FALL ON SNOW AND ROCK, BAD WEATHER, AND “UNKNOWN”
Washington, Mount Rainier
At noon on May 23, 1981, Bruce A. Mooney (20) and Douglas D. Fowler (21) checked out from the White River Ranger Station to climb Liberty Ridge. They hiked into their high camp at 7,400 feet on Curtis Ridge. About noon on May 24, Mooney and Fowler started up the Carbon Glacier toward Liberty Ridge in the rain. They were last seen alive by the McLean party about 4:00 p.m. on May 24, at about 9,400 feet on the Carbon Glacier near the base of Liberty Ridge.
Preliminary investigation leads me (Ranger Edward A. Wilson) to believe that while trying to ascend the upper Liberty Ridge, about 12,500 feet, one or both of them took a fall of approximately 2,000 feet (the reason for the fall is unknown).
At 12:20 p.m. on May 28, the two bodies were spotted from a helicopter approximately 10,000 feet up on the Liberty Wall. By 6:25 p.m., the bodies and the two NPS rescue team climbers were picked up from the Liberty Wall by a penetrator cable hanging from a Chinook helicopter.
The following is taken from statements made by Don Mooney and Gary Fowler, the victims’ fathers, and by the last people to see and talk to Mooney and Fowler.
Mooney was employed by Nurseries, Inc., in Tacoma and was described as a good worker. He was also described as young, healthy, in excellent condition and as being in a very good mood prior to leaving for the climb.
Fowler, also of Tacoma, was a junior at college and was having no trouble in school. He was also described as being in excellent physical and mental health.
The two young men had been climbing together for the past five or six years. Together, they had attempted Mount Rainier ten or twelve times and had made the top six or eight times. Along with Moonev’s father, they had been trained in mountaineering by The Mountaineers in 1975 or 1976. They had climbed many other peaks including Mount Adams, Glacier Peak, Mount Olympus (one month previously), and Voyageur Peak (three weeks prior to the accident). Fowler had run up to Camp Muir the week before for conditioning.
On May 22, the day before the trip, Fowler had gone to school and, in the evening, prepared gear for the trip. Mooney got off work about 2:30 p.m., went out Friday night and got home about midnight.
On May 23, both young men were described as in good spirits. They met at the Fowler home and left for Mount Rainier about 10:00 a.m. About noon on May 23 both young men were described as in good spirits. They met at the Fowler home and left for Mount Rainier about 10:00 a.m. About noon on May 23, they checked in at the White River Ranger Station with Park Technician James Springer. Springer informed them of the current weather forecast, which called for increasing clouds in the afternoon and at night; the forecast for the second day was mostly cloudy with a slight chance of showers and for the third day, mostly cloudy. Avalanche danger was low, below 8,000 feet. Mooney signed as the leader. Springer commented on their having planned a long day, leaving for high camp at Curtis Ridge at noon, and planning on doing the entire Liberty Ridge the following day. Mooney expressed his displeasure at having to fill out the climbing cards. Springer informed them that the cards were only to help climbers should the need arise and asked that the back of the card be completed. Mooney indicated his displeasure and drew a faint line through the equipment list on the back of the card; then the two quickly departed.
Mooney and Fowler parked their vehicle in the climbers’ lot at White River Campground and signed the trail register for Glacier Basin Trail. Their intended route was over St. Elmo pass and across the Winthrop Glacier, with a high camp at Curtis Ridge.
The information in the next two paragraphs comes from the Dr. George McLean and Cory Izett whom Wilson interviewed in person on May 28 and by telephone on May 31. On the night of May 23, Mooney and Fowler had their high camp about 7,400 feet on Curtis Ridge. The two climbing parties camped within 100 feet of each other and talked together, mostly about the route on Liberty Ridge and equipment. Mooney and Fowler had a bottle (believed to be a quart) of Jack Daniels whiskey and a bottle of Rainier beer cooling in the snow. The seal on the bottle was not broken that evening. It rained that night and the Mooney and Fowler party did not have a rain fly with them.
The morning of May 24 was clear and both parties took advantage of the lack of rain to dry equipment. About noon, the rain had started again and Mooney and Fowler dropped down to 7,100 feet to climb the Carbon Glacier; the McLean party followed them. The last conversation between the parties was on the Carbon Glacier. McLean party, “Did you leave us any booze?” Mooney party, “No, we’re taking it with us. See you at Thumb Rock.” The weather was unusually warm and it continued to rain. The heaviest concentrations of avalanches and rockfalls were heard that afternoon which caused the McLean party to turn around to again camp on Curtis Ridge. They watched Mooney and Fowler go up the Carbon Glacier to approximately 9,400 feet near the base of the Willis Wall. Although the McLean party watched for another two hours, they never saw Mooney and Fowler again. Both McLean and Izett felt it was too dangerous to try Liberty Ridge on the afternoon and evening of May 24.
A letter to the editor from Dr. McLean is excerpted below.
“We were camped next to the climbers at the 7,500-foot level on Curtis Ridge overlooking the Carbon Glacier on May 23. Both of our parties had made the approach from the White River Campground on that day. On Sunday, [May 24] the two Tacoma climbers broke camp around noon and began the ascent of the Carbon Glacier to the usual bivouac at Thumb Rock at 10,600 feet. The weather was warm—about 45–50°F—and wet snow avalanches were frequently heard rumbling off Willis Wall. We decided to wait for colder weather before making our attempt.
“We last saw the two climbers alive at the base of Liberty Ridge, approaching it from the east. As later events would show, they probably attained an altitude of 12,500 feet before the accident, but we never saw them on the ridge, probably due to the intermittent cloud cover.
“The next day, May 25, after an overnight rain which by morning had turned to snow, saw us starting out to Thumb Rock. We left camp at 1:00 p.m. in intermittent cloud and reached Thumb Rock about 6:00 p.m. After bivouacking in a snow cave, we started the climb on May 26 at 5:00 a.m., reaching Liberty Cap at 2:00 p.m. We followed the standard 1935 route, encountering some thin ice over névé about the 12,500–12,800 foot level. We then descended to Camp Schurman and then the next day to our camp on Curtis Ridge. We first learned the two other climbers were missing when we reached the White River Ranger Station on Thursday. Their return date was supposed to have been May 25.
“Cause of the fall will never be known for sure, but fresh snow over ice could have been a problem, rock or icefall, or fatigue. We ourselves found it necessary to move together on the ridge, since belays on most of the route were impossible.”
With the inclusion of this route in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America by Steve Roper and Allen Steck, its popularity has soared and probably will continue to do so. It is sustained, exposed, objectively hazardous and, in general, not a route to be attempted in marginal weather. Unfortunately, it will probably be a source of increasing numbers of future mishaps and tragedies as more climbers take up its challenge. (Source: Edward A. Wilson, Ranger, Mount Rainier National Park and Dr. George McLean)