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Adventure : Climbing

How Did Six Climbers Die on Mount Rainier's Liberty Ridge?

What exactly happened to six climbers on Mount Rainier who were reported missing on May 30 and are presumed dead remains a mystery, but clues have emerged that strongly suggest an avalanche from above swept them away in the night.

The team, four clients and two guides from Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, set out on the 14,410-foot volcano’s challenging Liberty Ridge route on Monday, May 27. According to Mount Rainier National Park climbing ranger Peter Ellis, this advanced route typically takes teams between three and five days to complete. Guided by Rainier veterans Matt Hegeman, 38, who’d climbed the mountain more than 50 times, and Eitan Green, 29, who started guiding the mountain shortly after graduating from Colby College in 2009, the group made their approach up the Carbon Glacier on Tuesday.

The route itself is a 5,000-vertical foot direttissima of Rainier’s heavily glaciated north face. To the looker’s left of the ridge is the Willis Wall. Hanging over most of the route is the Liberty Cap, a glacier that regularly sheds ice down the mountain. The Liberty Ridge itself, like a dormer on a pitched roof, tends to shed icefall away from the route, but it’s not immune.

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During the day on Wednesday, the six were spotted by a private party climbing behind them. Depending on the terrain and the strength of the group, the guided climbers may have been simulclimbing—moving together on the same rope—or belaying each other on each pitch, a technique that’s safer but much more time consuming.

“As you’re approaching, you can see up onto the route and see other climbers,” says NPS’s Peter Ellis. “So as this team was approaching Liberty Ridge they saw [the Alpine Ascents team] at Thumb Rock.”

Thumb Rock is formed by a prominent totem of hardened lava at around 10,700 feet and typically serves as high camp. The Alpine Ascents team had stayed there Tuesday night and headed toward the summit in clear weather on Wednesday morning, though conditions would deteriorate that day. Managers at Alpine Ascents believe the team continued on to an area around the Black Pyramid, where the steeper snow and ice pitches begin.

At 6:20 P.M. the guides made a satellite phone call back to the office, telling guide manager Melanie Hodgman that they were going to camp and see if the weather improved by morning. That was the last the Alpine Ascents office heard from the team. But two of the clients also sent out messages that were received by friends. At about 7 P.M. one climber texted a photo of the Wednesday-night camp to a friend, which was shown to Alpine Ascents co-owner Todd Burleson on Sunday.

“Out of nowhere I get a photograph of this camp and it’s very structured camp,” says Burleson, 54, Alpine Ascents founder. “I can’t see around it ‘cause it’s whiteout, but I see the ridge it’s on. It’s on a nice platform. They’ve got three tents set up.”

It appeared as if they’d already climbed to the top of the Black Pyramid, which would have meant most of the route’s difficulty and elevation was behind them.

Another member of the team also sent out a message from a SPOT tracking device at around 7:45 P.M, though there’s been no indication that it was a distress call. The standard SPOT device’s default message is an All-OK signal that includes a GPS locator pin. In this case that pin showed that the camp was somewhere between 12,400 feet and 12,800 feet, not a typical camping spot on the route but not necessarily a cause for concern. Based on the photo and the SPOT pin, Burleson and his office staff have been trying go figure out exactly where the camp might have been.

“You know, it kinda doesn’t make sense,” says Burleson. “I can’t quite figure this out because there’s no place that looks this good at the top of the Black Pyramid. It only makes sense if they were closer to 12,400 feet.”

What happened in the night requires some speculation. In the most likely scenario, rock or icefall from the Liberty Cap, or possibly a soft avalanche triggered by the isolated snowfall that day, swept down from above and carried the team—asleep in their tents—to the looker's right side of the Willis Wall. On Thursday, the private party (NPS hasn’t identified them) that had spotted Alpine Ascents climbed to the summit and saw no further sign of the team.

That same day, Ellis and rangers Dan Veenhuizen and Scotty Barrier happened to be on a routine patrol on Liberty Ridge. “Thursday we set off and then camped out on Curtis Ridge on Thursday night,” says Ellis. “Friday we moved up to Thumb Rock. And then Saturday morning we made a routine radio call to Camp Sherman to let them know that we were moving up the route. And at that point they informed us that this party had indeed not come back and they instructed us to carry on climbing the route, but to search as we climbed—to stop and take pictures, look for clues, and move slowly looking for any sign of an incident.”

The rangers didn’t find anything. It wasn’t until a helicopter made a low pass over a prominent avalanche debris field at the base of the Willis Wall that they were able to pick up signals from the avalanche beacons that all six climbers were wearing. Some gear and unfurled tents were also visible in the debris. Because that zone is in a funnel that receives ice and rockfall from several highly active avalanche chutes leading down from the summit, it was deemed too dangerous to put people on the ground to dig them out. While some reports have suggested that climate change might be to blame, Ellis thinks conditions are pretty normal.

“The summers on the Willis Wall are always active as far as rock fall and icefall, and as long as I’ve been here in this park that zone has always been notorious,” says Ellis. “So I don’t think that it’s any different from the past decade or so.”

The names of the four clients haven’t been released, but news outlets have reported, and the tech giant has confirmed, that one man was Intel vice president Uday Marty, 40, and a second was 26-year-old Mark Mahaney, from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Green and Hegeman were experienced guides for Alpine Ascents, which also has a prominent international guiding business best known for its Himalayan climbs. AAI lost five climbing Sherpas in the April 18 Everest avalanche—that mountain’s deadliest day.

According to NPS spokeswoman Fawn Bauer, rangers will continue to make overflights of the debris field as time allows. “What that means is as we have available aircraft in the air on other missions we will spend time checking out that area,” says Bauer. “The same is true for any kind of foot patrol.”

