PARADISE, Wash. — Rare winter sunshine explodes off the icy snowpack in the parking lot of the visitor center and lookout here — what folks call a ruby dazzler. Unrestrained, Mount Rainier looms.
Ryan Mettler and Mike Ray move their rotary snowplows methodically across the terrain, slicing into the five feet of snow that piled up over five weeks, their chutes spraying white arcs 100 feet or so. It’s likely to take at least two days to clear, leaving huge snowbanks around the perimeter.
Road crews and other staff members at Mount Rainier National Park are scrambling to reopen this iconic volcanic mountain to the public, more than a month after the partial federal government shutdown cut off official access to some of its most popular wintertime activities.
The park lost 10 percent of its working year, Superintendent Chip Jenkins laments. And while Paradise might begin welcoming visitors by next weekend, there is bigger concern about the long-term effect those lost days could have on the crucial summer season.
“Sure, we’ll get the snow removed . . . and people will come back,” Jenkins said Monday. But it’s the “downstream effects of the shutdown” that are most worrying his team leaders. “Their ability to hire the right people so we can de-winterize buildings, open up campgrounds, open the trails up.”
He won’t even entertain the idea of another government closure, as President Trump has been threatening, and he has not factored it into any plan as his team presses to reopen services.
“That will be a policy call by other people of whether they want our work reduced by 15 or 20 percent,” said Jenkins, a tall, engaging man who looks every bit the part of a park ranger.
Returning on the first day after 35 days of furlough, many employees greeted each other with hugs. The park had maintained a small staff of about 20 to provide utility maintenance, security and dispatch. Road crew members like Ray and Mettler, each with years of experience at the park, also reported to work, largely without pay, to keep at least one lane clear on a critical 12-mile stretch to Paradise — 5,400 feet up the south slope of the mountain.
There, more than 1 million people a year take in the expansive view of Rainier and the surrounding peaks of the Cascade range. Paradise is a playground for snowshoers, snow campers and families seeking to frolic in the snow, as well as the launch point for climbers attempting to summit Rainier.
An unseasonably warm and dry January has meant less snow on the mountain — about 80 percent that of a typical January. Yet the melting and refreezing left a 5 ½ -foot hard pack in the parking lot of the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, with drifts even higher blowing up against the pitched-roof building.
Inside one of the rotaries, a massive bladed plow where the temperature reached 70 degrees, Mettler assessed how much snow to carve and shoot as he moved forward. The accumulated snow was so firm that a person could walk on it without sinking, and that made removing it trickier.
Mount Rainier employs 110 people during the winter, a number that swells by 200 over the spring and summer months as workers are hired for conservation and ecology projects, trail maintenance, and campground staffing.
But much of the onboarding for those workers — interviews, reference and background checks — takes place during the time when the government was closed, said Jim Ziolkowski, the roads and trails foreman, who began working at the park 35 years ago as a summer intern. There is uncertainty around some of the partnerships with conservation, youth and other organizations that provide some summer crews. And as the park plays catch-up, he fears that those groups and individuals might settle on other opportunities that seem more certain.
In other words, agreed Deputy Superintendent Tracy Swartout, “we don’t yet know what the impact is going to be on our ability to recruit and attract candidates for the kinds of jobs we would normally fill.”
How quickly the route to Paradise will be reopened to the public depends on the condition of the parking lot once the snow has been pushed aside. Ice will also have to be removed from parts of the road to the top, a twisty, winding, miles-long route. With the daytime sunshine and nighttime temperatures, the ice will be back every morning.
Between the plows and the rotaries, crews are scooping the snow off the roadway and onto snow banks, where a snow cat then pushes it around.
“We are taking care of everything we should have been doing along the way,” Ziolkowski said. “Snow poles get bent, the banks get high.”
Equally important are the more mundane projects, he added: getting public bathrooms ready for use, for instance.
Monitoring for avalanches on the mountain is ongoing.
Two miles west of the park entrance, Megan Jansen and other employees at Copper Creek Inn in the tiny town of Ashford keep an eye on webcam images at Paradise. Their restaurant, suites and cabins live and die by the mountain. The shutdown cost them 50 percent of their business in a month when business is traditionally slowest, Jansen said.
Copper Creek kept its staff of about 17 employees — including four husband-and-wife teams — on the job in January despite the park’s closure and continued to pay them despite the lack of customers. Everyone is anxious for them to return, but that will take time, even after the park opens up.
Valentine’s Day is usually a popular time for cabin rentals, Jansen said. “Right now we have no reservations.”