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 among the more advanced on the mountain.
Such a fall leaves no real chance of survival, and the location is so perilous, the Park Service said in a statement, “there is no certainty that recovery is possible.”
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.
“This accident represents a horrific loss for our guide partners and the families and loved ones of every one of the climbers lost on the mountain,” Randy King, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, said in a statement Saturday night. “The climbing community is a small one and a close one and a loss of this magnitude touches many. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragic accident.”
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.
Continuous rock and ice fall make the area of this accident extremely dangerous, according to the Park Service, and there are no plans to put searchers on the ground. In the weeks and months ahead, the site will be checked periodically by aircraft.
As snow melts and conditions change, the possibility of a helicopter recovery will be considered, officials said.
Rangers’ ground search included looking into crevasses, and being lowered by rope from a helicopter.
Helicopters got low enough that searchers could pick up pings from emergency beacons worn by, or ripped from, the climbers.
What caused the climbers to fall is not known. 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 bio 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 the families.
“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 is one of the world’s most popular climbs, attracting 10,000 to 11,000 climbers a 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 Wednesday night and Thursday, weather-service records show.
It wouldn’t have been unusual for Thursday to pass without phone contact, while the climbers made the final push to the 14,112-foot Liberty Summit, said Park Service 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,” a crevasse between glaciers.
Park rangers blogged last year: “Be prepared to handle more technical climbing and objective hazards than you may have expected. Most importantly, be prepared to turn around and try again another day.”
Climbs in June pose dangers of collapsing ice ledges as the winter’s 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,” Burleson said. “That is why you do snow hikes.”
The search team Saturday included three climbing park rangers, and two rangers aboard a helicopter. The Army Reserve 214th Air Division, out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, participated.
Weather conditions were ideal, with light wind and clear skies. Rangers believe they were able to thoroughly search the climbers’ route for an entire day, said Fawn Bauer, Park Service spokeswoman.
“It doesn’t make the end result any easier; it was a horrible tragedy that happened on Mount Rainier today,” 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.