Rainier avalanche took 11 lives 35 years ago

June 21 marks the 35th anniversary of America's deadliest mountaineering accident, when 11 climbers died on Mount Rainier.
     It happened on Father's Day in 1981 when an immense wall of ice nearly 100 yards wide snapped off the Ingraham Glacier and roared downhill, sweeping 10 novice climbers and a guide into a deep crevasse. Tons of ice and snow buried them and stymied rescuers, who eventually were forced to leave the victims entombed in the mountainside.
     Despite that tragedy, and Rainier's 117 overall climbing deaths dating to 1897, thousands of people safely scale and return from the 14,411-foot peak each year. In 2015 alone, 10,025 people attempted to climb Mount Rainier; and 4,888 of them reached the summit, according to the National Park Service.
     The 1981 climbers had rested at 11,200 feet near the base of Disappointment Cleaver, believed at the time to be a safe spot, while guides scouted above. They determined that two feet of freshly fallen snow made the ascent too risky, so the party retreated toward Ingraham Flats. That's where the avalanche struck.
     My son, Sean, summited Rainier twice in 2012, and like all climbers today he was coached to hustle across the fall zone on Ingraham Flats near the Cleaver. 
     Sean's top photo shows how choppy the upper flanks of Rainier are, even on a typical August day. He took the middle picture long before sunrise, using a long nighttime exposure. It shows the Ingraham area not far from the site of the 1991 disaster. Safe climbers like to cross this spot in the cool of night, before direct sunlight softens snow and ice.
     The bottom photo, taken from Disappointment Cleaver, again shows the choppy nature of Rainier's glaciers. It's not hard to imagine deadly chunks fracturing and tumbling down the slope.
Photos courtesy of Sean Osterberg, 2012

by  Jon Osterberg

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