Mount Rainier – further analysis of the tragedy and rescue – three saved, four still missing

by Bruce A. Smith 

Three weeks after Mount Rainier’s epic snow storm of January 14-22, personal testimonies from the survivors – principally Josephine Johnson and Jim Dickman, two snow shoers serendipitously rescued as part of the search for a third snow shoer, Yong Chun Kim – are co-mingling with facts from park officials to deliver a clearer picture of what happened during a storm that has left four climbers still missing on the Mountain.

 Remaining on the Mountain are snow campers Mark Vucich and Michele Trojanowski, and summit climbers Eric Yang and Seal Hee Jin.

 The last known whereabouts of the missing four has now been ascertained and released to the public.  Kevin Bacher, Mount Rainier Public Information Officer (PIO), told the Mountain News this week that both parties joined up on Friday, January 13 into one group as they ascended the Mountain.

 Bacher said they met a “patrolling ranger” just below a ridge in the Paradise area known as Panorama Point.  At this point they were perhaps a 1,000 feet higher in elevation from the Paradise Inn and about a couple miles uphill from the parking lot.

 Mr. Bacher said that this ranger was an “intern” hired by the park’s climbing program specifically to talk to people heading higher up on the Mountain.  In effect, this ranger was acting like a gatekeeper, and had the position title of “Preventative Search and Rescue” ranger, with the job of alerting climbers to the hazards that awaited them and endeavoring to prevent a search and rescue operation after-the-fact.

 Exactly what the ranger said to the four is unknown, but Bacher said that typically the staffer would review the climbers’ plans, destination and equipment, and share the current weather and avalanche forecasts as prepared by the National Weather Service for Mt Rainier, which are very detailed.  In fact, they include separate and specific forecasts for the summit, Camp Muir, Paradise and Longmire and cover wind speeds, direction and temperatures along with precipitation.

 (To see the current NWS forecasts for Mount Rainier:  http://www.atmos.washington.edu/data/rainier_report.html)

 What is known is that Michele Trojanowski took a picture of the climbing group with the ranger, Bacher said.

 After this encounter, the group of four continued up the trail from Panorama Point to an area known as Pebble Creek, at the lower edges of the Muir Snowfield.  There, they met a solo snow shoer descending the Mountain, who gave them additional information on conditions higher up, including recommendations on where to find naturally protected spots when the blizzard arrived the next day.

 Bacher said that Vucich and Trojanowski were very experienced mountaineers and had been on Mount Rainier “many times.”

 When asked if the storm exceeded the expectation of park officials or the forecasts they had been receiving, Bacher said no, explaining that they had anticipated a major winter storm and that’s what occurred.

 “We knew a big storm was coming in, but, maybe it did last a little longer than we had first anticipated,” he said, adding, “But, it’s not unusual for three of four snow storms to stack up into one huge storm.”

 However, it is not clear if this concern was distributed widely, as the parking lot at Paradise was busy on Saturday just prior to the arrival of the storm, with families and little kids heading to the sledding slopes and plenty of snow shoers gearing up for day hikes, including the group of sixteen relatively inexperienced snow shoers who headed up the Mountain with Mr. Kim.

 Two other highly experienced mountaineers, Jo Johnson of Lacey and her boyfriend Jim Dickman of Vancouver, WA, were also preparing to spend a day snow shoeing in the environs of Paradise.  However, within hours they would become enveloped in a massive blizzard and be trapped on the Mountain for three days and two nights, suviving only by building snow caves to protect them from the bitter wind and cold.

Jo Johnson and Jim Dickman, snow shoeing in the Paradise area the week prior to their ordeal on the Mountain. Picture courtesy of Jo Johnson.

 Jo describes their expertise as such:

 “I have been mountaineering for nearly twelve years while Jim, an avid outdoorsman, has taken up the sport with me the past nine months,” she told the Mountain News.  “Prior to that time, he had climbed Mt. Adams with his sister and brother-in-law as a teenager, over-nighting on the summit – which is no mean feat.  It was, however, his skills and experience in knowing how to build a snow cave that ultimately saved our lives.”

However, in terms of the conditions that they found at Paradise when they arrived, Jo says that it was a typical wintry day at Mount Rainier.

“It was a normal, overcast day and there were a few flakes in the air – but it was no big deal.”

 Further, Jo says that she regularly spends two-three days a month hiking and snow shoeing on Mount Rainer and had summited in 2010.

 In fact, the route she and Jim planned on that fateful Saturday – up to the Skyline Ridge and back down to Mazama Ridge and its “Fourth Crossing” to the Paradise Valley Loop Rd – they had traversed the prior weekend in three hours.

