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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.
This episode contains graphic content that may not be suitable for all listeners.
In this memorable episode from our very first season, we dissect a harrowing accident on the icy slopes of Mt. Rainier’s Emmons Glacier. For Stacy Liedle and her team, reaching the summit of Rainier was the accomplishment of a lifetime. But a fall while descending left four climbers severely injured and in need of a rescue—before a winter storm complicated their hopes of survival.
Louisa Albanese: Firefighters, EMTs, police officers, soldiers, search and rescue workers. These people put their own lives on the line every time they go to work—for strangers. Evolutionarily, this sort of self-sacrifice makes zero sense. People are selfish. We save ourselves first. We’re just wired that way. What’s the different about those people who take risks to save a stranger? What motivates someone to extreme altruism, literally improving the welfare of another individual at the cost of their own? What’s their wiring like? Scientists have looked into this.
Researchers at Georgetown University studied the brains of altruistic kidney donations to strangers. What they found was evidence that those who are willing to sacrifice their own wellbeing may have an enlarged part of their brain, the amygdala, if you’re wondering, which is responsible for empathy. In a way, those people are the glue of society.
If we are sick, we can call someone to help us. If we’re lost, there are people who will look for us. If we have a brutal mountaineering accident at 13,000 feet, a network of individuals will attempt a treacherous rescue.
Trailer: I made a decision to survive. You’re in that survival mode. The idea of dying wasn’t in my head. I knew immediately it was a worst case scenario. I was in a fight for my life situation. Whenever you walk out on these trails, you’re in their house. I’m Louisa Albanese and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. Each episode of this podcast will bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable. I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring and I couldn’t do anything. Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you. There is no way we would find anybody alive.
Louisa Albanese: When we first began investigating today’s story, we didn’t set out to create a two part episode, but the more we dug, we realized that this event and its repercussions went deeper than we could have ever anticipated. We couldn’t do it justice in just 30 minutes, so what you’re about to hear is part one of two.
Mt. Rainier is the tallest mountain in Washington state, and it’s the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48. Twenty six glaciers make up year-round snowfields and technical terrain riddled with yawning crevasses. It takes skill and endurance to reach the summit, but that’s still only halfway. The descent can be just as perilous, and that’s often when things can go horribly wrong.
Stacy Liedle: My name is Stacy Liedle. I grew up in Texas, and growing up in Texas, I didn’t have access to a lot of the outdoors, but in college I was exposed to climbing, which turned into this love of mountaineering. I think it went from being like, “I like doing things outside” to “How can I set goals?” and “How can I go after really hard things?” And for me that looked like climbing really big mountains.
We started making plans to climb Mt. Rainier probably six months before we had the date set. I don’t remember what date it was. It was mid-June. We went up Baker first and we’re in a horrible weather window. It was complete whiteout. You couldn’t even see the crevasses, and the wind was crazy. The following morning when we were planning to do our summit push on Baker, we decided that that was not a safe decision and we went down. But we knew that we had a really great weather window for Rainier.
So we were not on the standard route. We were on the other side of the mountain. It’s called the Emmons route or the Emmons Glacier. It’s a similar level of technicality but less crowded. There’s on the standard route there’s flags to show where the route is. On the route we were on, there are no flags, so it’s really on you. I remember sitting in camp the day before our summit push, and you can see the summit and just trying to visualize standing on top of the mountain, visualizing the goal. Everything was going really well. It was completely clear. Our team was meshing really well at this point due to illness and just some different stuff going on, there were four of us who were going to make the summit push.
The climb up was honestly really glorious. I think we all knew we had trained hard for this, we were prepared for this. We were all working really well together and we were doing great on time. We reached the summit. It was beautiful up top; we had celebratory Snickers bars and took all of our photos and were really just focused on getting back to camp and having some hot soup and celebrating our win.
But what we didn’t know was at this time, there was a front that was supposed to blow in later that night or the following day, but it ended up coming in maybe 12 hours early. As we were on the summit and as we were starting to make our way down, and the temperature just plummeted. The snow going up had been really nice and soft, but not too soft, just really nice snow for walking and hiking. But on the way down, all of that, all of that, nice soft snow had frozen hard.
Peter Ramos: It had just rained recently at high elevations.
Louisa Albanese: This is Peter Ramos. He also happened to be summiting Mt. Rainier that day.
