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September 21, 2014

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Official: Recovering fallen climbers too dangerous

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Rachel La Corte / AP

Mount Rainier is seen in the distance from a viewpoint within Mount Rainier National Park on Sunday, June 1, 2014. Park officials said that there are no immediate plans to recover the bodies of six climbers who likely fell thousands of feet to their deaths in the worst alpine accident on the mountain in decades.

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — It's too dangerous right now to search for the bodies of six climbers who likely plummeted to their deaths while attempting one of the more technical and physically grueling routes to the peak of Mount Rainier in Washington state, park officials said Sunday.

Like others who have died on the mountain, there's a possibility the two guides and four climbers believed to have fallen 3,300 feet from their last known location may never be found, they say.

"People are very understanding that we cannot risk another life at this point," Patti Wold, a Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman, said Sunday.

Under safer conditions, crews could go in after the bodies. "The families, I'm sure, would like that closure," Wold said. But continuous falling ice and rock make the avalanche-prone area too dangerous for rescuers, she said.

The climbers were last heard from at 6 p.m. Wednesday when the guides checked in with their Seattle-based company, Alpine Ascents International, by satellite phone. The group failed to return Friday as planned.

They are presumed dead in one of the worst alpine accidents on Rainier since 1981, when 11 people were struck and killed by a massive ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier.

Family and friends of the dead climbers arrived at the mountain Sunday to meet with park officials, but declined to speak with media that had gathered at the park's headquarters.

"They're just devastated," Wold said.

It's unclear whether the climbers were moving or camping at the time of the accident, Wold said. Searchers located camping and climbing gear and detected signals from avalanche beacons buried in the snow at the top of the Carbon Glacier at 9,500 feet in elevation.

It's also not known what caused the climbers to fall from their last known whereabouts at 12,800 feet on Liberty Ridge, whether it was rock fall or an avalanche.

Glenn Kessler, the park's acting aviation manager, said "they are most likely buried," making recovery efforts even more challenging. They may be in an area too hazardous for rescuers to reach on the ground.

The area will be checked periodically by air in the coming weeks and months, Wold said. They will also evaluate the potential for a helicopter-based recovery as snow melts and conditions change.

Wold initially said that the park on Sunday would release the names of the six who died but later said the park cannot release the names for privacy reasons.

Rob Mahaney told The Associated Press that his 26-year-old nephew, Mark Mahaney, of St. Paul, Minnesota, was among those presumed dead. He said the climber's father and brother flew to Seattle on Saturday after learning what happened.

Mahaney said his nephew had climbed Rainier before.

"He just loved to climb, he loved the outdoors, he loved the exhilaration of being in the wide open," Rob Mahaney said. "Even as a toddler he was always climbing out of his crib. His parents couldn't keep him anywhere — he'd always find a way to get out of anything."

Last year, about 10,800 people attempted to climb the 14,410-foot glaciated peak southeast of Seattle, but only 129 used the Liberty Ridge route, according to park statistics. The vast majority use two other popular routes.

Gordon Janow, director of programs for Alpine Ascents International, said the group was on a five-day climb of the Liberty Ridge route.

The climbers had to meet certain prerequisites, and their ice and technical climbing skills as well as their biography were evaluated by a three-person team, Janow said.

The company's brochure says, at a minimum, those interested in the guided climb were required to be able to physically carry a 50-pound backpack on steep snow and icy slopes, ranging from 30 to 50 degrees in slope.

The guiding service lost five Nepalese guides in a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest in April that killed 16 Sherpa guides.

Le reported from Seattle. Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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