Friday, June 12, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Whittaker Defends Late Descent From Summit Of Rainier -- Avalanche Slams Into Climbers On Mt. Rainier; 1 Killed, 8 Hurt

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

The co-owner of the climbing company whose party was struck by an avalanche on Mount Rainier yesterday, killing a Connecticut man, is defending the fact that the climbers were still descending at midafternoon when the conventional wisdom is to be back at camp by 1.

Lou Whittaker, co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., said after a press briefing at Paradise this morning that part of a five-day training program he puts climbers through is to teach them to climb the mountain at any time of day, in any conditions.

"As far as the safety factor goes, I would feel as safe climbing in the evening as in the morning," he said. He said it's a fallacy that warm afternoon weather such as yesterday's inherently makes a mountain more vulnerable to avalanches.

"I've climbed this mountain hundreds of times," he said. "The avalanches come all times of the year and all times of the day . . . We turn around when we think it's too bad."

Others disagreed.

"If I had been on the mountain yesterday, I would not want to be coming down that late," said Steve Costie, executive director of the Mountaineers, a Seattle-based recreation and conservation organization. Costie has reached the summit of Mount Rainier four times.

Other climbers planning to make the climb over the weekend said they, too, typically aim to be back by 1 p.m.

The avalanche struck the climbers at 2:30 p.m. yesterday. Patrick Nestler, 29, apparently survived his initial fall, officials said, but the Connecticut man suffered massive injuries and spent several hours hanging from a rope before help could reach him. After a delicate and remarkable rescue, eight other climbers were taken to hospitals

Survivors said the only warning they'd received before tons of snow slammed into them was a shout from someone above them. Then it hit.

"It felt like we were going down a waterfall," said Nina Redman, 35, who spent more than an hour dangling from a rope after the massive avalanche struck along a popular climbing route on the 14,411-foot peak.

"I figured I was dead," said Kent Swanson, 53, who suffered a broken leg and sprained fingers when the avalanche hit two climbing teams descending Disappointment Cleaver, a rock ridge that splits two glaciers on the mountain's east face.

The climbers' ordeal played out over six hours yesterday after warm spring weather loosened snow at the mountain's 11,000-foot level, triggering an avalanche that knocked the climbers about 100 feet down the mountainside.

That all but one climber made it safely off the mountain was described as remarkable - the result of an "intense, technical rescue," Whittaker said.

"I've learned how efficient we can be in rescues," said Whittaker, who participated in the rescue and flew off the mountain with the injured. "It was close, people. We were pushed."

Rescuer came by snowboard

Mike Gauthier, a climbing ranger with the National Park Service, said he was climbing on his day off and had reached the summit yesterday when he got word of the avalanche via cell phone.

Riding a snowboard, he descended to the slide site, and with the help of other rescuers he tried to help secure tenuous climbing lines.

One rope, with half a dozen climbers attached, was so frayed rescuers worried it would snap. Had the ropes not caught on rocks, Gauthier added, the climbers would have fallen 200 feet to a glacier below.

This morning, Whittaker offered further details, giving this account:

When the avalanche struck, the party of at least 22 climbers and guides were attached to different ropes along Disappointment Cleaver. Six were hooked onto an 800-foot line that was anchored in the snow.

The wall of snow caused most of that rope's anchors to pop out and sent one end of it swinging over a cliff; six climbers were left hanging anywhere from the lip of the cliff to some 100 feet below it. Nestler was at the bottom.

When rescuers arrived soon thereafter, they found the other climbers sprawled in the snow securely above the cliff's edge. It was right at the edge that the line was fraying.

The rescuers anchored a new line and sent one rescuer down to check on the dangling climbers. Over the next few hours, they inched them back up, one at a time, beginning with the climber at the lip of the cliff.

Last to be pulled up

Gauthier said it was at 7:15 p.m. that they realized Nestler, the last one to be brought up, was dead.

By 7:35, the injured survivors were safe in the snow above the cliff, waiting to be transported to a landing at Ingraham Flats, where a helicopter would take them to hospitals.

The climbers who were not seriously injured arrived down at Paradise around 11:30 this morning. Mark Hunter of Connecticut, who witnessed the avalanche sweep past him, was among them.

"They all told us about it," he said of the dangers of climbing in wet snow on warm days. "The guides didn't keep us in the dark. They told us step by step what to look out for. You know the risks when you come out here."

