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A look back at Liberty Ridge

Post by Craig Hill / The News Tribune on June 28, 2009 at 6:24 am with No Comments »
June 28, 2009 6:24 am

Hope you got a chance to read today’s articles about Scott Richards’ heroic 2004 attempt to save his best friend’s life on Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge.

As promised, here’s the account of the incident from the perception of climbing ranger David Gottlieb who shared his story with The News Tribune in 2004, just days after Peter Cooley died.

By Craig Hill


The first sign he was getting close was the sound of a distress whistle piercing the thin mountain air.

After more than 40 hours on the precarious Liberty Ridge route up Mount Rainier, climbing ranger David Gottlieb finally was closing in on a critically injured climber and his partner.

As Gottlieb and fellow ranger Charlie Borgh approached the scene Monday afternoon, they were stunned by what they saw.

“It was an incredible situation,” Gottlieb said.

Scott Richards, a veteran climber, had chipped a ledge into the icy face of the mountain and set up a small tent that hung over the edge. Inside, his partner, Peter Cooley, was wrapped in three sleeping bags and had an inch-deep wound on the left side of his head.

“Scott was excited to see us,” Gottlieb said. “His situation was nothing less than desperate. … His entire motivation was to get his friend out of there.”

A climb that started May 13 went wrong about 6 a.m. Saturday when Cooley tripped and fell an estimated 30 feet down a cliff, injuring his head.

Richards called for help on his cell phone, launching a rescue attempt that involved more than 50 people at a cost of more than $100,000. After two days of fighting through rain and snow storms, the weather broke long enough Monday for an Oregon National Guard helicopter to pluck Cooley from the mountain.

But it was too late.

The 39-year-old married father of three died during the 15-minute flight to Madigan Army Medical Center.

The trip

Climbing brought Cooley and Richards together in the tiny southern Maine coastal town of Cape Elizabeth. Their mutual interest gave them an instant bond in a town where most of the 9,000 residents rarely climb anything higher than the steps of their famous lighthouses.

Together, they traversed areas more challenging than the place Cooley fell Saturday. In fact, they’d climbed this route previously, only to be turned back shy of the summit by nasty weather.

They were lured to Liberty Ridge by the same attraction that draws as many as 200 climbers to the route each year.

“It is a classic,” said Mike Gauthier, the ranger who organized the rescue.

The steep ridge reaches pitches of 50 degrees in some places and splits two towering ice walls near the summit. Those ice walls – Liberty Wall to the right and Willis Wall to the left – are the edges of glaciers that are being pushed to the edge of the summit.

As often as three times each day, chunks of ice and rock “the size of houses fall off the wall and explode into smaller chunks” as they careen down the mountain, Gottlieb said.

What happened to Cooley, however, had little to do with terrain and much to do with bad luck.

Cooley apparently caught his crampon on his pant leg and tripped, something Gottlieb says is common. “It happens to me probably once a week,” he said.

When it happens at 12,300 feet, it can be deadly.

Cooley was climbing the east side of the ridge, ahead of Richards, who was below him on the west side, attached with a 50-foot rope.

Richards told Gottlieb that after Cooley tripped, he cart-wheeled over a cliff and fell at least 30 feet, hitting his head on a rock at a point below his helmet line and sustaining an inch-deep wound that ran from above his left eye to his left ear.

The fall pulled Richards several yards toward the top of the ridge before he stopped. His friend’s motionless body dangled from his harness.

What happened next shows how skilled an alpinist Richards is, Gottlieb said.

While holding his friend with one hand, he wedged ice screws into the ridge with his other hand. He transferred Cooley’s weight to the screws, then rappelled down to inspect him. He moved his friend near a rock outcrop where he chiseled out a shelf about 2 feet wide. He then pitched a small tent.

Cooley was bleeding profusely and appeared to have a separated shoulder.

Richards spent the next 72 sleepless hours in the cramped tent, caring for his dying friend.

First crew out

Gottlieb was at a friend’s house in Seattle on Saturday morning when he got a call from Gauthier.

The two, close friends since 1995, had returned Friday night from a climbing trip in Alaska. When Gauthier told him what had happened, Gottlieb picked up supplies, then met fellow climbing ranger Chris Olson at Longmire. The two packed light for a quick ascent, then drove around the mountain to Ipsut Creek and started climbing at 9 p.m.

The weather was uncooperative, and snow made it hard to discern sky from mountain. The conditions cost them at least an hour as they twice found themselves heading in the wrong direction.

At 1 a.m., and at about 7,000 feet, the weather forced Gottlieb and Olson to stop. They ate, melted snow into drinking water and waited for safer conditions. But the weather would not relent, and by Sunday night, the rangers were still 3,500 feet from the stranded climbers.

The next waves

At 3:30 a.m. Sunday, five climbing rangers led by Glenn Kessler, Greg Johnson and Borgh began their ascent.

They carried packs loaded with 90 pounds of gear needed to lower Cooley. They moved quickly in the trail broken by Gottlieb and Olson, and frequent radio contact made sure they didn’t make the same missteps.

They and other rescuers established camp at the foot of Liberty Ridge in whiteout conditions and waited for the weather to moderate.

Helicopter-borne rescuers failed to reach the climbers Sunday night but were able to drop a radio, sleeping bags and food.

During another aborted attempt Monday, rescuers dropped an orange litter.

Monday morning, Gottlieb assessed the exhausted rescue crew to find the most prepared partner for a speedy two-man climb. He chose Borgh.

Soon four other climbers, including Kessler and Johnson, began climbing to Thumb Rock at 10,300 feet with heavy loads of gear.

They planned to climb to the injured climber Tuesday morning and set up an elaborate six-man lowering system that might have had Cooley at a hospital by Thursday.

That plan was never used. Around 1 p.m. Gottlieb and Olson reached the climbers. Two hours later, the weather finally broke.

The rescue

Gauthier was explaining the complicated rescue plan to the media at Longmire at 3:30 p.m. Monday when he was rushed into the building and told the weather was suitable for an airborne rescue.

Because of the gear dropped during the earlier attempt, it took just seven minutes to get Cooley inside.

The doors in the belly of the Chinook weren’t wide enough to lift Cooley horizontally, so he had to be hoisted vertically. Still, it was a better option than carrying him down. There was no cheering when the Chinook pulled away.

“We weren’t out of the woods yet,” Gottlieb said.

Richards and the rescuers were fatigued and still needed to get down the mountain themselves. They descended 1,600 feet to Thumb Rock to spend the night.

The bad news

The news that Cooley had died hit the television and radio airwaves before it reached the mountain. Kessler was the first rescuer to learn of his death.

“It was a huge letdown,” Kessler said.

Because Gottlieb had spent the most time with the climbers, he took responsibility for telling Richards. At 10,700 feet, both men wept.

“He didn’t totally break down, because he knew if he did he would be a liability to us,” Gottlieb said.

The men spent Monday night at Thumb Rock and started descending Tuesday, lowering the physically and emotionally drained Richards by rope. At 9 a.m., the weather cleared enough for a helicopter to lift them all off the mountain.

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