To date, 1981 was the worst year on Mount Rainier in terms of climbing deaths. That year, eleven climbers died in an ice fall along the Ingraham Glacier. Lesser incidents happen frequently and people get hurt from the various occupational hazards of mountaineering every year on the mountain. Often when trouble happens, someone whips out their cell phone and dials 911 and then maybe the Global Rescue Hotline.
The climbers in danger often get through to a dispatch involving the Washington police or to the National Park Service. However, it isn’t the park rangers or the police that often arrive first, but rather the professional mountain guides from Alpine Ascents International (AAI), International Mountain Guides (IMG), or Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), the three guide “concessions” permitted to lead groups on Mount Rainier by the National Park Service. They’re presence is nearly perpetual throughout the busy climbing season from May through September.
The Rainier guides’ often serve as first responders to their own groups and other climbers ascending and descending the slopes independently. They can respond with first aid, technical equipment for a crevasse rescue, leadership and an enhanced line of communication with other help providers. Notably, guides must be physically fit to endure a slog to the summit but then have the stamina, whenever necessary, to go the extra mile for when something horrible occurs.
Their knowledge of the mountain and its conditions are invaluable in these circumstances, but perhaps the most crucial element is their “bedside manner.” Most guides are hired not because of their climbing resumes (they often become star climbers after serving as a Rainier guide) but because they have both the knowledge and fitness required but also the ability to teach the skills of climbing and have patience doing so. They will show you how to get your harness on, tie into a rope party, and slow themselves down to go at their client’s pace.
The Rainier guides have a lot of admirable qualities, whether you experience an accident or are being shepherded up the mountain, just based on their job description and how they have been utilized. Regardless of the proverbial safety net around the mountain, we should all be stronger, more knowledgeable and have more patience too. Those things keep us all safer.
Sources: 1) 2009 Accidents in North American Mountaineering, American Alpine Club, 2009; 2) Mount Rainier National Park website; 3) Filley, Bette, The Big Fact Book About Mount Rainier: Fascinating Facts, Records, Lists, Topics, Characters and Stories, Dunamis House, 1996; 4) Viesturs, Ed, with David Roberts, No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the Worlds 14 Highest Peaks, Broadway Books, 2006.