by Bruce A. Smith
Update: 7 pm, Saturday, January 21, 2012
Concerns are increasing for the safety of two parties of overdue climbers on Mount Rainier. On Saturday, January 21, park spokesperson Patti Wold released the following information:
One group of two hikers, Mark Vucich, 37, of San Diego and Michelle Trojanowski, 30, of Atlanta, Georgia, were due back at Paradise last Sunday, January 15. They supposedly were camping in the snow fields surrounding Camp Muir, located above Paradise at 10,100 feet.
A second pair of climbers, Sork (Erik) Yang, 52, of Springfield, Oregon, and Seol Hee Jin, from Korea, were making a summit attempt via the traditional route of the Disappointment Cleaver, and were due out on Monday, January 16.
Ms. Wold said search teams explored the Muir Snowfield on Saturday morning, and other locations lower on the Mountain, such as Paradise Glacier, Alta Vista and the Upper Stevens Canyon. Reportedly, 26 mountaineers joined today’s efforts and were divvied into five teams. However, rescuers at Muir encountered 60+ mph winds, heavy snow and minimal visibility – conditions too severe for search operations at the higher elevations, which were abandoned by mid-day.
The afternoon search on Saturday focused on the lower areas in question; however traversing through the wilderness was exceptionally difficult – with deep snows encrusted with ice and winds topping 40 mph.
No sign of the overdue parties was reported.
A US Army Reserve Chinook helicopter, on stand-by at Joint Base Lewis McChord for days, has still not seen the weather conditions necessary for it to provide any reconnaissance from the air.
Concerns are growing as questions rise on how much food the overdue climbers may have carried into the backcountry.
Today’s search effort marks the biggest push yet to find the overdue hikers.
Earlier, Ms. Wold had said that two ground teams of searchers had left Paradise on Thursday to search for the missing hikers, and navigated the area between Paradise and Camp Muir. However, 40 mph winds and white-out conditions forced the rescuers back to safety at Paradise. Nevertheless, two searchers remained on a stand-by status at Camp Muir, and were joined on Friday morning by three other mountaineers coming up from Paradise.
However, Friday’s weather forced all five searchers back to Paradise during the day.
Wold said that no sign of either party was found at Camp Muir, which has a public shelter and a radio. The latter has reportedly been checked recently and found operational.
For days, officials have been optimistic that both pairs of climbers have stayed in place, dug in, and waited for the weather to clear.
However, when that may happen is becoming increasingly problematic. Sunset on Saturday brought sunshine in the Puget Sound area, including Eatonville, but Mount Rainier weather forecasts for next week are dire. Current announcements from the NPS call for unrelenting rain, sleet and snow from today through next Friday, with temperatures consistently at or below freezing, including single digits at Camp Muir, along with winds at that elevation varying between 40-55 mph.
Conditions will moderate somewhat at Paradise, with daily temps approaching 30 degrees or a little higher, and winds between 10-20 mph; further, snow levels will fluctuate between 3,000-5,500 feet throughout the week. Paradise is at approximately 5,000 feet, and Longmire is about 2,100.
For days, officials have characterized the overdue hikers as well-prepared and experienced in winter conditions. However, there is some doubt about both issues.
Late Saturday, Ms. Wold confirmed that neither party had snow shoes or skis. This information had been released earlier by TNT journalist Craig Hill and reported in his Thursday post.
Despite this troubling information, Mr. Hill also said that the search and rescue officials he had spoken with remained optimistic, saying that they told him: “We see this all the time – people digging in for six or seven days – and then coming out.”
In addition, Mr. Hill reported that the snow campers, Vucich and Trojanowski, did not have avalanche beacons listed on the gear list submitted to backcountry rangers before departing up the Mountain. Avalanche conditions on the Mountain have been varying from moderate to dangerous as the snow accumulates and temperatures fluctuate.
Families of the missing hikers are reportedly on site at the mountain, according to Facebook accounts. Friends of Mark Vucich’s camping partner, Michelle Trojanowski, have been in touch with the Mountain News via Facebook, seeking news and asking for prayers.
One friend, Sheila Howard, commented on The Mountain News-WA’s Facebbok page:
“Thank you. Michelle Trojanowski, the climber with Mark Vucich, goes to my church in Atlanta. We are all praying for her and Mark and the other two and hoping for good news. Is the weather better today for a helicopter and rescue teams? Thanks for replying. Both families are there now waiting and are also sending information back to friends who are emailing it out to many of us.”
The Mountain News has been off-line for the past 48 hours due to power outages caused by the storm. Our heartfelt thoughts go to the families of the missing hikers, and our profound gratitude and admiration to all the mountaineers answering the call of duty one more time. May the missing four have a toast soon with another miracle man from Mount Rainer, Mr. Yong Chun Kim, who was found safe and sound last Monday.
Addendum, noon, Sunday, January 22, 2012:
The Mountain News has just learned that the correct name of the missing snow camper is Mark Vucich.
© 2012 The Mountain News-WA