SEATTLE (AP) — The location of the three bodies was revealed by the melting snow, but getting to them was another matter. They were high on a glacier at one of the most treacherous spots on Mount Rainier, an area pummeled by falling ice and rocks.
So rangers borrowed a tool from their colleagues at Denali National Park in Alaska — a mechanical claw that’s so highly specialized it hasn’t been used in years.
A helicopter equipped with the device plucked the bodies of the three climbers off Mount Rainier on Tuesday, in the same area where a party of six vanished last May.
“We’ve talked about using it before, but never really had a need for it,” said Doug Uttecht, the chief pilot at Olympia-based NorthWest Helicopters, who flew the recovery mission. “In this case, we needed to keep people out of that area. That’s the reason the bodies hadn’t been recovered: They’re right in the middle of the falling rock and ice that’s coming off that cliff.”
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office said Thursday that it’s still working to identify the bodies, but the National Park Service believes they were members of the same party that went missing.
A crew on a training flight spotted the bodies in avalanche debris field Aug. 7, but the area, at the 9,500-foot level on the Carbon Glacier, was considered risky for a typical recovery operation. Warm weather has led to more ice and rock falls as well as the opening of new crevasses, making it one of the most hazardous spots on the 14,410-foot volcano, Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Patti Wold said.
NorthWest Helicopters had to wire up a special control box to use the mechanical grabber with the company’s MD-530 helicopter, and Uttecht flew practice runs picking up small logs. The device was mounted at the end of 100-foot-long line, saving crews from having to lower a mountaineering ranger down to the glacier.
Park Service rangers with radios positioned themselves in safe areas nearby and prepared to warn Uttecht if a major slide came down. The most difficult part of the mission was positioning the claw perfectly over the bodies, he said.
Wold described the device as similar to “those games in the grocery store where you use the claw to grab the toys.”
The six missing climbers, all experienced mountaineers, included two guides and four climbers. They went missing the last week of May on a technical, dangerous and little-used route up Liberty Ridge. Authorities believe they fell 3,300 feet.
Members of the group were Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International guides Matthew Hegeman and Eitan Green; Erik Britton Kolb, a 34-year-old finance manager at American Express, who had traveled from New York; Uday Marty, a vice president and managing director of Intel in Southeast Asia who was based in Singapore; Seattle mountain climber John Mullally; and Mark Mahaney, of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Last year, about 10,800 people attempted to climb Mount Rainier and only 129 used the Liberty Ridge route, according to park statistics.
There was no sign of the other climbers during Tuesday’s operation.
Denali National Park commissioned a Eugene, Oregon, company called Heli-Tech to make the mechanical claw in 1995, according to a report in The Register-Guard newspaper the following year. It’s similar to devices the company had made for logging, farming and other purposes, but with high-altitude adaptations. It’s made of lighter-weight aluminum instead of steel and uses electric controls instead of gas-powered ones.
The device was used for the first time in 1996 to recover a climber who fell at the 16,000-foot level on Denali. It wasn’t immediately clear how many times it’s been used since. Denali mountaineering ranger Brandon Latham said Wednesday it hadn’t been used in the seven years he’s been stationed there. Nor was he aware of it ever having been loaned out.
Denali’s helicopter manager, Joe Reichert, has been in Washington state helping to fight wildfires and helped arrange for the device to be shipped to Rainier, Latham said.
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