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Whittaker Says The Real Story Is The Rescue
Avalanches Happen All The Time; It Could Have Been Worse
Monday, June 15, 1998 — 2pm PST

Lou Whittaker
Lou Whittaker
Lou Whittaker is the co-owner of RMI and among the most well known American climbers. Like many climbers, he is surprised by the attention given this incident. In a conversation with The Mountain Zone, he said, "I'm amazed by the media's fascination with this. They make it sound like we have a death wish, but it's not so at all. I think there is a certain amount of enjoyment in a little risk, but we do things as safely as possible." Below are his thoughts on the avalanche that hit two RMI teams last week killing one climber.

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I was up on the rescue, and I helped carry down Pat [Nestler], the fellow who was killed. It was an excellent rescue. The coordination between the park rangers and guides was perfect, and the military helicopter did help us a great deal. We could have had a lot worse statistics if we had not had the coordination that we did get.

"We could have had a lot worse statistics if we had not had the coordination that we did get..."
I've been in three avalanches, I lost my best friend, Willi Unsoeld, an Everest climber, on Mount Rainier in an avalanche [March 4, 1979]. There have been avalanches and there will be more of them on Mount Rainier. It's got its own micro-climate, and anytime anybody walks up and down a mountain, they can kick loose stuff. All the people were kicking loose stuff, so the fact that this one guide [Taylor Forman, see story below] thinks he did it is really almost amusing to me because everyone was kicking stuff off. He's a brand new guide; I haven't talked to him yet about why he feels that he's responsible, but it's quite obvious that avalanche could have triggered a minute before or afterward and there is no fault found with the person that's climbing above. I've even had the press say 'how come somebody is climbing above or below, isn't that incorrect?' I had to laugh. I said, 'do you mean you think that we climb side by side up the mountain and back down the mountain, so that we are not under each other?' I think it's good if people would get up and do a little climbing, and then they would know exactly the situation.

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That was the first warm up for the whole year. Some people don't know that there was an icefall accident on the Kautz route, and we had a client with a broken leg that same day that we were in the throes of rescuing when that one kicked loose on the other side. The whole mountain was in a state of settling the first time for the whole summer. The two that are being rescued today on the other side are an independent party that are in hypothermia, and a ground team has just reached them. So the people are getting surprised some by the weather on the mountain.

We've had a real wet and cold spring up here and we're still looking forward to summer; it hasn't approached yet. We climb in all conditions and this is a five day school so we come down any time in the day or evening sometimes as late as four or five in the afternoon and still get off the mountain. It's light until 9:30 at night and then the moonlight comes out. On expeditions, we climb any time of the day or night. On a two day climb, we try to get the people back to the bunk house by five o'clock, so the climbs go earlier in the morning and have to hustle some. There has been that question, 'aren't they coming down late?' You're not coming down late on the mountain when you climb every day on the mountain; you do go up and down it at any time of the day. So, that is something I can clear up as well.

The day after this avalanche, we had three people cancel and 12 on the waiting list. We took 60 people out and had a great day of school and climbing. People are always going to want to go up.

Lou Whittaker, Mountaineer and Co-owner of RMI

Details of Avalanche Unfold
Saturday, June 13, 1998 — 3pm PST

Mount Rainier
(photo: Barry Gregg)
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported this morning that RMI guide Tyler Forman told the paper Thursday's avalanche "was triggered by my foot." He believes that when his foot slipped in the wet snow, it started the avalanche that knocked two other rope teams off their feet. RMI said they couldn't confirm any details today.

New information in the Seattle P-I suggests that nine people, not 12 as originally reported, were hit by the slide. RMI guide Curt Hewitt, 47, led three climbers on his rope: Kent Swanson, Gregg Swanson, and Deborah Lynn; and RMI guide Ruth Mahre, 25, led four: Allen Fedar, Patrick Nestler, Scott Pressman, and Nina Redman.

