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Climbers Mourn Mount Rainier Tragedy, But Climb On

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

Mount Rainier is one of the most popular climbing destinations in the nation, but this weekend, it became the scene of a terrible tragedy -- the second worst climbing tragedy in the mountain's history. Six climbers apparently fell to their deaths.

Liberty Ridge, on the north side of Mount Rainier, is described as one of the most technical and advanced routes up the mountain.

Too dangerous for recovery

The lost climbers are thought to have fallen 3,300 feet in an area that’s known for regular rock and ice fall. Mount Rainier National Park officials said there was no viable chance of survival. Search crews found signs of climbing gear and picked up avalanche beacon signals, but park spokeswoman Patti Wold said to try to recover the bodies at this point would be too dangerous.

“Basically we’re moving into a continued, limited search and over the weeks and months to come when we have flights in the park we’ll be flying that area, if we have rangers on the ridge trying to get visuals down there, see if we can spot any of these climbers,” she said.

If a body is spotted, then they’ll make an assessment.

“The only way we’ll go in is with a helicopter and it will be fast to basically to minimize the risk to any of the rescuers,” Wold said.

Wold said specially trained park staff are working with the families of the most recent victims. “[They are] trying to give them as many details as possible so that they feel that they know what they need to know about what happened to their loved ones.”

This stands as the worst climbing accident on Mount Rainier in more than 30 years. In June, 1981, 11 climbers were killed in an ice fall.

Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International said it’s “stunned and grief stricken” by this loss. This is another tragedy for a company that just over a month ago lost five of its Sherpas to an avalanche on Mount Everest.

"A very close knit community"

Family members met privately Sunday with park officials even as other climbers prepared to summit the mountain. Inside the ranger station, climber Andy Davis has decided to press on with his attempt to summit despite the tragedy.

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Climbers Andy Davis and Kelsey Wenger say they debated cancelling their attempt to summit after hearing about the tragedy.

“It’s a lot more of a somber mood than when we were planning to go weeks ago,” he said.

Davis has already summited Rainier 14 times. He says he had met one of the guides believed killed in this latest accident. For him, it hit home pretty personally.

“I think that the climbing community is a very, very close knit community," Davis said. "Especially in the Northwest.”

Davis and his climbing partner Kelsey Wenger said after hearing about the accident, they debated whether to cancel their tip.

“It gave us a little bit of pause before we came up, but we decided to go ahead with it," she said. "We’re doing a different route."

“A much safer route,” Davis added.

It’s also hard to argue with a window of perfect weather for attempting a summit. Davis said, yes, there is risk to climbing. But he pointed out it’s also dangerous to drive.

“I also just think a little bit of how many more friends the mountains have given me than they’ve taken away," Davis offered. "I don’t think that ever makes it any easier, but it does help you see a little bit further through the tears.”

Davis said he’s always wanted to climb the Liberty Ridge route.

“It’s on my list of things to do," he said. "It probably still is.”

As Davis and Wenger headed out, they said they carry with them a full awareness of the lives this mountain has just claimed.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."