6 missing climbers feared dead on Mount Rainier

Jan. 1, 2012: A view of Mount Rainier in Washington state.

Jan. 1, 2012: A view of Mount Rainier in Washington state.  (REUTERS)

Officials at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state said Saturday that six climbers reported missing are likely dead after helicopters detected pings from emergency beacons buried in the snow thousands of feet below their last known location.

Park spokeswoman Fawn Bauer told KCPQ-TV that searchers had found evidence of a fall that was not survivable.  Bauer said the helicopter crew spotted camping and climbing gear in an avalanche-prone area more than 3,000 feet below the group's last known whereabouts. The six were at 12,800 feet at last contact Wednesday.

Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle, stands at 14,410 feet and attracts thousands of climbers trying to reach its summit every year.

Air and ground searches were suspended late Saturday afternoon. Bauer said the bodies won't be recovered Sunday because they are in an extremely dangerous area, where snow, ice and rock fall constantly.

 "It would expose our rangers to pretty extreme conditions, so we are not able to do any kind of ground searching of that area," Bauer told the Associated Press. "And, in all honesty, we may never be able to get on the ground there."

The search for the missing climbers focused on the northwest shoulder of the mountain at the Liberty Ridge area, near where they were last heard from, 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, Bauer said, but the weather has been clear since then.

Bauer said Saturday's weather was perfect for searching and ground crews checked "every possible area" where someone could have sought refuge in the storm.

Alpine Ascents' director of programs, Gordon Janow, said he wasn't ready to release information about the climbers. Details -- such as ages, gender or hometowns -- for the climbers were not immediately available, Bauer said.

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. The blog post said all team members were well.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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