Crews scale back search for missing hiker on Mount Rainier

The search for a missing Tacoma man at Mount Rainier National park was scaled back to two 3-person search and rescue teams, park superintendent Tracy Swartout said Friday morning.

The park is no longer searching by air, Swartout said. He said that if the crews couldn’t find 64-year-old Edwin Birch by late Friday, the park would evaluate the operation and determine if it will continue actively searching Saturday.

Birch has been missing since July 12 when he hiked a 19-mile section of the Wonderland Trail on the east side of Mount Rainier. That section is one the most challenging on the 93-mile trail and includes the trail’s highest point, Panhandle Gap.

Birch was last seen July 12 just south of Panhandle Gap when he saw his son. His son hiked the section from north to south while Birch was hiking south to north. The son retrieved the car and drove back to the north end of the trail. When Birch wasn’t at the trailhead, his son reported him missing.

Swartout said searchers had checked the entire length of the trail many times. The trail is still covered with snow above 6,300 feet. Birch was last seen at 6,600 feet. Panhandle Gap is at 6,800 feet.

Before Friday, search parties had exceeded 40 people and multiple helicopters had been used. If rescuers are unable to find Birch, the park will eventually transition into what it calls a “limited continuous search.” This typically means rangers and park aircraft will look for signs of the missing hiker when they are in the area.

Searchers are not yet making assumptions about Birch’s condition. “We are hoping for the best,” Swartout said.