By Bruce A. Smith
As the snow tapers off in our low-land locales, search and rescue teams are preparing for another series of operations at Paradise.
Two separate parties of two hikers are overdue from their climbs – one was a summit team that was due back at Paradise on Monday and the other party was camping in the snow at 10,000 feet near Camp Muir and was due back last Sunday.
Park officials say that both groups were well-prepared for their treks, including having the provisions necessary to dig-in and wait for conditions to improve before descending down the Mountain.
Nevertheless, concern for their safety grows and park officials are caught in a dilemma – is it safe enough to send search teams into a raging blizzard to ascertain their well-being?
Park spokesperson Patti Wold announced today that a search team of two ventured to Panorama Point, about a mile above Paradise, yesterday, Tuesday afternoon, to assess conditions in the area and look for any signs of the two overdue parties.
Wold said that travel was extremely difficult, and with several feet of fresh snow the exploratory team sunk down 2-3 feet with each step.
In addition, visibility was extremely limited, with winds gusting up to 100 mph. Causing further alarm, the tracks of the search team quickly filled in behind them as they negotiated through the deep snow.
Wold said that the incident command team, lead by Park Ranger Kelly Bush, is planning to send additional field teams up the Mountain once conditions become favorable.
“Efforts are currently focused on organizing a team of skilled skiers and climbers who have experience in negotiating the terrain to Camp Muir in difficult travel conditions,” she said, adding, “The team will be prepared to launch an extensive search once weather conditions improve.”
Wold also said that rescue plans include an aerial search by helicopter once flight conditions are favorable. However, weather forecasts indicate poor conditions through the near future.
Officials have to consider a broad spectrum of dangers. Although both parties are equipped for winter camping, there is concern with the delay in getting searchers into the field due to the risk associated with difficult travel conditions, severe weather, and extreme avalanche conditions. Paradise has received several feet of new snow in the past 24 hours, so avalanche conditions have gone from high to extreme overnight.
Ms. Wold also released details about the two overdue parties. The group planning to winter camp on the Muir Snowfield over the weekend was composed of Mark Vucich, 37, from San Diego, California, and Michelle Trojanowski, a 30 year-old woman from Atlanta, Georgia.
The names of the two climbers on a summit attempt via the Disappointment Cleaver route have not been released, Ms, Wold said.
Park officials re-iterated that they are not surprised that these climbers are overdue given the severe weather conditions over the past weekend. They encourage all mountaineers who face similar conditions to “stop moving, dig in and wait for better weather during severe weather and white-out conditions.”
Wold also said that there is a winter storm warning in effect through tonight, Wednesday, and the storm is predicted to bring a total accumulation of 24 – 42” of new snow to Paradise. In addition, the road to Paradise will remain closed to the public at Longmire today.
For more information on weather conditions visit the park weather webpage: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/weather.htm. For a look at current conditions at Paradise visit the Webcam webpage: http://www.nps.gov/mora/photosmultimedia/webcams.htm.
Note that the Camp Muir webcam is not maintained in winter.
© 2012 The Mountain News-WA