Mt Rainier (RMI) - Avalanche, Climbing too late
June 11, 1998
Summary - Two Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (RMI) rope teams are caught in an avalanche they initiate while descending at about 2:00 pm. This was on a sunny exposure and there had been significant new snowfall within the past few days. One rope team was above the other, ensuring that both were caught. One client was killed and there were a slew of injuries. Note that the rule of thumb used by most climbers is to be back down at Camp Muir by noon.
Full Report from the 1999 issue of "Accidents in North American Mountaineering"
This accident occurred as a RMI guided team was descending from the summit. Two rope teams were clipped into the same fixed line when the avalanche occurred. The avalanche caught the first rope team, which pulled two of the anchors on the fixed line. The slide continued unattested also pulling the second rope team down the hill. Finally one anchor (a picket) held at the other end of the fixed line as a few climbers became entangled at the top of the cliff-bands. What was left is detailed. One guide and one client were caught on the fixed line above the cliff. Three clients and one guide clung to the top of the cliff, tangled in the rocks and ropes. Three clients dangled below them on a cliff of ice and snow, while the solo client (Nestler) hung below a second cliff band in a waterfall of snowmelt. Nestler died as a result of this exposure.
The Park Service assembled climbing rangers from Camp Schurman and Muir, Mountain Rescue Volunteers, Rainier Mountaineering Guides and helicopters assist with the rescue. On scene, Gauthier along with Rainier Mountaineering Guides Randolf and Eicshner worked to assess the situation. The location was extremely hazardous with 40-degree icy slopes, 20-foot vertical rock bands, exposure to avalanche hang-fire and a 300-foot drop to the glacier below. The danger made it necessary for rescuers to secure the exposed climbers with new ropes and reliable anchors. One of the distressed climbing teams was pendulumed over a refrigerator-sized rotten rock; the other clung to the cliff or dangled on a rope which was frayed to the inner strands and pulled tight over a sharp rock held by one picket! Once new anchors and ropes were established, on scene rescuers negotiated the cliff securing the injured and triaging the patients.
Teams of climbing rangers and guides were inserted with US Army and private helicopters at Ingraham Flats. Some of the rescuers climbed to the accident site to assist with the raising evacuation while another team headed to the base of the cleaver to assist with the lowering of one climber. That climber, Patrick Nestler (29), had fallen substantially farther down the cliff than the others. The fastest evacuation was to lower him off the mountain rather than raise him back to the accident site. New anchors and ropes were set to assist Nestler. However no one had heard from him for over an hour. As the injured were being raised off the cliff above, Nestler was quickly lowered, taken across the bergschrund and evacuated to the helicopter, where he was pronounced dead.
At 1:45 p.m. on June 11th, an independent climber camping at Ingraham Flats overheard screams of distress coming from the Disappointment Cleaver. The climber, using a cell phone, alerted Mount Rainier communications and reported that a snow avalanche had swept two rope teams off "The Nose" of the Cleaver. The initial report indicated that many climbers may be dead and the accident was extremely serious. Off duty climbing ranger Mike Gauthier overheard the emergency announcement on the Park Service radio and responded to the accident from the summit by riding his snowboard down the climbing route. On scene, Gauthier reported that Rainier Mountaineering guided teams had been hit by an avalanche and up to ten climbers (two rope teams) were unsecured on the cliff or unaccounted for.
Climbing rangers remained to clean up and conduct the accident investigation on the following day while additional guides stayed to escort the remaining clients back to Camp Muir.
Efforts to raise the other nine climbers off the cliff and up the slope were hustled as rescuers raced against nightfall. The injuries included: one guide with a severely injured hand, a client with an injured leg and hand, three hypothermic clients, another client with an injured hand, a climber with an injured leg and two shaken but ambulatory climbers. The Chinook helicopter hovered at Ingraham Flats till darkness when the last of the most hypothermic climbers was loaded on board in a liter. All of the injured and a few of the rescuers were flown to Madigan Hospital in Tacoma.
This avalanche was described as a "wet, loose snow slide." Released on a 40-degree slope at 11,600 feet, it ran on a layer of isothermal melt-freeze grains when it hit the rope teams at 11,200 feet. The width of the slide when it hit the teams was 38 feet, at a depth of 6-10 inches. Warm temperatures and clear sky (solar radiation) are the most significant weather factors in its cause. At the time of the avalanche the snow pack was in the melt stage of the melt-freeze cycle and the snow grains lacked cohesion. Only a small trigger was needed to start the snow mass moving.
No definite trigger was positively identified at the starting point. However, boot prints and climber activity mark the area on the slope above the traverse. This location is notorious for rock and icefall. Guides fix the traverse because the exposure is great should a climber fall. The guides observed no evidence of any avalanche activity that day. Senior guides commented that the area had no avalanche activity for 20+ years.
Avalanches are not just winter phenomena. Big mountains like Rainier create their own climate and conditions. Different slopes, elevations, angles, and aspects mean new conditions and circumstances. Always consider the possibility of an avalanche, particularly on suspect 25 to 50 degree snow slopes on warm days. Hazards can be assessed by digging a snow pit and checking the slide potential. One can also minimize exposure by moving quickly through hazardous areas. Also consider that humans cause many avalanches. In dangerous areas, make sure your teammates or others are not above-or below! (Source: Mike Gauthier, SAR Ranger, Mount Rainier National Park)
The RMI Press Briefing:
[It has been said that common factors behind most accidents include ignorance and arrogance. Both seem to be reflected in this statement.]
At a briefing at Paradise on Mount Rainier this morning, Lou Whittaker, co-owner of RMI defended the actions of his guides. Questions had been raised about the lateness of the hour in which the two RMI guided rope teams were still relatively high on the mountain when they got hit by an avalanche at 2:11pm PST at 11,400 feet, Thursday June 11, 1998. Whittaker said the hour was not a significant factor, that his guides are trained to assess risk, and that avalanches happen at all hours on Rainier.
"We climb in all conditions and this is a five day school so we come down any time in the day or evening sometimes as late as four or five in the afternoon and still get off the mountain. It's light until 9:30 at night and then the moonlight comes out. There has been that question, 'aren't they coming down late?' You're not coming down late on the mountain when you climb every day on the mountain; you do go up and down it at any time of the day. So, that is something I can clear up as well."