Mike "Gator" Gauthier, whose work as a ranger made him a revered member of the local climbing community, is saying goodbye to Mount Rainier National Park after more than 18 years.
Gauthier, 39, is leaving his post as the head of the park’s climbing program for a two-year fellowship in Washington D.C.
His last day at Mount Rainier is Jan. 2.
"It’s a huge change and opportunity for me," Gauthier said, "and one that I’m really excited about."
Gauthier, who has been involved in numerous rescues on Mount Rainier, is trading his ranger uniform for a suit and will be assigned to the U.S. Senate’s National Parks Sub-committee.
While D.C. might seem different than Longmire, where Gauthier lives, he’ll have something in common with at least a couple of people on Capitol Hill. Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain and Gauthier all earned places on the Men’s Journal 2004 list of the "25 Toughest Guys in America."
Gauthier, who grew up in Olalla, made the list for one of his most famous rescues, which actually came on a day off in 1998. Gauthier was on Rainier’s 14,411-foot summit when he heard a distress call on his radio.
He hopped on his snowboard and zipped down the mountain to Disappointment Cleaver to help guides rescue nine climbers.
But what Gauthier might be most proud of is his last three years at Rainier. After several high-profile rescues and deaths on Rainier’s upper slopes, there has not been a major incident above Camp Muir in three seasons.
"A lot of the credit for that goes to Mike," park superintendent Dave Uberuaga said. "He has been very instrumental in making the program what it is today."
Gauthier started a blog – mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.com – that updates climbers on route conditions.
"The more info you have to work with the more likely you are to have a successful trip," Gauthier said while explaining why he started the blog.
Gauthier also helped coordinate the transition from one Rainier guiding service to three in 2007. Gauthier says having three guide services on the mountain has made the mountain safer.
"There is a guide for every three climbers on the main route," Gauthier said.
Gauthier also worked with local groups like the Tacoma Mountaineers to help with training and climbing outreach.
"With the blog, the guide service and the Mountaineers it’s a big group hug situation," Gauthier said.
In his years on Rainier, Gauthier has dangled out of helicopters, rescued climbers and recovered bodies. He’s also helped train park staff and formulated their avalanche safety plan.
Along the way Gauthier also climbed Rainier more than 100 times, including eight times in one week in 1998. He also set a record by summiting the mountain 36 times that summer. He wrote a Rainier climbing guide in ’99 that is widely considered the best on the subject. The Mountaineers Books republished the book in 2005.
"What he has done for the park is remarkable," Uberuaga said. "He will not be an easy guy to replace."
While Gauthier could theoretically return to Rainier after the fellowship he says it’s unlikely.
Most participants in the Bevinetto Fellowship usually are assigned to a management position like a park superintendent when they finish according to an e-mail from Chuck Young, Rainier’s chief ranger.
"I care greatly about this place," Gauthier said. "My DNA cares about this place. I’m going to miss it, but I’m looking forward to this new opportunity."