by Bruce A. Smith
As the search for four overdue hikers at Mount Rainier winds down after nearly two weeks of combing the slopes above Paradise, park spokesperson Kevin Bacher gave the Mountain News a comprehensive analysis of the rescue operations.
Mr. Bacher said that the four – in two parties of two – ascended the Mountain on Friday, January 13 under conditions that were deceptively – and dangerously – benign. Bacher said that the Paradise area had received very little snow in early January, and that what had fallen – estimated to be about 5 and a half feet – was mostly compacted into a hard surface by the time the hikers left Paradise, thus allowing both parties to head up the Mountain without snow shoes or skis.
“If it had been a normal winter, they wouldn’t have been able to get very far without sinking down into the snow,” said Bacher. “As a result, they may have gotten into bigger trouble than they had anticipated.”
The two groups of climbers have been missing since mid-January. One pair had been seeking to summit the Mountain via the Disappointment Cleaver route, Eric Yang, 52, of Springfield, Oregon and a South Korean national, Seal Hee Jin, also 52, were due back at Paradise on Monday, January 16.
In addition, Mark Vucich, 37, of San Diego and Michelle Trojanowski, 30, of Atlanta Georgia, were scheduled to descend the Mountain on Sunday, January 15 after camping overnight at 10,000 feet in the Muir Snowfields.
However, the relatively gentle weather of early January changed dramatically on Saturday, January 14, with the arrival of what was to be a series of blizzards that roared across the slopes of Mount Rainier for the next ten days, ultimately depositing between 10-15 feet of snow, with drifts up to 50-feet deep in places.
The first storm, on that Saturday, put a number of hikers into jeopardy besides the four who remain overdue, including the snow-shoer Yung Chun Kim, who was famously lost for the next three days until found on Monday, January 16, by elements of the massive, 90-person search effort.
Kim had been leading a party of eighteen members of a Tacoma mountaineering club above Paradise when he fell down a slope and could not climb back up. As he tried to snow shoe around the hill and ridge, he became separated from the group and spent the next two nights in a snow shelter under a tree a mile away, awaiting rescuers.
The rangers who found Mr. Kim on January 16 also discovered – surprisingly nearby – another snow-shoeing couple stranded for three days, Josephine Johnson and Jim Dickman.
The gripping story of Johnson’s and Dickman’s rescue is splendidly told by TNT reporter, Craig Hill, who shares their vivid account of how powerful the storm of Saturday became – conditions so fierce that the snow pellets were able to penetrate the vents in their goggles and sting their faces – thus rendering their GPS device unreadable.
This storm also enveloped Vucich, Trojanowski, Yang and Jin, apparently, raising the total number of hikers needing rescue to seven.
Initially, rescuers hoped the overdue four would dig-in and ride out the storm, as did Kim, Johnson and Dickman.
However, the massive amounts of snow deposited may have overwhelmed the best efforts of the four. Also, they may have been further up the Mountain and away from the primary search efforts.
Looking for technical details of the search, I asked Mr. Bacher how far up the Mountain did the searchers think the four went before the Saturday blizzard forced them to turn back or dig-in?
“There has been a lot of discussion by the search teams on that very subject,” Bacher said.
It is believed that the four had made some significant distance up the Mountain before they sought refuge – the question is, which group and how high up – and where was the other pair?
Bacher said that one group made contact with a climber coming down from Camp Muir and received current information on conditions on the upper slopes.
In addition, Bacher said that both parties had “multiple contacts” with backcountry rangers before heading off, including staff that handle permits. As a result, the four received updated storm forecasts, an appraisal of current and predicted avalanche conditions, and a review of their equipment.
Nevertheless, they headed off into conditions that would soon turn grave.
The answers to “why?” may never be known, and the park is clearly reluctant to prevent climbers who wish to proceed with their plans no matter how foolish or unprepared they may appear in hindsight.
“We don’t have any authority to prevent anyone from going out,” said Mr. Bacher. “It comes down to people making their own choices.”
Although Bacher acknowledged that there will be a full review of the incidents involving these two parties, he does not anticipate any changes to park policies, such as requiring climbers to have certain types of gear, either snow shoes or tracking devices.
Already, current policy stipulates that everyone who spends an overnight in the back country has to obtain a backcountry permit and go through a review process with a ranger.
“But we don’t have any kind of check-in/check-out process,” Bacher said, adding, “There is always a tension between the government controlling people’s behavior and personal freedom.”
However, Bacher said the park knew of the overdue status of the hikers relatively quickly on Monday, January 16.
“Our rangers check the cars in parking lot at Paradise every night and compare them to the backcountry permits,” Bacher said, adding that the families contacted the park quickly when their family members did not return home from the weekend.
“We weren’t overly concerned at first,” Bacher said. “The weather had gotten worse and we expected the hikers to dig-in and wait out the storm.”
