Ghosts of Rainier:
A majestic tomb for 65 men
MOUNT RAINIER - They are entombed by glacial ice, hidden in towering, snow-covered forests, shrouded in mystery dense as alpine clouds.
The remains of 65 men lie unrecovered in Mount Rainier National Park -- fully a fifth of the 323 who have died in the park since it was established a century ago.
The ghosts of Mount Rainier belong to a fraternity whose membership is based on geography, misfortune and circumstance. Some courted danger, some were oblivious to risk, and some never bargained on landing on a 14,411-foot mountain in the first place.
Several were Boeing Co. engineers. Almost half of them were Marines who boarded a Curtiss Commando transport plane bound for Seattle 54 years ago.
Six of them were named Bill. Three were named Duane.
Thirteen of them died alone.
There is the free-lance photographer who set off on a picturesque hike near the eastern edge of the park in 1997. There is the medical-school graduate from Plains, Ga., who sneaked in an afternoon of snowboarding last year, two days before he was to start his residency in Seattle.
There are the erudite New York City birdwatcher, the light-hearted Port Orchard skier, and the Hatfield, Pa., climber who paused under an ice cliff in 1981 -- and died moments later with 10 others in the nation's worst mountaineering accident.
They remain buried despite massive search-and-recovery efforts, despite summer snowmelts, despite churning rivers of ice that move boxcar-sized slabs down the mountain like an imperceptible conveyor belt. Victims of nature or human error, they are enmeshed in the physical landscape of the park and their stories and names are a part of its lore.
Most of them died without leaving a clue to their whereabouts and few are ever expected to be unearthed from the slopes of a volcano that Tulalip tribal culture compares to an ill-tempered woman.
"It's like Rainier collects its own memories," observes avid hiker and writer Bruce Barcott.
Mention Rainier and outdoors enthusiasts such as Barcott rightly tout the lush valleys, expansive snowfields and lofty peaks of the wilderness that spreads across Pierce and Lewis counties. Awed, they point out the grandeur of its 25 glaciers and the austerity of its summit steam caves.
But danger parallels beauty in a park where a popular vista carries the name Paradise, and where treacherous cliffs bear the name of Doug Vercoe, a man who fell from them.
The glaciers and the heavy snowfall that creates them are key reasons so many of Rainier's dead are unrecovered. Deep fissures, called crevasses, open and close as glacial ice slowly moves down the mountainside. Also, heavy snows, avalanches and the general ruggedness of the terrain make discovery -- and recovery -- enormously difficult.
"As the years dull the keen edge of your grief, perhaps you will come to agree with the families of the 32 Marines who lie in the South Tahoma Glacier, that he could not have a more magnificently beautiful resting place," park Superintendent Preston Macy wrote to the grieving mother of a snowshoer who vanished above Paradise in 1957.
It is a sentiment that resonates with Barcott, author of the recent book, "Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier."
"There is something that is more hallowed and sacred about Rainier that, in my mind, would make it psychologically easier to think that someone had died (there) and not been found," he said. "You'd be remembered in a way that you probably wouldn't be in the Olympics or someplace else."
But some relatives of the dead, who cling to hopes that the mountain will one day reveal the bodies of their loved ones, take little solace in its beauty.
"I can never call it a closed book or chapter until they have a burial like all the other average Americans," wrote a Kansas City mother of a Marine killed in the 1946 plane crash.
"They told us the same thing, that if Joseph had to go, he could not have chosen a more breathtaking place," recalls Elizabeth Wood, whose son vanished last July while hiking toward Mildred Point in the southwest corner of the park. "But not knowing what happened is the hardest."
Of Rainier's mysteries, Wood's disappearance last year is among the most puzzling.
Unlike snowshoer Lowell Linn, who set off down the mountain in a blizzard, or skier Jim Kampe, who marched upward in a whiteout, birdwatcher Joe Wood walked along a steeply sloping ridge in perfect weather.
He'd stolen away from a journalism conference in Seattle to see the mountain goats, wildflowers and birds usually visible from Van Trump Park in late June and early July.
Six days later, his friends alerted authorities when he failed to show up to work at a New York City publishing house.
