Ghosts of Rainier:
Icefall in 1981 entombed 11 climbers
First, the survivors remember the sounds. And then they remember the silence.
A thunderous crack from 800 feet above, then a roar, as though a jet were taking off. Then five seconds of scrambling as 22 climbers tried to avoid the cliff of ice hurtling toward them. It was as if someone had sawed off a section of Mount Rainier and flung it right at them.
"Run!" the guides yelled. "Run right!"
They didn't have time, really. A cloud of dust covered everything. A wall of snow and ice barreled through. Blue glacial chunks as big as desks hit the climbers and swept them down the mountain, some of them into a 70-foot-deep crevasse.
Then it was quiet. Absolutely quiet.
Seconds later, 11 people emerged from the rubble. The others didn't. Within half an hour, guides who frantically searched the crevasse knew it was hopeless.
The mountain, it seemed, had opened up, swallowed 11 people, and clamped shut, leaving only a piece of rope, a headlamp, a pair of goggles, a hat. One climbing guide and 10 clients were buried beneath tons of snow and ice, victims of the worst climbing tragedy in American history.
Searchers endured treacherous conditions afterward, digging through the moving river of snow and ice, picking through the swath of avalanche rubble, hunting for backpacks, ice axes, anything that would tell them they'd found the missing climbers. After two days, they gave up trying to recover the bodies.
Nineteen years after the icefall at dawn on Sunday, June 21, 1981, the 11 men are still entombed in the blue ice of Mount Rainier. Geologists, rangers and climbing experts say the ice wall that fell on the group was a fluke of nature, a freak thing that could not have been predicted. Mount Rainier can be a dangerous, fickle place, and the climbers knew the risks.
The men -- who ranged in age from 19 to 42; who came from Pennsylvania and Michigan, Arlington, Seattle and Bellevue; who were fathers and teachers, insurance agents, a dentist and an Eagle Scout -- are part of the mountain now.
* * *
At 6:30 that Saturday morning, Craig Tippie had called his mom, apologized for waking her up, and told her not to worry. Mount St. Helens' latest eruptions would not affect his climb on Mount Rainier, he said.
He and his hiking buddy, Mark Ernlund, were making their second summit attempt. Tippie, his mother said, "just really liked the feeling. There's nothing like getting to the top and looking down. He wanted to get to the top of Mount Rainier."
That morning, Tippie, 29, an engineering supervisor at the Sundstrand Corp., and Ernlund, 29, a customer-service employee at CX Corp. in Seattle, joined 21 other weekend hikers and six guides for a two-day summit attempt.
Each person had completed a rigorous, one-day climbing course in mountaineering techniques -- how to use ice axes, crampons, climbing rope. They were confident. They believed their guides, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. employees, were experienced, level-headed professionals who knew the mountain inside and out -- just the people to help them get to the top and back down safely.
Tom O'Brien was one of the guides. The 19-year-old University of Washington student was known for his skill, energy and sense of humor. He was studying industrial design and was particularly interested in improving the design of mountaineering equipment. He hoped that one day, his name would be associated with outdoor gear.
The group of 29 left the 5,400-foot-high Paradise Inn that morning, climbed to 10,000 feet and spent the night at Camp Muir. Between 3:30 and 4 a.m. Sunday, they started along the southeast face toward the peak.
The skies were clear, the moon was out, the walking surface easy. Excellent conditions, lead guide John Ronald Day recalled. Climbers crossed the Cowlitz Glacier, climbed Cathedral Rocks and traversed the heavily crevassed Ingraham Glacier. Climber Larry St. Peter remembered the trek as "one of the most beautiful experiences of my life."
They were 2,000 feet above the clouds, but the most difficult climb was still to come. In the previous three weeks, 214 people had attempted to reach the summit from the south side. Only 23 had been successful.
At 5:30 a.m., three climbers turned back, saying they didn't have the stamina to go to the top. A guide accompanied them back to Camp Muir.
