Climbing Accident Betrays Four Friends Two Die In Mount Rainier Fall, Severing Friendship Of Adventure
It began as the perfect way to end a summer full of outdoor adventure.
Karl Ahrens, Scott Porter, Brian Nelson and Jeff Lippens were friends who enjoyed what the Northwest offered, including weekly rafting trips, strenuous bicycle journeys and climbing the area’s renowned mountains.
But an accident while climbing Mount Rainier Aug. 20 severed the tight circle of friends and cost two of them their lives.
A copyright story in Sunday’s Bellevue Journal-American, based on interviews with survivors and family members, chronicled the summit attempt.
The group had been camped at Rainier’s 9,700-foot Camp Schurman when they arose at 12:45 a.m. that Sunday and began their ascent of the peak. An early start had been advised, since the sun would slick the mountain as the day wore on.
Nelson, 32, was the leader.
“Brian was very diligent in making sure Scott and Karl were prepared,” said Lippens. “We had gotten together beforehand and gone over a number of safety issues.”
Two men who left White River campground with the group on the previous day decided against trying for the summit. Porter’s older brother, Steve Porter, had turned back about noon when his boots caused painful blisters. Dennis Scroggins, a rafting friend from Issaquah, suffered from altitude sickness during the Saturday ascent.
Scroggins made it to Camp Schurman, but exhausted and weary, decided against going further, despite pledges from Nelson and Ahrens to take it slow.
“I’m not going to be able to make it today,” the 35-year-old told his friends in the predawn darkness. “I can’t rely on you because I can’t rely on myself.”
A second group of climbers looking for a third person for their rope team approached. Lippens agreed and the climbers split into two groups.
Typically, teams aim to reach the summit by 9 a.m. Once there, they sign the register, take photos and rest anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before starting the descent.
When Nelson’s team left camp between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., they were in high spirits. The group exchanged goodbyes for the last time.
For most of the way up, Nelson, Porter and Ahrens, 35, kept up with Lippens and the two men he joined.
The two groups met 500 feet below the top, in a snowfield between the summit and Curtis Ridge on the north side of Winthrop Glacier. They compared notes about the climb and talked about conditions.
Lippens was leery about the slick surface. Nelson’s team had fallen 20 to 30 feet at one point, but were able to stop themselves from sliding further.
Once the two groups reached the summit, they briefly discussed possible alternate routes for the descent, since the surface was getting slippery. After about 30 minutes, Lippens and his group decided to go down the way they came up.
Nelson’s group decided to give the ice more time in the sun, which would allow it to soften. They trudged around the summit crater to Columbia Crest, Rainier’s highest point at 14,410 feet. Despite the chilly temperature - an estimated 35 degrees - the bright sun warmed the icy summit.
Ahrens, Porter and Nelson started down about 1 p.m. in conditions other climbers described as akin to walking on a wet ice cube.
Other climbers said their gear was useless in the conditions on the mountain that afternoon. Ice screws that drill into the surface wouldn’t hold and climbing spikes couldn’t penetrate the surface.
Ahrens and his group were about 1,000 feet into the descent when something went wrong.
A German couple resting about 200 feet below felt ice falling and looked up to see two fallen climbers and one still standing. The standing climber, believed to be Nelson, fell across his ice axe and dug his boots into the glacier to try to stop the slide.
But the climbers, still sliding, hit a bump and the ice axe lost its grip. All three tumbled more than 2,200 feet before slamming into a snow bridge on Winthrop Glacier.
When rescuers arrived, Porter and Ahrens, both of Redmond, were dead. Nelson was alive but his brain was critically bruised. A testament to his physical strength, he tried to stand when he saw help. He remained in critical condition at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle on Sunday.
Scroggins, who says the accident victims made the most of their young lives, finds some solace in remembering the good times, especially with Ahrens.
“I hate to end the friendship that way. It ended in a foreign land,” Scroggins said. “The best part is I got to know him.”
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