 “We had climbed the previous weekend with a friend, Jason Lorentz, who took these photos.”

 Jo said that she and Jim checked in with a climbing ranger named Bill Marsh prior to beginning their trek to get the latest on weather conditions.

 “I spoke with him by phone the day before and in person Saturday morning,” she said.

 Hearing about the approaching storm, Jo and Jim decided not to try for Camp Muir– a hike Jo had completed twenty times in 2010 in preparation for her summit climb, and one that Jo and Jim had completed together twice the prior year.

 However, since they weren’t spending an overnight they didn’t need to file a back-country permit; hence, they were not on any official park registry of being in the back-county.  

 Further, although Jo had actually texted her daughter that she would be in the mountains and had told several of my work mates, no one would know of their actual itinerary since it was in flux due to the changing weather conditions and their on-going conversations with park officials.

So, expecting an easy, uneventful day they joined the throng heading up the slopes from Paradise.

 They passed the Paradise Inn and headed into a large basin just beyond a rise that hides the hotel.  This is the Edith Creek drainage and is well-known for the charming stone bridge that crosses Edith Creek before its waters tumble over a precipice to the south and down into the Paradise Creek Valley, which is just below and to the east from the Inn.

 Heading northeast across the Edith Creek Basin, Jo and Jim came to a fork shortly after crossing Edith Creek and proceeded on the left fork, then crossed the basin below the basin wall and headed up the Golden Gate trail, a major trail that eventually joins the higher Skyline Trail, which in turn leads to the Skyline Ridge further to the northeast.

 As they neared the top of the Skyline Ridge they could still see the Inn.  However, Jo says that as soon as they crested the ridge line the visibility lessened. 

 “It was worse than I expected,” she said.

 The winds also intensified.  However, by now they had caught up to the Korean group led by Yong Chun Kim, who had preceded them up this trail network.

 “We thought they were tourists because they were moving so slowly.  Also, there was an REI tour bus in the Paradise parking lot, so we thought that maybe they had come to the Mountain that way.”

 Atop Skyline Ridge, Jo and Jim realized that conditions were quickly deteriorating and that the prudent decision would be to turn around right away.  They tried to convince the Korean group to also abandon their climb and return to Paradise; however, because of language difficulties they were not able to convince the Koreans to do so.  Adding to the communication barriers, Mr. Kim – the ultimate decision-maker for the group – was at the other end of the line of climbers.

 Inexplicably, the Koreans continued up the trail, towards Panorama Point.  What happened next is literally a blur as the blizzard roared in with its full fury.

 “In ten minutes we went from miserable to OH-MY-GOD,” said Jo.

 The winds blew Jo off her feet, and during this period Mr. Kim fell down the ridge and was separated from his group.

 Sweat and condensation froze around Jo’s balaclava, and the wind pushed it off her head.  The winds blew her contact lens dry, and reading a map was out of the question.  The ice pellets and snow flakes burst through the vents in their goggles, stinging their eyes and making it nearly impossible to read their GPS, which malfunctioned due to a scratch on the CD and was unable to send them vital terrain readings nor plot a path back to safety at Paradise.

 “We were able to load waypoints but there was no topographical readings available, “Jo said, adding,  “The GPS was purchased by Jim the night before at REI, and he has navigated many times before with GPS, both for his vehicle and on long motorcycle trips in Canada.”

 There was so much wind and snow that Jo and Jim couldn’t recognize a single landmark even though they had been to this exact same spot one week earlier.

 Quickly, they were completely engulfed in white-out conditions, and were unable to take a step in any direction without fear of plunging down a slope.

 In addition, it had gotten very cold and they were freezing.

 Within minutes, Jim decided that it was necessary to take decisive action – dig in and get out of the wind and cold.  

 It was 2 pm on Saturday, and they had only left Paradise a couple hours before.

 “I was really glad for my boyfriend,” said Jo.  “He brought a snow shovel.  He said, ‘If we don’t dig in now, we could die’ – well he didn’t say ‘die,’ but I knew what he meant.”

 Over the next two hours, Jim dug into a snow drift on Skyline Ridge, tunneling a “snow cave” that was about five feet long and had about three feet of head room, while Jo removed big chunks of hard snow he was shoveling out of the cave and formed them into a kind of a wind break around the entrance.

 “It was just big enough to crawl into,” said Jim.

 As for the Korean snowshoers, they returned safely to Paradise.  But how is unknown to Jo and Jim, and even PIO Kevin Bacher considers the group’s safe return a mystery.

