Liberty Ridge is risky, deadly Mount Rainier route
The toll on Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge route, where six climbers died last week, is sobering. While less than 2 percent of climbers attempt to reach the summit via Liberty Ridge, the route accounts for about a quarter of all climbing deaths on the mountain.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A trip up Liberty Ridge
Climbers on Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge face a grueling marathon, with a long approach and plenty of exposure as they move higher.
Weather near the summit can quickly turn bad.
Even on sunny days, climbers on this route may face fierce winds that blast away snow and turn long, steep parts of the route to ice.
And the death toll on the Liberty Ridge route is sobering, rising once again last week as two guides and four clients with Alpine Ascents International fell some 3,300 feet.
There were no survivors and no certainty of what went wrong.
Though less than 2 percent of Mount Rainier climbers attempt to summit via Liberty Ridge, the route now accounts for about 25 percent of all deaths on summit climbs, according to National Park statistics.
So what draws a climber to Liberty Ridge?
Those who have made the climb say the route offers up-close vistas of some of Mount Rainier’s most spectacular features, an opportunity to get away from the crowded south slopes that draw climbers and plenty of challenges to test skills and conditioning.
“This is really special,” said Gavin Woody, a veteran mountaineer who made the climb last June with his friend Vik Sahney. “You pick your way up the ridges in between these massive walls.”
The route was first climbed in 1935 and was included in “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America,” which was first published in 1979 by Sierra Club Books.
“That really put it into the spotlight, and has actually driven a lot of traffic (to the route),” said Eric Simonson, co-owner of International Mountain Guides, which offers guided ascents of Mount Rainier via Liberty Ridge.
Simonson said that clients are carefully screened for the skills they would need to undertake the climb, and also understand that things can go wrong.
The climb offers magnificent views of two of the mountain’s most impressive faces — Willis Wall and Liberty Wall.
Formed by layers of lava rock, the walls frequently — and loudly — shed ice, snow and rock as the climber ascends the mountain from Liberty Ridge.
Climbers often make a final camp on the ridge at Thumb Rock, at an elevation of 10,760 feet. The next day they make a push to the summit at more than 14,000 feet, and then head down via an easier route on the south side.
In this final part of the route, climbers move onto a broader slope, with steep pitches, and more risks from ice, rock and snow falls.
“Between 12,000 and 13,400 feet, it was a pretty inhospitable place for us,” Sahney said. “We had probably sustained winds of 30 miles an hour, and 80 miles an hour gust. We were down on our hands and knees because the gusts were just so strong.”
Sahney and Woody said that they would not want to linger in that zone due to the risks.
Simonson said climbers sometimes do opt to make camp within that zone if they are unable to make it to the summit.
Park Service officials say the climbers from Alpine Ascents called at 6 p.m. Wednesday to say they would make camp at the 12,800-foot level that night.
Though they faced some weather moving in, the guide who phoned in said the group was OK, according to Park Service and guide-service officials.
It’s not known if disaster struck the climbers while they were in camp, or at a later time.
Searches on Saturday found gear on the Carbon Glacier, some 3,300 feet below the campsite.
Sahney said the loss of life has reverberated through the climbing community.
But given another chance, he would go up.
“It’s probably the favorite route that I have done. I definitely would consider it again,” Sahney said.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org