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Lost—Weather, Inadequate Equipment, Washington, Mount Rainier, Muir Snowfield

LOST-WEATHER, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT

Washington, Mount Rainier, Muir snowfield

On Sunday, September 16th at 6:00 p.m., Chris Stanko and Alex Mondau contacted a Park Ranger at Paradise and reported that their partner Phil Michael was overdue. The pair had just returned from Camp Muir earlier in the day. The party of three originally arrived at Camp Muir on September 14th. Michael and Mondau successfully climbed to the summit on the 15 th and returned to Camp Muir for the night. Michael was reportedly doing very well but took extra time visiting with climbers at Camp Muir. Stanko and Mondau told the ranger that they had separated from Michael at about 11:30 a.m. near Moon Rocks (8,900 feet) on the Muir Snowfield while descending in poor weather. So when Michael did not show up at Paradise by late in the day, Stanko and Mondau became concerned but were confident he’d come out on his own in the morning. They said that Michael was an experienced climber and international mountain guide who was very resourceful and skilled, and that he was carrying overnight equipment and food.

Monday, September 17th. When Michael did not return, Stanko and Mondau contacted a park ranger again and completed a lost person questionnaire. Climbing rangers were notified and hasty search teams were assembled. Three teams were sent into the field; two were assisted by Stanko and Mondau. These teams ascended in a search pattern from Paradise to the point last seen. Each team searched different areas on the descent. Throughout the day, the weather remained poor, visibility was limited, and there was rain mixed with snow. Searching revealed no clues, and Michael was not found. All search teams returned from the field at 7:00 p.m. They were sent home and asked to prepare for another day of searching.

Earlier in the afternoon a seemingly different incident developed. Chuck Cruise contacted the Park Service at 12:30 p.m. and reported that his fellow employee Michelle Delorenzo had not shown up for work that morning. She had left information with Cruise stating her plans were to go hiking at Mount Rainier with her friend “Brian.” This report was received at the Mount Rainier Communications Center. Park Rangers were notified, and they looked for a vehicle as described by Cruise. It turned out that Cruise had the wrong vehicle information so the correct vehicle wasn’t determined until later in the day. This made it difficult to ascertain whether Delorenzo and her friend Brian were actually in the park. Later Delorenzo’s registration was located and it was discovered that a person named Lance had registered the two of them (not Brian). Finally, the correct vehicle could be located, and it was indeed in the Paradise lot. The connection was not made until late in the day. The Park would be searching for three people from two separate parties the next day.

Tuesday, September 18th. The Incident Command Team met at 6:00 am and briefed the search teams for a second day of searching. Eight ground teams were given assignments and a helicopter was put on standby (at the time, the weather was poor but forecast to improve). While the search teams were en route to their respective search zones, one team located Michael, Delorenzo, and Lance. They were found near Panorama Point at about 7,000 feet and descending toward Paradise. They were in good shape, without injury, and able to walk out on their own.

Analysis

After separating from Stanko and Mondau, Michael heard people calling for help to the west. Michael started in the direction of the calls and in a short time found Delorenzo and Lance. At the time, the visibility was very poor with fog and rain, leaving anybody without shelter very exposed and wet. Delorenzo and Lance hadn’t made it very far before they became lost on the Muir Snowfield. Michael found them both cold, wet, and without a tent. (They had spent the previous night in the Muir public shelter).

Delorenzo noted that the boot track down from Camp Muir was very difficult to follow. The upper Muir Snowfield was actually hard, dirty ice, which did not allow for fresh boot prints, as is also the case with soft snow. Rain and the high humidity associated with the fog caused any tracks to melt very quickly. After a few hours of trying to find the trail, the pair realized they were lost and in a precarious situation. That was when Michael arrived.

Michael attempted to lead the group back to the primary descent route, but the weather continued to deteriorate, and he too was unable to locate the footpath. As the conditions worsened, it became apparent that the trio would not be able to get out, or back to Camp Muir that night. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Michael put up his tarp and made the best arrangements possible to keep them warm and provide water. The group spent two nights under this tarp and in Michael’s care while waiting for a break in the weather. The break came on Tuesday morning. With a break in the fog and clouds, Michael was able to ascertain their position, which allowed the trio to promptly descend.

It’s important to note that Michael’s skill, preparedness, and personal effort probably saved the lives of Delorenzo and Lance. This incident highlights the fact that even the most experienced mountaineers can get caught off guard in a seemingly benign situation. There is nothing very technical about descending the Muir Snowfield, yet incidents here are relatively frequent. In low visibility, knowing your position and direction of travel will make a significant difference in the remainder of your day.

Using a compass, map, altimeter, and GPS may have gotten them back on route in a short period of time. Without these tools, it’s hard to discern up from down in a whiteout. Exposure on the Muir Snowfield can easily make a person hypothermic in a very short period of time: part of the reason that the Muir Snowfield claims more lives than any place on Mount Rainier. The importance of staying together as a group is also highlighted—especially when gear and tools are divided among group members.

An additional factor in this case is that incorrect information on trip plans led to the delay in rescue efforts for Delorenzo and Lance. (Source: Mike Gauthier, Climbing Ranger)

(Editor’s Note: When guiding on Mount Rainier in the early 60’s, I kept a piece of paper with the compass bearing from Camp Muir to Paradise in my pocket. On my third guided climb, I needed it to negotiate a whiteout from Camp Muir while descending with three clients.

It is good to see so few incidents from Mount Rainier again this year. Readers are reminded to check out www.mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.com for up to date information.)