 “I don’t know how they got back,” Bacher told the Mountain News.

 “I’d love to talk with them,” said Jo.  “I don’t know how they made it – was someone able to lead them back via radio, or did someone come up and guide them back?”

 Nevertheless, Jim and Jo spent the next fifteen hours in their snow cave on Skyline Ridge.  Alone.

 “It was very cold,” said Jim.  “We didn’t sleep at all that first night.”

 However, they did have many vital supplies.  They had a lot of food, including hard-boiled eggs, smoked and dried Teriyaki salmon jerky, and plenty of energy bars.  Yet, they had little water, as the four liters of water they had brought with them began to freeze, and by the second day was frozen solid.  Plus, they chose not to eat snow to conserve body heat.  As a result, they got very thirsty.

Further, they did not have a stove or any cooking gear to melt snow or the water in their bottles, which they tried unsuccessfully to thaw by sticking under their parkas.  Building a fire was problematic in the gale force winds.

 “We didn’t even consider a fire until we were building the second snow cave on Sunday night,” Jo said.  “Then, after Jim collected what wood he could, he realized the wood was too wet and that it probably would not catch; and we were both much too cold to stand around outside our snow cave to try and get one going.  We retreated inside the cave where it was not wise to start a fire even if we could.”

 Nor did they have sleeping bags, but Jo had packed two space blankets and Jim one, so they wrapped and huddled together to share their body warmth.

 They each wore five layers of clothing, which included wind pants and mountaineering jackets, along with two pairs of socks.  Jim had even brought along his summit jacket and they took turns wearing it the first night.  However, the down became very damp by the second night after nearly thirty hours of lying on the floor of the cave.

 Jim suffered mightily – his gloves froze and his feet froze, and by the second night his right foot swelled.

 “Not a good sign,” he admitted, and ultimately he received some frostbite on his hand, which is expected to heal.

Jim's frostbitten thumb. Fortunately, it is expected to heal. Picture courtesy of Jo Johnson.

 Jo and Jim both characterize the two nights and three days they spent on the Mountain as “surreal,” and still question themselves, “Did this really happen?”

 Yet, the internal grappling with their situation began immediately.

 “I felt absolutely stupid that the Mountain that I love so much – that I have climbed so many times with people I know and trust…I have lost a good friend on this Mountain….how could this happen?  I am always so well-prepared.  I over-pack, and always anticipate bad things happening.”

 Bad things were happening, yet all of their preparations saved them.

 “We survived because we were prepared,” said Jim.  “We are very strong physically. Jo is tiny, 5’1” – but she is very strong.  We had the right mind-set, and we had the right gear; although I will always carry a stove when I hike, now, even in the summer.”

 Jo, in particular, was mentally prepared to accept how harsh the Mountain can be.  A year ago, Jo’s good friend, Rob Planker from the “Alpine Experience” in Olympia, died of hypothermia on a January summiting attempt.  He became disoriented high up near Liberty Ridge, and apparently slid 2,000 feet to his death in a crevasse in the Carbon Glacier area.

 Also, Jo has befriended a woman mountaineer after the latter lost her husband when they got caught in a freak storm and died of hypothermia in a snow cave in June of 2008, while climbing together near Anvil Rock on the Muir Snowfields.

 Not surprisingly, Jo met her new friend while climbing on the Mountain. 

 Despite these weighty thoughts, Jim and Jo spoke very little as they lay in the snow cave.

 “I had to keep the fear at bay – the fear of death, the fear of the cold, the pain – I had to fight feeling the fear,” she said.

 Yet, the fear of death was pressing.

 “I saw it in her face,” said Jim, “and I guess she saw it in mine, too.”

 Yet, they didn’t talk about the obvious danger.

 “When we were building the snow cave I told Jo that ‘it will be cold, it will be unpleasant, but we will survive,’” said Jim.  “I had to stay positive.”

 The snow caves were also potentially suffocating, and every hour they had to ram one of their ski poles out the entrance to keep a bit of fresh air flowing in.

 Lying in the cave for all those dark, cold hours, Jim says he thought of his kids and family, and his friends – who didn’t know where he was or what was happening.

 “I wanted them to know,” he said, “I guess that’s what got us through.  It just wasn’t our time.”

 What they did talk about was creating a methodical, careful plan for survival.

 “We planned everything that we were going to do at first light to get back to safety,”Jo said.  “I would pack the packs, and pass them out to Jim – that kind of thing.  Jim calculated how much light we would have, and planned that we might have to stop at 2 pm the next afternoon to build another snow cave, which we had to do on the second night – and where we could go in the daylight with the time that we had.”

