That’s no moon – but it’s also not a spaceship*

The dominant structure at Camp Muir – the last stop of many climbers on their way to summit Mount Rainier – is a ‘black box that looks a bit like an oversized semi-truck container’. And it’s overdue for a makeover.

To this end, the National Park has made available four potential plans for public comment. They are, as related by The Seattle Times:

– 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.

I’ve never been up to Camp Muir, and I was curious to see what this abomination looked like. The difficulty I had in tracking down a decent picture spoke volumes: no one really wanted to photograph this thing, post it online, and make it easy to find. It’s just not so photogenic. But I did manage to dig up one image:

Unsurprisingly, the proposed changes have received approval from frequent climbers on aesthetic grounds.

George Dunn, of International Mountain Guides, said of the current structure, “There are no two ways about it: it’s just ugly.” Alex Van Steen, of Rainier Mountaineering Inc., added, “Whatever they do, it will be nice.”

Had his comments stopped there, so would have this post.** But Van Steen went on to compare the Muir renovations to the replacement of Rainier’s Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise Point in 2008:

“Some people complain that it [the new structure at Paradise] is too small, but how much better is it contextually than the spaceship that was there?”

Van Steen is only partially right: the current building is a contextual improvement over its predecessor – as would be the Muir upgrades – but in an entirely different way. Where the Muir renovation has been sold primarily on aesthetic sensibilities, the replacement of the Jackson Visitor Center had more to do with energy efficiency and the cost of upkeep.

I visited Paradise in early 2008 – while the visitor center was still standing – and was given the following synopsis by a park ranger:

The Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center was originally designed for Hawaii’s Volcano National Park. Though that park rejected the design, Washington Senator [the one context in which I don’t need to write ‘Washington State’] Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson liked it so much that he decided to transplant it to a volcano half an ocean away.

But Mount Rainier is not Hawaii, and the visitor center was ill-suited to its new location. Although both locations – Hawaii and Rainier – feature volcanoes and scenic viewpoints, there’s one thing the Cascades have that Hawaii doesn’t: snow. Indeed, if Mount Rainier is to boast one*** distinction, it’s that, according to the National Park Service, Paradise Point is the snowiest place in the United States (where measured regularly).

Mount Rainier? More like Mount Snowier.

Engineers quickly came to the realization that the building would soon be buried, and its fragile roof would collapse. But engineers are nothing if not a resourceful bunch, so they improvised a solution: every winter of the visitor center’s existence, the Park Service burned between 300 and 500 gallons of diesel fuel a day simply to heat the roof and melt away the snow. The structure quickly became the single most-expensive building to operate in the entire National Park System and any arguments to maintain it eventually grew indefensible.

So while the ‘spaceship’ did appear out of place on location, that was hardly the reason for its replacement. Indeed, I thought it looked rather pretty:

Forgetting the real story behind the visitor center’s closure threatens to obscure its value as a reminder of the fragility of human existence. Modern society is built on largely unsustainable practices, and it’s easy to forget that they are – in the long run – more expensive to maintain than to replace.

Our descendants – and the world – deserve better than sacrifice on the altar of our inertia.


*Yes, I know the actual line is ‘space station’

**More likely, it would not have been written

***More accurately, if Mount Rainier were to boast one distinction, it’s that it is the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States and the Cascade Volcanic Arc (so sayeth Wikpedia). If it were to boast two, it would definitely be the snow thing.


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