Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mountain Rescue at Mt. Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park has had more than its fair share of trouble this winter.  First the tragic shooting of a park ranger and then a huge storm system which resulted in seven missing people from four separate groups in one weekend.

The first person to be reported missing was a snowshoer who got separated from his group and ended up spending two nights out but was found alive and OK in a nearby canyon.  Search and rescue (SAR) groups from all over the state were called into help with this search.  By the time I went down to the park on Monday there were over 90 SAR personnel including nine from Seattle Mountain Rescue.

It was amazing that the snowshoer was found alive but it was just as amazing that during the search two additional lost hikers were found that had not been reported missing. They had been caught in the storm and spent two nights in a snow cave before hearing the whistles and calls of SAR personnel and being guided to safety.

Our satisfaction in finding three people is somewhat overshadowed that the fact that there are four additional overdue campers and climbers higher up on the mountain.  Weather conditions have make it very difficult to search for the missing people.  On Wednesday the Park requested a small team of strong and skilled skiers from SMR to join a small group of mountain guides.   We packed up and drove to the park in an SMR vehicle Tuesday night.  After a 6am briefing we followed the snow plow from the Longmire ranger station to the top of the road at Paradise.  It took us about four and half hours to climb the 5000ft up to Camp Muir at 10,100 ft.  It was raining at Paradise but most of the way up it was snowing sideways with winds around 30mph near camp Muir.  We highly suspected we would find someone or some sign of the people at camp Muir, but instead we found nothing.  After warming up in one of the shelters, most of us headed back down to Paradise.  Two of the mountain guides spent the night in the shelter at Camp Muir. During a short break in the weather yesterday morning they searched, but conditions didn't permit them to go far. The weather has also been too dangerous for any helicopter searches (Seattle Times article here).

If it is safe to do so, the search may continue this weekend but warm weather, wind, and additional snowfall has resulted in continuously high avalanche danger.

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