STRANDED, INADEQUATE FOOD and FUEL
Washington, Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge
On June 15, two climbers called on a cell phone to the White River Ranger Station to report that they were pinned down in bad weather on Liberty Cap. Mike Catlett and Don Willcox had successfully climbed Liberty Ridge under favorable weather conditions but were caught in a lenticular cloud once they reached the summit. Unable to find the descent route due to reduced visibility, high winds and accumulating snow, the climbers decided to set up camp and wait out the bad weather. They also indicated that they were low on food, fuel and water and expressed concern about their situation but did not indicate the need for rescue or help.
Conditions remained poor on the upper mountain for the next 24 hours. The party again called White River Ranger Station on June 16 to report that they were out of food and nearly out of fuel. They felt the situation was not urgent, however they believed that they would not be ambulatory if they had to go another day in similar conditions. The weather forecast called for continued high winds and cloudy conditions for the next two days.
On June 17, a ground team was sent to Camp Schurman to attempt a climb of the Emmons glacier in hopes of reaching the stranded climbers. This team reported steady 50 mph winds with gusts to 75 mph at Camp Schurman (9,500 feet). Later that day, another team of rangers on helicopter standby was able to fly to Liberty Cap during a brief weather window. A “drop bag” containing emergency supplies was prepared for jettison to the climbers, but extreme winds prevented the helicopter from nearing them and the mission was aborted.
No communication was established with the climbers after June 17 and on June 18 the ground team reported a break in the weather. The helicopter was launched again and successfully inserted four rangers on the saddle between Liberty Cap and the true summit where they hiked to Catlett and Willcox and assisted them back to the landing zone for pickup. Catlett and Willcox were then flown to Madigan Army hospital where they were treated for severe dehydration and evaluated for possible renal complications.
Catlett and Willcox became pinned down on the summit due to deteriorating weather. They felt that traveling on an unknown route over glaciers during whiteout conditions might endanger them more and they elected to dig in. Although there were brief periods of clear weather, it was felt that there was no substantial weather window to allow the party to break camp and safely get to a better location. This continued bad weather prevented movement and under recommendation from park personnel, the party stayed put.
Its common for Liberty Ridge climbing parties to carry-over the summit and descend an alternate route. This requires carrying heavy packs up the route and climbers are tempted to pack just enough food and fuel for the proposed length of their trip. Inclement weather can spell disaster for a party that is committed to the route. It is especially important for climbers ascending remote and harder routes on Rainier to carry additional food and fuel for possible storm-bound days.
This also applies to ascents on standard routes. It’s worth noting that weather conditions worsened shortly after the rescue, and the mountain experienced extreme winds and cloudy weather for the next four days. (Source: Mike Gauthier, SAR Ranger, Mount Rainier National Park)