As for tracking devices, Bacher said that he thinks the day is not far away when mountaineers will be able to rent GPS and other electronic gear in the same way they can now rent snow shoes and skis.
“Technology can give you an edge,” he said, but acknowledged that there are many limitations to technology, especially electronic gear.
“Technology only goes so far,” he said, itemizing the impediments that tracking devices may encounter – such as poor reception in canyons and ravines. The lack of cell phone reception at Paradise is well-known, but ironically, it improves as one ascends the Mountain and achieves a clearer line-of-sight with a cell phone tower outside the park.
“Cell phones are pretty good – especially at higher elevations – and we recommend climbers take their cell phone. But leave them turned-off until an emergency so the batteries remain charged,” Bacher advised.
However, Bacher stressed that cell phones are not a complete solution either, as the coordination between 911 operators and the park may be inadequate, such as a 911 dispatcher in Yakima who may not fully appreciate the circumstances of a climber asking for help in an area called “Paradise,” especially when they’re shouting above the howls of a 50-mph blizzard.
Nevertheless, GPS devices are currently available that can be activated by merely pushing a button, and the signal is then automatically routed through the 911 system directly to the park, Bacher said.
Although the technology is remarkable, Bacher said there is no substitute for time-tested mountaineering skills, such as packing proper gear, obtaining up-to-date information on weather and avalanche conditions, and giving a third party an accurate description of one’s hiking plans.
“You need good information, and you have to respect it,” he said.
As for the current search for the four overdues, Bacher announced: “The rescue operation is no longer active on a daily basis.”
The search had reached its height last Monday, January 23, with clear skies and full sunshine, and 40 members of elite search and rescue units – including climbing rangers from Olympic National Park, North Cascades, Denali in Alaska, and Mount Rainier – who went out in seven ground teams looking for the four overdues.
They were aided by three aircraft – a contract helicopter and a US Army Chinook, along with a fixed-wing craft from the Washington State Patrol that has a forward-mounted infra-red device for thermal imaging.
“The coordination between the ground teams and the aircraft was amazing,” said Bacher, who described scenarios where the ground teams located promising pieces of debris on a faraway slope and the helicopters swooping in to give a speedy read on the item, and ultimately, ruling it out.
Sadly, none of the search teams found any clues pertaining to the overdue hikers.
Nevertheless, the search did uncover equipment abandoned by other hikers long ago.
Currently, Bacher said that the search will continue when resources and weather conditions permit, a circumstance he described as an “extended, limited, continuous search.”
Bacher said that small patrols would make periodic surveys of certain areas, especially when winds clear snow away from spots where a hiker could have sought safety, and the searchers will carry telescoping poles for probing snow drifts and infra-red devices.
Bacher also said that rangers will be actively informing the public, passing out flyers explaining the incident that has happened, and asking visitors to be extra aware of camping gear or other clues that may turn up in the Paradise area.
Along those lines, Bacher said that the recreational facilities at Paradise are now fully open to the public, including both sledding runs of the Snowplay area.
However, families of the missing hikers are still on the Mountain, Bacher said, and he characterized that as “usual.”
“Family members come from out of town and stay in a local hotel,” Bacher described, saying that NPS staff are immediately assigned upon their arrival to act as liaisons for the families, facilitating their personal needs along with the assisting the exchange of search information.
However, no memorial services are planned for the missing hikers at this time. Bacher also said that any kind of commemoration would be completely the province of the individual families, and that the park is only involved in unusual incidents, such as the memorial plaque erected near the summit overlooking the crash site of a WW II Marine transport plane.
As for decorum regarding the likelihood that four bodies remain in the snows above Paradise, Bacher was circumspect.
“The reality is that something like this happens every couple of years. It is not unprecedented,” he said. “It’s just part of the nature of this place – there are ghosts out there.”
Bacher recounted that several climbers have fallen into crevasses and their bodies have never been found. However, he did acknowledge that most likely park rangers will find the bodies of the overdues in the spring.
“We try to be the ones to go out and find them before any visitor does,” he said.
Bacher also stated that 100 climbers had perished on the mountain in the past 113 years of the park, and an additional 275 have died in other kinds of incidents, such as traffic accidents and heart attacks.
As for grieving, Bacher said that the Korean Alpine Club of Seattle is acting as the liaison between the local Korean community and staff at Mount Rainier. In addition, the Korean consulate is also involved.
“There were about twenty members of the club at the Mountain on Saturday (January 28),” he said.
Bacher characterized the families of the missing climbers as more private and taciturn than many others, but such solemnity is normal in these kinds of dramatic incidents, he said. Further, no family members have made a public statement, but some have contacted the Mountain News and other media via Facebook and email, and have asked for privacy.
© 2012 Mountain News-WA