Descent Into Horror

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.

Three of her climbers had gone over the ledge, one of them coming to rest on a smaller ledge and another, Redman, on a snowy incline. The third, Patrick Nestler, 29, of Connecticut, was in the worst predicament, dangling in mid-air nearly 100 feet below the ledge, out of sight of the others, suffering from various injuries and getting drenched by snowmelt.

At one point Nestler shouted, "Tell me what's happening! Will somebody please talk to me!"

Redman, 35, a librarian at Glendale College, was lying in the snow facing uphill. She looked down but couldn't see Nestler, but she did try to answer him.

"I said, 'I'm here, Pat. I'm talking to you.' "

Nestler, however, either couldn't hear her or he was delirious because he shouted out the same phrase again, then stopped talking altogether. Because of his position, well below the others, he was the last one rescuers reached, about 7 p.m., and by that time it was too late. Hypothermia had claimed his life.

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Help began to arrive not long after the avalanche, which occurred about 2:30 p.m. Mike Gauthier, a climbing ranger for Mt. Rainier National Park, was above the site and responded to Hewitt's call for help, using a snowboard to reach the imperiled climbers. Guides not involved in the slide--and those from nearby expeditions--already had begun anchoring a new safety line. A rescue team was flown in by helicopter.

The operation was a delicate one, requiring several hours to complete. One by one, rescuers rappelled to the climbers, secured each with new ropes and inched them to safety.

Lynn, who doesn't remember everything about the incident because of delirium brought on by hypothermia, said she does recall making a pact with Redman.

"We said if one of us doesn't make it, the other one has to tell her children how much she loved them," Lynn said.

When rescuer Ned Randolph finally reached her, she was slipping in and out of consciousness.

"Ned came down to me on a rope and said, 'I'm here to rescue you,' " Lynn recalled. "I told him, 'No you're not; you're interrupting my dream.' "

She was pulled up over the ledge and immediately dressed in warm clothing and given warm fluids. She suffered no lasting effects of hypothermia.

Redman, while she was waiting to be rescued, said she was thinking about her husband and two young boys, "hoping I would get to finish being their mom."

By dusk, all of the climbers had been rescued and Nestler's body had been pulled up. The climbers--none of them with life-threatening injuries--were airlifted to area hospitals, then released the next day.

The next morning, an investigation was launched as a matter of formality.

The Rainier climb is typically a two-day affair, with the initial ascent taking climbers to Camp Muir at 10,080 feet. There, they usually make camp and get some sleep before beginning their final ascent about midnight. That way, they can be back down to Camp Muir by 1 p.m., before the snow has a chance to soften and become unstable.

The group hit by the avalanche was a little slower than most--the climbers were mostly beginners enrolled in a five-day seminar--and it had spent a little longer on the summit because it was such a beautiful day, with a visibility of more than 100 miles.

Lou Whittaker, co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering Inc., the company leading the expedition, responded to criticism that the group might have used poor judgment in descending so late.

"As far as the safety factor goes, I would feel as safe climbing in the evening as in the morning," Whittaker told the Seattle Times. "I've climbed this mountain hundreds of times. The avalanches come at all times of the year and all times of the day. . . . We turn around when we think it's bad."

It is not known what caused the slide, but one of the guides, Tyler Foreman, said he might have caused it when he stumbled while crossing an icy slope above most of the climbers.

But John Krambrink, chief ranger for the park, said Foreman should not blame himself for this year's worst accident on the mountain.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Krambrink said, "This snow was just ripe for a slide. It was the right slope and the right conditions and sometimes, I swear, if you even look at it the wrong way, it'll go."

None of the three Manhattan Beach women involved had anything bad to say about RMI or Whittaker, a world-renowned mountaineer.

In fact, they praised his guides for their professionalism and thoroughness before the avalanche and during the rescue.

"Would it have saved us if we had come down an hour or two earlier?" Lynn said. "How are we to know and who are we to say?"

She would say, however, that she's very glad to be home with her family.

"And I don't think we'll be climbing any more mountains again soon."

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