Both teams were carried down the steep slopes of Disappointment Cleaver. The Seattle P-I reports that when the avalanche was over, Hewitt's team, all injured, hung from the face of the Cleaver by a frayed climbing rope. Mahre had managed to stop herself with a self arrest while the fixed line the guides had put in earlier wrapped around a rock. She held the weight of Fedar and Nestler while Pressman and Redman hung off the fixed line.

Ranger Mike Gauthier, making a solo climb on the mountain, was on the summit when he heard about the avalanche that had struck minutes ago, said Rainier National Park Ranger Maria Gillett. "He'd intended to snowboard back down the Emmons Glacier where he'd come up from, but he turned on his radio, heard what had happened and snowboarded down to the site." He was there 20 minutes later, among the first on the scene, and led the rescue effort that involved guides, rangers, and volunteer search and rescue specialists who pulled all the climbers off the Cleaver and had them in a helicopter at the Ingraham Flats by 9:13pm PST, Gillet said.

Though rescuers could see Nestler moving as late as 7pm PST, by the time they reached him he had died. While he had suffered extensive internal injuries, later reports from the Pierce County medical examiner's office indicated he'd died of hypothermia. Hanging the furthest down the Cleaver, Nestler was directly in the path of a snowmelt drip which magnified his exposure.

In response to questions about the lateness of the hour in which the RMI teams were relatively high on the mountain when the avalanche struck, Lou Whittaker, co-owner of RMI, said in a briefing at Paradise yesterday morning that the hour was not a significant factor; his guides are trained to assess risk; and avalanches happen at all hours on Rainier.

Inga at the RMI offices told us, "the clients felt everything was handled well" and none had indicated they blamed RMI or felt they'd been put at undue risk. The climbers were participating in a five-day mountaineering course run by RMI with 16 clients led by seven guides.

A panel is being formed by the National Park Service to investigate the incident. "That's a standard procedure any time there's a death or serious injury on the mountain. Actually, anytime there's a serious incident at all, we investigate what might have caused it, what we could've done differently, how well it went. That's very standard procedure," said Gillett.

Guide Vernon Tejas Says Climbing Is Unpredictable
Friday, June 12, 1998 — 1pm PST

Vernon Tejas
Vernon Tejas
(photo: Scott Darsney)
Vernon Tejas is an internationally acclaimed climber and Alpine Ascents guide known most extensively for being the first person to make a solo winter ascent of Mount McKinley (Denali). He took some time this morning to talk to The Mountain Zone and offer expert commentary on yesterday's avalanche on Mount Rainier.

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Audio Transcript:
I'm Vernon Tejas, and I've been climbing commercially for 20 years. Most of my experience is guiding on Mount McKinley. I've also guided the seven summits, so I've been international for the last 12 years or so. I'm down in the Seattle area right now guiding for Alpine Ascents and doing the basic mountain introductory courses.

It's been a very unusually warm season. We had our last snow fall about a month ago and that snow has been just melting rapidly, it's really slushy. We summited three days ago on Mount Eldorado and never put our crampons on at 8,000 feet; it was all very soft snow. So in context, dealing with this avalanche that just happened on Mt. Rainier, I think conditions probably are likewise there, warmer than usual. They had a very sunny day yesterday. Whether or not they experienced exactly that at the 12,000 foot level where the avalanche took place, I don't know. It does makes me wonder if things are happening a little bit different this year. El Niño, or whatever.

"It might have been they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and out of the blue, they got hit with a cow..."
I've talked to a Sherpa this morning, about the weather changing all over the world. He said the old Sherpas mentioned that Camp II on Everest used to be always on the snow, and now it's always on the rocks because the snow has gone away. I relayed it to him that in Alaska the same things I've noticed over the last 20-25 years is the world climate is changing. Particularly the last two years, this El Niño thing has been in full effect, and it's changed a lot of what we're doing. As you well know, McKinley has been having a very strenuous season. I don't think very many people have actually made the top yet, and at this time of the year, it's usually 100 to 200. So it's very unusual for the weather to be that bad, and yet this winter, it was so mellow that several winter ascents made it without reporting severe problems with cold or wind.