Three other guides went ahead of the rest to assess the dangers of crossing treacherous Disappointment Cleaver, an irregular, exposed ridge of rock. They went to the nose of the cleaver, 3,400 feet from the summit, and dug two snow pits to check the danger of avalanches. The group, they agreed, shouldn't continue. They weren't experienced enough to cope with the steep slope and unpredictable snow.
Meanwhile, two guides and 20 clients had stayed on Ingraham Flats, a moderately sloping part of Ingraham Glacier about 11,500 feet high. The flats appear as sort of an amphitheater between the rock wall of Disappointment Cleaver and the massive Gibraltar Rock. The men were roped together, five or six to a group, taking pictures and marveling at the view.
The guides, Ronald Gregory Wilson and O'Brien, gathered the climbers around to explain how the other guides were checking the conditions. They reminded climbers to "keep an eye up above" for falling rocks or avalanches.
"Tom and I had been looking at the ice from above, and there was an outstanding ice block well off to the side," Wilson told investigators later. "And we were talking that it would be a terrible thing to see come down."
And then it did.
A piece of the mountain, "just something big and awesome," guide Peter Whittaker recalled, simply fell away. It was tumbling in a free-fall, and then it hit ground and exploded.
Whittaker and the other two guides on the cleaver yelled, and everybody was up and moving. O'Brien and Wilson directed people toward the cleaver. Larry St. Peter remembered "people running every direction."
Wilson recalled turning around twice to see where the avalanche was coming from. "The last thing I saw was a huge wave of snow in front of me," he said. He reached for an ice axe to stop himself, but the wall of snow knocked him on his back and rolled over him.
Climber Dennis Robertson remembered being hit by a chunk of ice and knocked "head over heels. I was in the slide and remember about what I was taught about snow slides and you swim, and that's what I tried to do.
"Suddenly, it was over with, and I was just sitting there. We looking around, and all of a sudden it was very quiet."
Guide John Day, still on the cleaver, counted the climbers and realized some were missing. Two rope teams were entangled, but those people were alive. Wilson popped up from the rubble and called to the others to pull on the ropes, hoping those who were buried could use them as life lines. "There were pieces of equipment around, so I began probing around," he said, "and nothing came up. . . . I went quickly through there looking for remnants of clothing or people. There was nothing there. Then I walked down in the crevasse. There was like a hat, some goggles. I probed under thoroughly."
* * *
Day radioed the park service about 6:10 a.m. "We have lost 11 people in an icefall on the approach to the cleaver," he said. Need help.
Rainier Mountaineering employees began rounding up sleeping bags, shovels and people to go to the avalanche site.
Day, another guide and one climber stayed at the crevasse; the other two guides led the rest down to Camp Muir, about 1,000 feet below the icefall. The wind had picked up; snow and ice were falling; visibility was 100 yards.
There's no hope, Peter Whittaker told the rangers when he arrived at camp. Day, still searching the crevasse, said the same thing.
Ranger Garry Olsen arrived at the crevasse about 9:30 a.m. and described a 300-yard-wide path of debris, ice blocks as big as a pickup truck and camper. He saw holes in the snow where searchers had looked for possible survivors, and wands marking where people had been sitting before the accident.
At 9:40 a.m., he radioed the base. "It would take a bulldozer to find these people. My concern right now is the safety of the searchers. Shovels and probes will be of no use. . . . I see nothing we can do up here. I am just sorry. We can't do anything."
Sometime after 10 a.m., the surviving climbers arrived at the Paradise Inn, having hiked down from Camp Muir in fog with visibility between 30 and 50 feet and high winds whipping ice. The men wandered into the office, looking for their wives, needing treatment for cuts and bruises.
