At least nine of the climbers caught in Saturday's avalanche on Mount Rainier were warned conditions were unsafe before they departed, a national park spokesman and multiple sources told The News Tribune on Monday.
Just hours after the warning, 11 climbers were caught in an avalanche on the Ingraham Glacier. One, identified as 27-year-old Mark Wedeven of Olympia, is presumed to be the 96th known mountaineering death in Rainier history, park spokesman Kevin Bacher said.
Avalanche conditions remained high Monday and prevented rangers from searching for Wedeven, Bacher said. It is unclear when conditions will permit the search to continue.
The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center released a statement warning of “significant unstable snow accumulations” on Rainier and much of the Olympics and Cascade ranges.
Climbing ranger Tom Payne was stationed at Camp Muir on Friday night and Saturday morning and notified all of the parties camped there that the avalanche danger on the upper mountain was extreme, Bacher said.
“Most of the parties decided not to climb,” Bacher said.
The three- and six-person parties who were caught in the avalanche were among those warned by Payne, Bacher said. The other two climbers did not register for their climbs, so it is unclear whether they received the warning or checked avalanche conditions, Bacher said.
Wedeven reportedly started climbing from Paradise late Friday night or early Saturday and did not stop at Camp Muir. Park officials identified him based on descriptions from other climbers and a missing person report filed by his family.
International Mountain Guides and Rainier Mountaineering Inc. decided Friday night that they would not attempt the 14,411-foot summit on Saturday and relayed the news to their clients.
Instead, both groups left Camp Muir later than usual and climbed to Ingraham Flats to show the clients the upper mountain.
The RMI group reached the flats first, and guides were showing clients how to do a pit test to check for avalanche danger when the wall of snow began its deadly descent.
“The guides turned and told the clients to run,” said Paul Maier of RMI.
Because of their position below where the avalanche stopped, the RMI guides needed just 10 minutes to get in position to help rescue climbers. IMG guides weren’t far behind.
While climbers not buried by the avalanche were the first to start digging, RMI guides Tyler Jones, Adam and Caroline George, Mark Falender and Thomas Greene helped dig out three climbers.
Many of the climbers weren’t wearing avalanche transceivers, so guides had to probe the snow and pull on ropes to find them. None of the climbers was buried deeper than about 1 foot, but two were blue by the time they were rescued, Maier said.
Wedeven was traveling alone, so he was not roped up and perhaps not using an avalanche transceiver. Wedeven’s parents, David and Carol, told KIRO-TV that their son had climbed Mount Rainier numerous times.
“He said to me, ‘Mom, if I die on a mountain, don’t worry about it,’ and I’m sure it was instant and it was over,” Carol Wedeven said to the news station.
All of the buried climbers were pulled to safety within 10 minutes, about the time IMG guides Eric Remza, Josh Smith, Mike Haft and Austin Shannon arrived and started tending those who were hurt.
“They were lucky because they were in the right place at the right time to help,” Maier said of the guides who helped in the rescue.
The current high avalanche danger is not unusual in June when winter and summer conditions mix, said Paul Baugher, co-director of International Mountain Guides and director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute.
Most of the avalanche danger comes early in the season, and so far this season more of IMG’s climbing parties have turned around than have reached the summit, he said.
The nice weather Saturday morning might have given climbers a false sense of security, he said.
“You go up a little bit to take a look and it’s so nice that you get lured into going a little bit farther,” Baugher said.
“People get away with a lot of bad decisions.”
With nasty weather battering Rainier for the past three weeks (at one point last week three hours of 100 mph winds ruined several tents at Ingraham Flats), climbers and guides alike were itching for a nice day that would allow them to summit.
“I give a lot of credit to the guides to be able to resist the temptation (to climb on Saturday),” Baugher said. “It’s always OK to turn around.”
Wedeven is presumed to be the first mountaineering death on Rainier since 2005, when a Jefferson County firefighter fell down Gibraltar Chute. From 1998 to 2005, park records show there was 0.18 fatalities per 1,000 climbers.
With the risk of avalanche still high, Baugher says climbers must be diligent about checking conditions before they climb.
“Watch the avalanche reports,” Bacher said, “and take them extremely seriously.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
Staff writer Joyce Chen contributed to this report.