Since the park opened on March 2, 1899, Mount Rainer has claimed over 400 lives. Approximately 100 hikers have perished attempting to summit Mount Rainier, and nearly 300 fatalities have been attributed to other popular area hikes. The fifth largest national park in the United States, Mount Rainier;receives around 1.8 million visitors annually, and boasts the greatest topographic prominence in the world, which is greater even than K2, at 13,211 feet. Hikers are attracted to the subalpine wildflower meadows, waterfalls, and over 25 glaciers and glacial caves of the active strato-volcano. First summited in 1970 by P.B. Trump and Hazard Stevens, the volcano has not erupted since 1894, although it is counted among the deadliest volcanoes in the world.
Most recently lost to the old-growth forests and treacherous ice melts is 70 year-old hiker and outdoor journalist Karen Sykes of Seattle. The author of multiple columns and books on hiking in the Pacific Northwest, Sykes was officially reported missing June 18th at 10:30 p.m. Snow melt off the Owyhigh Lakes Trail, a 7 mile out and back trail near Paradise Inn that is recommended for hikers of all experience levels, forced Sykes and her partner to reevaluate hiking itinerary. Sykes, who was researching a story with her partner, went on ahead; her companion agreed to reconvene with the experienced hiker later. Sykes had enough survival gear to last a night comfortably on the mountain, her hiking partner told searchers.
As of 3 p.m. June 21st, the search for Sykes was suspended when an unidentified body was recovered form an area near where the veteran hiker was last seen. The coroner has of yet to confirm the identity of this body, and the cause of the unnamed hiker’s death is also undetermined.
Among the 400 deaths reported on Mount Rainer since 1897, the volcano most recently claimed the lives of six hikers in May. A search for the missing hikers near Rainier’s Carbon Glacier was called off after evidence of an avalanche or rock slide was discovered by rescue parties on May 31st, 2014 near the area where the hikers are believed last to have been camped during their descent. Searchers recovered clothing, backpacks and camping gear some 3,300 feet from the hikers’ last reported location. The steep Liberty Ridge route was the last place that any of the six climbers were heard from on May 28th, 2014; they had been attempting to summit Mount Rainer at 14,440 feet and were returning, according to reports from rescuers. With the four experienced hikers, one of whom had visited Mount Rainer over 50 times, were two climbing guides from Seattle’s climbing enthusiast organization, Alpine Ascents International.
Roughly 10,000 people attempt to summit Mount Rainier each year, and around 5,000 of those succeed. When two hikers from Texas successfully completed this feat on June 21, 2012, 33 year-old ranger Nick Hall was sent to their aid after the pair fell into a crevasse high on the mountain. The experienced hiker and rescue ranger fell backwards when safety measures went unobserved during recovery efforts, proving that, as in the case of the missing Sykes, even tenured hikers are vulnerable to the volcano’s steep and constantly shifting terrain. Cold nights and warm days can make gauging the stability of footing impossible, and, due to Seattle’s notoriously wet climate and the mountain’s unpredictable snow, falling and rotted timber, unstable rocks and heavy, very low-visibility fog, even familiar terrain can pose critical threats to hikers of all experience levels.
There have been roughly 3.5 fatalities a year in Mount Rainer, according to data collected by Mount Rainier National Park, since 1897. However, the park’s official site indicates that this number has declined dramatically in the past several decades, no information is presently available to reflect the veracity of this disclaimer. Not surprisingly, the highest fatalities at the popular hiking destination occur when backpackers are most likely to attempt climbs. When the rainy season outside of Seattle subsides and temperatures drift away from freezing at night, hikers begin to stir on the vast range, most often between May and September. Mount Rainier has claimed most of the 400 lives lost to falls, hypothermia, and drowning during June, which is the month with the highest instances of fatalities on Mount Rainer in the past 60 years.
By Mariah Beckman