Search teams battle snows 10-15 feet deep and drifts to 50-feet to find overdue climbers on Mount Rainier

by Bruce A. Smith 

Displaying a heroic devotion to duty under extraordinary winter conditions, search teams headed up the slopes above Paradise today, hoping to find a trace of two groups of overdue hikers, park spokesperson Patti Wold announced Sunday evening.

 Wold said that ground teams have been battling a week-long blizzard that has seen drifts up to 50-feet deep in the search area, with accumulations averaging 10-15 feet.

 In addition, rescuers have endured winds averaging between 30-60 mph, ice encrusted snow and white-out conditions.

 Nevertheless, Wold said that on Sunday, January 22, there was a small improvement in the week’s severe weather, which allowed ground teams to conduct visual searches of terrain previously obscured by weather.

 A US Army Reserve Chinook launched early in the day, but turned back due to limited visibility.  The helicopter remains on standby at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

 However, no sign of the missing parties has been detected to date.  Two separate parties are overdue – a pair of climbers who were attempting to summit last weekend, and a group of snow campers.  Both were due back at Paradise last weekend.

 The search effort will continue on Monday, said Wold, dependent on weather and avalanche conditions.  In the event a weather window materializes on Monday, the Chinook and a Washington State Patrol fixed-wing are prepared to respond and offer aerial reconnaissance.

 Wold indcated that the search teams are comprised of elite search and rescue mountaineers gathered from throughout the NPS system, including Mount Rainier and Denali National Park climbing rangers, personnel from the National Park Service Pacific-West Region along with members of the NPS Intermountain and Alaska regional units, and local guides from Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated and International Mountain Guides. 

 In addition, rescue teams from the Olympic, Tacoma, Everett and Seattle Mountain Rescue agencies are also contributing to search operations.

 Wold added that these searchers are highly skilled mountaineers who are familiar with mitigating avalanche danger in the area of the missing parties’ intended routes.

 There are two teams of overdue parties currently on the mountain.  A party of two, Mark Vucich, 37 of San Diego, CA and Michelle Trojanowski, 30, of Atlanta, GA, planning to winter camp on the Muir Snowfield over the weekend was due out on Sunday, January 15.  A second party of two climbers, Sork (Erik) Yang, 52, of Springfield, OR, and Seol Hee Jin, 52, from Korea, on a summit attempt via the Disappointment Cleaver route, was due back Monday, January 16th.

 Adding to their difficulties, neither party is believed to have carried snow shoes, skis or avalanche beacons.

 Weather forecasts in the search area call for snow, 5 – 10 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and winds up to 65 mph through Monday.

 ©   2012  Mountain News-WA

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3 Responses to Search teams battle snows 10-15 feet deep and drifts to 50-feet to find overdue climbers on Mount Rainier

  1. Don and Ange says:

    This is another fine article Bruce. The Mountain, for all its beauty, can exact a terrible wage. Truly our hearts go out to the dedicated searchers and the hikers and their friends and families.

  2. Jofannie Karla says:

    I’ve been following this story for a week, Bruce. These climbers started out knowing a severe weather system was coming and apparently tried to keep ahead of it by planning on returning on Sunday the 15th. They got caught by the uncertainties of mountain weather. BUT, how could they not have taken snowshoes or skis or beacons, etc. which would seem to be requisite gear for this time of the year for the locations they were gong to?
    We live 6 miles from the Park in Ashford at 2000 feet elevation. Even here, where we are so much lower than where they were going, the weather was difficult with 20″ of snow accumulated last week.

    Finally, we don’t understand why people are allowed to make these expeditions without proper gear.
    They put dozens of people at risk trying to locate them and who knows how many thousands of dollars. The very least these folks should have had with them was avalanche beacons and radios so they could aid in their rescue effort.
    I think the Park Service needs to re-examine their policies for winter mountaineering.

    • I agrre jofannie.

      I think the NPS will revise their standards for letting people go into the backcountry near Paradise in winter. If they require chains on cars they shoud at least require hikers to carry snow shoes and locator beacons, and other kinds of tracking devices. I think the park could rent out the electronics for a nominal charge.

      I truly wonder how far up the mountain these hikers could have gone. There was five feet of snow on the ground when they left Paradise, and if they were as well-equipemed as we have been told, then they were packing 60-pound loads at least, so they would have sunk in deeply, very quickly, once they left any kind of beaten track.

      For those who can’t stand governmental regulations and bureaucracy, there are plenty of other places to go in winter where one can get yourself really lost, such as the Tatoosh range across the valley. That place looks primal to me.

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