Rescuers attempting to reach four climbers stranded on Mount Rainier’s challenging Liberty Ridge route have been thwarted by poor weather conditions that are expected to deteriorate later this week.
While the upper mountain is expected to be enshrouded in the same high winds, precipitation and thick clouds on Thursday that made reconnaissance flights impossible on Wednesday, rescuers are prepared to take advantage of any windows of opportunity provided by breaks in the weather, park spokesman Kevin Bacher said.
“The climbers are in one of the most remote and challenging locations in the park, but we remain hopeful and optimistic for a positive outcome,” Bacher said Thursday morning.
The climbers became stranded at 13,500 feet Monday afternoon, below Liberty Cap on the north side of the mountain, after high winds blew away or destroyed their tent and climbing equipment. After unsuccessful rescue attempts because of wind and poor visibility, park rangers issued an emergency closure for the route Wednesday, said Bacher.
Rangers, along with the military, hope to attempt more air-rescue operations Thursday. A ground-rescue team is ready if rescue isn’t possible by air, although their departure will also depend on the weather.
Strong wind may calm for part of Thursday before ramping up again Thursday night, according to the National Weather Service. Some snow is also expected throughout the day, with heavy snowfall Friday that could bring up to 9 inches of accumulation near the summit.
“Everything depends on weather,” Bacher said. “It’s one of the worst possible places that a rescue could happen on the mountain, because of how challenging the terrain is and how difficult it is to get to that spot.”
Last week, one climber died and two were injured on the Liberty Ridge route after their group got caught in rockfall near Thumb Rock, which is more than 10,000 feet in elevation. The route is known to be treacherous even in good weather, as climbers face a steep ascent and risk from avalanches, crevasses and rockfalls.
The group of four had been climbing for three days when they became stranded Monday. The climbers have been identified as: Yevgeniy Krasnitskiy, of Portland; Ruslan Khasbulatov, of Jersey City; and Vasily Aushev and Kostya “Constantine” Toporov, of New York. At least two have been described by family as experienced climbers, Bacher said.
After receiving a report of stranded climbers, a park helicopter surveyed the route at 4 p.m. Monday. They found the climbers signaling for help, but 30 mph gusts of wind made rescue impossible using short-haul techniques, which involve transporting people by rope under a helicopter, Bacher said.
The wind also prevented rangers from dropping off equipment to the climbers. The supplies instead were dropped off about 1,500 feet below the group, where conditions were better for flying, in hopes they could climb down to reach it.
Rangers tried twice Tuesday to reach the climbers, who by then had descended about 250 feet to a site that was more sheltered but still dangerous. Heavy winds again got in the way of rescue efforts, and a later attempt was hampered by a layer of clouds.
A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter from Joint Base Lewis-McChord arrived Tuesday afternoon to help with the rescue, along with three pararescue jumpers from the Air Force’s 304th Rescue Squadron in Portland. They faced similar challenges, as poor visibility and wind kept them from reaching the climbers twice.
Rainy, cloudy weather kept rescuers from attempting to reach the climbers by air Wednesday. Rescuers are waiting to see what Thursday’s weather brings.
The Liberty Ridge route will remain closed until the rescue is complete.
Liberty Ridge is known as the “hardest and most dangerous regularly climbed route on Mount Rainier,” according to the National Park Service, which says the route is risky to all climbers, not just the inexperienced. About 98 people attempt the climb each year, with an average success rate of 53%, according to the agency’s statistics.
A small percentage of climbers at Mount Rainier take on the route, but it’s known to be deadly. The death of a climber last week was the first fatality on the route since 2014, when two guides and four climbers died after falling more than 3,000 feet, Bacher said.
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Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this story.