Life and death on Mount Rainier

Before the storm erased the cobalt-blue sky and before death closed in, four ill-fated Mount Rainier National Park visitors were shown their future by a 21-year-old college intern.

Two backpackers and two climbers getting a late start on their trek up the Muir Snowfield on Jan. 13 crossed paths with intern ranger Carrie Tomlinson about 1:30 p.m., less than a mile from their cars.

Tomlinson gave them the avalanche and weather forecasts even though all four said they’d already checked. Then she pointed west at the grey clouds in distance.

“I said, ‘All that is going to be showing up here,’” Tomlinson said. “... They kind of, like, shrugged and said, ‘Thanks.’”

Tomlinson is one of the last people to see the four – backpackers Mark Vucich of San Diego and Michelle Trojanowski of Atlanta, and climbers Sork Yang of Springfield, Ore., and Seol Hee Jin of South Korea. By Jan. 16 all were reported missing, pinned down by the very series of storms Tomlinson warned them about. The dispassionate weather beat back rescuers attempting to look for them and prevented air searches.

When the weather finally cleared Jan. 23, land and air searches turned up no sign of either party. All four are presumed dead, and park officials hope to find their bodies this spring or summer when the snow melts.

Their deaths, coupled with three dayhiking snowshoers trapped in the same storm for two nights and another snowshoer who died near Paradise in December, has led the park to once again examine safety on Mount Rainier. A board of review made up of experts from inside and outside the park could form as soon as this month, said chief ranger Chuck Young.

“We’re not looking to find blame,” Young said. “We are going to look at everything. What went right? What went wrong? How did they get themselves into these situations? Did they have the knowledge they should have? And what we might be able to do differently.”

The board will also explore technological safety measures such as personal locator beacons.

The board of review will also discuss the possibility of charging for search and rescues, Young said, “but I’m not seeing that there will be any change in our policy.”

Mount Rainier’s climbing permits, which each climbing party is required to sign, state “climbers may be required to pay for search, rescue and recovery costs.”

Young said this is only enforced in situations in which the climbers were clearly negligent or their actions were illegal.

Both Young and Stefan Lofgren, director of the park’s climbing program, believe any new recommendations for mountain safety will be in line with what it has long thought to be the best way to keep people safe: Educate visitors so they can make good decisions.

“The mountain has way more power than anything we can predict or do,” Young said. “It comes down to individual judgment.”

To this end, the park’s approach to preventative search and rescue is like the mountain itself, always changing. Even when not spurred by a board of review, avenues for dispensing safety information are added almost every year.

In fact, the latest layer – Tomlinson – was added just three days before the four who died on the mountain walked past her.

* * *

Tomlinson’s position is the brainchild of Lofgren, who started working as a climbing ranger at Mount Rainier in 1992.

The park typically has about 16 climbing rangers on staff during the summer, but Lofgren is the only staffer during the winter.

During winter, the park utilizes rangers and other park employees with climbing and search-and-rescue experience who can help respond in emergency situations, Young said. It also relies on volunteer groups, guide services and bringing back summer employees on a short-term basis.

On winter weekends in the past, Lofgren said, it was not uncommon for the last park employee who visitors saw to be at Longmire, 10 miles down the road and 2,700 feet below Paradise.

Believing an employee armed with the latest weather and avalanche information at Paradise would carry more weight with visitors than somebody below timberline, Lofgren last year began stationing a volunteer at Paradise during winter weekdays. On winter weekends when visitor traffic is higher, rangers and volunteers have long been stationed at Paradise to provide such information to visitors.

This year he finalized an agreement to hire an intern from The Evergreen State College.

On Jan. 10, while most park employees where at the memorial service for slain ranger Margaret Anderson, Tomlinson’s internship began.

For $20 per day, lodging at Longmire and 16 college credits, she spends weekdays at Paradise splitting her time between snowshoes and her desk, answering questions and relaying information, among other duties.