By late afternoon, 24 RMI guides, rangers and mountain rescue volunteers from Seattle and Tacoma had search-and-rescue parties and were preparing to climb to Camp Muir. Snowfall and wind kept them from reaching the crevasse Sunday night or Monday morning. By Monday evening, the search party had dug trenches, sifted through the rubble and found nothing. At 10 p.m., Rainier officials called off the search.
* * *
Dorothy Tippie heard about the accident from her mother on Monday morning. She called the mountain, and rangers acknowledged that some climbers from her son's group were missing. They told her to stay at home, that they'd call when they had news.
First she heard that some of the climbers had come down from the mountain. She didn't know whether her son was among them. Then she heard that some climbers had been too exhausted to continue their ascent and had turned back, missing the icefall. She didn't believe Craig Tippie would have done that.
Finally, she learned Craig was one of 11 missing, and that he likely had died instantly. When rangers explained the danger in trying to recover the bodies, that the crevasse was so deep and unstable the searchers could die, she and the families of the other victims agreed the men should be left on the mountain.
Two weeks after the icefall, the National Park Service began its inquiry into the deaths, standard procedure for fatalities on Mount Rainier. The board found that the guides had led the group up the safest, most heavily traveled route to the summit.
The board concluded that the guides had taken every safety precaution, in fact had left the 20 climbers and two guides on the safest spot imaginable -- a protected area of Ingraham Flats -- while they went to a more dangerous area to check for avalanche possibilities.
The board determined the icefall was random and related to the movement of the glacier. The recommendation: Mount Rainier officials should work with glacier specialists to predict when the victims' remains might surface at the end of Ingraham Glacier.
* * *
Weeks later, after an unusually hot summer, a ranger flying a helicopter over Ingraham Glacier spotted a red pack in a crevasse. Another ranger, checking out the report, discovered parts of two or three bodies sticking out of the ice.
On Aug. 11, ranger Rick Kirschner and four climbers went there to photograph the scene and recover what they could. About 100 feet deep into a crevasse, they found one body 90 percent melted out of the ice, and about four others in which a leg or boot were exposed. "And then the body would disappear into the ice."
None was identifiable. All were wedged precariously in unstable snow. Digging would likely cause them to fall another 100 feet further into the crevasse -- and endanger the searchers. "There was a lot of rock falling," Kirschner wrote in his report, and no way for the climbers to protect themselves. They dug up everything they could without putting themselves in jeopardy -- a red backpack, a headlamp, an ice axe.
Then they made sure the remains weren't visible from the climbing route and left.
"We know where they are," Kirschner said. "That's where they remain."
* * *
A year after the tragedy, family members gathered at Paradise for a memorial service. Betty and Harold Boulton read poems in memory of their son David, 29, a Bellevue insurance agent.
Kathleen and Bob O'Brien, parents of Tom, showed slides. Edmund Laitone, father of Jonathan, 27, of Ann Arbor, Mich.; Renee Liedman, wife of Ira Liedman, 30, of Hatfield, Pa.; and Linda Matthews, wife of Henry, 39, of Auburn, paid tribute to those who died.
They put up a plaque at the Paradise Visitor's Center. They dedicated a photograph Jonathan Laitone had taken an hour before the avalanche. And then they claimed the items their loved ones had left at Camp Muir the morning they died:
Seven sleeping bags. Several pairs of jeans, shirts, rain pants and socks. A paperback copy of "The Hobbit." Corned beef, noodle soup and powdered milk. An Eddie Bauer hat. Four contact-lens cases. A hotel room key, a toothbrush and SPF 15 sunscreen.
Every June, Dorothy Tippie, who lives in Tacoma, takes fresh flowers to Paradise to honor the 11 who died on Father's Day, 1981. The families still exchange Christmas cards. "We call ourselves the 'Mountain Family,'" she said.
Dorothy Tippie can see Mount Rainier from her house. "On a clear day when the sun is out, it's beautiful.
"I feel close."
P-I reporter Candy Hatcher can be reached at 206-448-8320 or email@example.com
Thursday, March 30, 2000
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