Six missing climbers on Mount Rainier are most likely dead on Carbon Glacier, according to Mount Rainier National Park officials.
If confirmed, it would be the deadliest incident on 14,411-foot Mount Rainier since 1981, when 11 people were buried in an avalanche — the worst death toll in U.S. mountaineering history.
The four climbers and two guides were reported missing on Liberty Ridge — one of the more advanced and technical climbing routes on the mountain — at 4:30 p.m. Friday, and teams began looking for them Saturday morning, park spokeswoman Patti Wold said. The names of the climbers were not available Saturday evening.
Park officials said the group, organized by Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, was last heard from Wednesday by satellite phone when they were at 12,800 feet.
“Weather was moving in, but otherwise everything was fine then,” Wold said.
On Saturday, a helicopter search party spotted equipment near the area where the climbers were last heard from, Wold said. Helicopters also detected pings from emergency beacons buried in the snow and a debris field at 9,000 feet that may indicate an avalanche.
Wold said Saturday that there’s no way the group could have survived.
The Seattle Times reported that rescuers found tents, clothing and debris strewn over hundreds of feet down the mountain’s sheer north side.
“There is every indication there is not a viable chance of survival,” Fawn Bauer, a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, told NBC News. “It’s a sad day.”
“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,” park Superintendent Randy King said in a news release Saturday evening. “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.”
The release indicated that there were no immediate plans for further search and rescue efforts.
“The area the avalanche beacons were detected on the Carbon Glacier is extremely dangerous due to continuous rock and ice fall,” the release said. “At this point there are no plans to put people on the ground at the site because of the ongoing hazards. In the weeks and months to come the site will be checked periodically by aircraft. As snow melts and conditions change, potential opportunities for a helicopter-based recovery will continue to be evaluated. There is no certainty that recovery is possible given the location."
Gary Harrington, operations director for Alpine Ascents, told another newspaper that families of the six were traveling from around the country to the Northwest on Saturday night.
“Obviously this is a tragedy — it is very sad,” said Todd Burleson, founder of Alpine Ascents. “We are very sad for the families and the loss of our guys. Everyone mourns this.
“You always hold onto hope, but we are uncertain. All you can do is hope.”
Saturday’s search teams included park climbing rangers on the ground, along with rangers in helicopters from Northwest Helicopters and the Army Reserve 214th Air Division out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
About 11,000 people attempted to summit the mountain last year, and in most years roughly 50 percent succeed, according to National Park Service statistics.
Last week the park service reported the Liberty Ridge route as being in good condition with soft snow on the ground during the day. Snow flurries passed through the national park late Wednesday.
The incident was the worst on Mount Rainier since June 21, 1981, when 11 people died in the deadliest accident in American mountaineering history.
A group of 22 climbers with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. was on Ingraham Glacier when a huge chunk of ice broke loose high on the southeast side of the mountain. It exploded into thousands of car-size chunks as it swept down the mountain. In a matter of seconds the ice fall fanned out, ripping through usually protected niches and sweeping climbers down the mountain.
Ten clients and one guide ranging in age from 19 to 42 were missing — buried in a 70-foot crevasse with no chance of rescue. Their bodies were never recovered.
Families gave dental records to the park so their bodies could be identified if they are found, the mother of one of the victims told The News Tribune in 2006.
Staff writers Rob Carson and Craig Hill, The Associated Press, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times and KIRO-TV contributed to this report.