Climbers die during descent of Rainier
Seattle Times staff reporters
The bodies of a man and a woman were discovered, and rescuers believed they had spotted the body of a second woman before calling off a search because of extreme weather conditions. One man, who had descended partly down the mountain to summon help for his climbing party, was rescued by helicopter.
Although he told dispatchers he had fallen along the way and was hiking without the hardshell of one climbing boot, he didn't need medical care.
The identities and ages of the climbers were not immediately released while park authorities tried to notify their families.
The four people were on the northeast side of the mountain, known as the Liberty Ridge route. It is one of Rainier's most demanding routes, usually attempted only by experienced, independent climbers.
None of the four had previously climbed Mount Rainier, according to information they had filed with the National Park Service. The group was climbing without a guide.
Mike Gauthier, lead climbing ranger at Mount Rainier, said the group had successfully reached the summit from the north when they were "essentially pinned down" on a very steep slope by high winds, freezing rain and snow as they made their way back down the mountain. They had tents, but the winds broke the poles and made the shelters unusable, Gauthier said.
The party carved out snow caves Tuesday night below the summit, said Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Maria Gillett.
Gauthier said he was told that one member of the party accidentally walked on and collapsed the caves during the stormy night. At least one, and perhaps more, in the party, became disoriented in the whiteout and fell near Liberty Cap, at 13,900 feet one of the mountain's two lower summits.
Gauthier said those who fell slid about 400-600 feet off the south side.
"The weather was bad, considered to be terrible," said Gillett. "Mount Rainier makes its own weather. You can see sunny skies, and five minutes later see clouds come in, and the weather can change very, very quickly."
In 60-mph winds yesterday morning, the second man descended to St. Elmo Pass at 7,800 feet, where he encountered other climbers and was able to borrow a cellphone at 11:15 a.m. to call for help, Gauthier said.
The man was picked up by one of two helicopters that joined the rescue effort.
The two female climbers had told their companion, before he climbed down for help, that they planned to stay near the collapsed snow caves. He thought they were hypothermic, Gauthier said.
A dozen park rangers, searching for them and the man who fell, found the bodies of a man and a woman about 400 feet below Liberty Cap, just after 3:30 p.m., said Gillett. Rescuers were able to retrieve only the body of the woman yesterday.
Just before the search was called off at 5:45 p.m., rescuers in a helicopter believe they saw the body of the other woman 15 feet down a crevasse nearby, Gillett said. The search was to resume today.
The route the climbers were taking is perhaps the most captivating — but dangerous — way up the mountain.
Since 1979, more than a dozen climbers have died along the arduous Liberty Ridge course on the mountain's north face. Jim Wickwire, a Seattle attorney and climbing expert who wrote a 1998 book on his mountaineering feats, said Liberty Ridge is sharp, icy and especially precarious when the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse.
Climbers ascend the mountain on Liberty Ridge and then, on the way down, turn east and drop down the Emmons or Winthrop glaciers. Gauthier said many climbers who take the route think they can do it in three days, but that it usually takes four or five.
"It's a classic — a really elegant route," Wickwire said. "But it's one that people get into trouble on because it's a long way up and you're isolated from other climbers."
Last year, 11,678 climbers tried to summit Mount Rainier; fewer than half succeeded. While most climbers take the Ingraham Glacier and Disappointment Cleaver routes on the south face of the mountain, Wickwire said, Liberty Ridge is a more technical course attempted by about 5 percent.
"Those with more ambition, who want to do really the finest route on the mountain, will climb Liberty Ridge," Wickwire said. "There's no route that's more straight and elegant and beautiful."
Over the years, scores of people have run into trouble on Liberty Ridge during the Mount Rainier climbing season, which generally runs from May through September.
Last May, four climbers were stranded by an avalanche on the route, though a rescue crew later helped the climbers continue along the course to reach Rainier's 14,411-foot summit so they could meet a helicopter.
The most recent fatal accident on the route occurred May 24, 1999, when David Persson, a Swedish citizen and Vancouver, B.C. resident, fell 1,000 feet after attempting to ski down Liberty Ridge.
Just three weeks earlier, bad weather on Liberty Ridge forced two local climbers and two from Wyoming to burrow themselves in a snow cave for nine days as they waited for a storm to clear. That apparently is what the four climbers were trying to do Tuesday night, but their caves collapsed.
Wickwire himself spent several days stranded on the route in 1971, when he and a friend were caught in nasty weather. The climbers, waist-deep in snow, made their way to Liberty Cap, eventually building a snow cave. The cave collapsed, so they dug a second one.
"It was about as close as I came to not making it down the mountain," he said.
A momentary clearing allowed Wickwire and his companion to descend to a hut at the 9,800-foot level, where the pair spent a few more days before the storm passed.
Gauthier said climbing rangers originally had planned a training exercise today, working with a Chinook helicopter from Fort Lewis to land at Rainier's summit.
It was to have been practice in rescue and recovery, Gauthier said. Instead, it will be for real.