VANCOUVER, Wash. — Six climbers were missing and presumed dead Sunday in an avalanche or fall on Mount Rainier, in what could be the worst incident on the mountain in decades.
The National Park Service, which regulates climbing on Rainier — the towering volcanic centerpiece of Mount Rainier National Park, two hours’ drive southeast of Seattle — said the climbers were last heard from Wednesday, the third day of a planned five-day expedition, when they were preparing to camp for the night.
The Park Service said searchers Saturday located climbing gear and detected signals from avalanche beacons used by climbers at the top of the Carbon Glacier, at 9,500 feet. The site was 3,300 feet below the group’s last known location on Liberty Ridge. Such a fall, the Park Service said in its statement, would give “no viable chance of survival.”
“We’re still in a state of shock,” said Gordon Janow, the director of programs at Alpine Ascents International, the Seattle-based company that organized the climb, with two guides leading four clients. He said the release of the names of the victims would be coordinated with the National Park Service, but confirmed that Matt Hegeman, a veteran climber who has reached Rainier’s summit more than 50 times, was the group’s leader.
Another of the climbers was Mark Mahaney, according to his uncle, Rob Mahaney. Mark Mahaney, 26, of St. Paul, is an avid climber who had scaled Mount Rainier once before, his uncle said in a telephone interview.
“Every time you talked to him, he was looking forward to the next climb,” Rob Mahaney said “Climbing was one of Mark’s biggest loves.”
Alpine Ascents was also leading a group on Mount Everest in April when 16 Sherpas, helping preparing a route on the mountain for climbers, were killed by an ice fall.
Randy King, the superintendent of Rainier National Park, called the presumed accident “a horrific loss.”
“The climbing community is a small one and a close one and a loss of this magnitude touches many,” King said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragic accident.”
About 10,000 people a year climb the glacier-clad slopes of Rainier, the fifth-highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,410 feet, and typically about half reach the summit, according to Park Service statistics. Liberty Ridge, where the accident occurred, is a more technical and difficult route used by only a small percentage of those climbers. And late spring is usually the only time of year the route is used.
The Park Service said in a statement that it was too dangerous to send rescue teams to Carbon Glacier, where the climber beacons were detected, because of the risk from further falling rock and ice. Officials said the site will be checked periodically by aircraft. “As snow melts and conditions change, potential opportunities for a helicopter-based recovery will continue to be evaluated. There is no certainty that recovery is possible given the location,” the statement said.
At least 89 people have died trying to summit Mount Rainier since 1897, according to Park Service statistics, including 11 who died in one ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier in June 1981. The last fatality on a summit attempt was in 2011, also on Liberty Ridge, according to park officials.
Hegeman had climbed, or led groups, in places including the Andes and the Sierra Nevada in California, but Rainier was where he focused his work, taking climbers up many times through four different routes, according to the company’s website.
Alpine Ascents describes the Liberty Ridge route as one of the most technical and physically demanding climbs it does in the lower 48 states. Climbers pay $2,190 per person, are required to have technical training and climbing experience, including the use of ice axes and tools, and the ability to carry a 50-pound pack up and down stretches of slopes angled at 40 to 50 degrees..
Climbers say the mountain’s glaciers, heavy snows, and steep slopes make it an ideal mountain to train on when preparing for expeditions to higher peaks, notably to Mount McKinley in Alaska.
On a video shot on Rainier and posted on YouTube in 2011, Hegeman talked to climbers about the assessment of risk, and knowing to listen when your experience, or an experienced guide, tells you that the dangers are too great to continue.
“If you haven’t a climbed a mountain like this before, you don’t know where that line is, you don’t know where you’ve gone over it or not,” he said.
“We’ll help with that,” he told the team. “One step at a time, one leg a time. Hopefully you’ll be fine.”