By that point neither bloodhounds nor hundreds of volunteer searchers could pinpoint where he strayed.
"We have lost people before that we have never found, but they were always isolated incidents," said park ranger Rick Kirschner. "Last year we lost one, two, three, four, five, six people and only found two. . . . it was a total feeling of 'Are we doing something wrong here, are we missing some clues?' It was really a tough year for the rangers and for the families. No resolution for any of them."
Few understand the pain of mourning for Rainier's hidden victims better than Kirschner.
A veteran of the National Park Service, his signature can be found at the bottom of scores of incident reports detailing searches for missing and injured park visitors.
Haunted by climbers whose bodies have never been located, he carries around a tattered photocopied list of the belongings and physical description of Kampe, the skier who schussed into a whiteout on the Muir Snowfield a decade ago. A 5-inch wedge of metal Kirschner spied at the bottom of a river basin a few years ago sits in his office. It turned out to be a piece of the Marine airplane that crashed in 1946.
In his spare time, Kirschner speculates about what happened to Wood, Kampe, photographer Chet Hansen, and climbing partners Chris Hartonas and Raymond Vakili.
He isn't alone.
Ten years ago park regular Gordon Thompson took a ski trip on the mountain with Kampe and two other friends.
Kampe ranged ahead of the other three in whiteout conditions, and when the weather forced the others to turn back, they lost contact with him. When the weather cleared, searchers found no trace.
Thompson still has a map from the search of Kampe's last known location with an X marked near Wild Woman Rocks and a notation, "Jim Kampe last seen."
"It's an old moth-eaten, U.S. Geological 7-minute topo map. It's falling apart," Thompson says ruefully. "It's not as if I'm constantly thinking of Jim, but when I'm there or when I think of somebody going missing, I think about him and where he is and I think about the search effort and the job the rangers did searching.
"You're always second-guessing yourself, wondering what happened."
Kirschner knows the feeling: "The answer is usually the same all around: You just don't know," he says solemnly as he peers over a map of the 378-square-mile park.
But off the top of his head, and without consulting the reams of documents cataloging fatalities on Rainier since 1887, he can plot most of the bodies the mountain has kept.
"Vercoe would be in a crevasse on the Cowlitz Glacier," Kirschner says, pointing to a white swath where gravity would have dragged Vercoe when the cornice, or ice ledge, he was standing on fell and triggered a massive avalanche. "Allen Douglas, here in the Carbon River area. A trail crew found his pack hanging from the back of a tree near the Ispet Trail.
"And Taylor would be here, somewhere, below Success Cleaver," he adds, marking a long rib of crumbling volcanic rock that rises more than 7,000 feet from the base of Pyramid Peak to Point Success.
He referred to 23-year-old park ranger David Taylor, a Wooster, Ohio, native who disappeared on the morning of Nov. 18, 1974.
He and fellow ranger Carl Fabiani were trying to become the first climbers to summit by way of the Success Cleaver route in the wintertime. They were unroped as they retreated from avalanches, heavy snow and fog on the seldom-climbed route.
As they descended to 9,500 feet, Taylor disappeared in snow flurries. Once the visibility improved, Fabiani couldn't find Taylor. He took shelter under rocks that night and rose early the next morning to continue to search for his companion, whom he described as a strong, resourceful climber. Then Fabiani spent the next 40 hours climbing off the treacherous cleaver, crossing two glaciers and trekking through woods to the west side of the mountain and safety.
Rescuers picked up the fruitless search. When they returned to the Paradise ranger station, their whiskers and eyebrows were frosted with snow and their parkas and packs armored in rime ice.
Taylor's father and stepmother had holed up at Longmire for several days, waiting for the good news that rescuers found their son.
Rangers delivered the discouraging word instead.
The message went something like what then-Superintendent Macy wrote to an insurance company in the late '50s about Lowell Linn:
"To date the search has been futile. . . . We have no reason to doubt that the body is up there; we simply have been unable to find it. In that rugged terrain one could walk within a few feet of it without seeing it if it were wedged between large rocks or in a snow or ice crevasse. There are also many places a body could have become buried. The possibility of finding it in the near future is becoming more remote every day. We have found no authentic clues, but will continue a systematic search of all possible areas."