My feeling on Rainier is there's still too many details out there to really be able to analyze what took place and figure out if there was something that could have been changed to make the outcome a little bit different, or if it was maybe just one of these chance, freak things that happen as things so often do in the mountains.

But always, throughout life, there are always things that reach out of the blue and can hit you. Just as the Japanese fisherman who were out, and their boat was sunk when a cow fell out of the sky and just basically destroyed their ship, and they ended up swimming; they had to be rescued. It was only a week and a half later that the Russian air crew reported — which connected directly to the story — that they had a cow on board that was acting up and they were worried that it was going to damage the aircraft, so they actually opened the door and pushed it out over the Sea of Japan which kind of ties everything together. Everything has some danger to it; just being alive is dangerous.

We can't necessarily say that being on that ridge, in those conditions, at that time of the day was a critical incident at this juncture because we don't have all the details, and we may never have all the details. It might have been one of those things that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and out of the blue, they got hit with a cow. It's important that we all give the guides that they were with the credit that's due to the years of experience that they have, and that they were doing the best in the situation. Until it's proven differently, we have no real solid way to make a comment on it.

Vernon Tejas, Alpine Ascents Mountain Guide

Two RMI Rope Teams Hit by Avalanche on Rainier
Friday, June 12, 1998 — 7am PST

Climbers on upper Rainier
(photo: Barry Gregg)

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Two rope teams lead by RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.) were descending from the summit of Mount Rainier yesterday afternoon (Thursday, June 11, 1998) when an avalanche of heavy, wet snow hit them at around 2pm PST. The 12 climbers were swept down Disappointment Cleaver, the steepest part of the southern Camp Muir route at about 12,000 feet on the mountain. Some climbers were able to self-arrest, and while the teams were prevented from going off the rocky cliff, many climbers were left dangling over the lip by their ropes.

Rescuers worked all afternoon pulling climbers off the Cleaver, but Patrick Nestler, 29, of Rowayton, Conn., who had fallen the furthest away and was hanging about 100 feet by his climbing rope, had died of internal injuries by the time rescuers were able to reach him yesterday evening.

All the climbers are off the mountain and were released last night after being treated at local hospitals, said Nancy Woodward, a spokesperson for Mount Rainier National Park. [Click for audio.]

A woman named Karina at the RMI offices declined comment on the incident saying the guides involved were still on the mountain and so had not yet filed an incident report. She said the time of descent and conditions on the mountain were not particularly unusual, and "we don't want to speculate about anything until we hear from the guides." Until last year, RMI, co-owned by Lou Whittaker and Jerry Lynch, had been the only licensed guiding concession on the mountain since 1968. Last year, limited guiding permits were given to five other guiding services for the Emmons Glacier. RMI is the only company guiding the Camp Muir route. [Click for details on guiding concessions.]

The Mountain Zone will add updates as soon as information becomes available.

One Dead, All Others Survive Avalanche
Thursday, June 11, 1998 — 10:00pm PST

One climber is confirmed dead. All the climbers, including the body of the one that didn't survive, have now been brought off the mountain to Paradise at 5,000 feet.

Rescuers Hopeful All Will Survive
Thursday, June 11, 1998 — 7:30pm PST

"Things are looking much, much better here," said Mark Morgan, concessions analyst at Mount Rainier National Park. It appears all 12 climbers hit by an avalanche on Disappointment Cleaver at 12,000 feet on Mount Rainier will survive.

Morgan says they don't have all the details yet, but it's believed the avalanche was a snow and ice slide that hit the three or four rope teams around 2pm this afternoon. All the climbers were swept down Disappointment Cleaver, the steepest section of the Camp Muir route on Rainier. Six of the climbers were able to self-arrest, and six were left dangling on ropes off various cliff-like sections of the Cleaver. No climbers had gone into crevasses as had been thought earlier in the day.

