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Descent Into Horror

Mt. Rainier Avalanche Victims Recount Dramatic Rescue

June 19, 1998|PETE THOMAS

Reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier was quite an accomplishment, Deborah Lynn said, but standing on what seemed the top of the world was not her most memorable moment during last week's climb.

That would have been being swept up by an avalanche, launched over a cliff and finding herself hanging precariously 200 feet above a glacier for 2 1/2 hours, literally turning blue and wondering whether she would see her family again.

"I became delirious because I got so cold," said Lynn, 44, who eventually did make it home to Manhattan Beach, where she is nursing bruised ribs and spending quality time with her husband, young son and two young daughters.

"I remember shivering and then I stopped shivering and just started turning numb. And then I started hallucinating and dreaming about my family and various other things, some of which were really weird."

Indeed, Lynn's first climb turned into a hypothermic nightmare she will never forget.

She and two friends--Susan Hall, 45, and Nina Redman, 35, also from Manhattan Beach--were among 10 people who last Thursday afternoon were making their way down the 14,411-foot peak in Washington state when they were hit by a slide of snow and ice that ultimately killed one climber and injured seven others, among them Redman, who strained her neck, and Hall, who suffered a broken hand.

The avalanche engulfed two five-person teams--the expedition included 18 climbers and seven guides--as they were trying to cross a rocky, icy ridge called Disappointment Cleaver, which separates two large glaciers on the mountain's east face at 11,400 feet.

"As we were walking along the ledge I heard the word 'Avalanche!' " said Lynn, an anesthesiologist at a South Bay urgent-care facility. "We were told to run and got only about five or 10 feet when the avalanche hit. I didn't even see or hear it. It hit me on the side and I became airborne. I was over the ledge and airborne when I came to a stop. I was upside down and being held there only by my harness and the rope."

Hall, a single mother of two, remembers being hit by two waves of snow and ice.

"The first wave hit me behind the knees," she said. "Then, a couple of seconds later, a bigger wave hit me in the back and knocked me on my face, and I guess we all disappeared and submarined down the mountain.

"I must have blacked out and when I came to, I was out [from under] the snow with my pack over my head and the straps pulling so tight around my throat that I thought I was choking. My helmet was over my eyes."

The rope she was holding had wrapped around her hand, which was partially crushed by the weight of the falling climbers.

Members of each team were roped to one another and spaced well apart, and at least one member of each group had clipped into an 800-foot fixed safety line stretched over the snow for the precarious crossing.

After the avalanche, guide Curt Hewitt, whose group included Lynn and Hall, found himself half buried well above the rocky ridge. He was attached to the safety line, but the weight of the climbers had ripped out two of three anchors holding the line in place.

The safety line and the rope attached to his climbers were wrapped around his left arm and hand. With his right hand, he managed to grab the radio from his pack and call for help, which led to a dramatic rescue that played out over the next several hours.

Hall, Gregg Swanson, 42, of Saugus, and his brother Kent, 53, of Phoenix, were sprawled in the snow below Hewitt and just above the ledge. Lynn had been swept over the ledge. After hanging briefly upside down, she managed to right herself and prop herself up against the mountain, but she knew she was in serious trouble, and she couldn't get out from beneath an icy stream of icy water--snowmelt from the spring thaw.

Like some of the others, she had removed her jacket and fleece pants because it had been a fairly warm afternoon, with temperatures in the low 50s. She soon discovered, however, that she was not dressed for the occasion. She couldn't move for fear of falling. She was beginning to shiver, wondering what was going on above the ledge.

"One of the things I kept hearing was all the people above me shouting, 'Don't move!' because I guess the rope was frayed and close to breaking," she said.

Their rope, pulled taut against the rocky ledge, had frayed some, but the nylon rope that tethered the second group of climbers to the safety line had frayed even worse. In essence, the ropes of both groups had become tangled and those beneath the ledge were literally hanging by a thread.

Ruth Mahre, sister of former Olympic skiers Phil and Steve Mahre, was the leader of the second group and also was clipped into the fixed safety line above the ledge. She managed to secure her rope to a rock to alleviate some of the pressure on the safety line.

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