American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fatigue, Exposure, Exceeding Abilities, Hypothermia, Slip or Fall on Snow, Washington, Mount Rainier

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1990


Washington, Mount Rainier

On May 8, 1989, Larry Duin (26), Peter Derdowski (26), Richard Mooney (31), and Steven Newell (27) left Ipsut Campground for a summit climb of Mount Rainier via Liberty Ridge with a planned ski descent via Emmons Col. Duin, Mooney, and Newell had considered the same route two years before but decided against it when weather reports discouraged them. This time Duin and Newell first planned to make the climb alone but later agreed to add Mooney and Derdowski, though only if the latter two were considered a self- sufficient party. Nonetheless, all four registered with park authorities listing Duin as the leader of a climbing party of four. They departed Ipsut together at 0900. Duin stated that the most technical part of the entire climb was encountered at two small waterfalls near Dick’s Creek back country camp. They reached the 2400-meter camp on Lower Curtis Ridge by 1830, where they ate and slept.

Departing 0830 on May 9, they left behind a tent with gear for the descent and headed for Liberty Ridge via the Carbon Glacier approach. They skied roped together all four on one rope. Near the beginning of the ridge, they donned crampons and ice axes and, as planned, continued from there as two parties of two: Duin and Newell out ahead, Mooney and Derdowski 15 minutes behind. They reached Thumb Rock near 3000 meters by 1500 in light snow. Duin and Newell set up their tent. Derdowski noted he had to “drag Rick” a little on the ascent. He and Mooney were encouraged to dig snow caves, first smaller ones, then a larger shelter, which was not finished until 2000.

Next morning was cold with wind SW at 15-25 kph. When Derdowski asked if he and Mooney could borrow some “spare” water, it was learned the two had not eaten supper the night before or had any breakfast. Nor had they melted any water. Since they still seemed to have plenty of energy and said they could continue the climb, they were given a bottle of water, and the two parties resumed the ascent, gradually separating by about an hour.

When Duin and Newell reached the “Boiler Plate” near Liberty Cap at 1400, they saw Derdowski give a thumbs up sign below them and noted that Mooney had tied his bunting jacket to his skis. That was the last visual sighting of the two. The wind had increased to 65 kph, inducing Duin and Newell to traverse off the route and bivouac below the ice cliffs. Though they felt their tracks led clearly off the route, Duin made two trips back to look for Derdowski and Mooney. They did not appear. By 1700, it was assumed the two had either bivouacked on their own or continued to the top and descended Emmons as planned.

Duin and Newell departed their bivouac at 0830 on May 11 and ascended no more than a half hour when the found Mooney’s body rigid in the snow, still with his pack on and his bunting jacket tied to his skis. Derdowski’s pack was left there as well. Tracks appeared to lead to the Summit Saddle at 4150 meters, where they were lost in a search of the immediate area. They concluded Derdowski must have thought the lead party was ahead on the Emmons Glacier descent and that he had gone down that way in an effort to catch them at a lower elevation. They saw no sign of him on the descent, however, and upon reaching Ipsut Campground reported the death and missing climber to park rangers.

The resulting search and recovery, often in extreme conditions, lasted from May 11 thorugh May 14 and involved 30 mountain rescue volunteers, 25 park service personnel, two search dogs, and three helicopters. Derdowski’s body was found at the base of Liberty Wall at 2865 meters, below an apparent fall line of nearly 1500 meters. Autopsy indicated Derdowski died of blunt trauma to the head and torso and Mooney of hypothermia. (Source: Compiled from reports of Larry Duin and Stephen Newell; Edward Wilson, John Wilcox, and William Larson, Mount Rainier National Park; and Paul Williams, Seattle Mountain Rescue)


We can all be reminded of three old lessons that come to mind with this incident. First, assumptions can lead to serious consequences. Duin and Newell noted they were apprehensive about allowing Mooney and Derdowski to join the climb. The confusion over roles and responsibilities may have contributed to fatal decisions. Second, lack of food and water still invites hypothermia, especially at altitude. Third, there’s nothing wrong in turning back. Failure to do so can place a lot of other people at risk. (Source: Erik Hansen)

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