Morgan says that currently rescuers are trying to reach the last climber still hanging off his rope on the glacier. "They haven't been able to assess injuries," said Morgan, "but they've seen movement. They'll pull him up before nightfall."

The rescued climbers have suffered broken legs and hands, hypothermia and shock, but none appear to be critical. Rescuers will attempt to bring some of the climbers all the way down to Paradise at 5,000 feet before dark, and stabilize others at Camp Muir (10,000 feet) for the night.

Seattle climber David McGovern told The Mountain Zone that he turned his rope team around at 12,900 feet on the Emmons Glacier (on the east side of the mountain) yesterday. "It was snowing and the wind was gusting to 20, 25 miles per hour. Windslab," said McGovern, "and I just said, 'we're getting out of here.'" When falling snow is whipped around by the wind, the snow flakes elongate into finger-shaped crystals that don't bond as well with each other or the pre-existing surface, explained McGovern. "Then if it warms up, like it did today, all that new snow can just let go. I don't know if that's what happened on Disappointment Cleaver, but it had me worried yesterday."

Five helicopters (including a Bell, Chinook, and Medivac) are currently working out of Stephen's Canyon, "mostly ferrying rescuers up," said Morgan. The cloud ceiling there is getting too low to fly from landing zones in the area though, and the rescue mission may be moved to Ranger Field off of Highway 410 in the north end of the park. "Right now our biggest challenges are daylight and the cloud ceiling," said Eric Walkinshaw at the Park Service.

Search and Rescue Underway on Rainier
Thursday, June 11, 1998 — 5:30pm PST

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Four of the dozen climbers hit by an avalanche on Disappointment Cleaver around 2pm PST this afternoon have been rescued, said Mark Morgan, concessions analyst at Mount Rainier National Park. "There are broken bones, hypothermia, and shock, but all are alive," he said. Rescuers are currently trying to reach two more climbers, a man and a woman, roped together and hanging on the glacier. They are hypothermic, but no other injuries are confirmed, reports Morgan. Disappointment Cleaver is at about 12,000 feet on the 14,410 foot high mountain.

Ranger Mike Gauthier is currently leading the rescue operation on the mountain. In his charge are five RMI guides who had been at Camp Muir at the time of the avalanche and one National Parks ranger. 12 search and rescue climbers are currently enroute to the mountain, and four helicopters (including a Medivac, a Life Flight, and a military Chinook) are standing by. Weather won't permit the helicopters to go above 6,500 feet right now, says Morgan, but they are ready to go if the clouds break.

It has not yet been confirmed if the climbers were with a guided party or climbing independently.

Avalanche on Mount Rainier
Thursday, June 11, 1998 — 4pm PST

A climber on the southern Camp Muir route on Mount Rainier called down over cell phone this afternoon to report that an avalanche had hit climbers around the 11,000 foot level on that route. Camp Muir is at 10,000 feet and the summit is at 14,410 feet.

There is no definite word yet on injuries or casualties though climbers are reported to be missing, some in crevasses, and some to be hanging on ropes on the glacier.

Disabled climber Pete Rieke, who is on that route using a hand-cranked snow vehicle to ascend the mountain, was reported to not be involved.

Lou Whittaker, contacted at his home in Ashford, Washington, at 3:30pm said he'd just been notified and was on his way to the mountain though couldn't confirm if any RMI climbers were involved.

The biggest disaster on Mount Rainier to date occurred on that route below the Ingraham Glacier Icefall around the 11,000 foot level on June 21, 1981 when 11 people were killed in a massive avalanche.

As of 3:55pm PST, Seattle Mountain Rescue reported a mission in progress for up to a dozen fallen climbers on Mount Rainier at the 11,000 foot level.

Anya Zolotusky, Mountain Zone Staff

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