Wary of afternoon warmth

But climbers in five other parties at Paradise planning to make the climb over the weekend all said today their goal is to be back at camp by 1 p.m. because of avalanche danger.

Guy Dahms of Alburquee said he and his wife planned to get back to camp as early as possible. "I'll be watching the snow carefully," he said.

In 1981, another avalanche struck at the same location, killing 11.

Those hit by yesterday's avalanche were taking a five-day mountaineering course conducted by Whittaker's RMI, a popular guide service.

Redman, a librarian from Manhattan Beach, Calif., was in a roped team of five people when the sheet of snow hit the lead person, dragging the entire team down the slope.

"It was kind of like playing crack the whip," she said.

Redman tried to drive her ice ax into the side of the mountain, "but it didn't seem to do much." She ended up dangling from the middle of the rope with each end anchored by climbers pinned against rock.

"I didn't know how I was going to get out," she said.

On another rope next to her were two of her friends, Deborah Lynn and Susan Hall.

"There were two waves," Hall said. "The snow fell, then there was a moment of quiet. And it came down again. I never saw it. It just hit me."

Her backpack slipped up around her neck, choking her, and its weight pulled her down the mountain. She struggled to hold on and yanked herself free from her pack, which went flying into a crevasse below. Then her helmet came down over her face and she couldn't see.

Lynn was also dangling, with a stream of water pouring over her. She was getting hypothermic and told Redman she thought her ribs were broken.

Redman said she tried to keep Lynn calm.

Redman was rescued from her dangling rope when one of the guides came alongside and attached her to a separate rope.

Hall's hand was crushed when the rope was pulled taut by falling climbers. A doctor at St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood told her she has two fractured fingers and would need surgery.

Lynn was treated at Madigan Army Medical Center; Redman had a neck strain.

An adventure vacation

Redman, Lynn and Hall are close friends who had come to Mount Rainier for an adventure vacation. The idea first came up, Redman said, when Lynn suggested they climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

"I thought Rainier was more realistic," Redman said. They trained by climbing a sand dune carrying heavy backpacks. They said the Rainier climb was a challenge, but not extremely difficult.

When the group hit the summit, "We were thinking we had a great day," said Swanson, a Maryland resident who was taking the course with his brother, Gregg Swanson, 42, of California.

But coming down Disappointment Cleaver, Kent Swanson heard someone above yell "slide," and his team guide told him to run.

"You're running for your life . . . trying to get the hell out of there," said Swanson, who figures he probably ran only about 10 feet before the avalanche hit.

"I thought I wasn't going to make it. I thought, `It's over.' "

Both he and his brother suffered leg injuries as they tumbled down the mountain. After the avalanche, he said people remained calm, taking a count of who was there and trying to keep anyone else from falling into the crevasse.

Unusual weather

Chad Kellogg, a climbing ranger at Rainier, said unusual weather likely contributed to the tragedy. After two relatively cold days that deposited new snow on the slope, temperatures rose as high as 50 degrees at Camp Muir, a staging area at the 10,000-foot level.

The climbers, still above Camp Muir at 2:30 in the afternoon, were also behind the generally accepted schedule.

"That's a little slow," Kellogg said. "What we don't know is how skilled or in what condition these climbers were."

Climbers descending late in a sunny day run a higher risk of avalanche, said Loren Foss, education manager for The Mountaineers.

"Mountain accidents normally happen not because there's one thing wrong, but because there's a lot of different things going on," said Foss, saying factors might include climbers' physical condition, the condition of the snowpack and the weather.

Another climber, Michael Bush, who reached the summit earlier yesterday, said conditions on the way down were difficult.

Bush said his group saw at least three midsized avalanches on the way down and had to occasionally dodge softball-sized rocks.

Most climbers make an early-morning summit attempt by leaving Camp Muir and climbing the Emmons Glacier. But climbing rangers said that glacier, the largest on Rainier, has become "significantly broken," disjointed and dangerous in recent weeks, prompting guides to shift to alternate routes up Gibraltar Ledge or steep, rocky Disappointment Cleaver.

A safety report posted by climbing rangers as recently as Wednesday noted that the main route from Camp Muir "now goes up the Cleaver," where, they noted, "the crevasse problems are worse than normal" and "there is rock and icefall danger, especially getting onto the Cleaver."