Tomlinson is from Albion, a Northern California fishing community, and loves the mountains. She said it was eerie seeing four people right before they disappeared.

“I did my job,” she said. “I gave them the information. I can’t make the decision for them.”

Eric Simonson, co-owner of International Mountain Guides in Ashford, said that personal contact is very important.

“You can provide local information, in particular something like the necessity of having snowshoes or skis,” he said.

None of the four who went missing last month had skis or snowshoes, park officials said.

“If that’s true, that is a huge oversight,” Simonson said. “It’s hard to believe coming to one of the snowiest places in the world without skis or snowshoes. That’s a huge red flag. Clearly they were not prepared.”

In early February, Tomlinson was working on another new safety-education project. She was programming a computer to display weather and avalanche conditions on a continuous loop. The monitor will be displayed at the Paradise ranger station.

Under Lofgren and his predecessor, Mike Gauthier, the park has been heralded for its efforts to educate visitors to the upper mountain. In 2009 the Department of the Interior awarded the park – while also citing its relationship with local guide services and the Tacoma Mountaineers – the Andrew Clark Hecht Public Safety Achievement Award.

One of its biggest successes was a blog launched by Gauthier in 2006 that disseminates current route, weather and safety information. Lofgren is one of those who maintain the blog, which gets more than 400,000 page views per year, and he said he’s always looking for new ways to keep visitors informed.

* * *

Jo Johnson of Lacey survived last month’s deadly series of storms. She and her boyfriend, Jim Dickman, were on a short snowshoeing hike above Paradise when they saw another snowshoer, 66-year-old Yong Chun Kim of Tacoma, fall down a slope. As they went for help they got disoriented and spent two nights in snow caves. Kim also survived two nights alone in the blizzard burning money and an extra pair of socks to fight the cold.

Johnson, an experienced mountaineer, wishes she’d seen Tomlinson or another ranger before heading out. “We always listen to the rangers, because they know the mountain better than anybody else.”

In fact, she and Dickman had already shortened their trip twice based on weather information presented to them by a ranger at Longmire. She shudders to think what might have happened had they not heeded the ranger’s advice and continued with their original plan to hike up the Muir Snowfield.

Still, Johnson wouldn’t have wanted the ranger making the decision for her.

“The park belongs to the people,” she said.

Park officials and volunteer rescuers alike are aware of ideas floated in chatrooms and in social media during search and rescues: The mountain should be closed when weather is bad and visitors should have to display their gear and prove their experience before heading out.

Young and Lofgren believe these ideas, while well-intentioned, are unrealistic and overbearing.

“When you start talking about that, you are looking at spending much more on screening people than you do on the search and rescues,” Lofgren said. “... There are tens of thousands of people who come here who don’t need that level of oversight from the government.

“There are not tens of thousands of people going into the backcountry who need rescuing. To overregulate for the sake of three parties – some years we have none – every year who get lost, it seems over zealous. There is the issue of freedom of movement and with that you accept the risk that you might die out there.”

All climbers are required to complete and sign a permit for excursions that travel above 10,000 feet or on the mountain’s glaciers. In the last five years, an average of 10,244 people attempted to reach the 14,411-foot summit, but only about 180 try to climb during the winter.

The cards request emergency contacts and information on their gear, route and itinerary and the vehicle they left in the park.

Young says “it is our feeling that the vast majority of people take the time to register.”

Beyond the permit, which can be filled out and deposited in a box at the ranger headquarters, contacting a ranger is encouraged but not required.

Those who talk to rangers will get “an honest assessment,” Young said, and sometimes even be denied a permit. It is considerably more likely for an individual climber to be denied a permit, Young said.

When a permit is denied, it is usually “mutually agreed upon,” Young said.

“There has not been a situation where somebody says I’m going and the ranger says they are not,” Young said. He says the climbers are usually prepared or they become aware they are ill-equipped.

The park does have the authority to stop solo climbers from attempting the summit. Lofgren said he talks to such climbers to assess their skill level and experience climbing alone and on large glaciated peaks. Lofgren said he usually denies 10 to 15 requests each year.

