On a Thursday evening one year ago this May, I walked into my kitchen wearing flannel pajamas. I had just driven back to my apartment in Seattle after guiding a three-day summit bid on Mount Rainier, and I could still feel the raw bite of the wind on my face. A light flashed on my phone’s glowing screen. I assumed it would be a cheerful emoticon from a friend, but on the screen was a text from one of my fellow guides:
“FYI: there’s an Alpine Ascents team two days overdue on Liberty Ridge.”
I stood in my kitchen looking at the message as the summer twilight slowly faded into black. Then I turned off all the lights in my apartment, sat on the floor and cried.
At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in Washington state and the most prominent in the contiguous United States. It is the centerpiece of the more than 235,000-acre Mount Rainier National Park, which is a two-hour drive southeast of Seattle. The park is more than 97 percent wilderness; the other nearly 3 percent is a National Historic Landmark District. Each year, about 2 million people visit the park to throw snowballs, hike in the footsteps of John Muir and snap adventurous-looking selfies.
People come to climb the mountain, too. More than 10,000 people try for the summit each year, according to the National Park Service. All routes require ropes and crampons; as the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous United States, Rainier boasts more than 35 square miles of ice and permanent snowfields. Because it is a volcano, it stands alone, dominating the Seattle skyline, and because it is so visible from the city, it often attracts first-time climbers who have stared at the snowcapped peak for many years. There are dozens of routes to the summit, but about 80 percent of climbers travel via the southeast-facing Disappointment Cleaver, which—despite having to navigate steep and glaciated terrain—is the least technically demanding of the guided routes to the summit. It is also the site of the worst accident in the history of Rainier mountaineering, when 11 climbers were buried by an avalanche 34 years ago.
There are four other routinely guided routes on Mount Rainier: Emmons Glacier, Kautz Glacier, Fuhrer Finger and Liberty Ridge, which is the hardest. The Liberty ridgeline slashes across the mountain’s north face like a scar, intriguing and deadly. Climbers approach through Glacier Basin, crossing the Winthrop and Carbon glaciers before ascending the steep fin of the ridge to gain Liberty Cap. The terrain is steep dark rock and slick blue ice, and climbers call the line bold and striking. Most teams on this route descend via one of the more straightforward routes (either Emmons Glacier or Disappointment Cleaver), which means climbers carry all of their gear up and over the mountain. (When ascending and descending the same route, climbers are able to leave some gear in camp, which makes summit-day packs much lighter.)
The ridge is almost always climbed in the early part of the climbing season—May through mid-July—because risks increase as the snow and ice melt. As the glacier softens, rock and icefall become increasingly hazardous. An apple-size chunk of ice, if dropped from 1,000 feet above a climber, can be deadly.
Liberty Ridge was first climbed in 1935; in 1979, Steve Roper and Allen Steck included the climb in their Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, solidifying the route’s iconic status. The climbing is exciting and sustained—and incredibly demanding physically. I have not climbed the ridge, but guides describe the trip as a grueling five-day sojourn; participants carry 50-pound packs up 50-degree slopes for as long as eight hours a day. One brochure warns clients: “You need to be in the best shape of your life.”
Despite or because of the challenges, the route is a coveted alternative to Disappointment Cleaver, which can be so crowded that some climbers refer to it as “Disney-style mountaineering.” In my five years guiding on Rainier, I have seen as many as several dozen climbers waiting at bottlenecks in places on the Disappointment Cleaver route. On Liberty Ridge, though, the only other human beings a climber sees are usually the members of their own party, and their efforts yield panoramic views of Rainier’s most dramatic features. And there’s the additional draw of attempting a challenging route to test skills and conditioning.
But it comes at a cost: Of the 10,000 climbers who attempt Rainier each year, fewer than 200 climb Liberty Ridge. That’s less than 2 percent. But the route accounts for 25 percent of all climber deaths on the mountain.
The Alpine Ascents team set out for the Liberty Ridge route on Monday, May 26, 2014, expecting to finish that Friday.
In the group were Erik Britton Kolb, a 34-year-old finance manager from Brooklyn, New York; Mark Mahaney, 26, who worked in IT in St. Paul, Minnesota; Uday Marty, 40, a vice president at Intel, based in Singapore; Seattleite John Mullally, 40, who worked at Microsoft; along with guides Matthew Hegeman, 38, and Eitan Green, 28 from Alpine Ascents International, which runs expeditions to mountains that include Everest, Aconcagua, Denali and Kilimanjaro out of its Lower Queen Anne headquarters. It is one of the largest guide services in the world.
At 6:20 p.m. on Wednesday, May 28, one of the guides called the Alpine Ascents office on a satellite phone to report that they were making camp for the night at 12,800 feet. All was well, he said, although there was a storm starting to blow in. Two clients sent out text messages that were received by friends, neither of which caused any alarm. Someone else sent out a message from a tracking device at 7:45 p.m., which appears to have been the device’s default “all good” signal that includes GPS coordinates, somewhere between 12,400 and 12,800 feet. Again, it did not appear to be a distress call of any kind.
There was no further contact from the team.
