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Three Climbers Killed on Mount Rainier

A man and a woman have died on Mount Rainier, and rescuers believe they spotted the body of another woman in a crevasse before the stormy weather that had trapped the climbers near the 14,411-foot summit drove rescuers from the peak.

One body was recovered Wednesday and identified Thursday by the Pierce County medical examiner's office as Keeta Owens, 21, of Corvallis, Ore. Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Maria Gillett, however, gave Owens' hometown as Lebanon, Ore. The reason for the hometown discrepancy was not immediately known.

The two others believed dead are from Germany. The three, along with another climber who survived, had reached the summit Wednesday, when harsh weather, with high winds and whiteout conditions, forced them to bivouac on their descent, Gillett said.

Gillett said an Army Chinook helicopter was taking 12 rangers to the summit on Thursday to try to recover the others. Weather was improved from Wednesday, with 25-mile winds and 15-25 degree temperatures at the summit.

The fourth member of the group, a man who used a cell phone to call for help, was rescued and the bodies of the man and woman were found just before 4 p.m. Wednesday, Gillett said.

The rescued man did not require hospitalization.

Wednesday evening, as searchers were forced off the mountain by 60 mph winds and swirling clouds and snow, they observed "what we believe to be ... another fatality, approximately 15 feet down in a crevasse, a little distance away from where the other two fatalities were located," Gillett said.

The body in the crevasse, seen from the air, is believed to be that of a woman who was with the party, she said.

The crevasse is 13,400 to 13,600 feet up the mountain. Mount Rainier, the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest, is about 60 miles southeast of Seattle.

"Mount Rainier makes its own weather," Gillett said. "You can see sunny skies and five minutes later see clouds come in, and the weather can change very, very quickly."

When they obtained their climbing permits Saturday, the four said they had not previously climbed Mount Rainier, nor did they use one of several commercial guide companies.

They did have climbing experience on rock and ice, Gillett said Thursday.

They reached the summit Tuesday via the difficult Liberty Ridge route on the northeast side of the peak, described by Gillette as "a very demanding, difficult climb."

Late Tuesday the weather turned "very cold and very windy, winds up to 50, potentially 60, mph gusts," climbing ranger Dee Patterson said. "There was a lot of blowing snow, blowing ice."

Lead climbing ranger Mike Gauthier said the group was trapped on a very steep slope where the wind snapped their tent poles, making their tents unusable.

Park rangers said the surviving man called on a borrowed cell phone at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday and said the group built two snow caves that collapsed overnight when the other man became disoriented, walked on the makeshift shelters and fell 400 to 600 feet.

Desperate, "they were trying to wrap one another up in the pieces of the tent," Gillett said.

The survivor told rangers both women were still alive at the collapsed snow caves when he left at about 4 a.m. to seek help, the spokeswoman said.

But it appears both subsequently fell, she said — one landing near the man who had fallen earlier, the other farther down.

The caller descended to St. Elmo's Pass at 7,800 feet, where he met another climbing party with a cell phone. He was flown off the mountain via helicopter as about a dozen park rangers began searching for the rest of the group.

He told dispatchers he also had fallen near his friend, and was unable to get back up to the camp because he had lost the hardshell of one climbing boot.

Thirteen climbers have died on Liberty Cap and Liberty Ridge since 1968, including three men who died while climbing together on May 13, 1988.

The last death on the route was on May 24, 1999, when David Persson, a Swedish citizen who lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, fell 1,000 feet while attempting to ski down Liberty Ridge.