(AP) Citing dangerous conditions, Mount Rainier National Park officials said 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.
Continuous ice fall and rock fall make the area too dangerous for rescuers, park spokeswoman Patti Wold said Sunday morning. The area will be checked periodically by air in the coming weeks and months, she said.
Wold added that "there's no certainty that recovery is possible given the location."
Park officials believe the group fell 3,300 feet from their last known whereabouts of 12,800 feet on Liberty Ridge.
"It's inconceivable that anyone survived that" fall, Wold said. Officials have not released the names of those who died.
A helicopter crew on Saturday spotted camping and climbing gear in the avalanche-prone area. Air and ground searches were suspended late Saturday afternoon.
"It's a sad day at Mount Rainier," park superintendent Randy King said Sunday.
The missing group includes four clients of Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International and two guides. They were due to return from the mountain on Friday. When they did not return, the climbing company notified park officials.
Gordon Janow, the guiding service's programs director, did not release information about the climbers on Sunday, and said that would come from park officials.
The group was on a five-day climb of the Liberty Ridge route, one of the more technical and advanced routes up the mountain.
The climbers had to meet certain pre-requisites, and their ice and technical climbing skills as well as their biography were evaluated by a three-person team, Janow said.
The guiding service also lost five Nepalese guides in a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest in April. The avalanche that swept down a climbing route on the world's highest peak killed 16 Sherpa guides. Several more were injured.
"It's devastating, it's emotionally draining, it's trying to make sense of it all," Janow said of the tragedies.
The loss of life would be among the deadliest climbing accidents ever on the peak in the Cascade mountain range. In 1981, 11 people were killed during a guided climb when they were struck by a massive ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier. On Oregon's Mount Hood seven students from a college preparatory school in Portland and two adults died after they dug a snow cave during a sudden storm in 1986.
Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle, stands at 14,410 feet and attracts thousands of climbers trying to reach its summit every year. It is popular with climbers of all abilities, from novices who take guided climbs to experienced alpinists who use the glacier-laden peak to train for attempted ascents on taller mountains in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges. Before this most recent accident, 89 people had died trying to climb Mount Rainier since 1897, the park service said.
The search for the missing climbers focused on the northwest shoulder of the mountain at the Liberty Ridge area, Bauer said. Saturday's search included a team of three climbing rangers on the ground and flyovers with a Hughes helicopter. An Army Chinook helicopter then joined the search from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The group was scheduled to reach the summit of Mount Rainier on Thursday, with a day to climb down.
Snow flurries and hail hit the mountain Wednesday, park Ranger Fawn Bauer said, but the weather has been clear since then.
Bauer said ground crews on Saturday checked "every possible area" where someone could have sought refuge in the storm.
In a statement from the park, the guides were described as skilled. In a blog post on the Alpine Ascents website Thursday, the post said the team had turned around at 13,000 feet during their attempt to reach the summit because of weather conditions.
Wold said the Liberty Ridge route the group was attempting is one of the more technical and advanced on Mount Rainier.
Le reported from Seattle.