MOUNT RAINIER, Wash. – Deteriorating weather conditions halted search efforts Saturday evening for a missing climber buried in an avalanche on Mount Rainier.
Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Patti Wold said several climbing teams were overtaken by a slab avalanche at the 12,500-foot level at 4:45 a.m. The slab, estimated to be 1 to 2 meters thick, and 300 to 400 feet wide, slid down the mountainside more than a thousand feet.
Eleven climbers were buried in the snow during their summit attempt on the Ingraham Direct climbing route, which follows the Ingraham Glacier on the mountain's southeast side.
Ten of the eleven are accounted for, said Wold, most rescued by guides and emergency teams, including two men that were airlifted off the mountain. A skier managed to make it out on his own.
Teams were not able to locate the eleventh climber, believed to be a Korean national who may have been hiking alone.
"Really kind of hits you hard, you know, especially to hear ... somebody was pulled out, another guy had lacerations on his head, just kind of a scary thing," said Dale Ackley, whose team was attempting to summit the mountain early Saturday morning about 300 yards behind those who were caught in the avalanche.
"We could already see another group of climbers with their headlamps," he said, "It's really all you could see at night, just the little dots of light."
Ackley said his guides were cautioning their team to move slower because of the avalanche danger.
"Minutes after that, I heard the guide behind me yell on the radio, 'Tyler! Run!' Tyler was our lead guy. And we all looked up and we could see the avalanche plume coming right at us," Ackley said.
Ackley said his team ran to the right and took up defensive postures against the coming snow, but the debris field stopped about 150 yards ahead of them. Ackley said as soon as guides felt the coast was clear, they began rushing up to help the climbers ahead of them, "because we saw the headlamps disappear in the avalanche."
A helicopter from the U.S. Army Reserve out of Fort Lewis removed the two injured climbers and several rescuers from the scene Saturday afternoon. Wold said those two climbers were flown to an area hospital and were in stable condition with lacerations and other injuries.
A third climber walked to Camp Muir.
"The missing climber did not register for his climb, so we are focusing our efforts on identifying him. Until we do, we are unable to notify his family of the situation," said Mountaineering District Ranger Stefan Lofgren in a press release.
A helicopter conducted an aerial search, which was later called off due to the conditions. A ground search is not possible because of high avalanche danger.
In a slab avalanche, a large plate of snow breaks away. Wold said.
Weather conditions deteriorated late Saturday, and park officials estimated it may be another 48 hours before it is safe to resume searching, with avalanche danger and air conditions making it unsafe for both air and ground operations.
According to Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there have been 34 avalanche fatalities nationwide in the 2009-2010 season.
About 5 percent of the more than 10,000 who climbed the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier last year used the Ingraham Direct, according to a park report.