The structure that sticks out most as climbers approach the architectural smorgasbord of Camp Muir, the backcountry campground on the southeastern flank of Mount Rainier, is a black box that looks a bit like an oversized semi-truck container.
“There are no two ways about it,” said George Dunn of International Mountain Guides. “It’s just ugly.”
Dunn, 58, who has climbed Rainier more than 500 times, said his first impression of the shelter’s interior was that it looked like “a cross between a hospital room and a barracks.” Even in the 1970s he and other climbers appreciated that Mount Rainier National Park called the structure “temporary.”
Forty years later, the park is ready to make changes it hopes will improve the aesthetics, safety and removal of human waste at Camp Muir.
“We’re trying to rehabilitate the historic district up there, remove some of the non-compatible structures that have gone up,” said Randy King, Rainier’s superintendent. “We also want to enhance the experience of visitors there, not only for overnight users, but day users. You can have several hundred people hiking up there on a nice day.”
The park recently announced four proposed plans for Camp Muir. Potential options are:
• Removing structures and replacing them with large tent pads.
• Maintaining the camp as it is.
• Replacing non-historic structures with those that match the style of the historic buildings.
• Building a new structure.
A public-comment period will run through Sept. 10 and includes meetings Monday in Ashford and Thursday in Tacoma.
“Whatever they do, it will be nice,” said Alex Van Steen of Rainier Mountaineering Inc.
Van Steen compares the project to replacing the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise in 2008.
“Some people complain that it (the new structure) is too small, but how much better is it contextually than the spaceship that was there,” Van Steen said referring to the visitor center’s circular predecessor.
Camp Muir is 1.1 acres and sits 10,188 feet above sea level, making it the highest backcountry campground in the Northwest. It is the busiest location on the upper mountain with about two-thirds of the 9,000 to 11,000 climbers per year using it as a base camp when trying for the 14,411-foot summit.
It’s also a popular day hiking destination because of its sweeping, above-the-clouds views.
Camp Muir consists of an A-frame storage structure and the “black box” shelter – which can sleep 36 people and is used only by the guide service clients. The park classifies both as “non-contributing” to the national historic district. Three other structures with rock facades – two shelters and a storage space – are considered historic buildings.
Camp Muir also has four toilets the environmental assessment describes as aging and which “do not process waste efficiently.”
Dealing with the toilets is a priority, King said. The park’s goal is to replace the toilets and move them to either end of camp so they’re not prominent features on the ridgeline, he said. They also want to make the toilets easier to maintain.
“We put a lot of time and energy into managing human waste,” King said.
The park uses a helicopter to fly about two tons of human waste off the mountain each climbing season.
Park staff members have looked at several options, King said, and are planning this season to test a system modeled after one used at Glacier National Park and several Canadian national parks. It would do a better job of separating liquid and solid waste and make it easier to remove the solid waste, King said.
“There are no perfect solutions,” he said. “It’s a tough environment to operate a toilet. What works down low, doesn’t necessarily work at 10,000 feet.”
Of the four proposals, the park prefers that option that calls for replacing non-historic shelters. Dunn said IMG supports that option, or the one that calls for replacing non-historic buildings and adding a new shelter. RMI has yet to endorse an option.
King estimates that replacing the structures with matching-style buildings will cost about $700,000 and would be funded primarily by franchise fees paid by concession companies, including the guide services.
He hopes work can begin next summer and expects it will take three seasons to complete, perhaps longer if the option of building a new structure is selected.
“You have to work just to get there,” King said. “It’s a brutal environment with all types of conditions.”
Mindy Roberts and Sarah Krueger of The Mountaineers, an outdoor recreation and conservation club, said they’ve yet to review plans for Muir but said they like the idea of structures that blend into the environment and improved toilets.
King said changes to the shelter are necessary to alleviate some safety concerns.
“One of the problems we’re trying to address is how do we separate the cooking and sleeping shelters,” King said. “We have some safety related issues, like possible carbon monoxide poisoning from people using stoves in the shelter.”
In the park’s preferred alternative, the historic Public Shelter would have a new cooking area partitioned within the building to separate sleeping and cooking areas. The partition would reduce sleeping spaces by two from a maximum of 18 to 16. However the camp’s overall capacity would remain at 110 people per night.
Dunn said he doesn’t believe the loss of two sleeping spaces in the shelter will have a negative impact. He hopes it will encourage more people to visit Camp Muir with the “ability to take care of themselves.”
Just the prospect of the Camp Muir ridgeline looking more natural and the big black box finally living up to its description as “temporary” is enough to delight many longtime guides.
Although, as Van Steen said, the box served its purpose.
“We joke about it,” he said. “When the weather is good, we hate it. But when the weather is bad, we love it.”