Working on a mountain that has its own weather system, where harsh conditions move in without warning, Kirschner has had to pen more than a few letters like this himself.
But occasionally, closure comes to a glacier.
It did half a world away in 1991, when hikers discovered the so-called "Iceman from the Similaun." The remarkably well-preserved Bronze Age hunter was found sticking out of the glacier at about 10,000 feet in Austria's Tyrolean mountains.
Last August it happened again in British Columbia's Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park, nearly 1,000 miles north of Vancouver.
Hunters there stumbled over the equally well-preserved body of a 4,000-year-old man uncovered by a melting glacier.
Scientists think the hunter died as a result of being wedged in a tight ice crack -- like Jim Tuttle, who fell into a crevasse during a summit climb on Mount Rainier's Ingraham Glacier in 1991.
Rainier is no different from the Austrian Alps or the mountains of Northern Canada. Sometimes it, too, gives up its dead.
Last May, lead climbing ranger Mike Gauthier watched in dismay as a minute-long avalanche rumbled over the area where a skier had fallen to his death hours earlier.
If weather conditions had been poor or avalanches continued on the notorious Thermogenesis route, a 4,000-foot snow and ice gully prone to frequent slides, David Mattias Perrson could easily have remained buried there.
But fair conditions allowed two military Chinook helicopters to fly in before dawn with rangers who investigated a bloodstained field of snow for the body of the Vancouver, B.C. man.
As the morning arrived and the warmth of sunlight began the melting process that often precedes avalanches, the rangers considered calling off the search.
Just then Gauthier's partner picked up a signal from the radio Perrson carried. Homing in on the transmission, they found Perrson buried under nearly a foot of snow and ice. After extricating his body, they secured him into a chest harness and clipped it to a rope attached to a helicopter hovering above.
Watching the sunrise splash onto the Willis Wall, Gauthier knew the rescue could have ended differently.
"There was an underlying tone, almost a drone, that was the background of knowing we (had gone) into a dangerous situation to try to find the body of a man who died doing what most of us do for fun, and try to give his family some closure," he adds.
Closure came seven years late for relatives of Julie Fillo.
Fillo, a 20-year-old park employee, began a 19-mile hike along the Cowlitz Divide portion of the Wonderland Trail on the sunny Sunday morning of June 30, 1977.
When she didn't show up for work two days later, her colleagues, friends and relatives launched an aerial and foot search.
It wasn't until 1984 that a late summer melt revealed a tattered sleeping bag and a grouping of bones near a little-visited waterfall on a branch of Needle Creek.
Kirschner hurried to the site. He wasn't sure who the remains belonged to until he noticed a glint of metal on the ground.
It was a silver-topped green ballpoint pen, inscribed with the words, Fillo Sales & Engineering Co., St. Louis, Mo. 63119. One mystery had been solved.
Another was resolved in 1992 with the discovery of a plane that crashed in the park.
Kirschner came across the fuselage the way Rainier's remains are usually discovered -- by happenstance during a pleasure hike in the park. He was trekking across a ridge with his wife when she spotted a blue item in the snow below. His curiosity was piqued because it was the general area where Kampe was believed to have fallen.
Kirschner returned the next day and climbed down to find the item was a recently discarded plastic tarp. While he was down on the valley floor with a colleague, he noticed another blue item further afield. A few days later, while riding in an army plane during a rescue drill, he asked the pilot to swing over the second blue item. It also turned out to be insignificant, but as they passed, he and the pilot spied what appeared to be an airplane fuselage and wheel.
"That plane was news to me. We had never even been aware that it crashed in the park," he said. Down at the crash site, Kirschner found bones in a boot still pressed on the foot pedal inside the cockpit. Nearby, searchers uncovered an engraved ring. From the tail N-number, park officials learned the plane had gone missing 20 years earlier, in 1972, with three car dealers from Spokane on board.
Aviation officials had never guessed the plane might have crashed in the park.
"I have no doubt that there are planes that we haven't found, people who we don't even know are missing," says Kirschner. "But my own gut feeling is that we'll find at least a couple of them."
P-I reporter Kimberly A.C. Wilson can be reached at 206-615-1246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, March 28, 2000
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