American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Poor Position, Ignored Obvious Potential for Avalanche, Washington, Mount Rainier, Ingraham Direct

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2011

AVALANCHE, POOR POSITION, IGNORED OBVIOUS POTENTIAL FOR AVALANCHE

Washington, Mount Rainier, Ingraham Direct

On the morning of June 5th at 0445, a large avalanche along the Ingraham Direct route was reported to NPS rangers by RMI guides on the Ingraham Glacier around 11,400 feet. Eleven people—a party of three Americans, a party of six Koreans, and two solo climbers, one of whom was a skier—were reported to have been involved in the avalanche. It was reported that five were still partially buried, five had been recovered, and one was still missing.

Rangers Glenn Kessler and Thomas Payne received the report at Camp Muir, whereupon Payne climbed to the scene while Kessler took the role of IC. When Ranger Payne arrived on scene, mountain guides and other members of the parties had recovered ten of the eleven involved climbers. Ranger Payne, along with guides from AAI, RMI, and IMG, assessed the injured climbers while plans were made for evacuation off the mountain.

Amazingly only three significant injuries resulted among the ten recovered climbers: a male (47) had been completely buried and lost consciousness, another male (62) complained of a knee injury, and another male (age unknown) had a facial laceration. The patient with the facial laceration was escorted to Camp Muir by a guide and later walked down to Paradise with the non-injured members of his party. Ranger Payne requested a helicopter evacuation for the remaining two patients. At 1218, a Chinook helicopter from Fort Lewis arrived on scene and evacuated the two injured climbers and remaining rescuers. The patients were taken directly to Madigan Hospital at Fort Lewis where they were treated for their injuries.

Due to remaining avalanche danger and the complex terrain above the slide, a ground search for the missing climber was deemed unsafe. A civilian MD530 helicopter was then used to conduct an aerial search of the slide path. Ranger Kessler boarded the civilian helicopter at Camp Muir and with the pilot and another observer conducted an aerial search. Gusty winds hampered the aircraft from getting close to the surface, but a midlevel search was completed, and provided no significant clues.

Over the next three days, rangers attempted to search for the missing climber. He had been the uppermost person on the route when the avalanche occurred. Stability and slope tests, however, indicated that the avalanche danger remained considerable to high at the elevation below the run-out of the avalanche and presumably at least that much above, thereby preventing rangers from safely accessing the debris area.

When the avalanche danger diminished to the point the area could be accessed with some degree of safety, rangers performed visual searches along with focused probing in likely catchment areas and debris build-up areas. No results were forthcoming.

Warm weather over the next couple of months caused melt-out of much of the debris, resulting in the surfacing of items lost in the avalanche. It is believed that all of these belonged to those who had survived the avalanche. Probe searching was completed around the areas where the melted-out items were located, but again, with no results.

Analysis

May and early June are often times of lingering unstable weather on Mount Rainier. However, it was exceptionally stormy during the early season. Storm after storm laid down layers of snow above 8,000 feet. With snowfall well above average and little time between storms for snow to settle, summit climbing of Mount Rainier was practically at a standstill due to avalanche danger. June 6th was one of the first days during this period to have a forecast for clear skies.

Having just climbed from Camp Muir to Ingraham Flats, the guided clients of RMI were learning about the potential avalanche danger. Their guides were explaining that they would be turning back due to this. Leaving the safety of Ingraham Flats was not a risk they would accept. It is likely that some of these clients saw the score of headlamps above them on the Ingraham Glacier Headwall and considered whether they had spent their money wisely on such tentative guides. Moments later, the slab avalanche ripped out and the debris came down to within a few hundred yards of Ingraham Flats.

The trigger of this avalanche is unknown, but it was likely a natural avalanche, as there was a great distance and elevation between the uppermost climber on-route and the crown. To choose to climb at a time when naturally triggered avalanches are possible is an even bigger error than to choose to climb when human-triggered avalanches are possible.

The one fatality that occurred was of a solo climber who was the highest on the route at the time. All the other injuries and burials that took place were of climbers lower in the run out zone, and this is possibly why many of them survived and were able to be found quickly by the guides nearby. The available rescue resources were tapped out dealing with searching, digging out those that survived and tending to the injured. By the time resources were freed up some 90 minutes later, the likelihood of finding the avalanche victim alive was less than ten percent.

There are many hazards on Mount Rainier, but there are only a few that climbers must take seriously enough to turn them around immediately. One of these is avalanche danger. On average, there are a dozen or so days during the typical climbing season where avalanche danger is so significant that it demands immediate action.

It is apparent that this avalanche would have resulted in more fatalities had there not been guides with avalanche safety training in the vicinity who acted rapidly. The fact that there were several parties on the upper mountain ignoring the obvious clues of avalanche danger speaks both to the goal orientation and level of commitment to achieve that goal that can blind-side climbers. Additionally, many independent climbers here lack avalanche knowledge and the mountaineering skills to manage the conditions. (Source: Edited from a report by Glenn Kessler, Climbing Ranger)

(Editor’s Note: According to The Seattle Times on June 9, 2010, Mark Wedeven, 27, from Olympia was the missing climber. He had climbed Mount Rainier numerous times. He was solo climbing at the time.)

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