Whether it’s heading for Mount Rainier and Chinook Pass in the summer, or Crystal Mountain during the winter and ski season, hundreds of thousands of cars drive along Highway 410 every year.
But as I discovered on my own visit last week, there’s little to no cell phone service along large stretches. And as long-time local Wendy Scholl told me, if I’d been in an accident, I’d better pray a local like her stops to help — because without cell service, I’d be on my own for a long time.
“If maybe you held your phone out at arms length — possibly — and walked up the highway, maybe part of a bar,” Scholl explained. “Folks up there call it a dead zone.”
Wendy, a long-time member of the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol, has stopped far too often for serious or fatal crashes, like the one that left a woman writhing in pain with a broken pelvis.
“It was really hard to stay with that family and wait. I don’t think it was an hour, but it was definitely over 40 minutes,” she said. “I was worried she was just going to lose consciousness.”
It’s why Wendy and a number of other residents and business people in and around the small town of Greenwater south of the Sunrise entrance to Mount Rainier, including Crystal Mountain General Manager John Kircher, have been pleading with carriers for years to increase service to the area.
Representatives of both AT&T and Verizon say they’re working on it. Both companies have a single tower in the works at different sites along the highway that would marginally increase coverage, although many so-called dead zones would remain. But it’s clearly not a priority. Wendy says one reason might be there are only about 100 permanent residents in the area. But Scholl said the service isn’t for them nearly as much as for the hundreds of thousands of visitors coming through.
“We need it for the people who come up here and we need it for these emergency responses we have,” Scholl added. “It’s public safety.”
Although protecting public safety on the state highways is within the purview of both the Washington State Department of Transportation and State Patrol, neither agency has done anything to improve communications for drivers in the area. Spokespeople for both agencies told me it is not their responsibility to increase cellular service, and both said they are not working with cellular providers to encourage them to do so.
“I don’t understand it because with that many people, you would think that would be enough for them to provide coverage along that highway,” Scholl said. “I don’t understand it.”
A number of challenges stand in the way of increasing cell service. CenturyLink would need to run more expensive fiber to cell sites, and a number of permitting and other issues have also slowed the process for even the three towers in the works along the stretch of highway from Mud Mountain Dam to Sunrise.
“We’re still probably … a year away, which I just can’t believe this,” Scholl said.
In the meantime, all of us who drive Highway 410 better hope we don’t get in an accident, or that Wendy or one of her neighbors happen to be driving by if we do.