 Leaving at 7:30 am, they traveled miles on that second day, Sunday, January 15, seeking a return trail to Paradise.  According to their GPS readings for the entire trip – Saturday through Monday – they hiked a total of 10.5 miles and gained and lost 4,600 feet in elevation, and much of that was logged on the second day.  

 Still in a white-out with the blizzard raging, they descended off the Skyline Ridge and tried to find the Mazama Ridge directly to the south.  Yet, without any visual references, they followed the natural contours of the Skyline Ridge, which Mr. Kim and many other lost hikers have done, and ended up heading east into the Stevens Creek drainage, which is one canyon further away from Paradise.

 In fact, in eerily similar circumstances, Dr. Brian Grobois, a solo snow shoer, died of hypothermia in this same area December 13, 2011, and is thought to have made the same kind of miscalculations.

 As Jim and Jo slogged through the Stevens Creek canyon, they encountered daunting and dangerous conditions.  The creek is substantial, “more like a river,” Jim says, and the canyon became a treacherous gorge, filled with roaring waters.

 The river flowed under the ice and snow of the gorge, making the surface unstable, and Jim and Jo frequently fell through soft spots or water holes.  In one, Jo lost a snowshoe, and afterwards had to wade through the three feet of new snow that had fallen since Saturday, frequently sinking up to her waist with each step.

 She became exhausted.

 By mid-day Sunday, January 15, they determined that the gorge offered no avenue to safety and that they would have to retrace their steps.  They turned around and began looking for an alternative way up the step sides of the surrounding ridgelines.

 Hiking was slow, as the white-conditions did not allow them to perceive any variations in terrain.  They encountered numerous ups and downs, troughs and drop-offs, and Jo only had one snow shoe.

 Still in the basin of the Stevens Creek drainage area at 2 pm, they then built a second snow cave to provide shelter from the still-howling blizzard.

 Unbeknownst to them, Mr. Kim was apparently following them, but no one saw the other.

 During the next set of fifteen hours in this second snow cave, Jo and Jim slept fitfully.

 “I guess we were just so exhausted we finally got some sleep,” Jim said.

 When awake amd lying in the darkness, Jim and Jo planned their stratgy for the next morning.

“It was so dark and so quiet – we couldn’t hear a thing – not even the wind,” said Jo.  “I was extremely cold – I hated it.”

 They took turns warming each other.

 “I sat on Jay’s feet the second night while he allowed me to stuff my feet up inside his jacket.  I also had stuffed my feet into a polar-fleece-lined stuff bag,” said Jo.

 They also prepared themselves mentally and psychologically. Jo said that she constantly envisioned being down at Paradise and sitting in Jim’s pick-up with the engine running and the heater blasting – “with the seat heaters on!”

 As morning approached, they ate in the dark and prepared to leave.  Jo packed the personal items and Jim collected the gear outside.

 Again at 7:30 am, on Monday January 16 – in a bit of a break in the weather – Jim and Jo left their second cave.  Walking got the blood circulating and warmth returned to their feet.

 “It felt good – it just felt good to be on the move,” said Jo.

 Walking gingerly, they ascended the steep, eastern slope of the Mazama Ridge.  Fearing an avalanche at any moment, they walked as lightly as possible and spoke very little.

 “As we approached the cornice, I was even breathing lightly, hoping the snow wouldn’t just let go,” said Jo.

 Walking with such care, the last pitch took two hours to climb.

 But by late morning they made it to the crest of Mazama Ridge, in a section known as the Van Trump Monument area.

 “Thank You, God,”Jo whispered softly.

 Then, looking downhill to the west about one-hundred feet away, they saw groups of people on skis.

 “Look, Babe – there’s people,” exclaimed Jim.

 But, Jo couldn’t discern that were rescuers because of the poor visibility and her inability to discern any rescue gear or if they were wearing large packs, as would be expected in a rescue operation.

 Apparently Jim and Jo didn’t necessarily look like they needed rescuing, either, as the nearest group on skis seemed to ignore them.  Nevertheless, Jo grabbed her emergency whistle and started blowing “three-long, two-short, three-long,” which in Morse Code is actually O-I-O and not S-O-S, but the skiers got the idea and came over.

 “It was a relief; an absolute relief,” said Jo.

 The rescuers were shocked by what they discovered.

 First, they didn’t know that any other snowshoers beside Yong Chun Kim were lost.  Secondly, they were shocked that Jim and Jo had survived for three days and two nights, living in snow caves.

 They were further surprised to learn that Jim and Jo weren’t hungry and actually were carrying out half their food – 3 eggs, two half sandwiches, ten energy bars, and some strips of salmon.