On that last Thursday in May, an unguided party that had reported seeing the Alpine Ascents team earlier in the week reached the summit via Liberty Ridge, but saw no further signs of the missing climbers. When Hegeman and Green’s group failed to return on Friday, Alpine Ascents called the authorities. Search parties headed out over the weekend. On Saturday, they found climbing equipment and detected signals from six avalanche beacons on a glacier at the base of a nearby cliff face, which is around 9,500 feet—suggesting a fall of more than 3,000 feet. Mount Rainier National Park information officer Patti Wold told KOMO News, “There is no viable way they could have survived.”
Something happened on Wednesday night. Nobody can know with certainty, but the most likely scenario is that rock, snow or ice fell from above and swept the team off the ridge. The climbers’ bodies landed at the base of Willis Wall, which continually sheds rock and icefall, covering the remains almost immediately.
I had met both guides. Neither were close friends, but because our community of climbing guides is small, we often think of one another as family. Matt Hegeman lived in Truckee, California, and had climbed Rainier more than 50 times. Eitan Green and I were born in the same year, and attended The Mountain School in Vermont for a semester when we were in high school. He had established new routes in the Alaska Range, skied off the summit of Mont Blanc and studied anthropology at Colby College. He lived in Wallingford. When I spoke to her about the accident on the phone, Eitan Green’s mother told me, “We can only pray that they were asleep in their tents when it happened.” Green’s father—a financial-risk manager—told me that he and his son had discussed ways for guiding services to improve their bottom lines by improving compensation and benefits for guides. Eerily, Green was a quiet advocate for health and life insurance for outdoor-industry workers, many of whom can’t afford an annual flu shot.
The week after the accident, I drove back to Mount Rainier to work my scheduled climb. As I drove south on Interstate 5, I called my mom to ask if she was OK. “I don’t know,” she said. “Are you?”
I wasn’t sure. After every mountaineering accident—the 1996 Everest disaster, the 2008 tragedy on K2, the April 2014 avalanche on Everest—the loss of human life feels grotesque and inane. Climbers are accused of being selfish or rash, or—equally as striking—are lauded as heroes. There is private grief, media sensation, confused shivah.
I climbed the Emmons route that week, less than a mile from the six bodies on the glacier. Our clients were gracious and grave and respectful, and we processed confusion and grief together. When I got back to the city, however, the questions started in earnest. Friends tiptoed around the subject. Newspaper headlines made my eyes blur. My neighbor’s ex-girlfriend called me to ask the details of why and how the accident happened, just because she wanted to understand. “Did something go wrong?” she asked. “Did they suffer?”
I numbly repeated canned answers: It is awful not to know the details. I work for a different company. I’m not a professional accident investigator. They were wonderful guides who knew the mountain brilliantly. I’m sure that the climbers were well prepared and well intentioned. Sometimes, when you’re in the mountains, things just happen.
In August, three bodies were recovered by helicopter, which the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has identified as Mahaney, Marty and Mullally. The other three bodies are still on the glacier, and because they are in an area that is unsafe for searchers, there are no concrete plans for recovery. The accident will be covered by The American Alpine Club in the 2014 edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, which will be released later this year, but no new evidence is expected to come to light.
Liberty Ridge claims 25 percent of all climbers who die on Mount Rainier; photo: eddie sedlin
During the following months, the questions gradually grew more abstract. “My son wants to climb Rainier,” my dermatologist confided. “Should I let him?”
I explained as best I could. In the city, we make safety decisions on behalf of the individual: How fast it is safe to drive on each road, whether to wear a seat belt, which substances are safe to put in our bodies and why. Machines have safety mechanisms, vaccinations are regulated, guns are controlled. We weigh aggregate risks against aggregate rewards, which inarguably creates a safer society. But very few of us know how it feels to be the only hand holding the rope that protects us against the fall.
Climbers like to talk about assessing and mitigating risk. Interacting intimately with risk is part of the appeal of operating in the mountains: When you are face-to-face with the potential perils and personal rewards of each action, there is no room for complacency. In the mountains, we put ourselves in some degree of danger—but we also feel alive. We breathe in the sunrise; we use our bodies to their fullest extent. We communicate precisely and with intention. When I watch climbers lace their feet into plastic boots, adjust their crampons and take the first trembling step onto a ladder that is laid across a crevasse, I believe that I know what they are thinking: Is this risk worth the reward?
That answer varies. Some climbers summit; others turn back to camp. Regardless of what happens in the alpine, though, climbers are all but guaranteed to return to sea level with a better understanding of their own personal risk-reward matrix.
When people ask me about the accident, I shake my head and sigh. Six people chose to climb a mountain last year, I tell them, and they fell to their deaths. Six out of 10,000.
This May marks the anniversary of the accident. It is also the beginning of a new climbing season: Thousands will try to climb the mountain between now and September. Some will think about the accident; others will not. There have been no changes in regulations or routes, and both guided and unguided parties will attempt Liberty Ridge.
When I climb the mountain this summer, I will think about Mahaney, Marty, Kolb, Mullally, Hegeman and Green. I will call my mother after every climb, and I will triple-check every step in my safety system. I will think carefully about the risks I choose to take, both on the mountain and in my sea-level life. And before we make a summit bid, I will read my clients the words of René Daumal: “What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”