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Fickle Slope, Risky Climb

April 12, 2005|Emmett Berg | Special to The Times

Chris BAMER and Rob Montague are no strangers to the gantlet of Washington's ice-topped Mt. Rainier. In February, they took a few days off from their professional guiding jobs at Rainier Mountaineering Inc. to scale the mountain from the tricky Ptarmigan Ridge route. They expected some difficulty but found something quite a bit more: Class 6 icy slopes, making a single slip deadly, even on moderate inclines, slowing their pace and eating up their time and supplies.

Six days into a trip that should have lasted two to three, they had to call for help on a park radio. They were caught in a huge storm, frostbite had set in and, unable to descend their intended route, they had gotten lost. Darkness was on the way.

The climbers managed to survive the freezing night, and when the storm finally broke the next day, rangers were able to fly to the scene and evacuate Bamer. But the Mt. Rainier guide suffered frostbite to 17 of his digits. Montague, uninjured, hiked out with rescuers.

For many American mountaineers, the road to the toughest climbs in the world goes through Mt. Rainier, considered the premier technical ice climb in the Lower 48. As climbing season dawns this spring, the tricky conditions and the popularity of the climb -- almost 10,000 people take on Mt. Rainier each year -- mean the mountain will be a busy place for Mike Gauthier, 35, head climbing ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park. He is in charge of rescue operations, and, by radio, helped talk Bamer and Montague down to the rescue site.

A climber who brings expert mountaineering skills to the job, Gauthier revamped rescue operations at Mt. Rainier by insisting that team members be climbers first, rangers second. He's become a part of local lore for his ability to fish the fallen out of crevasses and lead the stranded out of harm's way.

And there's plenty of that. The 14,410-foot volcanic peak, looming outside Seattle, is a fusillade of falling rocks, glaciers, crevasses, ice falls and mercurial weather, which have helped make it one of the deadliest climbs in the U.S.

Rainier has racked up at least 71 climber deaths since 1977, most from falls down icy slopes or crevasses, and it doesn't discriminate between veterans and novices. American Himalayan pioneer Willi Unsoeld, who pioneered the route up Mt. Everest's hair-raising West Face in 1964, was swept to his death in an avalanche on Rainier in 1979.

Gauthier, who friends call "Gator," is celebrated for his strength and nerve. When a climber slipped into a crevasse in 1999, Gauthier went along to supervise the rescue by a trainee. But after the trainee peered into the 150-foot-deep gash in the ice, he suddenly had second thoughts. " 'No way I'm going in there, man!' " he said, according to Gauthier.

So Gauthier fixed rescue anchors and rappelled down the chasm to the climber, Michael Corroone, 51, who was blue and motionless. Corroone's backpack straps had caught on the ice and suspended him "like a parachutist in a tree." It took an hour before Gauthier, upside down at times, could cut the helpless climber free from his pack and lash him into a harness for hoisting.

Gauthier, who grew up backpacking Washington state wilderness, has summitted Rainier 170 times in the last 15 years, in all seasons and weather conditions. He was "just a regular hike and camp" guy until he arrived at Mt. Rainier in 1990 to work as a seasonal ranger, learning the finer points of helicopter paramedic duty, technical rope work and search and rescue.

But Rainier's wrath turned Gauthier's part-time curiosity into a full-time duel when seasonal rangers Phil Otis and Sean Ryan, who roomed with the then-26-year-old Gauthier, headed up the mountain in 1995 on a rescue mission. Four hours later, rescue headquarters had lost radio contact with them. Days later, scanning the terrain from a helicopter, Gauthier spotted their bodies.

"That was a huge, devastating upheaval for me," Gauthier says. "The park service didn't issue climbing gear back then. Phil's crampons were duct-taped on." Gauthier realized then that he "could be critical, or he could stay and fight" during the aftermath of his friends' deaths. He decided to take the lesson of the tragedy -- that Mt. Rainier rescuers had to be bona fide climbers -- in his own hands. He became head climbing ranger and started to build a crack team that could marshal the proper techniques and gear.

Mt. Rainier climbing rangers must contend with a lot, including gale-force winds and whiteouts, while creatively pursuing leads on search-and-rescue missions. They need to be ready to slog miles through snow or leap from a helicopter onto a hillside, ice tools in hand. Every rescue shapes up a little differently.

"We have search-and-rescue plans, aviation-management plans and other guidelines, but there's no playbook for rescues," Gauthier says. "It's a melding of minds taking everything in."

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