The longtime friends were enjoying their first trip to the summit of Mount Rainier on June 17 when the weather and their fortunes took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse.
Minutes later, the two men were in the summit crater, roped together to avoid losing each other in blizzard conditions as they searched for their packs and the gear they needed to save their lives.
For two days, Mark Duggin, of Cookeville, Tennessee, and Brad Davidson, of Littleton, Colorado, fought to survive a storm with 50-mph winds and subzero temperatures.
“We were thinking if we were going to get down, we were going to have to do it on our own,” Duggin said.
In the end, their fate was determined by skills and decision-making that impressed their rescuers and answered prayers, said Duggin’s father, Ivan.
“If these were not smart, tough guys, this would have ended a lot differently,” said Peter Ellis, a park climbing ranger involved in the rescue.
Ellis and other rescuers say the survival of Davidson and Duggin, and two other parties in similar situations earlier this month, are reminders to always prepare for the worst when taking on Rainier.
‘SHOCKINGLY FAST’ STORM
Davidson, Duggin and Thad Drake, all in their late 30s and friends since they attended Tennessee Tech, were at Camp Muir on June 16 when park climbing rangers circulated the latest weather report.
The report indicated there was a window of opportunity to summit the next morning, Ellis said, but the weather likely would get worse in the afternoon.
These weather updates are always delivered with a disclaimer, Ellis said: “But you never know.”
With headlamps illuminating the way, Davidson and Duggin started climbing in the predawn hours. Drake, feeling fatigued, chose to wait at Camp Muir.
As most mountaineers do, Davidson and Duggin dropped their heavy packs on the eastern side of the crater rim, then hiked about a quarter-mile across the crater to ascend to the summit register and Columbia Crest, the highest point on the 14,410-foot mountain.
They were on top by about 8:30 a.m., Ellis said, when the weather changed.
“It came in harder and faster than we expected,” Ellis said. “Shockingly fast.”
It (the storm) came in harder and faster than we expected. Shockingly fast.
Peter Ellis, Mount Rainier National Park climbing ranger
Because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Rainier can whip up intense storms, he said, “equal to any of the big mountains in the world.”
In a matter of minutes, the climbers couldn’t see. They climbed back into the crater and tried to find their gear, but with their digital compass and GPS frozen and their magnetic compass still in the pack, they were essentially lost.
At one point, one of the men stood in place while the other searched in a circle using the rope that linked them together. After about 45 minutes, it became clear this strategy wouldn’t work.
But they kept their composure. The men are rock and ice climbers, and Duggin worked as a whitewater river guide in Tennessee. They were experienced at staying calm and resourceful in challenging situations.
The climbers’ next move impressed Ellis.
“I’m not sure I would have thought of it,” he said.
Knowing their gear was stashed on the crater rim and knowing the rim was a huge circle, they found its rocky perimeter and made their way along it for about 75 minutes. They were careful to stay on the rocks and avoid areas where they might fall up to 5 feet through the snow and ice.
Eventually they found their gear.
“We wouldn’t have had a chance without our packs,” Duggin said.
The men started down the mountain, but quickly realized it was a futile and dangerous idea. Red wands marked the route, but the storm covered them in rime ice, turning them into virtually invisible white sticks.
If they were going to survive, they’d need shelter.
‘A FIGHTING CHANCE’
Davidson and Duggin sent a distress signal via a personal locator beacon they carried with them. Rangers got the message in minutes, but conditions were unsafe to dispatch a rescue team.
The two men were on their own, not in direct contact with rescuers. The odds weren’t in their favor.
But, Ellis said, when Drake, the climber who stayed behind, told him both his companions carried shovels, “My first thought was they have a fighting chance.”
The climbers were at about 14,300 feet when they pulled out the shovels. For seven hours, they dug for their lives.
Digging was tough in the ice, but they managed to chip out a hole just deep enough for them to lie down. They covered it with a tarp.
