The Liberty Ridge climbing teams have worked their way off the mountain today (actually, one team is still at Thumb Rock, but OK). As it turns out, two separate teams called 911 this week requesting help and/or information. One team became lost between Liberty Cap and Columbia Crest; the other team was pinned down below Liberty Cap at 13,700 feet (soooo close). FYI, these locations have claimed and threatened the lives of other climbers before, always during bad weather.
In both cases, whiteout and snowfall impeded the teams' progress. This event shouldn't pass without comment. It's very consuming to address emergency 911 and personal calls from family members on issues that, in all respects, could have been avoided or dealt with differently.
Incidents like this occur (particularly on Liberty Ridge) when climbers plan for 2/3/4 day ascents (i.e. light/fast) and then get caught in unsettled weather. It's not as though the climbers weren't technically skilled enough to ascend the route. It was obvious, however, that they became concerned when climbing wasn't the issue and sitting out a prolonged weather event was. Logistics, skills and weather are a hard equation to balance when planning trips. One simple way to provide backup is to carry extra fuel. Extra fuel can ensure water and warmth. As I told one man's wife this week, no one has died of starvation on Mount Rainier, yet plenty have been stressed out by running out of water/fuel. As a good example to follow, one team weathered 9 days of stormy conditions a few years ago. Could you?
Another important point is to NOT MOVE when you're lost or uncertain of your location. If you haven't been caught in a whiteout before, trust me when I say that movement is nearly impossible during such weather. And BTW, finding you is even more challenging. Therefore, calling rescue personnel with GPS coordinates isn't going to work unless you want to make sure we find your tent/equipment/etc after it's all said and done (hint, hint). Also, asking for "directions" isn't really possible either; if you don't know where you are, neither do we. GPS's are a great invention, but they can't guide you on a mountain in a whiteout. The terrain and crevasses are just too much to safely negotiate.
I realize that this information may seem obvious, but it's amazing how many smart and capable people get caught in this situation and then call for help. Also remember that when you call 911, you are really calling for help. When you're climbing Mt. Rainier, or Mt. Baker, or Denali or any other big mountain, do everything you can to be prepared for bad weather that will totally limit your progress. That's part of the climbing game. Climbing isn't always about gear, fitness, skill, aesthetic, it's also about fortitude and your ability to deal when the weather really sets in, which is what happened this week on Rainier. These teams didn't have an emergency, they were just STUCK. Furthermore, rescuers and helicopters are not going to pluck you off in such an event.
OK, enough soap box. The Washington Trails Association is doing more than their fair share to help the Glacier Basin Trail. And the Steven's Canyon Road will reopen much earlier than anticipated (June 22) barring any major catastrophes. Did I just say "major catastrophes"???...