Tom Stewart and five other alpine climbers caught in an unexpected blizzard spent two nights huddled in a steam cave at the summit of Mount Rainier.
The next morning, Steward ventured out. He stabbed a climbing wand into the snowed-out landscape. He took 50 and stuck another wand. Another 50 paces, another wand — a signal for park rangers.
“I figured that if they came and we all died, they’d know where to find us,” Stewart, now 76, recalled of the events 50 years ago.
Framed landscape portraits of majestic mountain ranges — many that Stewart photographed — chronicle his conquests on the walls of his Des Moines home, where he remembered his rescue after being stranded over Memorial Day weekend in 1964.
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On his coffee table sits an album of yellowing clippings from The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Striking headlines on front pages read “2 Rescued Climbers Describe Ordeal ‘Cave Hot Enough to Boil An Egg,’ ” and “Mt. Rainier Climbers Call White-Out Serious.”
At 26 years old, Stewart was no stranger to the mountains. A Texas Tech graduate who moved to Seattle to work as a Boeing engineer, Stewart joined the Mountaineers two years earlier and took climbing classes at the University of Washington. He had summited Rainier half a dozen times before his Memorial Day weekend trip up the Nisqually Icefall.
On that Saturday, Stewart and five other men made adequate preparations. They read the paper for weather conditions and packed the essentials for a one-night stay in a stone hut 10,000 feet up at Camp Muir. They expected cloudy skies for the start of climbing season, and to be home by Sunday evening.
“We were definitely not expecting to be trapped on the top,” Stewart said.
The next morning, the six men climbed the icefall and approached the lower lip of a crater about a quarter-mile across. To the southwest, Stewart could see a storm brewing and suggested the men turn back.
“You could see that there was bad news coming,” he said.
But some of the others insisted on reaching the summit just a few hundred feet above. By noon, they reached the top but decided it was too late to go back to Camp Muir. The men chose to stay on the summit at 14,411 feet.
One suggested they spend the night in a steam cave. All but Stewart agreed with the plan.
“That didn’t sound good to me,” Stewart said. “I was arguing the whole way.”
Sunday night passed, and so did Monday. One man had an apple, others had a few snacks, but Stewart had eaten his ration — a concentrated mixture of fat and protein — on Saturday night.
Overnight, two of the men suffered burns from the sulfurous caves. The apple was baked.
The men awoke Tuesday morning to find the opening of the steam cave clogged with snow. It took hours to dig out 20 feet.
Stewart peered out of the opening. The air was sucked out his lungs.
“At 14,000 feet, it felt like 80 miles an hour,” he said of the wind. “And it would knock you over.”
He ventured out with the wands. His left thumb turned purple and solid; it was frostbitten.
An hour later, the others reached a consensus to rope up and join Stewart on the journey downward, he said.
Once they crossed the crater, the storm lifted. Park rangers and concerned friends, including Fred Fenske, a Boeing co-worker of Stewart’s, spotted the climbers through telescopes at Disappointment Cleaver.
“I happened to hear about their circumstance and so I jumped in the car and raced down there,” said Fenske, 81, of Olympia.
Fenske and other rescuers met the group above Camp Muir. The two burned men were airlifted out. Before walking down the mountain, Stewart stuck his thumb in a warm cup of coffee.
“They all looked pretty exhausted,” Fenske recalled.
The party reached the guard station at the bottom of Rainier about dusk.
Stewart said he was as scared as he’d ever been on a mountain, but he remained unfazed by his brush with death. Just a week later, he and two of his fellow rescued climbers prepared for a six-week-long trip to Mount Logan in Canada’s Yukon.
“The worst I had was a frozen thumb,” Stewart said.
Colleen Wright: 206-464-2240 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Colleen_Wright