MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — Park officials say it’s currently too risky to send people in search of six climbers who likely fell thousands of feet to their deaths while attempting to scale 14,410-foot Mount Rainier.
Under safer conditions, crews could go in after the bodies. “The families, I’m sure, would like that closure,” park spokeswoman Patti Wold said Sunday. But continuous falling ice and rock make the avalanche-prone area too dangerous for rescuers.
“People are very understanding that we cannot risk another life at this point,” she said.
Park officials say that as in the case of some others who have died on the mountain, there’s a possibility the two guides and four climbers believed to have fallen 3,300 feet from their last known location may never be found.
The climbers 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.
They are presumed dead in one of the worst alpine accidents on Rainier since 1981, when 11 people were struck and killed by a massive ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier.
Family and friends of the dead climbers arrived at the mountain Sunday to meet with park officials, but declined to speak with media that had gathered at the park’s headquarters.
“They’re just devastated,” Wold said.
Truckee native Matt Hegeman, 38, was the group’s lead guide and is among those missing, according to various reports.
Hegeman is a well-experienced climber, according to reports, and worked as a guide for Seattle’s Alpine Ascents International. He was a regular on Northern California’s Mt. Shasta and had climbed Rainier more than 50 times.
More than 100 people commented on Alpine Ascents’ Facebook page remembering Hegeman, who led climbs throughout northern California and had done extensive rock climbing throughout the state, the company said.
“Matt, intense, philosophical and driven by the right way to do things, left an indelible mark on all around him. His pursuit for excellence was matched by his sense of camaraderie and humor,” the company wrote on its website.
Holly Mullally, the wife of one of the victims, issued a statement to The Seattle Times on Monday saying she had 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,” she wrote of the guide.
It’s unclear whether the climbers were moving or camping at the time of the accident, Wold 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 whereabouts at 12,800 feet on Liberty Ridge, whether it was rock fall or an avalanche.
Glenn Kessler, the park’s acting aviation manager, said “they are most likely buried,” making recovery efforts even more challenging. They may be in an area too hazardous for rescuers to reach on the ground.
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.
Wold initially said that the park on Sunday would release the names of the six who died but later said the park cannot release the names for privacy reasons.
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.
“He just loved to climb, he loved the outdoors, he loved the exhilaration of being in the wide open,” Rob Mahaney said. “Even as a toddler he was always climbing out of his crib. His parents couldn’t keep him anywhere — he’d always find a way to get out of anything.”
Last year, about 10,800 people attempted to climb the 14,410-foot glaciated peak southeast of Seattle, but only 129 used the Liberty Ridge route, according to park statistics. The vast majority use two other popular routes.
Gordon Janow, director of programs for Alpine Ascents International, said the group was on a five-day climb of the Liberty Ridge route.
The climbers had to meet certain prerequisites, and their ice and technical climbing skills as well as their biography were evaluated by a three-person team, Janow said.
The company’s brochure says, at a minimum, those interested in the guided climb were required to be able to physically carry a 50-pound backpack on steep snow and icy slopes, ranging from 30 to 50 degrees in slope.
The guiding service lost five Nepalese guides in a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest in April that killed 16 Sherpa guides.
Le reported from Seattle. Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.