taught a lot of people to ski at Paradise. We had probably 40 to 50 people sign up for Sunday lessons."
Yet almost from the start, Vanderflute felt unwelcome.
"If there was a ski area in the national park and they really wanted it, they didn't show they wanted it," Vanderflute said. "Unfortunately, the national park seems to think that's their own personal playground. It doesn't have anything to do with the people who pay the tax on the damn thing."
One particular annoyance was a road sign.
In winter, park officials would put a sign at the Nisqually entrance that read "Road closed seven miles ahead." While technically true, it overlooked the fact that the road from Longmire to Paradise was closed while it was being plowed, and that it would soon reopen.
Vanderflute said he begged park officials to put up a different sign that read something like, "Road will open at 9 a.m." They refused.
"That sign in the road is probably what did us in," Vanderflute said. "Skiers would see the sign, see the road was closed, and they'd leave."
Finally, Vanderflute and his partners gave up. He moved his Paradise Ski School to the more accommodating Crystal Mountain. He said he "never even considered" trying to restart his tow operation at Mount Rainier.
"I had such a bitter pill in my mouth from the experience I had with them, I couldn't care less," he said.
Today, a handful of downhill skiers and snowboarders still visit Rainier each weekend, and the numbers rise in spring after other ski areas close. Most pack their equipment up the mountainside to 10,080-foot Camp Muir - a spot more than 3,000 feet higher than any chairlift in Washington - for one long slide back down to Paradise.
Near the parking lot, they pass that odd tepee-shaped hut with vertical slits through which tow cables once passed.
"Except for that building," said Vanderflute, "there's no evidence at all that there was a ski area there."