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Asphyxiation, Weather, Fatigue, Washington, Mount Rainier


Washington, Mount Rainier

Dr. John Weis and Donald Wiltberger, Northwest transplants from Ohio’s tabletop farmland, loved to climb mountains and showed that love up to their final moments on Mount Rainier’s steep peaks.

The Olympia men, both 31, were found dead on the mountain Saturday [June 6, 1987]. But they left behind a 30-minute videotape of their venture, explaining their love for climbing and their longing to share the euphoria of the adventure with family and friends.

The tape, recovered by searchers who found the bodies in a tent at the 4050 meter level, came from Weis’ portable videotape camera. Relatives said the two men had a habit of chronicling their climbs so they could preserve the sounds, sights and excitement.

Last night, the final videotape spun the story of the climb for Weis’ older brother, Bill, who replayed the footage as he sat quietly in the living room in his Queen Anne Hill condo. He watched his brother read passages of the 19th-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. It was the younger Weis’ way of giving the climb perspective.

Weis, a pathologist, and Wiltberger, a nurse at St. Peter’s Hospital in Olympia, were experienced climbers and were attempting Liberty Ridge.

They had tried twice before but had not been able to reach Rainier’s summit. The tape begins with Wiltberger stopping to view a picturesque waterfall on the morning of May 26, the first day’s climb. That night, Weis reads a passage from Nietzsche, and the men hold up photos of their children and talk about how they miss their wives. The next morning they continue their ascent under blue skies. They rave about the gorgeous views and bask in their camaraderie, and at one point Wiltberger tells Weis, “I think this is the prettiest thing I’ve ever experienced with you.” But by evening, when they’ve set up camp 600 meters up Liberty Ridge, the mood has changed. They are obviously very tired and their legs ache. Trudging through soft, deep snow with heavy packs has taken its toll.

We are very tired and I don’t think we’ll be able to reach the summit tomorrow,” Wiltberger says. “We’ve got plenty of food and supplies, and we may be forced to rest a day.”

The climbers spend the third day—May 28th—recuperating. At midday, Weis absently remarks, “My wife is working right now.”

While resting in their tent during that afternoon, Wiltberger estimates the pair have about 600 meters ahead of them. He looks at the camera and says, “We hope to be on the trail at 11 tonight and at Liberty Ridge at 10-ish tomorrow, God willing.”

But a ferocious windstorm assaults their tent and forces them to stay at their campsight until midnight.

They begin to climb in the darkness, seeing their path only by the light of their headlamps. By 10:30 A.M., they are able to look down and see their entire route. They are breathing hard and complain of icy footing.

There is no indication whether the climbers reached the summit. They were found at their campsight about 425 meters below the summit—in light clothing. One of them was in his sleeping bag. There were no signs of distress.

The Pierce County medical examiner says the men suffocated May 29—the fourth day of the climb—when a massive storm piled as much as a meter of snow on their tent. They may have died in their sleep, the coroner said.

The two—not only climbing partners but brothers-in-law, coworkcrs and longtime friends—were not found until more than a week later despite an intensive search by dozens of volunteers and park personnel. (Source: An article in the Seattle Times, June 9, 1987, by Richard Seven)

Editor’s Note: The 20-page report from the National Park Service chronicled the search and rescue efforts. One of the rescuers, in fact, had to be evacuated due to a case of acute mountain sickness.