The Chinook helicopter hung low over Mt. Rainier, its massive rotors hammering wildly at the thin air. From the edge of the Carbon Glacier, 5000 feet below, we could make out a second, smaller helicopter running sweeps up and down the mountain. Two black dots moved slowly in a grid pattern across the upper route, presumably climbing rangers looking for somebody, something, anything.
“There’s an overdue party ahead of you” the park ranger had informed us when we checked in for Liberty Ridge. “Let us know if you see anything up there.”
It seems like there’s always an overdue party on Liberty Ridge during peak season, and I immediately thought little of it. “How many climbers?” I asked. “Six” she answered. Six is a bad number. Six is four clients and two guides. Six could be friends or colleagues. Six means that something has definitely gone very wrong.
The Chinook made one last sweep over the Carbon Glacier, paused for a few minutes, then lifted up and around the mountain. Silence. We dropped off Curtis Ridge onto the ice and climbed towards the route. The lower ridge looked phenomenal compared to our attempt the previous year, when we decided to bail to the Emmons Glacier. I negotiated a tricky bergschrund at the base of the route and started towards Thumb Rock. The hour was late and the snow was soft and punchy. I was spent from a long day of trail-breaking in the heat.
I slowed to a crawl, and finally came to a full stop several hundred feet short of high camp. Jenni (my climbing – and life – partner) climbed up from behind. “I just need a few minutes” I said as I pulled out my bottle. The last few depressing sips of water sloshed weakly around the bottom. Jenni offered me some of hers. “I’ll take this last section” she said. I’m not used to following, but at that moment, I was happy to oblige. Jenni had been following all day and she was ready to go. “Have at it,” I said, and she charged to camp. That’s what teams are for.
The mood at Thumb Rock was somber. Some of the other teams arrived earlier in the day, and had front row seats for the search operation. “It’s a guided group,” they told us. “I know,” I said. One of the climbers pointed out some colorful objects at the base of the Willis Wall far below us. “Those were blowing around in the rotor wash earlier today. We think they’re tents and sleeping bags.”
We’ll never know exactly what happened on Liberty Ridge, but the outcome was painfully clear. I looked out over the Willis Wall, at thousands of feet of rock and ice. A chill ran down my spine and I got a little nauseous. We considered descending, but the route seemed to be in fine shape. “Maybe we can do some good up there” I thought. Maybe there was something or somebody left. Dinner was unpleasant, and I slept like shit. Never have I been more anxious for a summit day.
Morning came long before dawn. Jenni and I roped ourselves together, and moved slowly upwards through the dark. Each rock and chunk of ice looked mean and malicious under the low light of our headlamps. The mountain felt like it was pressing down on us, surrounding us in its blackness. We climbed carefully – very, very carefully.
Dawn found us traversing onto the headwall at around 12,000 feet. Color flooded into the sky, burnishing the horizons in deep oranges and reds. I switched off my headlamp and sunk another axe into the snow. The headwall was in phenomenal condition. A foot of fresh snow bonded well to the classic ice pitches. The travel was easy and the protection was good. I felt guilty.
“If there’s anything left, it will be up here” I thought. Jenni and I climbed silently upwards, and scanned the route for signs of anything. Occasionally our routine was broken by rock- and ice-fall on the Willis Wall. We would pause and watch in reverent awe. There was nothing else.
The route passed under us and we made our way up and over the final bergschrund guarding Liberty Cap, one of Mt. Rainier’s three summits. We were physically tired, but our mental exhaustion was acute. The altitude pushed us hard as well. As a previous Rainier guide, I used to run across the summit plateau. Now that I live in Bellingham and guide on Baker, I’m not nearly as acclimatized. The last couple hundred feet to the cap were grueling for both Jenni and I. It had been a hard climb, on many accounts.
We descended to the saddle below Columbia Crest, the true summit of Mt. Rainier. Our desire to climb was gone. Below us was our exit down the Emmons Glacier. We took one last look at the summit, and turned to descend. It was time to go home.
There’s an old, ubiquitous saying in the guide industry: Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory. Generally, guided programs are very safe, and most companies have phenomenal track records. The accident on Liberty Ridge was a once in a generation event – a combination of bad luck, and forces well beyond the control of the climbers. However, it does serve as a glaring reminder that there is risk in what we do.
Most of us have a good reason to come home. For me it’s Jenni. As a guide, I spend a lot of time in the mountains, away from home, but family, community, and the future are extremely important to me, as they are for many of us. For me, the foundation of these goals begins with an investment of time. My wife loves to climb, and we love to climb together. Often, I find myself coming home, re-packing, and heading right back out the door on a personal trip. I’m thankful that I love what I do, but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting. Complaining earns me little sympathy.
One of the long term goals Jenni and I have set for ourselves is to climb a different route on Mt. Rainier every year. It gives us a clear objective each season, and some guaranteed time together. We’ve been up some fantastic routes in the last few years, and it’s been great to share the mountain with Jenni in a recreational setting. However, every time we’re on a long, challenging trip together there’s comes a moment of clarity. It may permeate the entire experience, or be triggered by a specific event. I’ll be kicking a stance into the snow and wrapping the rope around my waist. “Climb on” I yell, and that’s when it hits me. It’s my wife on the other end of the line.
I imagine kids are right around the corner, and there’s been a lot of discussion as to what constitutes acceptable risk as a parent. I don’t believe in avoiding hazard all together. I don’t want our kids to grow up thinking that dad and mom used to climb until they came along. I want them to see us chasing our dreams, and inspire them to go after theirs. That, to me, seems like good parenting. I’m sure I have a lot to learn though.
In the meantime, I plan to continue climbing. Liberty Ridge was a humbling experience, and coming home was a relief. However, without adventure, there is nothing to come home from.
The Liberty Ridge Disaster
On May 27, 2014 two guides from Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International (AAI) led four clients up the challenging Liberty Ridge Route on Mt. Rainier. A climb famous for its technical difficulty as well as sublime views, the route is included in the iconic Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. (ITAL) One of the guides made a SAT phone call to the AAI office on the evening of the 29th, explaining that the group was going to establish a camp near the 12,800-foot level of the mountain and hope for better weather in the morning. They were never heard from again.
Searchers later found gear belonging to the party and detected avalanche beacon signals emitting from rubble and debris on the surface of the Carbon Glacier, 3,300 feet below their presumed bivouac site. The speculation is that the entire party was swept off Liberty Ridge by ice- or rock-fall in the night.
It was the worst climbing accident on Rainier in 32 years.
John Minier is the Owner and Lead Guide of Mt. Baker Mountain Guides in Bellingham, WA. Originally from Alaska, he has a deep appreciation and respect for wild and mountainous places.