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Weather turns back search helicopter at Mount Rainier

Post by Craig Hill / The News Tribune on Jan. 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
January 22, 2012 3:19 pm

UPDATE, Sunday 2:50 p.m. - Improved visibility on Mount Rainier today is allowing searchers to look for four overdue campers and climbers in areas they’ve previously been unable to search, park spokeswoman Patti Wold said.

A Chinook helicopter attempted to help with the search but was turned back by unfavorable conditions, Wold said. The helicopter remains on standby at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

 

UPDATE, Saturday, 4 p.m. – Mount Rainier National Park Spokeswoman Patti Wold said searchers encountered 60 mph winds and visibility of about 10 feet today, conditions too severe for search patterns at higher elevations. They are searching at lower elevations. Areas searched today include Paradise Glacier, Alta Vista and the upper Stevens Canyon.

UPDATE, Saturday, 1:15 p.m. - A crew of about 26 searchers are looking for the four missing people on Mount Rainier today. A helicopter remains on standby.

 

UPDATE, Friday, 5:33 p.m. – Fierce weather on Mount Rainier’s upper slopes thwarted another attempt to find four people missing on the mountain’s upper slopes Friday.

After a short morning search, five rescuers were forced off the mountain, but they remain in position to continue searching once weather improves, said Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Patti Wold. The weather also prevented the use of a helicopter, which remains on standby at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Searchers faced 40 mph winds and whiteout conditions during Friday’s search.

Two campers – Mark Vucich, 37, of San Diego and Michelle Trojanowski, 30, of Atlanta – were due off the mountain Sunday. Two climbers – Sork Yang, 52, of Springfield, Ore., and Jin Seol Hee of Korea – were scheduled to return Monday.

Both parties are well prepared and are expected to be hunkered down and waiting out the storm before returning down the mountain to Paradise. Vucich is training to be a mountain guide according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.  However, as time passes concern the groups are running low on supplies is starting to mount.

The campers reportedly have avalanche beacons, which searchers can use to locate them, but the climbers did not list beacons among their gear on their climbing cards, Wold said.

Both parties are believed to have cell phones with them, but attempts to reach them have been unsuccessful, Wold said.

There is cell phone reception at Camp Muir, 10,188 feet above sea level, and on the upper mountain but it is often unreliable, said Eric Simonson, director of Ashford-based International Mountain Guides.

There is a National Park Service radio in Camp Muir’s public shelter. It was checked and operational last week, said Stefan Lofgren, director of Rainier’s climbing program.

Ten elite mountaineers trekked to Muir on Thursday looking for the missing parties. Two remained overnight while eight returned searching the snowfield again on the descent. Three returned to Muir Friday morning to assist in the search.

The families of the stranded parties remain hopeful.

“We choose to remain vigilant and positive for their safe return,” Jack Anthony, Vucich’s uncle, told San Diego’s ABC affiliate television station. “They are experienced and equipped. We elect to consider them as overdue as opposed to missing.”

 

UPDATE, 5:10 p.m. – Poor weather searchers off the mountain for the day. They remain on standby to continue searching when weather improves.  Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Patti Wold confirms that missing climbers are Sork (Erik) Yang, 52, of Springfield, OR, and Jin Seol Hee, from Korea.

 

UPDATE, 1:20 p.m. – A short search by five rescuers this morning on Mount Rainier turned up no signs of four stranded people, park spokeswoman Patti Wold said. The search has been suspended because of inclement weather. The searchers included two who spent the night at Camp Muir and three who hiked up this morning. Weather also prevented the use of a helicopter.

The missing parties – two climbers and two snow campers – are prepared for nasty weather but do not have snowshoes or skis and will need to be assisted down the mountain, Wold said.

Searchers found no sign of two overdue parties Thursday during a trek through blizzard conditions to Mount Rainier’s Camp Muir, park officials said.

Two of the 10 experienced rescuers remained at Muir overnight in position to continue searching today while the others returned to Paradise Thursday searching the snowfield as they descended.

Park officials are hoping an expected window of better weather this morning will give the two remaining rescuers a chance to search under more ideal conditions.

Another storm is expected by midday which, coupled with avalanche hazard, could prevent them from searching tomorrow and perhaps for days to come.

“The weather is the greatest challenge to search efforts at this time,” said incident commander Kelly Bush.

Snow is piling up by the foot on the mountain and wind gusts have exceeded 100 mph.

“It really is pointless to slowly break trail in blizzard conditions …,” said Stefan Lofgren, head of Rainier’s climbing program but not part of this search. “You can’t place people at risk in the same weather that pinned down the people you are trying to rescue.”

A statement from the park Thursday said the search would be immediately suspended if conditions become unsafe.

Two campers – Mark Vucich, 37, of San Diego and Michelle Trojanowski, 30, of Atlanta – were due off the mountain Sunday. Two climbers, whose names have not been released, from Springfield, Ore., were scheduled to return Monday.

Both parties reportedly were well prepared and park officials assume they are hunkering down to wait for save weather for travel back to Paradise as upper-mountain visitors are instructed to do.

However as time passes concern the groups are running low on supplies are starting to mount.

Thursday’s search party consisted of park climbing rangers, members of Seattle and Everett mountain rescue and guides from International Mountain Guides and Rainier Mountaineering Inc.

Faye Vucich, Mark’s stepmother, told the Associated Press that Vucich was well equipped and had outdoor experience, but not in the snow. She lives in Auburn and said she never met Trojanowski.

“The whole family is saying ‘no comment,’” Faye Vucich told the Associated Press. “My husband is too distraught to even talk. The Park Service has been incredible in calling us and telling us what they can do and what they can’t

“Mark is very knowledgeable about survival techniques — mostly self-taught, from going places with other mountain climbing friends. They’ve got everything they need to survive something like this, but I don’t know how many days. We’re trying to stay optimistic.”

A search helicopter is on standby at Joint Base Lewis-McChord but it was grounded Thursday by freezing rain.

There is a public shelter at Camp Muir, 10,188 feet up the southeast side of the mountain, and a park radio that can be used for emergencies. Lofgren said the radio was tested last week and was working. He said it is also not uncommon for people not to use the radio because they don’t think of their situation as an emergency and “they don’t want to cause alarm.”

On Monday, rescuers found three snowshoers above Paradise two days after being trapped by blizzard conditions during day hikes.

The road to Paradise will be closed at the park entrance today, said park spokeswoman Patti Wold.

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