Originally published Friday, January 6, 2012 at 3:46 PM

Guest columnist

The ranger who protected Mount Rainier from greater tragedy

Guest columnist Bruce Barcott writes about his gratitude for Mount Rainier National Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, who was murdered on the mountain on New Year's Day. She was protecting the mountain and possibly averted a more serious tragedy.

Special to The Times

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I didn't know Margaret Anderson, the Mount Rainier National Park ranger shot and killed on New Year's Day. But I know what she died protecting. And I wish I could thank her for saving the mountain.

For many of us in the Pacific Northwest, Mount Rainier isn't just a national park. It's sacred public space. We go there to play and we go there to pray. Young mountaineers test their mettle on the Emmons Glacier. Elderly women stand and lay their hands on Rainier's old-growth cedars near Kautz Creek. Young couples hike into the backcountry at Indian Bar. Mothers take daughters snow camping at Reflection Lakes.

Memory is Rainier's most powerful attribute. We live in a place where family history is often thin on the ground. Here in the West there aren't many ancestral estates. Our family migration stories aren't traced to the Mayflower, they're traced to last week. Amid all that transience the mountain offers a place to connect with permanence, to create the personal back stories that bind us to the land. Every day hike at Sunrise, every car-camping weekend at Ohanapecosh, every Paradise snowball fight forms a tendon that ties us to our chosen home, and to each other. On a busy day in Seattle, when the clouds part and Rainier reveals itself, the mountain doesn't just come out. It opens the memory album of the mind.

There's no irony in the name Paradise. Rainier's most popular visitor destination sits at 5,400 feet, more than a mile above Puget Sound. Virinda Longmire named it in 1885 after witnessing the breathtaking wildflower bloom of its subalpine meadows. But the place lives up to its name not by flowers alone. Because it's accessible by car, Paradise draws a comically diverse mix of people in the parking lot: World-class climbers gear up next to flip-flop-clad Aussies and Sri Lankan immigrants who have driven up to touch snow for the first time in their lives. It's Paradise for everyone, open every day.

This is the mountain that Margaret Anderson was protecting.

The weather has been gray and depressing for weeks around here, so when blue sky and sunshine showed up last Sunday, New Year's Day, a lot of folks piled into the car and headed for Paradise.

One of those people didn't have snow play in mind.

When trouble finds people, sometimes they go to the mountain. As a young man, I often hiked into the backcountry to try to sort out my life. It did me a lot of good.

Others are not so fortunate. An old friend of mine, a former ranger at Mount Rainier, once told me that one of the toughest parts of his job was finding suicides in the Park. "People come up here for a lot of different reasons," he told me. "Sometimes they want it to be the last place they see."

When Anderson responded to a traffic call on New Year's morning, she had no idea what kind of trouble was coming up the road. A blue Pontiac had just blown past the tire-chain checkpoint at Longmire. She set up a roadblock about a mile away from Paradise.

We have no way of knowing Benjamin Colton Barnes' intent. But the evidence suggests. This was a troubled 24 year-old Iraq war veteran, possibly suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, a gun collector, with a history of suicidal thoughts and erratic tendencies. He'd allegedly shot four people at a party a few hours earlier. In his car was an arsenal of weapons and body armor.

Barnes might have gone to the mountain to think things over. That's a generous reading. Some have speculated that he planned to flee into the woods. But the road from Longmire to Paradise is a 12-mile dead end in winter. And 5,400 feet up Rainier in January is no place for criminal flight.

Once Barnes reached the parking lot at the Jackson Visitors Center, there would be nowhere for him to go. But there would be an estimated 200 innocent visitors and park employees around him.

Maybe he'd have taken his own life quietly. Maybe he'd have forced a suicide-by-cop situation. But in this post-Columbine age, it's hard not to imagine the darkest possibility. Though she couldn't have known it, I believe that Margaret Anderson positioned herself between Benjamin Barnes and a possible mass murder at Paradise.

The story's tragic denouement has been well documented by Craig Welch, Steve Miletich and other Times reporters this past week. At Anderson's roadblock, Barnes stopped the Pontiac, drew a shotgun, and pulled the trigger. Rescuers were unable to reach her for an hour and a half, because Barnes unloaded on anyone who came near. Then he fled on foot into the snowdrifts and mountain streams that would ultimately claim his life.

Spree killers murder more than people. They desecrate a geographic space. They rub dirt on our memories. Last year's mass murders changed Norway's Utoya Island from an idyllic retreat to a place of haunting sorrow. Nearly 50 years after the fact, it's impossible to pass under the University of Texas Tower in Austin and not recall, if just for an instant, Charles Whitman and the day he turned it into a sniper's nest.

That's why I wish I could thank Anderson. By responding to a common traffic stop, and laying down her life, she diverted a killer and allowed Paradise to remain paradise.

On clear days, when the mountain comes out, none of us has to look at Mount Rainier and be reminded of mass murder. We can look and see beauty, adventure and a symbol of our connection to this place. We can look and think of Margaret Anderson. And say a little thanks.

Bruce Barcott is the author of "The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier." He lives on Bainbridge Island.


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