Towering Mt. Rainier can turn from beauty to beast at a moment's notice — even in June. A powerful blizzard dumped over 2 feet of snow on Monday and Tuesday and caught three hikers making their way down from Camp Muir to Paradise Glacier. Though they tried to find shelter and eventually got help, one hiker died after succumbing to frostbite and hypothermia. Visibility and winds were so bad that rescue didn't come until this morning, when an Army helicopter picked the two survivors up from Camp Muir and flew them to hospitals for treatment.
Peter Whittaker, co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering and veteran of the mountain, had 6 guides and 15 guided climbers stationed at Camp Muir and was involved with the rescue. He shared what info he could with Backpacker.com.
"We had a trip going up Monday for five days for Camp Muir," Whittaker said by phone from Bellevue, Wa. "The weather started getting pretty atrocious, so our groups tucked in — there was no communication till the next morning, when our guys got in touch with two climbing rangers at Camp Muir."
The stranded hikers — a married couple and a male friend, all from Bellevue — managed to reach 911 in the middle of the night. By morning, the male friend had reportedly struggled his way back up through five-foot snow drifts to Camp Muir to get help. National Park Service climbing rangers and guides then descended to retrieve the other two hikers.
"I haven't spoken with our guides, but from what I understand, they sledded her up to Camp Muir and began treatment," Whittaker said. "At some point — and again, I have no details — it became clear that (the husband) was unresponsive and wasn't going to make it."
With its proximity to the Pacific and a greater topographic prominence than K2, Mt. Rainier can generate horrendous storms year-round; while huge summer blizzards aren't common, they aren't rare either. The Paradise Glacier to Camp Muir dayhike attracts scores of hikers and doesn't require any technical skills, but unpredictable weather can change the game severely, even for the well-prepared. All three hikers are described as experienced mountaineers, and two had summited Rainier before.
"That dayhike in good conditions can be done in shorts — it's really a great hike, but when conditions turn bad, it can turn deadly," Whittaker says. "There's more people who have gotten in trouble and killed between Paradise and Muir than higher up on the mountain. Because it's a great hike and so many do it, there's potential for a weather event to come in and cause trouble. Above 6-7000 feet it can snow for feet in any month of the year."
"It's a super unfortunate situation."
— Ted Alvarez
Image Credit: Washington State Tourism