During my research time on Mount Rainier I regularly came across an inconsistency. Some of the references to Mount Rainier list it as 14,410 ft. and others add on a foot to make it 14,411 ft. above sea level. So which is it?
The National Parks Service lists it “officially” as 14,410 ft. and so does National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map (No. 217) of the park. But a new measure, done in 1989 by the Land Surveyors Association of Washington, placed its elevation a foot higher.
While some respect the new measurement, most others – including the National Parks Service – are slow to update their maps and records. Maybe they never will. Measuring elevation is more of an art to get at science. Today, surveyors use high tech equipment like lasers and satellite GPS. However, the key information inputted to provide the output of elevation is still based on several judgment calls. These judgments include what might (or might not be) accepted as the average sea level as a starting place and then using that data and applying it to a location many miles away from the sea. It’s remarkable that we can get as accurate as we can.
So which is right? Well, if you are not certain you can always take the approach of Alpine Ascents International, one of the guide concessions in the park; as of July 5, 2011, their website reports both (one in the header and the other in the body) on their Mount Rainier Program page.
But does it really matter? Not in such a minute denomination. When Bradford Washburn and National Geographic revised Mount Everest’s height it was more dramatic – adding on six feet. After all, it doesn’t change the fact that Mount Rainier dominates Puget Sound’s skyline.
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Sources: 1) Hill, Craig, “The True Measure of a Mountain,” The News Tribune, Feb. 16, 2009; 2) Mount Rainier National Park website; 3) Alpine Ascents International website; and 4) Filley, Bette, The Big Fact Book About Mount Rainier: Fascinating Facts, Records, Lists, Topics, Characters and Stories, Dunamis House, 1996.