Washington, Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge
Luke Casady and Ansel Vizcaya (both 29) departed White River Campground on Friday June 11 for a planned ascent of Liberty Ridge. The exact details of the subsequent 48 hours may never be known, but the facts uncovered during the subsequent search, body recoveries, and ensuing investigation suggest the following:
Casady and Vizcaya, experienced climbers, camped along Curtis Ridge on Friday and began the ascent up Liberty Ridge early Saturday morning. It is likely the pair climbed past Thumb Rock, around and continued up the ridge as the first signs of incoming weather appeared. With the winds building and the visibility decreasing the climbers continued pushing forward. By early evening, the reports at Camp Muir included significantly higher winds and heavy snowfall. Casady and Vizcaya were somewhere high on Liberty Ridge, and probably realized that they would have to hunker down and wait out the storm.
Through the night, winds hammered the mountain, blowing snow from some areas while building large slabs in others. This was an uncomfortable night for climbers everywhere on Mount Rainier. Heavy snowfall and high winds destroyed several tents at Camp Muir.
By Sunday morning several inches of snow had fallen, but more importantly, the high winds had deposited large amounts of snow on leeward slopes. Casady and Vizcaya were probably camped between 12,900 feet and 13,500 feet above the Black Pyramid. Sometime during that night or the next day, Casady and Vizcaya were caught in a large avalanche. The avalanche probably released several hundred feet above them but below Liberty Cap. The avalanche most likely encompassed them and the entire upper route; everything was pushed down the 4,000 foot Liberty Wall to the Carbon Glacier. Neither climber could have survived the fall.
It took many reconnaissance flights over several days to locate the bodies.
Casady and Vizcaya were found in their climbing harnesses but unroped. The rope found had no knots in it. Their packs were largely packed, yet the pair had their parkas on. It appeared as though they were either still in camp, in the process of setting up or in the process of breaking camp when the avalanche occurred.
The fracture line noted on Liberty Wall was direct evidence of a large slab avalanche whose crown extended halfway to Ptarmigan Ridge, some 250 meters. The crown was only observed from the air, but appeared to vary in thickness from about 25-100cm. Whether or not this crown belonged to the avalanche that swept the climbers to their deaths is uncertain, as a smaller slide could have caught them. Large avalanches were occurring on the mountain following the Saturday night storm.
Other observations during the search indicated that large avalanches had run on other slopes in the general vicinity of Liberty and Ptarmigan Ridges. There had been no climbers on these slopes so it was concluded that most slides were naturally triggered events. It seems unlikely that there were any climbers above Casady and Vizcaya, yet this remains unknown. The climbers had indicated when they registered that they had avalanche transceivers with them though neither was wearing one. A transceiver, however, would have provided no protection from such an avalanche.
It is important to note that snowstorms and avalanches do occur on Mount Rainier in the summer. Climbers during all seasons should be prepared to assess avalanche issues. (Source: Mike Gauthier, SAR Ranger, Mount Rainier National Park)