©Bert Gildart: Because of the tragic death this week on Mount Rainier my climb last year of this 14,410-foot high volcanic peak has been much in my thoughts. I’m reminded of just how much preparation was necessary for our climb , and why it is so important–no matter the duration of your outing.
According to the newspaper account, three hikers were caught while en route to Camp Muir, generally considered to be the midway point for those intending to scale the 14,410 foot-high mountain.
June, however, is always a fickle month and unfortunately a blizzard caught the climbers unaware. The hikers were simply out for a day hike, but they were caught in one of those fickle storms for which Rainier is so famous.
The three hikers who got stranded were caught just below Camp Muir–not far from Muir Snowfield seen in the above photo. At this point you’ve climbed about 5,000 feet from Paradise, elevation about 5,000 feet.
When the two men and one woman realized they were in danger, they built a snow shelter at about 9,500 feet and made a call on their cell phone for help. But the weather prevented an immediate rescue.
One of the hikers left the married couple and battled through heavy snow to reach Camp Muir, which he did at 7:15 a.m. He was then able to direct rescuers to the other hikers near Anvil Rock, a large outcropping at the edge of the Muir snowfield.
Later an Army Chinook helicopter transported the man and woman from Camp Muir, but sadly the woman’s husband died. All apparently were experienced outdoors people and two had previously climbed Mount Rainer.
MISHAPS AND THEIR CAUSES
Historically, climbing accidents on Rainier have now numbered near 100. Most have resulted from avalanches, icefall, rockfall, and falls of individuals down glaciers into crevasses (both individuals and whole rope teams).
Other sources of disaster include hypothermia, and mountain sickness. Bodies of at least a dozen fallen climbers remain sealed in glacial ice. The highest death toll in a climbing incident in the U.S. occurred in 1981 when an ice avalanche on Ingraham Glacier killed 11 of a 29-member Mount Rainier climbing party.
Despite the tragedies, each summer about 10,000 people attempt to climb Rainier, but only about half make it. Often they’re turned back by weather, and that’s certainly something David Bristol, my frequent hiking companion, and I can understand, for years ago, much the same happened to us, though it happened after we’d completed our goal of climbing Glacier National Park’s Chief Mountain.
Shortly after summiting this edifice, a completely unpredicted rain and fog storm rolled in, stranding us for the night on “The Chief.” Fortunately, we were able to descend to a level where we could find fire wood, and so we stayed relatively warm. We also had emergency clothing, something Dr. Bristol always insists on including.
But there was no firewood on Rainier, and these three people were caught in a blizzard, not just a white out. And perhaps they were under prepared. That, at any rate, is one of the reasons our Rainier guides checked our gear so carefully, to make sure that in the event of deteriorating weather we could stay warm.
After our group of last summer reached Camp Muir we continued on for about another mile where we dug platforms for our tents. Without such a level surface, the terrain was such that we would have slid back down the mountain’s flanks.
Two days after departing Camp Muir, we reached the summit (Climbing summary ). To avoid avalanches we’d departed at about midnight and then completed our climb about 10 a.m. We then turned around and descended the entire 10,000-foot distance, returning to Paradise about 6 that evening, so completing a very satisfying adventure. Certainly, however, it was not the first. In fact, I enjoyed one of my most satisfying adventures with Janie into a land that is much in the limelight right now.
NOT A WASTE LAND
In other parts of our natural world, with the emergence of all the gorgeous flowers in Glacier, I’m also reminded that six years ago, Janie and I camped for a month at Caribou Pass, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where we witnessed one of the most glorious wildflower spectacles we’ve ever seen.
According to my notes that spectacle took place in mid June and included the emergence of lupine, bloodwart, pasque flower, and dozens of other species. All were putting on a grand spectacle, and their march reinforced the notion that this land is anything but “a wasteland,” words the current administration has used to describe this area.
Our camp was just 15 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, and during our stay we were assaulted with wind, rain and snow, but we remained comfortable the entire month of our stay, suggesting it’s all about preparation.
Preparation that addresses all the fickle aspects of nature.
AND NOW, THE COMMERCIAL
If you’re interested in exploring the Flathead Valley and Glacier National park, here are two books produced by Falcon Press, one part of their Exploring Series, the other one of a new series of “Pocket Guides.” Janie and I, of course, are the authors and you can obtain both from us, or directly from Falcon. Look for them, too, in bookstores and in Glacier.