Peter Ramos: You could say it rained on the summit of Rainier, which is why the slope was so firm and icy. Guide services earlier that morning actually turned around because conditions were too unsafe for the guides to feel like they could protect their clients in the case of a fall.
Stacy Liedle: Going up, we had crossed the bergschrund, which is a really big crevasse, one of the defining features of the glacier. There was this really narrow snow bridge that we had crossed. Because the snow was a little bit warm, we knew that that had collapsed. We knew we had to find a different way to cross the bergschrund, but we were like, “No big deal. Snow’s in great condition. This is we’ll be fine.”
But because everything froze so quickly, we suddenly found ourselves on this much steeper part of the glacier that was around a 50 degree steepness. I dunno if you’ve ever stood on a 50 degree slope of ice, but it’s a little bit disconcerting. Below us was just 3,000 feet of just runout.
Louisa Albanese: Climbing with Stacey that day were four of her fellow Texans, and Ross Van Dyke was one of those partners.
Ross VanDyke: So we had just summited. We were about a thousand feet below the summit. We were doing a traverse, and they don’t let you flag on the Emmons Glacier, and so we were trying to navigate around a bergschrund, and I was leading the group. As we were going along, it looked as if there was, I don’t know, a hundred yards left, and then we would’ve been safe.
Stacy Liedle: So we had pickets that we were placing every X number of feet that we were running our rope through so that if someone fell, it would catch our fall. Basically, making sure that we would be safe there because we knew that this was a cruxy part of the climb.
So the person in front was done with the traverse. He was on a much safer part of the glacier, and the others were coming up to that safer part. I was in the back. They felt comfortable with where they were. At the same time, we had essentially run out of pickets. They were all in the front and they weren’t in the back. As a group, we made the decision to not place another picket. We were just like, “We’ll pull our gear, we’ll be really careful. We’re fine.”
In reality, I felt really scared because I wasn’t on the safe part of the glacier, right? It was still pretty steep. But you never wanna be the weakest link, especially when you’re the youngest one. Especially being female. You never wanna be the one who says “I’m scared” or “I feel slow,” or “I don’t feel capable of this.” But I didn’t say anything, I just said, “Yep, that sounds good. Let’s pull the picket.”
The fifth member of our team who hadn’t been with us on summit day was down at basecamp, and she was actually watching us through binoculars as we were descending.
Louisa Albanese: Here’s Claire McDonald.
Claire McDonald: I got hurt a couple months before the trip and I wasn’t able to train like I wanted to. I woke up that morning and was hopeful, but I also didn’t sleep very well that night. My stomach was real upset, so I hiked down to the little ranger station there, and they had some super high-power binoculars they were letting me play with. I was watching everybody up on the mountain that day and I was looking right at ’em when they fell.
Stacy Liedle: So we pulled the last piece of gear. I took two steps, and on the second step I was putting my right crampon down, and then it just didn’t bite. It just slipped. I had an ice axe. I was trying to self-arrest, but the snow is incredibly hard, incredibly icy. Within two seconds, I realized there’s no stopping my fall.
Ross VanDyke: I remember jumping out in a self arrest pose. I mean, I barely got my axe in before we were ripped from the slope. I felt like I was pulled off of the of the mountain. When we fell, I thought immediately about my wife, and I said, “Hey, this is it. This is how I’m gonna die.”
Stacy Liedle: The bergschrund that we were trying to cross this whole time was actually just below us. We couldn’t see it, but when I fell, I remember the feeling of being airborne and knowing this is the end, this is how I die. I hit the other side of the crevasse, my head snapped back, and everything went black.
Claire McDonald: I think I knew right away exactly what was happening and how bad it was because they fell very quickly. When they stopped falling, that was surprising. I didn’t understand how they stopped falling.
Stacy Liedle: Twenty minutes later I woke up. I am laying on my back in the snow. I opened my eyes and slowly tried to take in what was around me, and it took a while for all of my senses to come back, but I realized I was in fact, not dead. Something was holding my harness. I noticed that there was another person next to me and we were tangled up in the rope and he was completely unconscious.
One of my other partners was maybe 60 feet below me, also still on the rope, but I couldn’t figure out where my third partner was. But I noticed as I looked around that there were two ends of the rope that were going uphill. I just started climbing. I didn’t have an ice ax anymore. I remember, I distinctly remember climbing and trying to follow the rope up and like digging my fingernails into the ice. Just being like, “I cannot fall. You just have to get up there.”
