EXHAUSTION – POSSIBLE AMS OR HACE, FALL ON ICE/SNOW, WEATHER
Washington, Mount Rainier, Liberty Ridge
On June 12, Rob Plankers (50), Brad Clement (40), and Tanya Clement (48) departed White River for a summit attempt via the Liberty Ridge route. They were experienced climbers and were well equipped. On the last day of their ascent, Rob Plankers became exhausted, moderately hypothermic, and possibly frostbitten. Their slow ascent forced them to bivouac at 13,900 feet on a wide, windswept shoulder above the route, where they were exposed to high winds and drifting snow overnight. The following morning, Planker’s partners were unable to get him walking from their camp and were forced to leave him to seek assistance. They left him attached to a two-point mountaineering anchor with his sleeping bag, bivy sack, stove, and fuel. They contacted a ranger on Emmons Glacier at 5:00 p.m. that evening. Two teams of climbing rangers headed to his location, one team from Camp Schurman and the other from Camp Muir. One of the teams was forced to turn back at 12,100 feet due to high winds at 1:00 a.m. Members of the second team spent the night in a snow cave and resumed their efforts to reach the climber at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. A rescue team was inserted by Chinook helicopter (214th Airborne – Joint Base Ft. Lewis-McChord) and found some of Planker’s gear at the point where his partners left him, but were unable to find Planker. Air search revealed a 2,000-foot-long track leading down a 50-degree ice and snow-covered slope. The track indicated intermittent airborne periods and ended at an icefall below Liberty Wall. No signs of Planker were found during a thorough visual search of the slide area. Additional air resources were called in to assist, but the search was called off at 4:00 p.m. due to high winds. Limited visual searching by both ground and air teams continued throughout the season in case melting snow revealed additional clues.
Rob Planker had summited Mount Rainier five times prior to this attempt, so he had appropriate expectations for the length and difficulty of the climb. His current fitness, however, was reportedly a precipitating factor, as it led to a forced bivy high on the exposed shoulder of Liberty Cap. The party’s decision to bivy high on the route instead of “pushing through” resulted in additional exposure to the high winds and low temps, and may have also increased the likelihood of AMS or HACE further debilitating the climber.
The decision to leave Rob Planker alone while the Clements went for help may, at first glance, seem callous, but was likely the most appropriate decision for the team. The Clements (a married couple) were unfamiliar with the route and would have been climbing solo through glaciated terrain had they split up.
It’s possible that Planker tried to stand up, and in the process, yanked his anchor upwards and out prior to falling, as the anchor material was not found on scene by searchers.
The party’s decision to not take a communication device, while admirable in some sense, may have also increased the time required to get help. As it was, the NPS was already poised to initiate a search,which sped up the overall response, but sadly, to no avail. The lesson here is to bring a communication device - and to use it appropriately. (Source: Brian Hasebe – Park Ranger, The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA, and Mount Rainier News Releases)