 “We also had a half-dozen peanut butter Rice Krispee® treats we had made the week before for our previous snow shoe adventure,” Jo announced proudly.

 But they were thirsty, and the tea the rescuers provided on the way back to Paradise was memorable, as was the loan of a fresh – and dry – pair of woolen mittens for Jim, whose thumb was frostbitten.

 Later, Jim and Jo learned that Mr. Kim was found about one-quarter mile from their second snow cave, and that he had been following their tracks down the Stevens Creek drainage.

 Apparently, he had yet to learn of the impossibility of successfully descending via that route.

 As surreal as this ordeal was, the return home was just as mind-boggling.  Jo had eighteen inches of snow awaiting her on Wednesday morning and an eventual loss of electrical power.

 But, knowing she had natural gas hot water she drew herself a bubble bath.  Soaking in the dark and warmth, Jo donned her headlamp from her pack, dunked herself fully into the tub’s luxury and “laughed manically!”

 Reflecting upon their experience, Jim and Jo both praise the rangers and volunteers who rescued them, especially “Lee,” who guided them off the Mountain, and even loaded their gear into that pick-up truck with the envisioned warm seats.

 Notably, in the vast wash of emotions mixed in with the dash to safety, neither Jim nor Jo can remember Lee’s last name.

 As further proof of the depth of feelings engendered by these events, Lee had tears in his eyes when he shook Jim’s hand “goodbye.”  Jim, too, acknowledges that he “lost it” later when he called into work and said he wouldn’t be in the next day.

 Knowing that she has warmth and safety, Jo says her thoughts go to the four that are still on the Mountain.

Jo and Jim at Camp Muir, summer, 2011

 “I wonder what they did, what happened,” says Jo.

 Also, she courageously discusses her moments of despair on the Mountain, those minutes when she wished that the cold would steal her mind and the pain would slip away, the salve of hypothermia.

 Despite the grueling ordeal of Jo and Jim, and the projected difficulties that those higher on the Mountain would have endured, Kevin Bacher valiantly maintains hope for the four overdues.

 Lastly, Jo says she knows that the families of the four are craving any news, any understanding of what their loved ones encountered during this storm, and perhaps this account can provide some measure of relief.

 ©  2012  The Mountain News-WA

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12 Responses to Mount Rainier – further analysis of the tragedy and rescue – three saved, four still missing

  1. Some readers say that they are unable to leave a comment. If that is happening to you, perhaps you could leave a “reply” to this comment, and we can bypass whatever glitch is making your commentary go poof.

  2. Paula Morris says:

    What an exciting story of a harrowing experience! My hope is that the four lost on the mountain will have such a happy ending. Good work Bruce!

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Thanks, Paula. I agree – what a magical and wonderful story the four would have if they were to appear tomorrow, waving their arms at a chopper or ranger on skis.

      Bruce

  3. gkcclc says:

    Wow! What a story of survival. Again we realize how important it is to be respectful of the mountains.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Thanks, Carol, and your words are all the more sweeter knowing that not only did you work on the Mountain a few years back, you hiked to the summit one fine morn’ a couple summers back.

      Bruce

  4. My blessings to those who survived and made it out. Your article is excellent. I have great sympathy to the families of those who apparently did not make it. Thank you.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Thanks, Bettye. I appreciate your kind words.

      The experience of the missing four is a testament to personal experience. So too, the families. So different, yet, so intimately connected.

      Bruce

  5. Paul Crosetto says:

    Excellent article coverage of a very difficult survival. Thankfully, their good preplanning probably made the survival successful.

  6. Lorraine from Atlanta says:

    Many thanks to Jo and Jim for sharing their story. As a friend of MIchelle’s, it was in fact comforting to read this account. God bless you both.

  7. Josephine Johnson says:

    Michelle,

    It was always my hope that everyone would return from the Mountain. I am so sorry that Michelle and her partner did not show up on Mazama Ridge to the shock and amazement of everyone, as Jay and I did. Please know that a day does not go by when I do not think of her and the other three still missing on the slopes of Rainier. I am glad our story was of some comfort to you. That was my hope. May peace be with all who knew Michelle . . . the mountain, even though a “beast” that weekend . . . is still a beautiful wonder to me and I hope that its arms, although cold, may have embraced Michelle in love these past weeks.

    My Best Wishes to you and all who knew her . . .

    Jo

  8. Joleen says:

    I love the content you have written on this information. I have to agree with you on nearly every point you make. I?m glad you made this interesting. You\\\’ve made me think more than usual.

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