In the span of two months Todd Burleson's mountain guiding company has been at the center of two historic mountaineering tragedies.
Last week two elite guides for his company, Alpine Ascents International, and four of its clients went missing while on a challenging multiday climb up the north side of Mount Rainier in Washington State. All six are presumed dead.
The news came while Burleson was still coping with the death on Mount Everest of five Nepalese Sherpas working for Alpine Ascents, among 16 killed in an April 18 avalanche.
The company, regarded as one of the world's premier guiding services—offering climbs on all seven continents and boasting a strong safety record—had experienced only two deaths in the previous 27 years.
Burleson, a 54-year-old Alaskan who has twice summited Everest, spoke with National Geographic about the accidents, the guides who perished, and plans for the future.
What do you know about how the Mount Rainier accident happened?
There's no exact knowledge. I know they had a camp up there, and I received a picture of it. It was a good camp in a nice position.
I'm simply conjecturing, but from the nature of the debris there's a high likelihood that they were swept off either by icefall or an avalanche that took the camp and everyone to the base of the mountain. There is an option that they spent the night and they got up and started climbing and maybe were swept away.
Was camping at that spot on the climb a routine part of the plan for that ascent?
No. People do it on occasion. I can't get into every detail, but I know that they started in good weather, and the weather deteriorated and they were up at that area. I don't have specific information, but they said they were going to stay there for the night.
We had a phone call that said it was blowing pretty hard there. But they were able to establish a good camp. There was a message on a Spot machine [a satellite beacon used by mountaineers to communicate] that said everything's fine, everything's OK. It wasn't a distress situation at that point.
What's your assessment of the national park's response to the accident?
I have to tell you they did an impressive job. It was fortunate they had two rangers just heading on patrol to climb Liberty Ridge, so they were in place. They ramped up quickly. They came up with a plan, implemented it, had helicopters flying the next morning, found the debris. Two rangers climbed the entire route to see if there was anybody there or any evidence of anything. That was a very definitive check.
Have you in the past had any hesitation about guiding this route?
It's a challenging climb. We climb many things harder than Liberty Ridge around the world, so it's obviously very within our realm to do this—and we've done it successfully and without harm or injury, and it's been a great experience. Guides really like to do it. There's a lot of people that want to be guided on it.
On a climb like this, how do you make sure your clients are prepared?
We review their bios. And we require that they have a number of different types of training. In general many of these people have climbed with us many times in the past. It's a serious undertaking in the sense that it's long, it's belayed climbing on quite a bit of it, so people need to be very experienced in how to at least be a client while you're being belayed.
In maximum we'll take eight climbers in a year [on Liberty Ridge]. So there's a pretty big list of people who want to do it. And often we'll send people away. If people apply, we'll say, Look, you need this, and this, and this—and when you come back and you've successfully completed this, then we'll discuss it.
With the loss of the five Sherpas at Everest and now these deaths, what effect has it had on you and the company?
Well, obviously it's an emotional drain. The company's functioning fine. But it's a big loss. We've talked to our guides. We had one more trip on the Liberty Ridge, and we decided that we're going to cancel this year just out of respect to not bring guides over there. The guides are ready to go back and climb. We just won't go back to Liberty Ridge.
It's a blow. Alpine Ascents has a very good track record, and we've been in business 28 years, and this is without question so unprecedented in our world, so we're still processing it. I'm trying to find the right words. We're going forward. All of our guides are ready to get back into the mountains. You know, they're grieving, but one of the places they feel the best is there.
We're reviewing anything that could have been changed. I've looked very closely at the facts of this thing, and so has the park. It does not appear that it was a—what would you say?—a fault situation. The storm came in, and ice may have calved off, and that took the camp. Things happen. If we thought it was errors, then maybe that would be a different thing and you'd have to go back and reevaluate yourself.
One thing I can tell you about these two guides: They were two of the very best. This is a terrible loss, but I can feel confident that these were great guides there and making good decisions, and this happened.
In an interview with the Seattle Weekly after the Everest deaths, you said you weren't sure if your company should be climbing Everest. Have you made a decision about whether to go back?
Yes, but we may climb it differently. We'll see. We're very confident. Our guides want to go back. All of our Sherpas have requested to climb next year. They want to go back and go back to their professions. And we most likely will climb Everest next year. But we're going to spend quite a bit of time right now analyzing how to assess what happened and see how we can change it, and we will see.
Will you guide trips on Liberty Ridge in the future?
I'll basically say yes. It's a mountain; it's not a haunted thing. It was climbed a few days before and the day after and the day after that. It's a climbing route. Accidents happen on climbing routes, and you have to be analytical about it.
Time heals many things. I'll tell you our guides will be requesting it, our clients will. People climb it all the time in this season, and there's no reason we shouldn't.
Is there anything that you think you could do differently in the future that would reduce the risk of a repeat?
I will dig into this and look at it very, very closely to see. There's nothing that stands out right in my face. But don't think it won't be reviewed. You know there is risk in climbing. There have been a number of people that have been killed there. There are accidents like this that happen. And thank goodness they're rare. Six people die in a car accident. Do you not get on the highway, or you don't drive down that freeway anymore?
You go to climb. You look at the conditions. If it doesn't look good, then you don't climb. If things look great, then you climb. That's how you do every climb. And you gather all the resources you possibly can, you have skilled guides, trained clients, and if things are within tolerable risks, you climb. If not, you don't.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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