On May 31, Nick Sweeney and Zack Turner, two Spokane alpine climbers, were attempting to climb Ptarmigan Ridge on Mount Rainier with Kyle Tarry.
Conditions weren’t ideal.
The freezing level was 12,500 feet. Climbing Ptarmigan, a steep and technical snow, ice and rock climb, requires navigating a series of rock bands that sits between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, Sweeney said.
“You really need those rock bands to freeze together solidly, because you’re in the firing range,” he said.
Just days prior, a climber was killed on Rainier by falling rock.
“We were trying to make very conservative decisions,” Sweeney said. “Climbing is supposed to be fun.”
Sweeney has never enjoyed “seriously risky climbing.” But in the last year, he’s become more conscious of the inherent risks of climbing.
Last year, he assisted in an attempted rescue of a climber who’d fallen on Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades. The climber had slipped on a wet patch of rock while hiking and fallen about 100 feet. The man died on the mountain.
The death of Spokane alpinist Jess Roskelley in April drove the risk of climbing home even more.
“It made me think a lot more about how an accident in the mountains can affect not just climbers but the people who love climbers,” Sweeney said of Roskelley’s death.
And so, the trio turned around.
On the way out, they passed a group of four that was attempting Liberty Ridge. The two teams chatted for a few minutes and went their separate ways.
On Monday, Sweeney learned that the four were stranded on Mount Rainier by bad weather and dangerous conditions.
“I was really worried about them,” he said. “I was checking the National Parks website about once every hour.”
On Thursday, a helicopter crew rescued all four climbers.
The entire sequence of events confirmed the importance of good mountain decision-making. Balancing the desire and drive to climb a peak with a sober examination of the conditions is key to alpine climbing, Sweeney said.
It’s “impossible to say” whether Sweeney and his partners would have run into trouble if they’d continued climbing.
“(But) it only takes one piece of rockfall to ruin your day,” he said.
“I want to manage all the hazards and mitigate them as much as possible.”
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