Whether safe passage or answers, Mount Rainier doesn’t always give climbers and those who love them what they want.
Exactly what went wrong for six climbers now presumed dead might never be known. And their bodies might never be recovered.
Park officials believe the two Alpine Ascents International guides and their four clients were likely swept off Liberty Ridge and buried on the precarious upper reaches of Carbon Glacier.
“I don’t think we’ll ever truly know what happened,” said Peter Ellis, one of three climbing rangers who scoured Liberty Ridge for clues Saturday.
Ellis and rangers Scotty Barrier and Dan Veenhuizen found a snow picket, a tool used by climbers to anchor themselves. They found it at about 12,400 feet, just below an area know as Black Pyramid. It’s also near the climbers’ last known location, 12,800 feet.
But Ellis said they don’t know for sure whether it belonged to the AAI party. Others have used the route recently.
“It is quite rare to find a picket,” Ellis said. “They are pretty valuable when you are climbing. You don’t want to leave them.”
The rangers left White River Campground on Thursday morning to patrol Liberty Ridge. The route is one of the more challenging on Rainier and typically draws fewer than 200 climbers per year — veteran climbers, carefully vetted by guides.
Ellis estimates rangers patrol the route three times each season. It is usually only climbable May through early July.
The rangers planned to climb the route on the north side of the mountain, then descend to Camp Muir on the south side to help staff the more popular main climbing routes.
On Friday evening they received word of an overdue party. When they checked in Saturday morning, they learned the AAI group was, indeed, late.
“Our mind-set went from patrolling … to search and rescue mode,” Ellis said.
This meant taking more pictures, looking for clues and recording more GPS way points. While they traveled a little slower, they still arrived at Camp Muir Saturday evening.
Fearing the worst, Ellis said, “Our hearts were definitely heavy on Saturday. It’s a hard thing to deal with.”
Ellis said these types of missions are all tough, but even tougher when it includes other mountaineering professionals. Guides and rangers are “a tight-knit community.”
Debris spotted by searchers in the air indicated the party likely came to rest on the Carbon Glacier, 3,300 feet below the group’s last known location.
It’s a notorious, dangerous area, so Ellis understands why the search was called off.
The cracked surface of the glacier looks like a sea of knife blades. Rocks falling from Willis Wall add to the danger.
Waiting for colder months is not a promising option. The hazards are reduced, but the search area will likely be buried under many feet of snow.
In 2002, a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter crashed in the area while responding to an injured climber. The crew survived and the climber was rescued, but over time the helicopter was swallowed by the glacier, according to one account.
In 2004, two climbers were swept off Liberty Ridge by an avalanche. Their bodies were found later that summer almost a month apart.
Ellis is hopeful that as the snow melts, more clues from the tragedy will be revealed.
“Unfortunately in mountaineering, tragedies just happen,” Ellis said. “There are a lot of things you can mitigate, risk-wise, but there are some things you just can’t control.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497