Climbing ranger Peter Ellis said a piece of equipment that was key to the climbers’ survival was “the humble shovel.”
“It was a two-person ice casket,” Mark Duggin said.
The men insulated the bottom of the hole with their rope, packs and other gear. They put on their down jackets and shared a sleeping bag.
Ellis said the men had plenty of food and took turns collecting snow in bottles. They hugged the bottles to melt the snow for drinking water.
They frequently knocked snow off the roof to keep it from collapsing.
And they waited.
On the second day, Saturday, mountain rescue units from Tacoma, Seattle, Everett and Bremerton were poised to help. Rescuers thought they might get a window in the weather to reach the men by helicopter.
Ellis was driving to Joint Base Lewis-McChord to meet a Chinook helicopter crew when he received a call saying it was unsafe to fly.
The climbers’ personal locator beacon wasn’t the only thing sending heavenward requests for help.
When Ivan Duggin learned his son was trapped on the mountain, he started praying. A legion of friends and family joined in as he made his way to the park from Tennessee.
“I believe that God hears ours prayers,” he said.
He prayed for the safety of his son and Davidson, and for an opening in the weather.
Rescuers say these situations are good reminders that distress beacons don’t guarantee help will arrive.
“Just because you push your Spot (distress beacon) button doesn’t mean we can get up there,” said Stefan Lofgren, Rainier’s chief climbing ranger. “People still need to be able to take care of themselves.”
When the weather looks like it is going to be bad or unstable for the foreseeable future we have to be really conservative in our decisions when we are on Mount Rainier. Especially in June, because it can be winterlike.
Stefan Lofgren, Rainier’s chief climbing ranger
Spot, manufacturer of the beacon Davidson and Duggin used, launched in 2007 and is credited with more than 4,300 rescues — more than 750 in the mountains, company spokeswoman Sarah Mascagni said.
Mark Cooksley, who helped coordinator Tacoma Mountain Rescue Unit’s part in the rescue, said it’s important for outdoor adventurers to “not get lulled into a false sense of security” by this technology.
When it became clear Davidson and Duggin would have to spend a second night in the storm, Cooksley said he was concerned. He wasn’t alone.
A ranger would later tell Ivan Duggin that the second night in subzero conditions easily could have turned the rescue mission into a recovery.
On the mountain, Mark Duggin said, “It was hard gearing up mentally for the second night. It was so intense.”
His dad kept praying.
BEST FATHER’S DAY
The best Father’s Day gift Ivan Duggin ever received was an answered prayer.
The skies cleared overnight and Davidson and Duggin poked out of their cave, deciding to make their move. They descended about 1,200 feet when they saw the rescue helicopter.
They patted their helmets, signaling they were OK, but Ellis, who was aboard the helicopter, wasn’t going to let them descend. Winds had scoured the mountain’s highest slopes and deposited much of the new-fallen snow in huge, avalanche-prone drifts on lower slopes.
It was enough to keep guided climbers and rescuers from ascending above Camp Muir on Sunday and Monday.
The decision was made to land at about 13,200 feet and fly the men off the mountain.
... We truly don’t have promises of tomorrow. We have today.
Ivan Duggin, father of rescued climber Mark Duggin
Minutes later they were safe at the Kautz Creek Helibase.
Davidson was taken to a hospital and is expected to be OK, according to WSMV-TV in Nashville.
Duggin suffered frostbite. He has blisters on three fingers and could need as much as six months to determine whether he will regain all feeling, his father said.
As the climbers debriefed with the rangers, the elder Duggin asked to lead the group in one more prayer. This time to say thank you.
“It’s really important when prayers are answered to give thanks,” Ivan Duggin said. “I challenged everyone, that when you ask for things, how would you, as a father, expect your son to respond? Express appreciation.
“So I challenge people to give an encouraging word every day because we truly don’t have promises of tomorrow. We have today.”