Ice recently tumbled down the Ingraham Glacier and across the popular, high-traffic Disappointment Cleaver route. No climbers were injured.

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Recent icefall on Mount Rainier has rattled seismographs, and perhaps the nerves of a few climbers, after collapses on the Ingraham Glacier beginning last Friday. Ice blocks and debris tumbled at least 1,000 vertical feet and across the popular Disappointment Cleaver climbing route, according to Mount Rainier climbing rangers.

“The large ice block tumbled in the middle of the night when no parties were on the route,” according to rangers’ blog post, cautioning climbers about remaining hazards. “…  Simply put, this would have been an unsurvivable event.”

Luke Reilly, a senior guide with International Mountain Guides, said more icefall came crashing down Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve been guiding on Rainier for eight years, and this is the largest I’ve seen on that route,” he said.

An RMI Expeditions guide explains to clients that icefall on the popular Disappointment Cleaver route has thwarted their summit ambitions. Guides later cut a new pathway through the debris. (Courtesy of Rajesh Balla)

Icefalls are fairly common among the mountain’s 25 glaciers, but many are not likely seen or heard. The recent falls covered a popular climbing route and may have missed a group of climbers by just hours.

The initial collapse likely took place on Friday night. Seismograms show evidence of a large ice or rockfall event just before 10:40 p.m., according to Steve Malone, a University of Washington Professor Emeritus in Seismology.

A guided climbing party discovered the icefall Saturday morning. Rajesh Balla, a client on a RMI Expeditions climb, said his group of more than 20 climbers left Camp Muir on Saturday morning at about 2:30 a.m. High winds on the mountain had forced them to start later than they had intended, he said. Guides stopped the group at the top of a rock feature called the Disappointment Cleaver about 5:30 a.m.

“The sun was just coming up as we got on top of the Cleaver,” Balla said. “The rock was shining with sunlight. It was a beautiful sight.” 

The light, however, revealed a massive field of debris, with head-high ice blocks covering the route ahead. A chunk of the glacier the size of a five-story apartment building had collapsed, a guide told Balla’s group. They would not be continuing the climb.

“This is monumental. This scares me,” the guide told Balla’s group, explaining that choosing to cross the debris field was risky because they would be moving more slowly over the rough terrain and with extended exposure if more blocks tumbled down. “The risk isn’t worth the reward, the risk is death. … that was a huge wall of snow passing by.”

Balla said it was lucky no one was on the mountain during the icefall. Climbers often utilize alpine starts — sometimes beginning to ascend around midnight — to travel when snow conditions are favorable.

“If we were on the route the time the icefall happened, we would have been hit by huge boulders of ice,” he said. “They [guides] think it was a miracle it happened when no one was on the mountain. It could have happened anytime.”

Later Saturday, guides cut a pathway through the debris field and climbers continued up the route, said Calvin Sherstan, a longtime mountaineer who was making his fifth ascent of Mount Rainier. Large, unreleased seracs — truck-sized blocks of glacial ice —  remained perched above, he said. Rangers urged people climbing the route to move with haste through that section and minimize exposure to these “objective hazards.”

“Move quickly through zones that are underneath seracs (and rockfall), and keep your senses tuned for the sound of tumbling ice blocks. More seracs in this same area could fall in the future as the glacier continues to move downhill. It is impossible to predict when this might happen,” rangers wrote in their climbing blog.

Mountaineers, of course, accept some inherent risks in their pursuits. Glaciers are essentially frozen rivers of ice being pushed slowly by gravity. Stresses in the slow-moving ice can form crevasses and seracs, obstacles to be avoided.

There will be more stresses as it flows over steeper bedrock — then a crack opens up and it fractures,” said UW Research Professor Howard Conway, of glacial ice. Conway, who researches glaciology as part of the university’s earth and space sciences department, said “icefalls are notoriously hard to predict.” 

They can collapse just when they feel like it, it seems,” Conway said of seracs. “If you see them leaning precariously — you know to move fast or avoid them.”

The recent collapse was reminiscent of an icefall avalanche in 1981 on a lower section of Ingraham Glacier. A group of novice climbers, led by RMI guides, were swept down the mountainside and buried after a wall of ice about 100 yards wide detached above them. Eleven climbers died. It was the worst climbing accident in Mount Rainier’s history.

A National Park Service board of inquiry investigated the event and determined the icefall could not have been predicted, the guides were experienced and they had followed accepted mountaineering practices.

Rock and ice fall are frequent events on Mount Rainier. Malone, the UW seismologist, said scientists are able to distinguish these “exotic events” from earthquakes when looking at seismograph data. Earthquakes register quick snaps on a seismograph and then tail off exponentially over time, he said. Rock or ice falls are often extended events that rumble along with less magnitude.

A record of seismograph data captured from Camp Muir shows what scientists believe was a nearby icefall incident at 10:40 p.m. last Friday *(times shown on record indicate Universal Time Coordinated)*. (Courtesy of Pacific / Northwest Seismic Network)
A record of seismograph data captured from Camp Muir shows what scientists believe was a nearby icefall incident at 10:40 p.m. last Friday *(times shown on record indicate Universal Time Coordinated)*. (Courtesy of Pacific / Northwest Seismic Network)

“Earthquakes are short lived events. It’s breaking a stick — cracking it — as opposed to scratching it on the ground,” he said, in the case of rock or ice fall. “We see seismic events that we think are probably similar to this one, one way or another, a dozen times a day during the summer. Most are quite small and most are in areas where we don’t have climbers.”

The Disappointment Cleaver route is one of the most popular on Mount Rainier. About half of climbers who attempt the route reach the summit, according to a 2017 guide to the route published by climbing rangers. The route’s popularity peaks in July, according to the rangers’ analysis.

It’s the high season. Historically, the best time to climb Rainier is the middle of July, just for weather and route,” Reilly said. 

Reilly said icefall is a risk inherent to the Disappointment Cleaver approach.

“We know it’s an icefall area, but we know it’s an anomaly that doesn’t happen often. It’s one of those things we accept going on that route. It’s one of the safer options, if not the safest, for climbing Mount Rainier,” he said. “The best way to mitigate the kind of hazard is to not stop underneath it.”

Information from The Seattle Times archive was included in this report.