Mountaineering: Grivel Grippers

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Mountaineering: Grivel Grippers
By Douglas Gantenbein

It's really tough fighting the government," says Anchorage attorney Neil O'Donnell. "They're presumed to be right--unless you can show they acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or irrationally."

Last summer, in a case that O'Donnell helped bring, a federal judge ruled check, check, and double-check, slamming the National Park Service and its selection process for awarding climbing-guide permits on Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Though scarcely noticed outside Alaska, the case sparked a raging debate in the guiding community, a debate that insiders say should matter to anyone who uses Park Service-approved guides for climbing, whitewater, or any other outdoor activity.

The saga began early last year, when Denali National Park, which contains McKinley, revoked the permit of Genet Expeditions, the mountain's longest-operating guide service, for allegedly unsafe practices. Only seven companies are licensed to guide on McKinley at any given time, and nearly a dozen lined up to take over the lucrative permit. When it went to Alpine Ascents International, a small, four-year-old Washington State outfit run by Himalayan veteran Todd Burleson, eyebrows arched. Several competitors, including Bob Jacobs, owner of St. Elias Alpine Guides, were convinced that Alpine Ascents had guided illegally on McKinley and in the Lower 48. They were also miffed that none of the three Denali officials who ran the bid, including park superintendent Russell Berry, had much if any experience on McKinley.

Aware of the buzz, the Golden, Colorado-based American Mountain Guides Association took the unusual step of offering to review the selection process. The Park Service agreed, but the AMGA report--which contained letters from disgruntled Alpine Ascents clients and evidence of illegal guiding on McKinley--was ignored. That so disgusted Jacobs, whose company was a runner-up, that he filed a civil suit, claiming that the selection process was seriously flawed and that the Park Service had ignored its own guidelines. In a summary judgment issued in mid-June, federal district court judge John Sedwick largely agreed. He ripped Denali officials for not checking into allegations of illegal guiding by Alpine Ascents. He also criticized the prospectus that the park provided to applicants. This appeared to favor guides with Alaskan experience yet all but disqualified them by requiring extensive experience above 20,000 feet--difficult to get when only one peak in North Am-erica rises that high.

As it happened, even before Sedwick's decision, the U.S. Forest Service belatedly concluded that in 1992 Alpine Ascents had guided an illegal climb on western Washington's Mount Baker. All the same, Berry defends the park's decision to choose the company. He particularly disputes Sedwick's claim that Denali officials knew Alpine Ascents had made illegal climbs on McKinley. He also dismisses the AMGA report as unreliable, suggesting that one motive for Jacobs's suit was professional jealousy among a fraternity of Alaskan guides.

Burleson, who bitterly objects to losing his permit and says he'll fight to get it back, seconds that opinion. "This is an Alaskan gig," he says. "It was an Alaskan attorney talking to an Alaskan judge who decided that an Alaskan company should get the permit." By late summer, the park was taking applications for Burleson's replacement.

The moral? For the Park Service, observers say, it's that applicants for guide permits should be carefully screened. Obviously, with tight budgets and small staffs, park officials are already stretched thin, but the Denali case has been duly noted. "I'm going to make certain I have a couple of our climbing rangers on the panel when we review applicants," says Glenn Baker, concessions manager at Mount Rainier National Park, which will be awarding a guide permit later this year.

For climbers, it's simple: buyer beware. "Ask a lot of questions," says AMGA president Dunham Gooding, a McKinley guide who warns against taking a company's self-hyping brochure language at face value. "If you don't like the answers you're getting, move on."

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