National Park Service rangers will try again today to reach a pair of climbers stranded on Mount Rainier, two days after one of them suffered a serious head injury in a fall.
Maine residents Peter Cooley, 39, and Scott Richards, 42, spent their second night huddled in a tent at 12,300 feet on Liberty Ridge after rescuers on foot and in a helicopter failed to reach them Sunday. Temperatures were expected to drop into the teens overnight.
Park officials spoke to Richards by cell phone at least twice Sunday. He said Cooley, who suffered a gash on his head, what appeared to be a broken arm and a leg injury Saturday morning, continued to be combative and disoriented. His condition had not worsened, which was a piece of good news, said Kevin Bacher, a spokesman for Mount Rainier National Park.
Richards told park officials he was doing everything he could to keep his friend and climbing partner comfortable, and vowed to "stay up here if it takes a week" to be rescued. He also said the men were thinking of their wives as they waited for help, according to Patti Wold, a park spokeswoman.
"They're being stoic. They know how long it can take for us to get to them," Bacher said Sunday evening. "They're just being patient."
Bacher said the men have adequate provisions to get through today without worry. "They might have to start rationing if it gets any longer than that," he said. "We certainly hope to reach them today."
The original plan was to reach them Sunday, but the weather, always unpredictable on Mount Rainier in May, intervened.
Climbing rangers David Gottlieb and Chris Olson began moving toward the men Saturday afternoon and hoped to find them in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday. But a whiteout forced the elite rangers to a halt about 5,000 feet below Cooley and Richards about 1 a.m. Sunday, Wold said. The rangers "hunkered down for several hours" until the weather cleared enough for them to move again, she said.
Nasty weather, including thick fog and snow, continued to slow their efforts during the day Sunday, Wold said.
Gottlieb and Olson were sinking into deep snow with each step, what mountaineers call "post-holing," and had to go slowly to navigate through the fog as they climbed.
"This is going very slow because of the weather," said Lee Taylor, another spokeswoman for the park.
As night fell Sunday, Gottlieb and Olson hooked up with a team of five other rangers who were following in their footsteps at about 8,800 feet elevation. The group made camp, and Gottlieb and Olson, going "fast and light," intended to press on - weather permitting - first thing this morning, Bacher said. The larger group will follow.
Another party of five volunteers from Tacoma Mountain Rescue also was on its way up the mountain Sunday evening to support the rescue effort.
A helicopter was over the mountain about 6:30 p.m. scouting terrain, Bacher said, but a mission earlier in the day to try to rescue Cooley and Richards with an Oregon National Guard Chinook helicopter was aborted because of bad weather.
Helicopters could be grounded today as the weather forecast calls for more clouds and snow showers at 7,500 feet and higher.
"It's not uncommon for the weather to be so bad that we can't get a helicopter to the climbers," Taylor said. "But it is uncommon that it stays so bad that we have to do the entire rescue on foot."
The remote spot where the men are stuck is complicating the rescue, park officials said. The climbing route on Liberty Ridge, which is on the north side of the 14,410-foot volcano, rises at a 45-degree slope in some places.
"This is a technically challenging rescue due to the steepness of the terrain, high elevation and poor weather," incident commander Mike Gauthier said in a press release issued by the park. "We are sending in only highly skilled climbers, including National Park Service rangers, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guides and volunteers from Tacoma Mountain Rescue. All of these people are giving their all to get Peter Cooley to safety."
A Park Service advisory issued Saturday warned climbers taking the Liberty Ridge route to the top of Washington's highest peak to expect "winter snow conditions from top to bottom."
"These conditions, combined with winter road closures, may significantly lengthen the time required to complete the route and will increase overall remoteness and seriousness of this undertaking," the advisory said.
Cooley and Richards started their climb at Ipsut Creek near the Carbon River entrance to the park and crossed Carbon Glacier to Liberty Ridge by about 6 a.m. Saturday, rangers said.
They were less than 2,000 feet from the summit when Cooley fell about 30 feet and slammed into a rock. He suffered a 1-inch gash just below the rim of his helmet. He also hurt his arm and leg. Richards, who was not hurt, called 911 on his cell phone to alert rangers of their predicament, and the rescue effort was launched.
Cooley and Richards are both experienced climbers who are in "excellent physical condition," Cooley's family said in a statement Sunday. "They have both climbed Mount Rainier before, successfully. They are good friends."
Both men come from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, which is just outside Portland, the state's largest city.
Jon Tierney teaches alpine mountaineering courses in Maine, once worked as a high-elevation rescue ranger and has made it to the top of Rainier himself. Tierney said Cooley has a good chance of surviving if he is in a tent, has a warm sleeping bag and can stay dry.
"If he's survived this long, that's a good sign," said Tierney, who does not know either of the stranded climbers. "I don't think the altitude will be an issue. I think the weather and the environmental conditions will be the real issue."