Craig Hill: Rainier weathering busy summer without permit system

A backpacker takes on the Wonderland Trail in 2012. The permit system is down this year, but park officials say the first-come, first-served system it’s forced to use this summer is working well.
A backpacker takes on the Wonderland Trail in 2012. The permit system is down this year, but park officials say the first-come, first-served system it’s forced to use this summer is working well. Staff file, 2012

Answers to important questions nobody has asked me yet:

Q: Does Mount Rainier National Park have reservations about its decision to go with a first-come, first-served system for backcountry permits this year?

A: When a March storm damaged the park’s wilderness reservation computer system, the park was left scrambling to figure out how to handle more than 2,000 permit requests.

The solution wasn’t ideal for those who wanted to lock in their plans in advance. The park returned all of the permit requests and went with a first-come, first-served system.

So, this summer — a busy one for parks around the country thanks to the National Park Service’s well-publicized centennial — hikers can get their passes no sooner than the day before their trip. This includes the park’s 93-mile Wonderland Trail, a bucket list trip for many backpackers.

While some feared long lines at wilderness information centers, park Superintendent Randy King said the program “has gone pretty well.”

“I think the staff has worked pretty hard to accommodate people, and I think they’ve been able to do that with just about everyone who’s walked in the door,” King said.

He said all of the backcountry sites were filled for several days in early August. Mid-July to mid-September is the busiest time for the park.

“We are starting to see pretty exceptional demand for the sites,” King said. “Can we continue to meet the demands of most people? I think we can. Can we meet the needs of everybody? I don’t know.”

Some have seen the first-come, first-served as an opportunity to get permits for a trip that might otherwise be challenging to acquire.

This, however, is a one-year situation. The park is working to implement a new online reservation system by next year. King says the park hope to be able test the system by the end of summer.

The park must first test the system to make sure it meets Department of Interior security requirements.

For those who want a sneak peek at the system, King says it is similar to the one used at Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Q: When it comes to park priorities, should No. 2 be No. 1?

A: As King says, “We spend a lot of time talking about toilets in the park, but if you don’t have them you have big problems.”

So when it comes to updating Camp Muir above 10,000 feet on Mount Rainier, updating the toilets is a priority.

King says the Washington Conservation Corps is working on the drain field. The first toilet is expected to be done this year.

It’s not yet a working toilet, so workers are using the structure as a shelter to spend the night, King said.

“It’s a tough place to get things done,” King said of Camp Muir. “And a short season to do it.”

When the toilets are complete, the plan is to replace the boxy plywood shelter used by the climbing guide services.

Q: So what’s the speed limit for e-bike’s in Washington?

A: Last week, I wrote about e-bikes and Ravi Kempaiah, a 32-year-old University of Chicago doctoral student. Kempaiah is biking 5,000 miles from Madison, Wisconsin, to San Diego in an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for longest e-bike ride.

If all goes as planned he should pass through Washington this weekend. However, reader Joshua Putnam points out Kempaiah better watch his speed.

A look at the Revised Code of Washington shows why. Kempaiah says his bike increases his speed to 23 mph, up from about 18 mph. State law says e-bike’s motors must be “incapable of propelling the device at a speed of more than 20 mph on level ground.”

E-bikes also can’t be used on sidewalks or multipurpose trails where motorized vehicles are prohibited.

So, it looks as if Kempaiah will have to take it slow as he visits Olympic National Park and the South Sound.

Nice places to take your time, anyway.