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June 3, 2014

Lost on the mountain

OLYMPIA, Wash. — 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 in Washington state.

Park rangers and rescuers often are able to retrieve bodies within days of an accident, but sometimes it takes much longer, until 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 when they fell, Wold has said.

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 location at 12,800 feet, whether it was rock fall or an avalanche. They were last heard from Wednesday evening when the guides checked in with their Seattle-based company, Alpine Ascents International, by satellite phone. The group failed to return Friday as planned.

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