A former healthcare executive from Washington is facing federal charges after allegedly organizing and leading an illegal 153-person rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon.
In a criminal complaint filed in Arizona on May 4, the federal government charged Joseph Don Mount with conducting commercial activities in a national park without a permit; giving a false report to authorities; interfering with a government employee’s official duties; and violating both group size limits, all misdemeanors.
In an affidavit attached to the complaint, the National Park Service said the Grand Canyon’s permit office received a tip in September 2020 about a group of more than 100 people that was planning a rim-to-rim hike for October 24. As evidence, the tipster, identified by the pseudonym Asher Lawden in the affidavit, attached screenshots of posts from a Facebook group where Mount, the alleged organizer, had posted “112 COMMITTED HIKERS COMING FROM 12 DIFFERENT STATES!!!” and said that they might need to take precautions “so as to not draw attention to such a large group while on the trail.”
Since 2014, Grand Canyon National Park has required permits for organized group hikes and limited their size to 30 people in an effort to limit impacts on trails and facilities. As part of its Covid safety plan, the park currently limits below-the-rim groups to 11 people, including guides.
When Mount spoke to an employee at the permit office, however, he said that he was taking a group of 12 people, slightly larger than the maximum size, for a rim-to-rim hike. When he asked about splitting the group up to satisfy that rule, the employee he spoke with told him that wasn’t allowed.
Still, the government alleges that Mount continued to plan the hike, charging participants $95 each to cover the cost of food, buses, lodging, and walkie-talkies to keep the dispersed group in contact. (One thing he doesn’t appear to have done: Made a significant profit. According to a spreadsheet of costs Mount posted to the group, he barely broke even, earning $65.11.)
Mount received another warning on October 8, when National Park Service Ranger Timothy Hopp, who had gained access to the Facebook group, contacted him about the planned group hike. In the affidavit, Hopp claims that he reminded Mount of the group size limit “approximately a dozen times,” and told him that even in non-pandemic years, groups of more than 30 were strictly banned from hiking rim-to-rim. Mount again denied that he was organizing a 100-plus-person group, instead telling Hopp that he was planning to hike with a small group of family friends and fellow rugby players.
Afterward, Mount posted about the encounter in the Facebook group, saying that he had “a target on [his] back” and that he was “stepping down” as group leader. However, he appeared to encourage the group to follow through with its plans, reminding participants that lodging and shuttles were paid for and writing “nothing is stopping you from hiking the Grand Canyon on this day.”
“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,” he wrote. Over the next few weeks, he posted about picking up vans, sent out an itinerary, and noted that he would be waiting on the South Rim to make sure all participants of the hike made it onto a shuttle.
When the group showed up on the day of the hike, rangers were waiting, some in plainclothes. Hopp wrote in the affidavit that he saw a group of about 50 mingling at the North Kaibab Trailhead, and that a few people told him they were with the “Mount group.” Another ranger, Cody Allinson, said that he saw about 150 people enter the Manzanita Day Use Area within half an hour, and that in his 7 months on the job, he had never seen “so many individuals traveling in the same direction in such a condensed period of time and space.” He noted that most were not wearing masks and, because of crowding, they were unable to socially distance. While many hikers told rangers that they were hiking in groups of 9 or 10, a few allegedly admitted that they were hiking as part of a larger event, and rangers observed some using radios to coordinate amongst themselves.
Mount, a former COO of a medical clinic in Washington, did not respond to a request for comment. Speaking to The Daily Beast, which broke the story, he said he “didn’t do it for profit” and insisted that any group activities with more than 10 people took place outside the park’s boundaries.