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Dropped Gear, Inadequate Fuel and Food, Weather, Dehydration, Exhaustion — Washington, Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge

DROPPED GEAR, INADEQUATE FUEL AND FOOD, WEATHER, DEHYDRATION, EXHAUSTION

Washington, Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge

A cell phone call late June 30 revealed that Mike Matelich and Larry Sverdrup were stranded on Liberty Ridge and in need of assistance after dropping one of their packs. The pack was lost while breaking camp from an unplanned bivouac above Thumb Rock. Unfortunately, the pack contained their ice screws, which the team felt were necessary to safely complete the route. Complicating matters, one member was having crampon troubles and the weather was deteriorating. Another forced bivy in a crevasse and a few broken cell phone calls later expressing their concern initiated a rescue.

A helicopter was dispatched that evening and inserted teams of rangers at the base of Liberty Ridge and Camp Schurman. A cloud cap prevented flights above 10,000 feet. It was hoped that one of the teams would climb the mountain and meet the stranded climbers on route, assisting them off the mountain. Whiteouts and high winds, however, thwarted rescue plans that night.

The weather the next day had cleared sufficiently allowing a US Army Reserve helicopter to land near the summit with an eight person rescue team. Climbing ranger Olson, Mountain Rescue volunteer Ellsworth and Rainier Mountaineering guides Rausch and T. Richards down-climbed the 55-degree slope beneath Liberty Cap to meet Matelich and Sverdrup. Rausch and T. Richards met the stationary team at 2:00 p.m. near 13,600 feet. Matelich and Sverdrup began climbing again that morning after receiving three ice screws from another passing team. They were, however, seriously dehydrated and exhausted, and their progress was extremely slow. With the assistance of the rescuers, the pair climbed the remainder of the route and were flown off the summit that evening.

Analysis

Matelich and Sverdrup were having a string of bad luck. Inattention to securing gear and a few broken and desperate sounding cell phone calls later led to a rescue. The team commented that they wished they had slept on it “before calling for a rescue... Cell phones make it all too easy to bail...” They also wished that they had brought more fuel with them to melt water. A few days in a snow cave without water also made self help much more difficult.

Liberty Ridge combined with bad weather pins down teams nearly every year on Mount Rainier. But on a similar yet more inspiring note, two climbers, off duty NOLS instructors, were ascending the Liberty Ridge route in May when they overcame another two-person team on the Carbon Glacier. The seasoned NOLS team noted that the slower moving climbers did not assist with trail breaking and also requested belays once on route. Despite the faster team’s urge to quickly finish the climb and get off the mountain, they instead elected to ascend with the pair assisting them along the way. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated significantly and what ensued were seven days of rationed survival in snow caves on the upper Liberty Ridge, summit and Disappointment Cleaver. The foursome combined resources and presevered, so perhaps a more tragic accident was prevented by such generosity. (Source: Mike Gauthier, SAR Ranger, Mount Ranier National Park)