When park rangers caught wind of Joseph Don Mount’s plan to lead a 153-person hiking trip through Grand Canyon National Park last fall, they tried to warn him against it.
The large excursion, which Mount, from Chehalis, Wash., had been advertising on Facebook and collecting $95 fees to fund, would violate the park’s rules against hiking groups larger than 11 people, ranger Timothy Hopp warned in an Oct. 8 phone call, according to a federal affidavit filed on Tuesday.
Mount reassured the ranger that he only planned to bring a small group of 10 into the park, made up of his former rugby teammates, close friends and family. The next day, he logged onto Facebook to tell the dozens who had paid for the hike that he needed to make it appear that he would no longer be leading them.
“Ranger Hopp — this is my plausible deniability,” Mount wrote on Facebook, according to the affidavit. “I am no longer leading a group through Grand Canyon on 10/24. I am simply going with my 10 (or less) closest friend[s] and family.”
Just over two weeks later, Mount and more than 150 other people from 12 states allegedly flocked to Grand Canyon National Park to descend from the canyon’s North Rim, walk along the Colorado River below, and then ascend to the South Rim — with many not wearing masks or observing social distancing rules.
Now, Mount faces five federal charges and is accused of lying to park officials, doing business in the park without a permit and violating coronavirus restrictions.
Mount, 34, is a former Eagle Scout and college rugby player who returned to his hometown last year to work as the chief operations officer of a health-care company in Chehalis. He was hired in August 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and worked at the Steck Medical Group until April, according to his LinkedIn profile. A Steck Clinic administrator told the Daily Beast that Mount no longer works at the facility.
Mount did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment late Wednesday. He told the Daily Beast that he did not think he had broken any rules because the large group he had organized broke into smaller clusters during the hike.
“With COVID and everything, people were just itching to get out,” Mount told the Daily Beast. “I didn’t do it for profit. People had already bought plane tickets and made plans.”
Because of the pandemic, groups hiking the rim-to-rim path cannot exceed 11 people, according to park officials. But even before social distancing measures, groups could be no larger than 30 to protect the trails, and most organized groups with more than 11 people required a permit. The park does not allow larger groups to break up into smaller ones to accommodate the size limits.
According to the affidavit, Mount organized hotel rooms, carpools, vans and buses to transport more than 150 people to and from the trailheads on the day of the hike.
Even after park officials warned him that his plans would break the rules, Mount encouraged people to show up and obscure the fact that they were with his group, park officials alleged. He also reassured the Facebook group that their hotel rooms were still booked and that chartered buses would be on hand to take hikers back to their cars, according to the affidavit.
“Remember — there is nothing stopping you from hiking the Grand Canyon on this day,” Mount wrote to the group. “However, there is now a target on my back and this is the best way I know how to still hike R2R and not be tied to any of you. I hope you all recognize the position I’m in. I’ve spent countless hours organizing this, but when Ranger Hopp calls up … I must separate myself from all of you.”
The throng of people that poured into the Grand Canyon on Oct. 24 disturbed other hikers and alarmed park rangers along their route.
“At peak of visitation, there were approximately 70 people within … an area which is roughly the size of half a basketball court,” ranger Cody Allinson said in the affidavit. “In my 7 months of work … I have never … witnessed so many individuals traveling in the same direction in such a condensed period of time and space.”
A backcountry hiker complained that he was “overwhelmed” by the crowd of people coming from the North Rim on Oct. 24. His hike took two hours longer than expected because he had to wait for people to pass “all morning long.” At a packed rest house, the hiker said he saw about 80 people waiting in line to get water, without any social distancing.
Another park visitor ran across the large party that day and noted that the hikers were not observing coronavirus restrictions.
“We encountered a BIG group of hikers,” the man said, according to the affidavit. “There was no social distancing, nobody was wearing masks, the group size was way out of control.”
When the large group arrived to the trailhead on the morning of Oct. 24, they told park rangers that they were there in groups of 11 or fewer. But a few people gave up the truth, according to the affidavit.
One man told a ranger that he was part of Mount’s large hiking group. Then, he “bumped [her] on the shoulder” and said he wasn’t supposed to tell her that, according to the affidavit. Others said they were part of Mount’s organized group, but had broken up into clusters of fewer than 11 people while they moved through the park.
Another ranger said that people who appeared to be part of the large group congregated near a campground, but “did not interact, avoided talking to each other, or pretended not to know each other until they were leaving.”
That ranger said he overheard people talking about staying in small groups to prevent officials from thinking they were part of a larger party. He also said he saw people in different clusters speaking to one another using walkie-talkies.
Although Mount had claimed on social media that he was not leading the 153-person hike, park officials said his other statements revealed his intent to mislead rangers and continue the excursion despite the rules.
“As you could imagine, a park official telling me I can’t hike the R2R with more than 11 people isn’t going to prevent me from doing one of the greatest hikes in the planet,” Mount wrote on Facebook, according to the affidavit.