Monday, June 2, 2014

Washington: Six Climbers on Mt. Ranier Fall, Among Worst Alpine Loss of Life on Mountain

According to The Associated Press, six climbers missing on Mount Rainier likely fell thousands of feet to their deaths in what would be among the worst alpine accidents ever on the iconic Washington state mountain.

On Saturday (May 31), a helicopter crew spotted camping and climbing gear in the avalanche-prone area. It is believed the group fell 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) from their last known whereabouts of 12,800 feet (3,901 meters) on Liberty Ridge, Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Patricia Wold said in a statement.

Air and ground searches were suspended late on Saturday afternoon (May 31). The danger of falling rock and ice in the area where searchers picked up the pings prevents a ground recovery effort.

"It would expose our rangers to pretty extreme conditions," Park Ranger Fawn Bauer said. "And, in all honesty, we may never be able to get on the ground there."

Aircraft will survey the area periodically in the coming weeks and months, Wold said, but the possibility of recovering the six is uncertain.

COMMENT: The missing group includes four clients of Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International and two guides. They were due to return from the mountain on Friday (May 30). When they did not return, the climbing company notified park officials, Bauer said.

Officials have yet to finish family notifications, so the names of the climbers are unlikely to be released until Sunday.

The loss of life would be among the deadliest climbing accidents ever on the peak in the Cascade mountain range. In 1981, eleven people were killed during a guided climb when they were struck by a massive ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier. 

On Oregon's Mount Hood, seven students from a college preparatory school in Portland and two adults died after they dug a snow cave during a sudden storm in 1986.

Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle, stands at 14,410 feet (4,392 meters) and attracts thousands of climbers endeavoring to reach its summit every year. 

Mt. Ranier is popular with climbers of all abilities, from novices who take guided climbs to experienced alpinists who use the glacier-laden peak to train for attempted ascents on taller mountains in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges. 

Before this most recent accident, the park service said, 89 people had died trying to climb Mount Rainier since 1897.

Saturday's search included a team of three climbing rangers on the ground and flyovers with a Hughes helicopter. An Army Chinook helicopter then joined the search from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The group was scheduled to reach the summit of Mount Rainier on Thursday (May 29), with a day to climb down. Snow flurries and hail hit the mountain Wednesday (May 28), Bauer said, but the weather has been clear since then.

Ranger Bauer said ground crews on Saturday checked "every possible area" where someone could have sought refuge in the storm.

In a statement from the park, the guides were described as skilled. In a blogpost on the Alpine Ascents website Thursday, the post said the team had turned around at 13,000 feet (4,392 meters) during their attempt to reach the summit, because of weather conditions.

Wold said the Liberty Ridge route the group were attempting is one of the more technical and advanced on Mount Rainier.