PARTY SEPARATED – ILLNESS, POOR PLANNING AND LOGISTICS, MISCOMMUNICATION
Washington, Mount Rainier, Muir Snowfield Paradise Glacier
John Repka was last seen alive descending the Muir Snowfield on May 16 during a planned day climb with the group One Step At a Time (OSAT). Repka fell behind the main group because he was feeling ill, vomiting and moving slowly Near 9,000 feet, he turned around with other group members on their descent from Camp Muir. Repka followed the team but could not keep up. Near 8,000 feet in a whiteout, a member of the group warned Repka that he was heading too far west and possibly off route. That group continued to descend believing Repka was either behind them, or that he would be met by another part of the team still descending from Muir.
When the team regrouped in the parking lot and Repka had not arrived, they began communication with him over a two-way radio (which some members were using). Repka radioed that he was near Panorama Point, but he wasn’t certain. They lost contact with him after 5:30 p.m. In that conversation, Repka stated that he didn’t know his location. A climbing ranger and a volunteer were notified at Camp Muir, and they descended the snowfield attempting to locate him that night. They ran into zero visibility and eventually had to give up.
Teams composed of rangers, mountain rescue volunteers, guides and friends of John Repka searched intensely for the following eight days. Poor visibility, heavy precipitation, high winds, and hazardous terrain hampered their work. Helicopters and air scent dogs greatly aided search efforts during two days of clear weather. The primary search area was thoroughly covered, although a significant amount of new snow fell during the week. The active search was called off on day nine after no clues were found. Rangers remained on alert for potentially emerging clues as the snow melted throughout the summer.
In September during a routine maintenance helicopter flight, pilot Jess Hagerman spotted a body matching the clothing description of Repka in an icefall. It was located near 8,100 feet on the Paradise Glacier (very near where Corroone had fallen). Climbing rangers were flown to the site where they descended to the body and confirmed the observation. Repka was found in his bivy sac next to his ice ax, backpack and two way radio. He had died from exposure, not traumatic injuries, and his remains were flown off the mountain. Analysis
If one thing can be learned from this accident, it is to stay together and communicate when in teams, especially large ones where organization and management are problematic. Repka was part of a 50-plus person group that day. Somehow though, misunderstandings and assumptions led to his being left behind. The radio also provided a false security. Radios, cell phones, and other electronic devices are not substitutes for critical communication, navigation, and survival needs. (Source: Mike Gauthier, SAR Ranger, Mount Ranier National Park)