This is the worst accident on Rainier since ten guided climbers and one guide died on the Ingraham Glacier in June of 1981.

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Bouldering the Coast of South Africa

While camping along the wild coast of South Africa, I stumbled upon this boulder. After watching the storm surge against it for awhile, I spotted what looked like a somewhat dry climbing line—a series of salty knobs on the backside that looked worth a shot.

Setting up the camera on an interval timer, I wandered out to explore. Pulling up through the steepest section, I saw a giant wave crash against the rocks to my left.

This is all just a long way of saying: Selfie.

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Cloudy Days on Everest

Each spring for the past 21 years I have been going to Nepal. And each spring since the 1920's mountaineers have made their way to the Himalayas to climb, discover and test the limits of their abilities—each with his or her own hopes and motivations. Sherpa climbers who lead the expeditions first visit their monasteries to do divinations and obstacle-removing prayers ahead of the precarious journey they are about to partake in.

It is a spring rite which takes place in Sherpa households across the Himalayas and now the world—partly via Skype in New York and California. If the gods answer their prayers, the men will return in mid-May with smiling broad faces burnt from exposure to the sun—and the spoils of their hard work. They're home safe and will replenish physically and spiritually until the fall when they must go back to work again.

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As our plane banks right over the Bay of Bengal, I look through the window to get a glimpse of the Himalayas, and see Chomolungma—Mother Goddess of the World—Sagarmatha, better known to the outer world as Mt. Everest. I am not sure why, but even from the safety of the plane I am anxious, happy, restless and am overcome by emotions with this glimpse of Everest—the huge majestic black rock which takes center stage perched above all other great mountains. I wonder who is out there, and if anyone is on the summit today. I look through a set of binoculars and imagine they are powerful enough to see people climbing. I pray that the weather does not change.

I was fortunate to be with Sir Edmund Hillary on a similar flight in 2003 when we took off from Kathmandu en-route to London as part of the 50th Everest Anniversary celebrations. The weather was clear and the pilot made a special effort to get us close to Everest. I remember Sir Ed looking through the window with his distinctive smile, pointing out the villages he had walked through that lead up to Khumbu. Knowing Sir Ed, he was probably thinking of a new route or how he could make a school building larger so more children would have the opportunity to study.

On my trip last month, however, the entire Himalayan range including Everest was shrouded in clouds. I could not begin to imagine the magnitude below of the sorrow, the angst, the pain felt across the funerals of the 16 who died in this year's avalanche, plus another Sherpa who had died two weeks prior.

Two things stand in sharp contrast for me in the aftermath of this tragedy. On the bright side, the global support and sympathy for the families has been overwhelming. In the eyes of the world Sherpas have always been proud, easy going and hardworking people. Over the years Sherpas have also been seen as the ones doing the hard work but seldom getting the credit. And their tragedies on the slopes of Everest have played out time and again. In the past three years alone, 24 Sherpa guides have perished on Everest. 

The long-running exploitation of the climbing Sherpa was exposed by the horrific April 18 avalanche. All of a sudden climbing Everest is not as cool any more. This epic disaster has had worldwide impact. Will it last? My personal hope is that anyone who wishes to climb Everest or any other mountain in the future will have a clearer understanding first of the economics of their choice. 

Although the Government of Nepal is an easy target and has become the punching bag in the past month for the grievances, standing in the shadows are expedition operators who profit handsomely. They marginalize and at times intimidate climbing Sherpas, most of whom have little education and no one who speaks for them. 

The Sherpas often are pawns in this deadly game that operators have no interest in changing. The climbing Sherpas know that if they raise any issue about pay, life insurance, and the heavy loads they carry or the great risks they bear for expedition clients, they and other family members might be blackballed when jobs are assigned for the next climbing season. 

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Kathmandu a week after the tragedy, I was shocked to hear several Everest operators express a total lack of empathy for what happened. "We have to live, too, and will need to pass any higher costs on to the western operators," one told me when I asked why salaries aren’t more equitable for the climbing Sherpas. He blamed the Nepali Government for any injustice.

I had to remind him that life insurance provided by operators for a climbing Sherpa in 1971 would be equal to $45,000 in today’s dollars, yet the families of those Sherpas who died on April 18 are to receive a meager $11,000. Nothing more. This is barely enough to pay funeral expenses and a couple years of school fees. Then what will these families do? 

An acquaintance of mine contacted nine Everest tour operators in the U.S. by telephone after the disaster. Could they do anything to help the dozens of parents, spouses and children who had just lost their sole bread-winner? Most answered that they were doing the best they could, but offered no specifics. Two had set up funds for the Sherpa families. Neither would they even speculate about how this disaster might change their business practices.

At the core of what I call Everest Inc. is the climber, the ultimate enabler of this exploitation. The numbers of casual, recreational adventurers on Everest have soared in recent decades. Anyone hoping to join their ranks now should be willing to ask hard questions both of themselves and the expedition companies they might choose.

Would they be able to look into the eyes of a climbing Sherpa's newborn child, then assure his family their conscience is clear about how this father, husband, uncle or brother will be compensated and protected? Do those agreed terms sufficiently recognize the great dangers the guides must face? Do the climbers understand the ethics of their choices?

On Thursday May 29th, we mark the 61st anniversary of the historic first ascent of Everest. Indelibly linked in our memories is an enduring symbol of the human spirit - the iconic image of a man in a mask - my father, Tenzing Norgay—standing tall on top of the world with clear blue skies as far as eyes can take you. That image will be clouded over quickly, replaced by more photos of funerals and grieving families, if things don't change.

Norbu Tenzing Norgay is a vice president of the American Himalayan Foundation, and the eldest son of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to summit Everest.

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