SEATTLE — It may be weeks or months — if ever — before rescuers can get on the ground to search for six climbers who likely plummeted to their deaths high on snow-capped Mount Rainier.
Park rangers and rescuers often are able to retrieve bodies within days of an accident, but sometimes it takes weeks or months, when conditions have improved and snow has melted on parts of the mountain.
Occasionally victims are never found, as in the case of 11 people swept to their deaths in an ice fall in 1981 in Mount Rainier’s deadliest accident. The same is true of a non-alpine accident in which a cargo transport plane crashed into the mountain in 1946 — the bodies of 32 Marines remain entombed.
“The mountain is so inaccessible and can be inhospitable. We can’t always retrieve everybody who is lost there, unfortunately,” said Patti Wold, a spokeswoman with Mount Rainier National Park.
The bodies of the two guides and four climbers who fell to their deaths last week on the 14,410-foot glaciated peak may never be recovered because of the hazardous terrain, authorities say.
“The degree of risk in that area, due to the rock fall and ice fall that’s continuously coming down from that cliff onto the area where the fall ended, we cannot put anybody on the ground,” Wold said.
It’s unclear whether the climbers were moving or camping at the time of the accident, Wold said this past weekend. Searchers located camping and climbing gear and detected signals from avalanche beacons buried in the snow at the top of the Carbon Glacier at 9,500 feet in elevation.
It’s also not known what caused the climbers to fall from their last known whereabouts at 12,800 feet on Liberty Ridge, whether it was rock fall or an avalanche. They were last heard from at 6 p.m. Wednesday when the guides checked in with their Seattle-based company, Alpine Ascents International, by satellite phone. The group failed to return Friday as planned.
Alpine Ascents identified the two guides on its website. Matthew Hegeman, the lead guide, was described as intense, philosophical and always in the pursuit of excellence with a good sense of humor. Eitan Green, the other guide, loved his time in the mountains and was a strong leader and quick to smile, the website said.
The Seattle Times reported Monday that Seattle mountain climber John Mullally was one of the six who died. His wife, Holly Mullally, issued a statement Monday saying that she had previously been on climbs organized by the company, and had also climbed with Hegeman.
“I respected his leadership and found him to be experienced, skilled, appropriately conservative, thoughtful, and someone who I could count on to keep my husband safe, barring tragedy beyond our control,” Holly Mullally wrote of Hegeman.
Officials at Maine’s Colby College said Green was a 2009 graduate of the college. Colby spokesman Steve Collins said the Massachusetts native majored in anthropology and was a member of the college mountaineering club. A memorial service is scheduled for June 5 in Levine Chapel in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Rob Mahaney told The Associated Press that his 26-year-old nephew, Mark Mahaney, of St. Paul, Minnesota, was among those presumed dead. He said the climber’s father and brother flew to Seattle on Saturday after learning what happened. Mahaney said his nephew had climbed Rainier before.
The area will be checked periodically by air in the coming weeks and months, Wold said. They will also evaluate the potential for a helicopter-based recovery as snow melts and conditions change.
In 2012, park rangers recovered the bodies of three climbers about eight months after they disappeared during unrelenting storms on Mount Rainier.
In 2001, the body of a 27-year-old doctor was discovered more than two years after he vanished while snowboarding on the mountain. Also that year, the remains of three men were removed from the mountain after being entombed there for nearly 30 years after their small plane crashed. A hiker and former climbing ranger found the wreckage of the single-engine aircraft that crashed in January 1972.
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A list of other fatal climbing accidents around the world:
April 2014: At least 13 Sherpa guides lost their lives in Mount Everest’s deadliest avalanche.
July 2012: A massive avalanche on France’s Mont Maudit, one of Mont Blanc’s most popular routes, killed nine climbers and injured 14 others.
Aug. 2008: Eight climbers were killed by an avalanche caused after a massive block of ice cracked off a side of the Mont Blanc du Tacul in the Mont Blanc range in western Europe.
Aug. 2008: Eleven climbers from South Korea, Nepal, Pakistan, France, Ireland, Serbia and Norway died after an avalanche of falling ice blocked their party’s descent from K2 in the Karakoram range between Pakistan and China. It was the deadliest mountaineering disaster to hit the world’s second highest peak.
July 2003: Eight people were killed in an avalanche near the summit of glacier-capped Alpamayo in the Peruvian Andes. The climbers — from Germany, Israel, the Netherlands and Argentina — were about 490 feet from the mountain’s 19,510-foot summit when they were swept away.
May 1996: Seven men and a woman, including veteran climbers Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, died when they were trapped by an unexpected blizzard as they descended Mount Everest’s 29,028-foot summit. It was one of the worst tragedies on Everest since its conquest in 1953.
Nov. 1995: Twenty-six people — 13 Japanese climbers and 13 Nepalese guides — were killed by an avalanche in the Gokyo valley of Nepal. At least 46 climbers were killed in avalanches and landslides that weekend in one of Nepal’s worst disasters.
Nov. 1994: Nine Germans, one Swiss and one Nepalese Sherpa guide died while climbing down Mount Pisang in northwest Nepal, in one of the worst mountain climbing accidents in the Himalayas. All eleven climbers were attached to one rope.
Nov. 1993: Ten climbers died on Mt. Chimborazao, the highest peak in Ecuador.
July 1990: At least 40 climbers from a Soviet-Swiss expedition were buried in avalanche touched off by an earthquake in the Pamir mountains in Central Asia. The avalanche struck their base camp at 16,000 feet, more than two-thirds of the way up Lenin Peak, 1,800 miles southeast of Moscow.
May 1986: Seven teenagers and two teachers from Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, Oregon, froze to death during a blizzard on Mount Hood, the worst mountaineering disaster on Mount Hood since records began in 1896. Two other students were rescued from the snow cave the hikers had carved out.
June 1981: Eleven climbers were killed on Mount Rainier by a massive ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier between Disappointment Cleaver and Gibraltar Rock.