Disappointment Cleaver, familiar to Northwest climbers, is so named because it's the point at which climbers who are feeling good about how far they've come up the mountain suddenly start to feel fatigue and nausea, and realize how far they remain from the summit.

Jim Klasch of Seattle Mountain Rescue says it's the most dangerous part of the climb, because climbers are crossing ice, rock and loose snow.

While the top part of the formation is a gentle slope, lower down it steepens considerably, to perhaps 30 to 35 degrees, Foss said. Looking down at the tree line thousands of feet below, climbers on the cleaver often have the sensation that the slope is steeper than it is.

"Your sense is, while it's not technically difficult, you want to hang onto something," Foss said.

Second incident that day

The avalanche was the second of two major mishaps on the mountain yesterday.

Shortly before 3 a.m., Doug Wagoner, 30, of Evansville, Ind., was ascending Rainier via the Kautz Glacier when he was hit either by falling rock or ice.

Guides and park rangers were evacuating him on a litter in the afternoon when the avalanche hit, and rangers had to leave him for a while to help those in the avalanche.

Wagoner finally was brought down just after 8:15 p.m., wrapped in a sleeping bag.

"I think I broke my leg going up the slope," he said. "The ice started to fall. I felt like I got hit with a chunk the size of a car." The others in his group were unhurt.

The avalanche did not involve disabled climber Pete Rieke, who was using a hand-cranked snow vehicle to ascend the mountain. His party was about 400 feet above where the climbers were hit. It was his wife who used a cellular telephone to report the avalanche, park officials said.

Rescuers were concerned that darkness might fall before the injured people could be taken on litters to an area where a Chinook rescue helicopter from Fort Lewis could land.

After the most severely injured were loaded onto litters, it took about an hour to cover the half-mile to Ingraham Flat. Progress was slow because on the rocky and steep terrain, litters can't be slid, but must be moved step by step on lines attached to stakes.

Sgt. Joseph Sands and Sgt. Terry Eldridge, two Army medics aboard the helicopter, brought the injured aboard just after 8 p.m.

Three were on stretchers; two of the injured walked on, and two more were uninjured. Rescuers also loaded Nestler's body aboard the helicopter, but to avoid upsetting the injured climbers, they did not tell them one of their group had been killed.

Instead, they covered the body with parkas and other gear, and told the others Nestler had been airlifted separately.

The Chinook helicopter can withstand high altitudes and lift up to 13 tons and carry as many as 28 people.

Eldridge, 24, of Lexington, Okla., said his heart was pounding as he began tending the wounded. One woman, suffering hypothermia, couldn't move her legs or feel the lower part of her body.

The climbers were all exhausted and hungry. Sands, 27, of Allentown, Pa., said they didn't talk much on the 20-minute flight, and when they did, it wasn't about the day on the mountain, but rather small talk.

Fifteen minutes after they left the mountain, the woman with hypothermia motioned for Eldridge and Sands to come near her. Eldridge leaned over, pulled the flap of his helmet back and removed his earplug.

Above the roar of the chopper blades, she shouted, "Thank you. Thank you."

"That's why we do it. That's our reward," Eldridge said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Tamra Fitzpatrick, Jim Simon, Lily Eng, Jack Broom, J. Martin McOmber, Julie Peterson, Carol M. Ostrom, Chris Solomon, Dionne Searcey, Charles E. Brown, Florangela Davila and Ron C. Judd contributed to this report.


Injured climbers

-- Kent Swanson, 53, of Phoenix, Md., fractured his right leg and strained his left hand. He was treated and released from Tacoma General Hospital.

-- Susan Hall, 45, from Manhattan Beach, Calif., suffered a crushed hand, and was treated and released from St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood. Another woman, 35, who suffered back strain, was also released from the hospital.

-- Gregg Swanson, 42, from Saugus, Calif., suffered knee and hand injuries, and was treated and released from St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

-- Cecil Hewitt, 47, from Princeton, Minn., was treated for a fractured finger and Allen Fedor, 30, from Holdingford, Minn., suffered back strain. Both were treated and released from Allenmore Hospital in Tacoma.

-- Deborah Lynn from Manhattan Beach was treated and released from Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma.

-- Nina Redman of Manhattan Beach suffered neck strain. She was treated and released from St. Clare Hospital.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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