If climbers insist on climbing anyway, a law enforcement ranger can be called. Some climbing rangers, including Lofgren, are also commissioned law enforcement rangers.

“But it’s our philosophy that we are not there to turn people away,” Young said. “We are there to give them information.”

Judson Lang began teaching a winter travel course for the Olympia Mountaineers 17 years ago because he could have a greater impact teaching people instead of searching for them.

“Even for a simple winter travel course, it puts people in that environment that they have to make good decisions,” Lang said. “We teach this: Try to use your mind, think ahead and be prepared.

“Some people think they’re at Disneyland and nothing is going to happen. Looking at accidents afterward, you see it’s not one decision, it’s several,” he added. “It only takes several (bad decisions) and you’re in a pickle. And up in that environment, it has consequences.”

Park superintendent Randy King hopes the board of review can address that decision-making process.

“We had eight people who found themselves in a very difficult situation; five didn’t survive and three did,” King said. “What was the difference in their decision-making? What was the difference in their preparation?”

* * *

The five people who’ve died on Rainier since December all had one thing in common: They were from out of state. Only one lived within 1,000 miles of Mount Rainier.

While rescue specialists are careful not to read too much into that fact – “We will never know exactly what they were thinking,” Young said – they say it can be harder for people from out of town to pull the plug on their plans.

When they’ve planned for weeks or months for a backcountry excursion or summit attempt, paid for plane tickets and won’t be around to try again when conditions improve, “they often can’t stand the thought of adjusting their plans,” said Mark Cooksley, president of Tacoma Mountain Rescue.

It’s a mentality that mountain guides sometimes see in their clients, even those who are local. Climbers pay guide services $1,000 or more for help scaling Mount Rainier, but when conditions aren’t safe, they turn back.

There is no refund if you don’t summit, although discounts are typically offered on future trips. Occasionally some clients complain about decisions to turn around.

Other people see the extreme weather on Rainier as just another challenge.

“You have the people who are ‘Go big or go home,’” Tomlinson said. “But sometimes it’s better to not go big so you can go home.”

Said Lang: “Sometimes you have to change your destination and say ‘Let’s go for a beach hike.’ Sometimes you have to say, ‘Hey, the mountain will be here next week or next time.’”

While sometimes experienced and smart climbers venture into overwhelming situations by mistake or bad luck, rangers and guides also say they see people push on because they’re overconfident or prideful or just don’t know any better.

At the root of these decisions is a question the park has always had trouble answering.

How do you make real the mountain’s capability for deadly conditions to people who only visit on pristine summer days or who have never visited at all?

* * *

During search and rescues when the families of the missing wait anxiously at Longmire, the days that produce the most angst are those in which conditions are too fierce to search.

When families don’t understand why, Young offers to drive them to Paradise, 5,400 feet above sea level.

“Then it becomes clear to them,” Young said. “Even some of the family members that are local are surprised. Their only memories of Paradise are of this beautiful place. Then they get there in December, and the wind wants to blow them across a skating rink that used to be the parking lot.”

But conveying that message to the 100,000 people from around the world who visit the park each month is no easy task.

The park posts weather and links to avalanche conditions on its website, where it also has webcams at Paradise and Camp Muir. But pictures and statistics – even ones describing 100 mph wind and feet of snow dumping overnight – often don’t translate to some people.

Young believes Mount Rainier’s pristine snowscape can lull people into a false sense of safety, when in reality the higher you travel on the mountain, the more challenging conditions become, especially in the winter.

The right gear, mentality and skills are vital, Young said, as is “plain old dumb luck.”

Mount Rainier is littered with tales of luck, both good and bad, determining the fate of visitors both skilled and ill prepared.

And when people venture into adverse conditions, their safety might hinge on what type of luck the mountain throws their way, Young said.

Our goal isn’t to scare people,” Young said. “It’s to let them know what to expect.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497



Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640


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