Washington State’s Mt. Rainier, towering over the Cascade Mountain Range, has seen its share of tragedies over the years. The ubiquitous northwest peak is in the news again this week, as a body was recovered from an area outside of one of the mountain’s numerous hiking paths. Many are drawn to the dream of scaling Rainier; its challenge and beauty pushing climbers to explore its flanks, from the bottom of the mountain’s “Old Growth Forest” historic trails, to its icy and breath-taking snow-capped summit. Avid hikers and climbers are generally aware of the inherent dangers in scaling such a peak, and continue to flock to its slopes year after year, risking the possible consequences. Underlining the mountain’s deadly hazards, however, only highlight its allure, for, each year, thousands of climbers, hikers, and nature enthusiasts explore the mountain’s beauty, proving the drawing power of the state’s most iconic peak.
Standing at roughly 14,410 feet, and labeled as the 5th highest peak in the lower 48, Mt. Rainier has a recorded 89 deaths since 1897. The National Park Service ledger indicates a distinct difference between fatalities in Mount Rainier National Park, and the mountain itself; while park fatalities differ in nature, most of the deaths on the mountain itself paint a lurid portrait of just how deadly the peak can be, and just what it is capable of doing. Fatalities range from “hypothermia” to “traumatic injuries,” to falling deaths, asphyxiation, and the ominous label of “missing, presumed dead.” The catalogue of fatalities continues, reading like a police report; categories of names, injuries, and their traumatic events are listed in a bleak and objective manner. However objective it may be, the register induces a deep sense of humility and appreciation for the power and beauty of the mountain.
This power was nationally displayed several decades ago, ticking a significant mark in the mountain’s colorful history. In what is largely considered the worst U.S. mountaineering accident to date, 11 people perished in a single incident on Rainier’s Ingraham Glacier after climbers were buried under an enormous icefall in June 1981. As the recorded list of fatalities continues to date, so do the throngs of people who bask in the mountain’s awe-inspiring shadow.
In the last month, two separate tragedies befell climbers on the peak; a party of six people—four climbers and two guides—went missing and are now presumed dead, after a cache of their gear was found on Carbon Glacier at approximately 12,800 feet via the Liberty Ridge, one of Rainier’s notoriously difficult and deadly routes. The second and most recent incident revealed that just days ago, a woman’s body was recovered from steep, rocky terrain, off of a well-tread path. While not yet confirmed, the body is believed to be that of 70-year-old Seattleite Karen Sykes, a well-known writer and hiking enthusiast.
In 2013 alone, approximately 11,000 people attempted to scale Mt. Rainier, resulting in a successful summit rate of about half. In total that year, park officials recorded 40 rescue operations, many of which returned, successful. With so much rocky terrain, steep drop-offs, and deep crevasses, is scaling Rainier worth the risk? In the “man versus nature” battle, humbled climbers argue that nature wins the power struggle, the peak’s deadly history serving as a grim reminder that while climbers are tough, man is still fragile.
By Hayden Freed