Mount Rainier climbers presumed dead near Liberty Ridge

by: KIRO 7 Staff and The Associated Press Updated:

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MOUNT RAINIER, Wash. —

 Quick Facts:

  • Group of 6 climbers presumed dead after 3,300-foot fall on Mount Rainier
  • Climbing group started their trek Monday and the group was due out Friday
  • Group is with Alpine Ascents International, based in Seattle.
  • Missing guide was from Seattle, another man reportedly from St. Paul, Minn.
  • Searchers are focusing at the Liberty Ridge area, the northwest side of the mountain

Six climbers on Mount Rainier likely perished in a fall after helicopters detected pings from avalanche beacons and spotted climbing gear thousands of feet below the group's last known location, national park officials said Saturday.

Searchers believe the group fell 3,300 feet from their last known whereabouts of 12,800 feet on Wednesday, park spokeswoman Patricia Wold said in a statement. The helicopter crew spotted camping and climbing gear in the avalanche-prone area, park Ranger Fawn Bauer said.

"There's not a viable chance of survival," Bauer said.

KIRO 7 has a crew at Mt. Rainier and staff in Seattle gathering information about the climbers. We'll update this story throughout the day and bring you the latest video from the mountain on KIRO 7 Eyewitness News starting at 5 p.m.

The missing group includes four clients of Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International and two guides. They were due to return from the mountain on Friday. When they did not return, the climbing company notified park officials, Bauer said.

Alpine Ascents' director of programs, Gordon Janow, confirmed that the missing guide is Matt Hegeman, but told KIRO 7 he wasn't ready to release information about all of the climbers.

A St. Paul man, Mark Mahaney, is one of the six climbers missing and feared dead on Mount Rainier, the man's uncle told the Pioneer Press on Saturday. 

The 26-year-old from Elko, Minn., had climbed Mt. Rainier before and also climbed Mt. McKinley, the newspaper reported, and family was traveling to Seattle on Saturday.

"Mark was a very energetic child," Rob Mahaney told the Pioneer Press. "He was one to be known to get into trouble no matter what. He learned to put all this energy he had and put it into something he loved to do, which is climbing mountains."

Air and ground searches were suspended late Saturday afternoon. The danger of falling rock and ice in the area where searchers picked up the pings prevents a ground recovery effort, Wold said.

"It would expose our rangers to pretty extreme conditions," Bauer said. "And, in all honesty, we may never be able to get on the ground there."

Aircraft will survey the area periodically in the coming weeks and months, Wold said, but the possibility of recovering the six is uncertain.

Officials had not finished family notifications, which is why names of all six climbers were not released Saturday.

"The climbing community is a small one and a close one and a loss of this magnitude touches many," Superintendent Randy King said in the statement.

Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle, stands at 14,410 feet and attracts thousands of climbers trying to reach its summit every year.

The search for the missing climbers focused on the northwest shoulder of the mountain at the Liberty Ridge area, near where they were last heard from, Bauer said. Saturday's search included a team of three climbing rangers on the ground and flyovers with a Hughes helicopter. An Army Chinook helicopter then joined the search from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

>>> KIRO 7 gives rare look from Army's Chinook helicopter

The group was scheduled to reach the summit of Mount Rainier on Thursday, with a day to climb down.

Snow flurries and hail hit the mountain Wednesday, Bauer said, but the weather has been clear since then.

Bauer said ground crews on Saturday checked "every possible area" where someone could have sought refuge in the storm.

In a blog post on the Alpine Ascents website Thursday, the post said the team had turned around at 13,000 feet during their attempt to reach the summit because of weather conditions. The blog post said all team members were well.

As the snow melts and conditions on the mountain change, searchers will reevaluate whether they can safely go in and recover the remains of those missing climbers.

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Manuel Valdes of The Associated Press reported from Washington; Steven Dubois of The Associated Press reported from Portland, Oregon. KIRO 7 reporters Chris Legeros and Natasha Chen contributed to this story.