A Washington State man is facing federal charges for allegedly organizing a largely unmasked, non-socially distanced, 153-person hike across the Grand Canyon that not only violated COVID-19 restrictions but normal group size limits, too.
Joseph Don Mount, who until recently was the chief operating officer at a Chehalis, Washington, medical clinic, is also accused of lying to National Park Service officials about his plans, which included having two buses and three vans transport attendees to and from the October 2020 event, according to a criminal complaint made public on May 5 in Arizona federal court. An administrator at the Steck Clinic confirmed that Mount no longer works there.
To minimize environmental impact, rim-to-rim hikes such as the one Mount is accused of carrying out have been strictly limited to groups of 30 or fewer since 2014. In an effort to stem the COVID pandemic, rim-to-rim hikes have since been limited to 11 people. Mount suggested everyone on the trip bring walkie-talkies to coordinate so they would avoid being seen in a big group, Park Ranger Timothy Hopp said in an affidavit attached to the complaint.
Mount, 34, now faces five misdemeanor counts: knowingly giving a false or fictitious report; intentionally interfering with a government employee while engaged in official duties; soliciting business in a park area without a permit; violating the normal group size limit; and violating COVID-19 mitigation group size limits.
Mount said he was unaware of the charges until The Daily Beast contacted him for comment on Wednesday.
“I had no idea about this,” he said, explaining that he, along with others who were on the group hike, “live and breathe the outdoors.”
“With COVID and everything, people were just itching to get out,” Mount continued. “I didn’t do it for profit. People had already bought plane tickets and made plans. I’d say about a third to half were single parents, and had arranged childcare.”
Mount pushed back against allegations that he was violating park policy or federal law, claiming that anything he did with a group of more than 10 took place outside the park.
Park rangers became aware of Mount’s plan about a month prior, according to court filings. A concerned citizen emailed the Grand Canyon permits office “to complain about a 100+ person rim-to-rim hiking group” scheduled to begin traversing the canyon on Oct. 24. The person sent screenshots from a Facebook group containing details of the plan by Mount, who was charging $95 a head for the trip.
One of the posts read: “112 COMMITTED HIKERS COMING FROM 12 DIFFERENT STATES!!!” according to the complaint. “[I]f you want to keep inviting friends, I am determined to make this work for as many who want to go!”
In another post, Mount, a former Eagle Scout, allegedly advised a participant to take “precautions... so as to not draw attention to such a large group while on the trail. A natural spread might be best. Will research this more and present details/meet ups/hiking plans in posts to follow over the coming weeks.”
Mount had been in contact with the Park Service about obtaining a permit and was told “multiple times about the group size limit,” the complaint says. But Mount “continued to defy park regulations” and continued to “plan, manage, lead and recruit participants for the rim-to-rim hiking event,” according to the complaint.
In Mount’s retelling, he thought he was in compliance by splitting up into groups of fewer than 10 people and simply giving everyone a ride back when they were done.
“I had a couple of cousins I hiked with, I saw people on the trail that I knew, but I had my group of 10 or less, left the park, and drove back to my accommodations on the north side,” Mount told The Daily Beast.
A couple of weeks after the concerned citizen’s emailed warning, a federal park ranger managed to gain access to the hike’s Facebook group, where Mount was posting updates. Alarmed that the hike—which had 170 registered participants by that point—still appeared to be going forward as planned, another ranger contacted Mount to remind him of the size restrictions. Mount insisted to the ranger that he only intended to take a “small group” of close rugby associates and family friends along, the complaint states.
The next day, Mount allegedly posted a message in the Facebook group, titled: “IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT.” He said he had received a “call from Ranger Hopp,” who “instructed that R2R group sizes are to be 11 people or less.” Mount said he would have to keep a low profile in the weeks leading up to the trip and appeared to lay out a plan, with a wink and a nod, to subvert the rules, according to the filing.
“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 [sic] the planet,” he told the group. “Remember—there is nothing stopping you from hiking the Grand Canyon on this day. There is nothing stopping you from doing a little research to be best prepared. 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.”
Mount suggested everyone avoid being seen with more than 10 others, and recommended they carry walkie-talkies “as part of YOUR OWN individual hiking group” to coordinate, the complaint says. “I will not be providing these because again—it ties me to you WHILE IN THE CANYON.”
A subsequent Facebook post by Mount to the group said, “153. Final list. Check it,” says the complaint, which claims Mount posted a series of “MUST BRING ITEMS” including headlamps, hiking shoes, and a “positive, ‘can do, will do’ attitude.” They would be sleeping in cabins while there, and Mount told the participants, “Check in through me, not the front desk.”
On the first day of the hike, Hopp, the park ranger who had been in touch with Mount, observed roughly 50 people mingling at a trailhead water station, according to court filings.
“A few people told [me] that they were with the ‘Mount group’ and that they were expecting to be picked up by a passenger bus on the South Rim,” Hopp wrote in his affidavit. “However, nearly all groups were extremely reluctant to speak about their plans, their leader, and their event.”
During the same period, the filing says another ranger, identified in court papers as Andrew Sprutta, was in plainclothes and saw between 200 and 250 people departing from the same trailhead.
“Many of the hikers told me that they were part of a large group of a [sic] 100 or more from all over,” it says.
A third park ranger manning a separate station in the area, stated, “In my 7 months of work... I have never have [sic] witnesses so many individuals traveling in the same direction in such a condensed period of time and space.”
The group “fragmented into clusters as it continued across the canyon,” the complaint says. A fourth ranger quoted in the filing said each individual group “did not interact, avoided talking to each other, or pretended not to know each [other] until they were leaving.” The hikers were using small radios to communicate between groups, the ranger stated.
Mount insisted his intentions were not nefarious, and his advice was for safety’s sake.
“I told people, ‘If you’re hiking this, it’s best to be in communication with others,’” he told The Daily Beast.
When one breakaway cluster of hikers was stopped by a ranger patrolling the Bright Angel trailhead, a man with the group said they were part of a large expedition being led by Mount. After confessing, the man allegedly bumped the ranger on the shoulder and admitted that he wasn’t supposed to tell her that.
Visitors cited in the complaint said the hikers did not maintain any sort of social distancing, were not wearing masks, and seemed to be part of an organized group. Another ranger said that when they did encounter groups of 10 or fewer, not all the members knew one another.
A spreadsheet posted in the Facebook group that rangers reviewed seemed to indicate that Mount wasn’t doing it for the money, according to the complaint. After collecting $15,185 from the participants, Mount said he laid out $15,120 for two charter buses, three passenger vans, lodging, tips, and incidentals. He would be making $65.11 in profit, Mount told the group, which he said he’d be putting toward a new pair of hiking poles.
After the hiking was over, rangers continued to monitor the group’s activities. Following the event, the complaint says one of the hikers who had been on the trip posted a message on Facebook reading, “I think Joe did a fantastic job. How about we give ‘our guide’ a bonus for all the extra hard work he did planning an [sic] weekend of memories!!!”
Another participant reportedly replied, “[The] least we could do is Venmo Joe Mount $10 for putting together this experience.”