Last week, 2 guides and 4 clients perished while climbing Mt. Rainier’s challenging Liberty Ridge. Guides and clients dying together is one of the most devastatingly heartbreaking situations that exist in the mountains.
This week, what we all want to know is: How did this accident happen? Six people is a lot to die at once on a mountain. In a group dynamic like this, each guide would have most likely been roped to two clients. This means that they most likely weren’t all roped together. So, how did they all fall together?
An avalanche. An avalanche is now being suspected as a very plausible cause of this horrible accident. It’s being suggested that an avalanche swept them off the mountain and down the 3,000-foot Willis Wall during the night.
The two guides of this group were working for Alpine Ascents International (AAI). These guides were Truckee, CA based Matt Hegemon( 50+ climbs of Rainier), 38, and Eitan Green (guiding Rainier since 2009), 29. They began the climb up the Carbon Glacier on Tuesday, May 27th with their 4 clients.
The Liberty Ridge route is a 3-5 day climb, depending on climbing strength and conditions. Liberty Ridge itself is a 5,000-vertical foot, direct route up 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier’s heavily glaciated north face. Hanging over the top of Liberty Ridge is Liberty Cap, a glacier that frequently sheds ice. This falling ice can seriously impact the Liberty Ridge route and cause avalanches in that vicinity.
One Wednesday, a private group reportedly saw the six climbers on the Liberty Ridge route.
“As you’re approaching, you can see up onto the route and see other climbers. So as this team was approaching Liberty Ridge they saw [the Alpine Ascents team] at Thumb Rock.” – NPS’s Peter Ellis
Thumb Rock is at about 10,700-feet and is a major landmark of the LIberty Ridge route. Most people use this area as a high camp. This team of six stayed at Thumb Rock on Tuesday night before going for the summit early Wednesday morning. As they ascending, they encountered bad weather, snow and hail, around the Black Pyramid area. Just before the Black Pyramid area is critical zone involving steep ice and snow climbing.
On Wednesday at 6:20pm, the guides used a satellite phone to call the AAI office. They reported that they were going to camp and see if they’d get a weather window in the morning. This was the last communication that AAI had with the team. Around 7pm, two clients sent messages to friends. One message was text with a photo of that Wednesday night’s camp.
From the photo it appears that they had already reached the top of the Black Pyramid area.
A SPOT messenger device OK signal was also sent by a client at 7:45pm. The GPS position in the message shows the climbers’ location to be between 12,400 and 12,800 feet. These elevations on Liberty Ridge would be considered somewhat strange places to camp.
“You know, it kinda doesn’t make sense.I can’t quite figure this out because there’s no place that looks this good at the top of the Black Pyramid. It only makes sense if they were closer to 12,400 feet.” – Alpine Ascents co-owner Todd Burleson
This is where the trail goes dark. Experts are suspecting that an avalanche started by icefall, rockfall, or unstable snow came down onto the camp that night. The team of six were most likely in their tents sleeping. The avalanche swept them down the 3,000-foot Willis Wall.
The team of climbers that had spotted the AAI team on Wednesday, climbed the Liberty Ridge route on Thursday morning and saw no sign of the AAI team.
Two climbing rangers, on a routine patrol, also climbed the Liberty Ridge area on Thursday/Friday/Saturday.
“Thursday we set off and then camped out on Curtis Ridge on Thursday night. Friday we moved up to Thumb Rock. And then Saturday morning we made a routine radio call to Camp Sherman to let them know that we were moving up the route. And at that point they informed us that this party had indeed not come back and they instructed us to carry on climbing the route, but to search as we climbed—to stop and take pictures, look for clues, and move slowly looking for any sign of an incident.” – Climbing ranger Peter Ellis
The rangers found nothing. Only a helicopter on Saturday was able to spot a debris field at the base of the Willis Wall. As they flew low over the debris, they were able to pick up signals from the avalanche beacons of the fallen climbers. They could also see gear and tents in the debris.
The debris lies in a very dangerous, rockfall and icefall prone zone. These bodies may have to stay on the mountain forever.
“The summers on the Willis Wall are always active as far as rock fall and icefall, and as long as I’ve been here in this park that zone has always been notorious. So I don’t think that it’s any different from the past decade or so.” – Climbing ranger Peter Ellis
The names of the clients haven’t been released yet. But Intel has confirmed that Intel vice president Uday Marty, 40 was one of the clients.
AAI also lost 5 climbing Sherpas in the April 18th Everest avalanche disaster that killed 16 Sherpa. That was Everest’s deadliest disaster in history.
This is the worst climbing disaster on Mt. Rainier since 1981 when 11 Rainier Mountaineering Inc. clients and guides were killed. The only survivor is now Rainier Mountaineering Inc owner, Peter Whittaker.