I eventually get to the edge of this really narrow crevasse and I find my third partner dangling inside of it. She had slipped into this crevasse that the rest of us had just flown over and her body inside the crevasse is what caught our fall and saved all of our lives. She’s yelling, but I can’t like really understand anything she’s saying. She’s dangling sideways and she’s starting to thrash around so that her harness is slipping further and further down her leg. I’m thinking like she might just fall in, and this crevasse has no bottom. If she fell out of her harness, she would just be gone. She’s also what’s keeping all of the rest of us alive.
My two other partners are barely responsive and not doing well, and I’m like, “How are we gonna get out of this?”
Louisa Albanese: Here’s Peter Ramos again. Remember he just happened to be climbing near.
Peter Ramos: So I had just summited Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier with a friend of mine, and we were exhausted and ready for a break. But I looked over toward the Emmons glacier and I saw some bodies laying down on their back with a knee up. I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to rest.” I kept looking over toward this group, and once we moved toward them, we realized it was no longer a rest.
Claire McDonald: I said something pretty quickly to the two rangers I was with and gave them the binoculars and they weren’t sure, but I just kept telling him, “No, they fell. They fell. They fell.” They wanted to wait for a while and see if they moved and nobody moved for a while. That’s when they started making radio calls and doing the amazing things they did that day.
Louisa Albanese: On the other end of those calls was David Bulger, a U.S. Army Reserve Chinook helicopter pilot.
David Bulger: When I first got the call, I wasn’t aware of how dire the situation was with the climbers or how bad the weather was becoming. By the time I got to the unit and started doing the planning and got the weather, I realized it was gonna be the very challenging scenario. Of course I was nervous.
Ross VanDyke: When I woke up, I didn’t really understand. It took me a while to orient myself. I heard somebody yelling, but in a movie when a bomb goes off and it’s silent and, and then you hear a ringing and then everything comes to. That’s how it was for me. I woke up and I was like, “Man, where am I?”
I looked around and I didn’t see anybody. I then hear someone yelling my name. I look up, and I see Stacy.
Stacy Liedle: I yelled at him, “You have to come up here. I can’t explain, but have to come to me.” So he drags himself up this mountain and his pelvis was completely dislocated.
Ross VanDyke: I didn’t know exactly at the time what had happened. I thought that I had broken my femur. There was so much adrenaline going that at that point, I didn’t feel any pain. I proceeded to use my one good leg and the crampon that was on that leg and my ice axe in the opposite hand to climb up what may have been 75, maybe 100 feet to where Stacy was.
I passed Stewart. I thought he was dead.
Stacy Liedle: So he gets to me and he is like, “Hey, I think we should call 911.” At that point, it’s like, “What do we even say?” But we were like, “We are on the Emmons Glacier. We’ve taken a fall. We think we’re around 13,000 feet. Can you help us?” The person on the other end of the line says, “Yes, your accident has already been reported. The Air Force has been notified, and they’re on their way.”
David Bulger: So on this mission, we had the two pilots up front, the one flight engineer that was surveying outside, the crew chief working the winch, and the National Park Service personnel were part of my crew. We picked them up at the base of Mt. Rainier. Madigan Army hospital provided two paramedics to augment our crew. Prior to us lifting off, we just, we made sure that the crew was briefed. The other pilot and I talked about everything we had to do step by step, what would happen for each contingency. We were well-prepared, but we just didn’t know the conditions of the climbers. We didn’t know how bad that situation really was.
Ross VanDyke: At some point, we hear these voices above us. Someone is yelling down at us asking, “Hey, are you guys okay?”
Peter Ramos: It took us 45 minutes to get to where they were, and we were in shock as to what had just occurred.
Stacy Liedle: So these two guys come down to us and one of the guys told me, he said, “Hey, I’m a nurse.”
Peter Ramos: I’m an expedition nurse.
Stacy Liedle: I think he said he is an expedition nurse and can I help you?
Peter Ramos: I am a professional mountain guide as well, basically a glorified mountain guide with nursing knowledge.
Stacy Liedle: Once he showed up, I think I just relinquished all control. My role was just to keep everyone as calm and peaceful as possible.
Ross VanDyke: At first, I was like, “holy beep.” There were four bodies. One of them was in a crevasse. Two of them were sitting on top of a snow bridge right above the lady who was in the crevasse, and one guy was probably about 25 feet down the slope laying on his back. I ran around on this very firm slope to check on these four people that had fallen.
