Mount Rainier claimed the life of a Puget Sound area outdoorsman last week, but he didn’t die on Liberty Ridge, Disappointment Cleaver or any of the other high-altitude routes that test mountaineers trying to bag the 14,411-foot summit this time of year.
No, Otto Steffin died in a most unusual place: along the Mazama Ridge loop trail, popular among day trippers seeking an accessible hike out of the Paradise parking lot while staying below 6,000 feet.
Searchers found Steffin’s body in a river drainage Thursday, and park officials said Tuesday the 76-year-old died of hypothermia. Having endured a gradual decline in body temperature, it seems probable that Steffin had the time, if not the means, to call for help.
The Mercer Island man’s death stands as a timely example of why bringing limited cell phone service to Mount Rainier makes sense – and why park officials made a prudent, though controversial, decision last month to allow telecom companies to install wireless technology at Paradise.
Aesthetics were never a good argument against the proposal because there will be no ugly cell phone towers in the park; all equipment and antennas will be tucked away in the attic of the Jackson Visitor Center.
But many mountain lovers raised legitimate points about the value of tranquility and the need to preserve it in one of the last refuges from 21st century digital overload. Some of the most beloved national parks, such as Yosemite and the Grand Tetons, have faced complaints that cell towers were authorized with scant public input.
For their part, Mount Rainier officials led a robust public-comment period last year; it yielded hundreds of responses fairly evenly split between outdoors technophobes and those advocating cell service for safety and convenience reasons.
Count us among those who’ll be annoyed when we bump into a group of screen-addicted teens on the trail texting, tweeting or playing Pokemon Go. We won’t be so bothered if we see a young family en route to Alta Vista, using an online app to quietly learn about wildflowers.
One concern is that having wireless service at Paradise will lull visitors into a false sense of security. “People will go into the backcountry and think the cell phone will be their savior,” Derek Newbern of the King County Search and Rescue team told a McClatchy reporter in December. “Sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way.”
That problem can be mitigated with a strong public awareness campaign involving everyone from park rangers to climbing and hiking clubs. There should be no doubt that satellite phones or personal locator beacons remain advisable for remote parts of the mountain.
But providing a reliable cell signal in the highest-traffic section of the park was the right call, if only because of the rare occasions it could spell the difference between life and death.
Consider two people who might still be alive today if communication had been better.
The first was Margaret Anderson, the park ranger who died on New Year’s Day 2012, killed by a gunman who ran a tire-chain checkpoint a mile below Paradise.
The second was Otto Steffin, who died last week on a day hike above Paradise. He knew enough to bring the 10 outdoor survival essentials. Before long, at least on the southwest side of the park, a functioning cell phone will be item No. 11.