Deaths would bring Liberty Ridge’s total to 26

Staff writerMay 31, 2014 

Rising sharply above Carbon Glacier, Liberty Ridge isn’t the realm of novice mountaineers.

While about 10,000 climbers attempt Mount Rainier’s summit each year, only about 200 go via Liberty Ridge.

It’s not the most difficult route up the 14,411-foot mountain southeast of Tacoma, but it is technical enough and demanding enough that most on this route don’t actually make the side trip to Rainier’s true summit, Columbia Crest. Instead, they typically make their goal the 14,122-foot Liberty Cap.

While this route has found a place on the bucket lists of many North American mountaineers, it also has a reputation for being unforgiving and deadly.

Park officials announced Saturday that six climbers — two Alpine Ascents International guides and their four clients — likely died on Liberty Ridge this week, the second-highest death toll for a Rainier expedition. Eleven died in a 1981 ice fall on Ingraham Glacier.

If the six fatalities are confirmed, the death toll on Liberty Ridge will climb to 26, according park records. Liberty Ridge got a boost in popularity in 1979 when it was included in the book “Fifty Classic Climbs in North America” by Steve Roper and Allen Steff.

Just reaching the ridge is enough to weed out the inexperienced, as they must navigate crevasses and other challenging terrain.

Those who don’t map out a proper route to the ridge will feel as if they’re trapped in a giant maze, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guide Alex Van Steen told The News Tribune in 2004.

Once on Liberty Ridge, climbers will see regular rock and ice fall on either side. On the ridge, the punishment for even the tiniest mistakes can be severe.

In 2004, four men died on the route. Park officials said all four were experienced and did nothing wrong. Two slipped and fell in separate incidents. The other two were swept down the mountain by an avalanche after completing most of the route.

The route features many obstacles.

On the lower ridge, the climb to Thumb Rock — a saddle in the ridge at 10,775 feet where climbers establish high camp — is moderately steep, but climbers must stay alert for falling rock. “A bowling-ball-size rock falling from 500 feet is like being hit by a bomb,” Mike Gauthier, a former lead climbing ranger at Rainier, told The News Tribune in 2004. Climbers are not very mobile on these slopes, making it difficult to avoid rock and ice fall.

Above Thumb Rock, the route gets steeper (More than 50 degrees in places such as the Black Pyramid). Here climbers must decide if they should take time to set ice anchors or keep going to avoid less time exposed to rock and ice fall.

Near the top of the route, climbers must navigate the bergschrund, a crevasse formed where the glacier pulls away from the mountainside. Depending on conditions, this could require ice climbing, crossing a snow bridge or walking around the obstacle.

And climbers face a continued threat from ice fall as they approach Liberty Cap.

Few climbers descend via the ridge, choosing instead to return via the Winthrop or Emmons glaciers.

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497; craig.hill@thenewstribune.com; @AdventureGuys

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