MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. (AP) — Citing dangerous conditions, Mount Rainier National Park officials said Sunday that there are no immediate plans to recover the bodies of six climbers who likely fell thousands of feet to their deaths in the worst alpine accident on the mountain in decades.
Continuous ice fall and rock fall make the area too dangerous for rescuers, and “there’s no certainty that recovery is possible given the location,” park spokeswoman Patti Wold said. The area will be checked periodically by air in the coming weeks and months, she added.
Park officials believe the group fell 3,300 feet from their last known whereabouts of 12,800 feet on Liberty Ridge.
“It’s inconceivable that anyone survived that,” Wold said Sunday. It’s unknown whether a rock fall, avalanche or other factors caused their fall, she said, adding that “we don’t even know if they were moving or if they were camping.”
Glenn Kessler, the park’s acting aviation manager, said “they are most likely buried,” making recovery efforts even more challenging. “We may or may not be able to recover them.”
Officials have not released the names of those who died, but friends and others on Sunday gathered at the 14,410-foot glaciated peak about 90 miles southeast of Seattle.
Rob Mahaney told The Associated Press that his 26-year-old nephew, Mark Mahaney, of St. Paul, Minnesota, was among those presumed dead. He said the climber’s father and brother flew to Seattle on Saturday after learning what happened.
“He just loved to climb, he loved the outdoors, he loved the exhilaration of being in the wide-open,” Rob Mahaney said. “Even as a toddler he was always climbing out of his crib. His parents couldn’t keep him anywhere — he’d always find a way to get out of anything.”
A helicopter crew on Saturday spotted camping and climbing gear in the avalanche-prone area. Air and ground searches were suspended late Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a sad day at Mount Rainier,” park superintendent Randy King said Sunday.
The missing group includes four clients of Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International and two guides. The group was scheduled to reach the summit of Mount Rainier on Thursday, with a day to climb down.
They were due to return from the mountain on Friday. When they did not return, the climbing company notified park officials.
Gordon Janow, the guiding service’s programs director, did not release information about the climbers on Sunday, saying that would come from park officials.
The group was on a five-day climb of the Liberty Ridge route, one of the more technical and advanced routes up the mountain.
The climbers had to meet certain prerequisites, and their ice and technical climbing skills as well as their biography were evaluated by a three-person team, Janow said.
The guiding service also lost five Nepalese guides in a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest in April. The avalanche that swept down a climbing route on the world’s highest peak killed 16 Sherpa guides.
“It’s devastating, it’s emotionally draining, it’s trying to make sense of it all,” Janow said of the tragedies.
The loss of life would be among the deadliest climbing accidents ever on the peak in the Cascade mountain range. In 1981, 11 people were killed during a guided climb when they were struck by a massive ice fall on Rainier’s Ingraham Glacier. Before this most recent accident, 89 people had died trying to climb Mount Rainier since 1897, the park service said.
About 10,000 people climb Mount Rainier every year, and only about half successfully summit, according to park statistics. The vast majority of climbers attempt to summit on two other popular routes. Only a few hundred climbers a year attempt the Liberty Ridge route.
The search for the missing climbers focused on the northwest shoulder of the mountain at the Liberty Ridge area.
Saturday’s search included a team of three climbing rangers on the ground and flyovers with a Hughes helicopter. An Army Chinook helicopter then joined the search from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Snow flurries and hail hit the mountain Wednesday, park Ranger Fawn Bauer said, but the weather has been clear since then.
Bauer said ground crews on Saturday checked “every possible area” where someone could have sought refuge in the storm.
In a statement from the park, the guides were described as skilled. In a blog post on the Alpine Ascents website Thursday, the post said the team had turned around at 13,000 feet during their attempt to reach the summit because of weather conditions.