I asked for people to raise a hand if they can hear me. Three of them raise their hand except for the person in the crevasse. They actually ended up sustaining a big head injury, and they weren’t following directions very well. She couldn’t state her name. She couldn’t state where she was. When I asked if people remember falling off the mountain, she did not. At that moment, I knew that the person in the crevasse was more critical and we had to get her out.
Stacy Liedle: Up until this point, my partner in the crevasse had been our anchor. Essentially, what was holding us all, keeping us all alive, right? Keeping us all in that part of the mountain. Then he was able to set up an anchor and around that point, some climbing rangers from the base camp that we were staying at had climbed up to us.
Claire McDonald: The physical effort that those two rangers put in getting up there, I don’t know how they did what they did. The math doesn’t make sense how quickly they were able to get from where I was to where our team was. It was just mind-blowing.
Stacy Liedle: They set an anchor, they were able to pull my partner out of the crevasse. They were able to stabilize our whole situation.
Peter Ramos: I turned to the rangers once they arrived and said, “This is your rescue, and this is your mountain. You tell me where you need me.” And they asked for me to do medical. I went around and started to do more thorough assessments on each person and the critical conditions that they were all in.
One of the guys she was sitting next to, I think he had a broken leg and a broken arm and a broken back. The guy that I was covering at that time, he had a collapsed lung and I believe two broken legs. The lady in the crevasse, she had a dislocated hip. She had a brain bleed. I think she also broke her back.
And soon after, a Chinook helicopter arrived and started to assist with putting the critical victims into a sled and hoisted away to a hospital.
David Bulger: Well, when we got up there, we saw the climbers just lined out along the glacier. They were all in the prone position, you could tell they were injured. The rescuers had triaged the people on the ground and set the order of how they wanted us lifted out. The worst injured first.
So the first hoist, we lowered the hoist to the personnel, and lifted up the first climber with no issues whatsoever.
Peter Ramos: Once we got the lady who was in the crevasse into the sled, the Chinook hoisted her up and the Chinook then flew away for a little bit to secure her as we got ready to assist the next critical person off of the slopes.
The winds at this point were fierce. A storm had moved in, and the guy I was watching, he was starting to say he was feeling warm. If someone’s hypothermic and they start to say they’re feeling warm, it means they’re at severe stage of hypothermia and recovery needs to happen. It’s a little late.
David Bulger: The wind was getting worse, and we knew that this snow system was getting closer, faster than we initially anticipated. We knew we were coming under a tight window, but we knew we were just gonna continue this operation and get as many people off the mountain as we could.
Stacy Liedle: All that I really remember is how windy it was and how the rotor wash was just so strong that it felt like it was burning my skin just from throwing up all the ice. It wasn’t the normal helicopter, it was a Chinook, which has the two rotors. Seeing that hovering above you is crazy.
Ross VanDyke: I don’t know if you guys have ever been around or under a Chinook, but it’s a spaceship. It’s just unbelievably huge.
Claire McDonald: I have a good bit of experience in watching the military guys fly helicopters. I have an aviation degree. It was just amazing watching the skill and just the effort those guys put in. Helicopters don’t fly real good at 14,000 feet.
David Bulger: Everyone that day, my crew, the rescue climbers, the paramedics, they did a phenomenal job. I mean, went above and beyond to try and, and make this mission, this rescue, happen safely. But it was a bad location, very steep, and the winds were so bad that when we got the litter on the ground the second time, that was when the incident with Nick happened.
Louisa Albanese: Next time on Out Alive.
Stacy Liedle: It was just chaos all at once.
David Bulger: I nosed the helicopter over and I started just following him down the mountain.
Ross VanDyke: I just remember thinking to myself, “Don’t hit the mountain. Don’t hit the mountain. Don’t hit the mountain.”
Peter Ramos: I quickly looked away as I couldn’t quite watch the rest of it.
Stacy Liedle: You thought the challenge was over, but it keeps going.
Louisa Albanese: Thank you to Stacy Liedle, Ross Van Dyke, David Bulger, Claire McDonald, and Peter Ramos for sharing your stories and perspectives. This episode was produced by me, Louisa Albanese, with story editing and sound design by Matt Coddaire. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from Electric Audio, Inc. Our associate producers are Zoe Gates, Amelia Arvesen, and David Gleisner. A special thank you to search and rescue workers everywhere, but particularly the Mt. Rainier National Park Climbing Rangers. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.