On Sunday morning, June 21, 1981, 10 novice mountain climbers and one guide are killed by an immense avalanche of ice and snow on Ingraham Glacier while ascending to the summit of Mount Rainier (14,411 feet). A National Park Service board of inquiry will determine that the accident is a random event that could not have been predicted. The Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guides are held blameless. The bodies of the victims are entombed in a deep crevasse under tons of glacial ice and cannot be recovered. As of the summer of 2014, it will remain the worst mountaineering accident in American history.
Training and Climbing
On Saturday, June 20, 1981, a group of 23 novice mountain climbers, lead by six professional Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guides departed Paradise Inn (elevation 5,400 feet) in Mount Rainier National Park. They had just completed a demanding one-day course in basic mountain-climbing skills and were heading to Camp Muir (elevation 10,000 feet) to spend the night.
At approximately 3:30 a.m., the group started on the arduous trek to the summit of Mount Rainier, which generally takes five to eight hours, depending on conditions. The climbers traversed the Cowlitz Glacier, climbed through Cathedral Rocks Gap, and crossed Ingraham Flats to the base of Disappointment Cleaver (elevation 11,200 feet).
At this location, three of the climbers decided to return to Camp Muir, stating that they didn’t have stamina to continue. Guide Christopher Lynch led them back down the mountainside.
While the group rested, guides John R. Day, Michael Targett, and Peter Whittaker ascended Disappointment Cleaver to scout snow conditions and avalanche danger on Emmons Glacier. Guides Ronald G. Wilson and Thomas M. O’Brien stayed behind with the remaining 20 climbers. Since the party hadn’t the experience to contend with two feet of fresh, unpredictable snow that had fallen over night, senior guide John Day decided they shouldn’t continue the climb and the three guides headed back toward Ingraham Flats.
Shortly before 6:00 a.m., without warning, the Ingraham Glacier icefall fractured. From atop Disappointment Cleaver, guides Day, Targett, and Whittaker heard the cracking and saw a wall of ice 300 feet wide fall 800 feet and shatter to pieces upon hitting the mountainside. Seconds later, an avalanche of ice and snow hurtled down Ingraham Flats toward the climbing party. Hearing the thunderous roar, the climbers, roped together in groups of five, attempted to scramble out of harm’s way. But it was too late. Tons of ice and snow swept them down the mountainside.
Several minutes later, 11 people emerged from the rubble of the avalanche, but 11, including guide Tom O’Brien, did not. The remaining guides searched for survivors, but found only a section of rope, a ski cap, a pair of ski goggles, and a headlamp near the edge of a deep crevasse. It appeared that the missing climbers had been swept into the crevasse and buried under tons of glacial ice.
At 6:10 a.m. senior guide John Day radioed the National Park Service ranger station at Paradise reporting the climbing party had been hit by an avalanche on the approach to Disappointment Cleaver and they needed help to locate 11 missing people. Day and two guides stayed at the crevasse while the other two guides led the surviving climbers down to Camp Muir. Shortly thereafter, the weather began to change. The wind picked up and snow began falling.
At 9:30 a.m., Ranger Gerry Olsen arrived at the crevasse to evaluate the situation. After viewing the scene of the avalanche and conferring with the three remaining guides, he radioed the Paradise ranger station that the situation appeared hopeless. His immediate concern was for the safety of any rescue party attempting to climb to Ingraham Flats. Meanwhile, the weather deteriorated rapidly into whiteout conditions.
By late Sunday afternoon, two dozen Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guides, including famed mountain-climbing twins James W. "Jim" Whittaker (b. 1929) and Louis W. "Lou" Whittaker (b. 1929), NPS rangers, and volunteers from the Seattle and Tacoma chapters of the Mountain Rescue Association, had gathered at Paradise. The rescue party climbed to Camp Muir without difficulty, but the weather kept them from attempting an expedition to Ingraham Flats that evening.
On Monday afternoon, June 22, 1981, a break in the weather allowed the rescue team to reach the avalanche site. Rescuers reported finding nothing but large blocks of ice blanketed in fresh snow. They dug trenches and probed through the rubble, but came away empty handed. After they'd worked for nearly three hours, it began snowing heavily and they returned to Camp Muir for the night.
On Tuesday morning, June 23, 1981, the rescue team radioed the ranger station at Paradise, advising that further search efforts would be fruitless as well as dangerous. The search for the buried climbers was called off and the rescuers descended from Camp Muir to Paradise that afternoon.
At a press conference, National Park Service District Ranger Jerry Tays announced: "Ice and snow reportedly engulf the area and the team advises that it is physically impossible to be immediately successful in any recovery effort. Prolonged and concentrated exposure to potential icefalls in this area would subject the team members to unwarranted dangers with little hope of success" ("Search for 11 Climbers Called Off").
On Tuesday, July 7, 1981, Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent William Briggle held a board of inquiry into the deaths of the 11 mountain climbers, standard procedure for all national parks. After hearing five hours of testimony from eyewitnesses, glacial experts, and experienced mountaineers, the board went into a closed session to deliberate.
On Wednesday, August 20, 1981, the board of inquiry issued a report that exonerated the guides from any responsibility for the accident. The board found that the guides were experienced mountain climbers and had followed accepted mountaineering practices. They had led the climbing party up the safest, most heavily traveled route to the summit and had paused to rest in a protected area on Ingraham Flats. The icefall avalanche was a random event and related to glacial movement. Afterward, the guides had taken immediate action to insure the safety of the surviving climbers and search the area for buried victims.
Remembering the Victims
On Tuesday, June 22, 1982, the first anniversary of the tragedy, families and friends of the 11 ill-fated climbers gathered at the Paradise Visitors Center auditorium to attend a private memorial service. With authorization from Park Superintendent William Briggle, they established a permanent memorial in the foyer composed of an enlargement of a photograph found in a camera recovered from Ingraham Flats belonging to victim Jonathan Laitone, and a brass plaque listing the names of those who had perished on the mountain on that day.
Between 1897 and 2014, there have been 411 fatalities listed for Mount Rainier National Park, 103 of which have been climbing-related. As of 2014, the icefall avalanche on Ingraham Glacier, which claimed 11 lives, remains the worst mountaineering accident in American history. The bodies of the victims were entombed under tons of glacial ice in a deep crevasse and could not be recovered. Like many others who have died on Mount Rainier’s slopes, their remains have become part of the mountain.
David Boulton, age 29
Mark Ernlund, age 29
Ronald A. Farrell, age 29
Gordon Heneage, age 42
David Kidd, age 30
Jonathan Laitone, age 27
Ira Liedman, age 30
Henry Mathews, age 38
Thomas M. O'Brien, age 19
Craig Tippie, age 28
Michael Watts, age 36