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Retrieving bodies of Mount Rainer climbers could take months

Published: Monday, June 2, 2014 8:00 a.m. CDT

LONGMIRE, Wash. — Sunday morning at Mount Rainier National Park, family members of the six climbers presumed dead in one of Mount Rainier’s worst accidents met with officials from the park and the guide service Alpine Ascents, but they opted not to make a statement.

“They are devastated and are in a ‘taking care of themselves mode,’” said Patti Wold, a park-service spokeswoman.

The park service has not released the names of the guides or the climbers, but Alpine Ascents confirmed that veteran guide Matt Hegeman, 38, was leading the group.

The name of one of the climbers, Mark Mahaney, also has been confirmed.

Sunday’s weather on the mountain was clear, but Wold said conditions were still too treacherous for searchers to venture into the area on the Carbon Glacier where the climbers’ gear was spotted Saturday by a helicopter crew and their bodies are believed to be buried in a jumble of ice and snow.

Park officials think the climbers fell some 3,300 feet down a very steep ridge. For would-be recovery teams, the biggest danger is from debris falling from a massive rock wall as well as nearby ridges, Wold said. Those risks are expected to increase as the summer progresses.

“As the ice melts, things thaw out, and the area becomes more and more fragile and things begin to fall even more,” Wold said.

In the weeks and months ahead, there will be what Wold called a “continuous ongoing search” that would involve park officials — when possible — scouting the area to see if conditions might permit a recovery. The effort could involve occasional flights over the area and visual surveillance by climbing rangers.

If an opportunity appears to retrieve a body, that effort would be done by helicopter, rather than by sending in a climbing team, Wold said.

“It would be very quick. We won’t send someone by foot. We would get in by helicopter and get out right way,” Wold said

Park officials said it also is possible that the climbers’ remains may never be recovered.

All of this was difficult news for the families of the climbers to absorb as they met with park-service and guide officials Sunday.

“Everybody here in the park is very affected by this. It is a huge loss ... Loss to the climbing community in this area and worldwide and of course the families and the park itself. So we send our condolences and thoughts and prayers to all those people,” Wold said

Mark Mahaney’s uncle, Rob Mahaney, described his nephew as an avid and experienced climber.

“He had two loves in his life: One was his girlfriend and the other was mountain climbing,” Rob Mahaney said. “He’s been a very active person his entire life.”

Mark Mahaney was especially passionate about ice climbing, and his Instagram account contains many shots of him scaling frozen waterfalls. He had summitted Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, and had also reached the top of Rainier once before.

“I think he was looking for a bigger challenge,” Rob Mahaney said of his nephew’s decision to tackle the Liberty Ridge route.

The younger man had been training for months. He posted a picture of the route on his Facebook page, noting that “nothing will be easy on this climb.”

When his family gathered at Easter, at least one relative tried to dissuade him from making the trip. “But there was nothing that was going to stop him,” Rob Mahaney said.

Hegeman, of Truckee, Calif., had climbed Mount Rainier more than 50 times via four different routes, according to a company biography on Alpine Ascents’ website.

Married to an ecologist, he had also climbed Mount Shasta more than 35 times and ascended all peaks of 14,000 feet or greater in California. He twice summitted 22,837-foot Aconcagua, in the Andes Mountains.

After news of his death, friends and clients posted notes of condolence on the guide company’s Facebook page.

The climbers left Monday on a five-day trip that was to end Friday.

Park-service and guide officials said they heard from the group at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and all was well, though a storm was hitting the area.

Park-service officials believe the accident happened as the climbers were at the 12,800-foot elevation, still on their way up the mountain.

With no survivors, just what caused the six climbers to fall may never be known.

Since their gear was found far below the ridge, mixed in with debris, park-service officials say they could have been swept off the ridge by an ice or rockfall. Another possibility is an avalanche.

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