The Mount Rainier ridge from which six climbers fell thousands of feet last week—they're now presumed dead—is a place known for extremes, renowned for beauty and dangers.
It's called Liberty Ridge: a steep ramp of rock, snow and ice splitting a northern face of the 14,410-foot mountain in Washington State. Its stunning views and technical difficulty—hard but not too hard—have earned it a place in the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
But its remoteness, steepness, and exposure to the elements have also made Liberty Ridge the scene of epic rescues and more than its share of deaths.
The ridge sees a tiny fraction of the traffic on popular climbing routes up the mountain's southern flanks, but it has been the site of 26 deaths, including this accident—accounting for nearly a quarter of all Rainier climbing fatalities since such records started being kept.
"When you hear Liberty Ridge, it is a serious route," says Mike Gauthier, a climbing ranger at Mount Rainier National Park from 1990 to 2008. "It's not a casual route." Gauthier was repeatedly called to the spot to rescue stranded climbers and search for missing people.
The most recent accident is the deadliest on Rainier since 1981, when an avalanche killed 11 people on a different part of the mountain. That remains the worst mountaineering accident in U.S. history.
No Chance of Survival
Little is known about exactly what happened to the climbers who went missing last week. According to the National Park Service, they were last heard from Wednesday evening, when they called their guiding service on a satellite phone to report they were at 12,800 feet and making camp for the night.
The Seattle-based company Alpine Ascents International, whose two guides and four clients are now missing, called authorities Friday afternoon when the six failed to return on time. Searchers found climbing equipment and detected signals from avalanche beacons on a glacier at the base of the cliff face, 3,300 feet below the suspected campsite.
"There is no viable chance of survival from such a fall," the Park Service said in a press release.
Alpine Ascents staff declined to comment on the accident Sunday. Owner Todd Burleson was meeting with National Park Service officials and relatives of the climbers, said Gary Harrington, director of operations for the company.
"The staff and larger Alpine Ascents community and families are stunned and grief stricken, as we send our condolences and reach out to the families and friends of the fallen climbers," the company said in a statement on its website.
Harrington confirmed that one of the guides on the trip was Matt Hegeman, described on the company's website as a veteran of more than 50 climbs up Mount Rainier on four separate routes. A 26-year-old man from St. Paul, Minnesota is reportedly one of the clients on the trip.
'Best Shape of Your Life'
The company describes its Liberty Ridge trip as a grueling, five-day sojourn that involves carrying backpacks weighing more than 50 pounds for seven to eight hours a day, sometimes up slopes reaching 50 degrees.
"Our climb of Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier is one of the most technical and physical demanding climbs we do in the lower 48 states," the company's brochure states. "You need to be in the best shape of your life."
In his time on the mountain, Gauthier was repeatedly called to Liberty Ridge to rescue stranded climbers or search for missing people who didn't survive. Often the location was on the ridge's upper reaches where the mountain is unremittingly steep, leaving few sheltered places to pitch a tent or to hide from avalanches or falling rocks.
"It's just not an ideal location to hang out because you're threatened there. You're just exposed," said Gauthier, who wrote the main guidebook for the mountain, Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide.
Gauthier didn't want to speculate about the group of missing climbers but said a camp at 12,800 feet would have been in a section where climbers have often run into trouble. Typically people camp lower, at a spot called Thumb Rock, and then make a dash for the summit.
But they can get stalled by weather, avalanches, equipment problems, or fatigue, Gauthier said.
In 2004, Scott Richards of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, spent three days pinned high on Liberty Ridge with a friend who'd been badly injured in a fall. The slope was so steep that Richards had to hack a tiny ledge out with an ice ax and constantly battle snow that slid down the slope and filled the tent.
A rescue helicopter was unable to come for days due to bad weather. Eventually the chopper was able to pluck his friend, Peter Cooley, from the cliff, but Cooley died that day from his injuries.
The gripping ordeal was following closely by the press, and Richards was lauded for his attempts to save Cooley.
"God damn it, God damn it," Richards said when informed of the incident last week. "Brutal. That ridge can be just crazy."