Six climbers were killed in a 3,300-foot fall along the steep north slope of Mount Rainier, officials said Saturday, in the worst disaster on the mountain in more than three decades.
Searchers found tents and clothes, mixed with rock and ice, in a debris field along the Carbon Glacier at 9,500 feet, according to the National Park Service. The group’s climbing route, to Liberty Peak, is prone to slides and considered relatively difficult.
The six climbers – two guides and four clients from Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International – were last heard from at 6 p.m. Wednesday by satellite phone. At that time, the party was at 12,800 feet with plans to camp overnight.
When they failed to return Friday as planned, the company contacted park rangers. Alpine Ascents is the company that lost five Sherpas at Mount Everest this spring.
At Mount Rainier, the search Saturday by helicopters and climbing rangers was suspended four hours before dark.
“They feel there is no chance of survival at this point,” said Fawn Bauer, spokeswoman for the National Park Service.
Rangers conducted a thorough ground search that included looking into crevasses, and being lowered by rope from a helicopter.
Helicopters got low enough that rescuers could pick up pings from emergency beacons that were worn by, or ripped from, the climbers.
This is the worst climbing disaster on Mount Rainier since June 21, 1981, when 11 climbers were killed by an avalanche on Ingraham Glacier, on the southeast side of the mountain.
Exactly how the climbers fell last week is unclear. They could have been climbing on a snow slope that gave way, or may have been swept off by rock and ice debris, according to park rangers. Avalanches also occurred in the general area.
The climb’s leader was Matt Hegeman, of California, Alpine Ascents confirmed. Hegeman’s company biography says he has climbed Rainier more than 50 times, using four different routes.
Identities of the other five weren’t released Saturday, pending notification of their families, park officials said.
Alpine Ascents’ founder, Todd Burleson, returned to Seattle from a trip to Alaska on Saturday and was heading to the mountain to meet families Saturday afternoon.
“Obviously this is a tragedy,” he said. “We are very sad for the families and the loss of our guys. Everybody mourns this.”
Mount Rainier, which stands at 14,410 feet, is one of the world’s most popular climbs and attracts between 10,000 and 11,000 climbers per year. Alpine Ascents brought 955 guides and clients up the mountain in 2012.
The six climbers set out Monday along White River Trail, then reached Thumb Rock on Tuesday, elevation 10,700 feet. A few inches of snow fell on the mountain Wednesday night and Thursday, weather-service records say.
It wouldn’t have been unusual for Thursday to pass without phone contact, while climbers made the final push to the 14,112-foot-high Liberty Summit, according to park spokeswoman Patti Wold.
The Liberty Ridge route is considered difficult and fickle. It includes at least two glacier crossings and a steep final ascent, where ice and rock can fall onto climbers. The search included an area known as “the bergschrund,” which is a crevasse between glaciers.
Climbs in June pose dangers of collapsing ice ledges as the winter snowpack rapidly melts.
But it’s really the only chance to climb Liberty Ridge, before further melting exposes cracked and crumbly rocks, said Burleson, of Alpine Ascents.
“This is the season for climbing because there is snow on the mountain and it eliminates the rock fall for the ridges. … It depends year to year, but you need the thick snowpack. Volcanoes have rotten rock all over them. It is rare that there is a good place to climb them,” he said. “That is why you do snow hikes.”
A limited search for the climbers will go on as opportunities arise, Bauer said. But there are no plans for other specific searches.
The search team on Saturday included three climbing park rangers, and another two rangers in a helicopter. The Army Reserve 214th Air Division, out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, participated. Weather conditions were ideal Saturday, with light wind and clear skies. Rangers believe they were able to thoroughly search the climbers’ route for an entire day, said Bauer, of the Park Service.
“It doesn’t make the end result any easier; it was a horrible tragedy that happened on Mount Rainier today,” she said.
It may be weeks or months before bodies can be recovered, if at all, Wold said. “If they are in a spot that’s dangerous, we can’t risk other climbers,” she said.
There were 89 deaths while summiting Rainier between 1897 and mid-2011, and another 25 deaths from 1912 to mid-2011 on other types of climbs or training.
Far more people have died in the national park of other causes.