PORTLAND — Four climbers who spent three days stranded on Mount Rainier after losing some of their gear were rescued Thursday by the crew of a helicopter during a narrow window of favorable weather.
The helicopter touched down near the volcano’s summit before 10 a.m. where it was flat enough to land.
“We just landed and they walked up to the helicopter,” said Mount Rainier National Park spokesman Kevin Bacher. “Some time in the last day and half they got themselves up to where they were on the summit of the mountain. … That’s not an easy thing to do under good conditions. They did it, hampered to some degree and in poor weather.”
The climbers were identified as Yevgeniy Krasnitskiy, of Portland; Ruslan Khasbulatov, of Jersey City; and Vasily Aushev and Kostya “Constantine” Toporov, of New York.
All four were “walking and talking,” Bacher said, but were taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle because of their prolonged exposure to the cold. All four men were discharged from the hospital Thursday, according to a hospital news release.
The climbers, who were attempting to ascend the challenging Liberty Ridge route, had become stranded Monday afternoon at about 13,500 feet, below Liberty Cap on the north side of the mountain. They called 911 and told emergency personnel that their camp had been damaged and they’d lost some gear, likely because of high wind on Sunday “experienced around the mountain by climbers,” Bacher said.
Several attempts at rescue were thwarted by high winds or poor visibility, but a helicopter crew was able to spot the climbers on a steep 50-degree slope during several flights. Shortly after the 911 call, the climbers lost the ability to use cellphones. Rescuers did see that they had at least one pack and one tent.
The four climbers took shelter together on a ledge “maybe the size of a kitchen table,” Bacher said. The four men later moved to another ledge similar in size, but better protected from the wind.
“They had a little bit of shelter there, but you really are kind of perched on a ledge looking out over the world,” Bacher said.
Bacher said it’s not clear how things went wrong for the climbers or how they managed to ascend after days hunkered down.
“That is going to be a very interesting story,” he said.
Park officials had planned to ferry rangers up in a helicopter to mount a complicated and potentially risky ground rescue if the men hadn’t been spotted Thursday near the summit.
“We were elated, really, to fly up there today and find them not where they had been but up on the top of the mountain where it was much easier to get to them,” Bacher said.
The Liberty Ridge route is the most challenging route commonly climbed on Mount Rainier, and can be perilous even in good weather. The route gains more than 11,000 feet elevation, typically takes three to four days to complete and is complicated by avalanche terrain, steep snow and ice and crevassed, broken glaciers.
The route requires a rounded skill set for climbers, who need to be familiar with roped travel over glaciated terrain, crevasse rescue and ice climbing, among other advanced techniques.
Only about 98 people climb the route each year, according to park statistics. About 53% reach the summit.
They typically schedule climbs from about mid-May to mid-June, said George Dunn, an International Mountain Guides partner, who has climbed the route more than a dozen times.
“Our goal is to hit it when it’s all snow,” Dunn said. “There really is no solid rock on that route.”
But the route is known to be deadly, too. The death of a climber last week, after rockfall, 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.
The setting is remote and unlike other routes on Rainier, which are often groomed by guides, “you really have to do it solely on your own. There are almost never steps to follow,” Dunn said.
It’s a stunning setting, Dunn said.
The ridge bisects two steep, icy cliffs — the Willis and the Liberty walls — on the mountain’s north side.
“While you’re climbing, you often see a section of ice cliff calving off or an avalanche that sweeps off the cliffs. It’s really dramatic and beautiful,” Dunn said.
Rockfall, avalanches and variable weather are among myriad hazards.
“It’s a steep, multiday climb. What throws people off is the potential for extreme weather,” Dunn said. “People say, ‘Oh, 14,000 (feet), I’ve been up there in Colorado.’ They’re in the Arctic zone at 14,000 at Mount Rainier … it’s more like a big mountain, like going to Denali,” Alaska’s tallest peak.
Dunn said the climbers were lucky the park service found a break from the wind, which hammered climbers Tuesday and Wednesday around the mountain.
“Lucky, lucky,” he said. “All of our teams had pulled down off the mountain the last day or so.”
The climbers rescued Thursday were prepared, Bacher said. And at least two of them were described as seasoned mountaineers by family members, he added. They registered their climb and had planned to finish up Monday, before the most extreme weather struck.
“They had the skills to do it. They had enough gear; even with half of it blown away they were able to piece it together and get up to the summit of the mountain,” Bacher said.
Krasnitskiy, a Portland resident, this spring climbed Mount Hood and made an earlier unsuccessful attempt to climb Mount Rainier, according to roommate Scott Dupuis.
“He loves the outdoors but climbing is his passion,” Dupuis said.
Krasnitskiy picked up his climbing partners at the Portland airport and headed up to Mount Rainier last Friday for the Liberty Ridge ascent. Dupuis said that Krasnitskiy did not make a big deal about his attempt to take the route.
He described his roommate as organized, disciplined and humble.
“He respects the difficulty and challenges there (on Mount Rainier),” he said. “You can sense that.”