1981 tragedy: ‘Run! Run this way!’ – then silence and 11 climbers dead

Staff writerJune 20, 2006 

Dorothy (Dot) Tippie, 83, is reflected in the glass of her son's portrait frame at her home in 2006. She is holding a newspaper clipping telling the story that the search and rescue has been called off and the bodies, including her son Craig's, will stay buried on Mt. Rainier. The story is looking back at the 1981 avalanche on Mount Rainier that killed 11 people, one being her son Craig Tippie.

RUSS CARMACK — Staff photographer file, 2006

Editor's note: This story was originally published June 21, 2006.

It's been 25 years, but Peter Whittaker still remembers the sickening crack as clearly as Dot Tippie recalls her maternal premonition.It was dawn on June 21, 1981, when Whittaker heard the thunderous noise high above him on Mount Rainier. A colossal chunk of glacial ice broke loose, and when it hit Ingraham Flats on the southeast side of the mountain it exploded into thousands of car-sized chunks.

Whittaker and two other guides had climbed ahead of their party to assess the avalanche risk and were safely out of the path of the icefall. And the other 22 climbers were in a usually protected area.

But on that Father's Day, Whittaker quickly realized the volume of this icefall was like nothing he'd seen before. He had time only to holler.

"Run!" he shouted to the group of 22. "Run this way!"

They never had a chance. In a matter of seconds the icefall fanned out, ripping through the protected niche and sweeping the climbers down the mountain.

Then it was quiet. From their perch at the nose of Disappointment Cleaver, Whittaker and the other guides counted climbers. Eleven climbers - 10 clients and one guide, ranging in age from 19 to 42 - were missing, buried in a 70-foot crevasse with no chance of rescue.

About that time, at her home in Tacoma, Dot Tippie awoke with a jolt, thinking, "Craig is cold."

Craig Tippie, her son, was one of the 11 who died that morning in an accident that remains the deadliest in American mountaineering history.

Those few horrific seconds forever changed the lives of Dot Tippie and Peter Whittaker, just as they did many others.

Today, a 35-foot flagpole donated by Tippie will be dedicated at the Tahoma Terrace Apartments in honor of her son. Local mountaineering icons Lou Whittaker (Peter's father) and Dee Molenaar will attend the event.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, " Tippie said last week as she gazed out her apartment window at the flagpole. "When it's not so cloudy I have the best view of the mountain just to the right of the flagpole. . . . Every time I see the mountain I think of Craig."

DOT TIPPIE'S STORY

Tippie, 82, chose her one-bedroom apartment four years ago because of the view of Mount Rainier.

"It's comforting because I feel close to Craig when I see the mountain, " Tippie said. "It's the first thing I look for when I wake up."

She keeps a painting of Rainier in her living room. In her bedroom, just to the right of her bed, are pictures of her son along with those of her husband, Garold, who died in 1987, and her daughter, Paulette.

Above the family photos is a small picture of a stunning orange sunrise above Little Tahoma, a peak that juts out the east side of Mount Rainier. The picture was recovered from a camera of a climber who died.

The same picture is framed and sitting next to a plaque honoring the 11 climbers on the second floor of the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise.

Each June, Tippie takes flowers to Paradise and sits them next to the plaque. When she is with Paulette, they take a bottle of Ste. Michelle Riesling, Craig's favorite wine, for a toast.

The tradition started June 21, 1982, when family members of the 11 climbers came from as far away as the East Coast and England. By 1991, many of those family members had died or weren't healthy enough to make the trip, so Tippie took it upon herself to take flowers for all of the families.

Her son, a Lincoln High graduate who dreamed of climbing Rainier since he was a boy, loved the mountain as much as she did.

"He had stamina and courage and always was doing something, " Tippie said. "I told him to go for it."

Her last conversation with her 29-year-old son came the night before his climb. He called from a Denny's in Tacoma to let her know the climb would continue even though Mount St. Helens was rumbling again.

She found out about the icefall the next morning from her mom. She called the guide service, Rainier Mountaineering Inc., and learned his group was the one hit, but no one knew if her son had survived.

She was devastated when she finally got the news, but she was never mad.

"If it was car accident or some foolish mistake, I would have been mad, " Tippie said. "But it wasn't. It was God's will."

Particularly disturbing to Tippie is knowing her son's body is still entombed in Ingraham Glacier.

"It's hard, " she said, wiping away tears. "Really hard."

She knows one day the glacier will release her son and the other climbers, but she also understands it could take hundreds of years. She has given dental records to park officials and she has bought a burial plot for him at Mountain View Funeral Home in Tacoma.

"I had to know there would be a place for him, " Tippie said.

However, living with a view of Rainier and the flagpole in the foreground brings her peace, she said: "In some ways, living here is the neatest part of my life."

PETER WHITTAKER'S STORY

Whittaker typically doesn't talk publicly about the emotional impact the '81 icefall had on him.

"Was it hard on me and were there a lot of emotions? Yes, " said Whittaker. "But it was nothing compared to what people like Dorothy Tippie went through. She lost a son."

Whittaker was 22 at the time and beginning to carve out his place in the family business, RMI.

Considering his father, Lou, and uncle, Jim, are two of the Northwest's most famous mountaineers, it seemed only natural that he started climbing Rainier when he was 12.

But after watching the mountain take 11 people - four of whom had been roped to him just five minutes earlier - he had to reconsider his line of work.

"I told him I felt guilty, like I might be leading him into a dangerous sport, " Lou Whittaker said. "I wanted him to know that he didn't have to keep doing it."

That conversation meant a ton to Peter.

After the icefall, Whittaker and the others immediately started searching the debris. However, with blocks of blue glacial ice piled as high as 30 feet, they quickly realized there was little hope.

While rangers, 24 RMI guides and many volunteers continued to search the site for two days, Whittaker guided the survivors down the mountain.

"It was the worst descent, " he said. "It was quiet and people were in shock."

It was during this long walk back to Paradise that Whittaker wondered if he could ever lead another group up Rainier.

"My dad was my rock and foundation, " Whittaker said. "He gave me the chance to let down emotionally. . . . Pop was awesome."

The following week, Whittaker and the other surviving guides weren't allowed to leave Ashford as the park investigated the accident.

After the park determined that the accident was a random act of nature, Whittaker spent three weeks rafting the Colorado River, trying to decide what he should do next.

"I decided to keep guiding so I could give back, " he said. "I love the mountain and I want to educate our guides and clients with the ability to make the best decisions to manage risks up there."

To this day, this remains Whittaker's passion. He is now co-owner and chief operations officer of RMI and has climbed Rainier 214 times.

"I noticed he was a little different when he came back, " Lou Whittaker said. "He was more focused on helping people appreciate climbing and he became a heck of a great teacher for the sport of mountaineering."

When Whittaker returned to work, he guided six more climbs that summer, all of which traveled around the icefall debris.

"It was all I could do not to run through there, " Whittaker said.

To this day, every time he makes the approach to Disappointment Cleaver he thinks about the 11 men he saw die.

Dot Tippie is pleased to hear this and she hopes those who remember her son learn from his life the same thing she did.

"Don't be afraid to do what you want to do, " Tippie said. "Live your life and enjoy every moment."

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
craig.hill@thenewstribune.com

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