An ice-climbing adventure up Mount Rainier turned into a harrowing rescue after a trio of Missoulians fell hundreds of feet down an ice cliff.

Brothers Tim and Cory Smith and Cory’s girlfriend, Sydney Seyfert, were working their way up the Liberty Cap route to the 14,411-foot summit on May 17 and falling behind schedule when they reached a final ice cliff. They bivouacked about 1,000 feet below the summit ridge and prepped for the next day.

Tim Smith noticed his toes were getting frostbitten, but believed he could continue.

“We spent that night and cooked a meal, and we noticed we were running out of fuel on Saturday morning,” Smith said Tuesday from his hospital room in Missoula. “So we melted as much water as we could. On Saturday, we had 1,000 feet to climb, including the ice cliff and a 60-degree snowfield.”

They also noticed they had packed fewer pieces of ice-climbing protective gear than they needed. In particular, they only had two ice screws, which are essential for attaching climbing ropes to glacial cliffs.

Cory Smith, 26, led the route up the ice cliff, with Tim Smith, 23, and Seyfert, 30, tied to the rope below. Cory had planted one ice screw and was conserving the second when a pile of fresh powder snow broke loose.

“He’d got about 30 feet up the ice cliff, 50 or 60 feet above me,” Tim said, “and then he’s tumbling off the cliff. There was an avalanche coming directly at me. I planted my axes and crampons and tried to keep the snow from blasting me in the chest and ripping me off the mountain.”

When Tim looked up, he saw Seyfert flying head-first down the slope. Cory was “tomahawking” – tumbling head over heels – while getting tangled in the rope. Tim's anchors tore loose and he slid almost 20 feet down before he could self-arrest again.

“I broke my foot on the first pitch off the 70-degree ice slope,” Cory Smith said. “And then I slid another 350 feet at least – 200 feet down to Tim and another 200 feet past him. He saved Sydney’s and my lives with that self-arrest.”

Cory Smith’s left ankle was broken at a 45-degree angle just below his boot. He’d also sprained his wrist and wrapped the rope around his chest so tight, he could barely breathe.

Seyfert was shaken up but uninjured. She was the most experienced climber of the group, with two successful Rainier summits and three unsuccessful tries. Cory had climbed the mountain once by a different route, while Tim was on his first attempt. All three were experienced rock climbers in the Missoula and Bozeman areas.

***

After confirming everyone was still alive, the trio assessed their situation. They had no fuel, no place to bivouac, and were likely the first climbing party of 2013 to try the Liberty Cap route. That meant no other climbers were likely to pass their way soon.

“A broken leg on Liberty Ridge is kind of a death sentence,” Cory Smith said. “It's a really remote side of the mountain. We couldn’t expect help if we stayed there.”

So Tim Smith and Seyfert returned to the ice cliff and made it up. Cory found he was able to plant his left knee and climb with his other limbs. Belayed by his teammates, he crept and was hauled up the crux to an easier slope above.

“I thought I had killed us all,” Cory said. “It was like I’d been given a second chance at life. I didn’t care that my leg was broken. We were all so happy some progress was being made.”

Indeed, they made it from the accident site at about 13,700 feet to the Liberty Cap summit, at 14,100 feet. From there, they descended about 400 vertical feet to an open place where they set up another bivouac. The fall had swept away their tent poles, but they improvised with ice axes and trekking poles to make a shelter about two feet tall.

On Sunday morning, Tim Smith and Seyfert charged for Rainier's summit, hoping to find other climbers.

“There was a train of people – tourists and guides – coming up,” Tim said. “Just tons of people. We saw that, and we were ecstatic.”

Three guides from Rainier Mountaineering Inc. and International Mountain Guides teamed up to assist Cory Smith, while others prepped Tim Smith for descent to Camp Muir on the most popular Disappointment-Cleaver route. Tim said he hoped to walk off the mountain, but the guides concluded his frostbitten toes were too damaged to risk it. They hauled him down in a toboggan while Seyfert walked alongside.

Meanwhile, Cory Smith was getting airlifted by an Air Force Chinook helicopter to Madigan Military Hospital. Doctors there reset his ankle, although surgery for a complete repair must wait for some skin damage to heal first.

Tim Smith said he has serious frostbite damage and may lose the tips of six toes. Two days ago, he also got an infection that required hospitalization to control the fever. Nevertheless, all three climbers remain optimistic about the future.

“I’m definitely going to keep climbing,” Tim said. “It will be a while before I can do mountaineering again, and a while before I try anything as challenging as this. There were definitely some mistakes we made. I’m kind of over the whole packing-light thing now. Next time, I want all the gear I need.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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(10) comments

badair
badair

Glad you guys are off the mountain and safe! Crazy story, got goose bumps reading it.
Please ignore the idiots making comments about how you should have stayed home, they are just too fat to get off their a**, they are much better at judging from a distance while taking no risk of thier own.

SPeedy recovery!
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tfs1150
tfs1150

Stories like this seldom relay the actualities of epic accidents on big mountains like Mt. Rainier. Though the reporters heart is in the right place, the quotes used make the climbers seem a bit off. Obviously their attempt was "alpine style" which leaves little room for error, either in route finding, climbing mistakes, or conditioning. This team was fortunate in many ways, and my helmet is off to the RMI and IMG guides who left their clients to aid others in need.
Perhaps when the Smith brothers and Seyfert heal up a bit, they can write up a complete trip report that details the incident, and the choices made that led to their predicament. The AAC`s Accidents in North American Mountaineering would be an excellent forum for the discussion.

It would be good for the Missoulian to follow up on this story with more complete information, interviews with the guides who helped the injured Smith Bros. and the Park Rangers who undoubtedly were in on the rescue coordination.

When my alpine partners Luke Cassidy and Ansel Viscaya were caught in an avalanche, and perished on the Liberty Ridge route in June of 2004, the Missoulian did an excellent job of reporting the accident. I imagine the excellence in reporting will continue.

To the Smith brothers and Sydney Seyfert, I say heal well, and learn well, then share your experience so that we can learn the lessons as well.

GoLadyGriz
GoLadyGriz

Really good reporting/description/play-by-play, Rob Chaney. These are tough people ... wow ... their courage blows my socks off.

griz2huskie
griz2huskie

Cory and TIm's Father and Grandfather were avid climbers having spent lots of time in the Tetons and bagging other technical peaks. Their family completely supports them including myself (their brother). They have experience having summited many peaks before. Sydney had summited Rainier before twice and Cory once even before. They chose to challenge themselves and climb a technical ice pitch. They knew what the dangers were and mostly did what they could to minimize the danger. The article misrepresents their situation in a few areas including the statement that they had only two ice pitons when in fact they had two each. Unless you do what you love and do it fully, you never really live. It's easy to criticize siting there in front of your computer.

MiddleFinger
MiddleFinger

Once again J$ is right. You kids should have stayed home, living in your parent's basement playing video games and drinking diet coke by the caseload. And don't ever think of doing something adventurous again. Stay home. Be scared. Carry a gun, and by all means, vote republican.

griz2huskie
griz2huskie

Big Thumbs Up MiddleFinger!

johnny Dollar
johnny Dollar

Wow! Unprepared, foolish.......and young. The Perfect Storm!

Kids.....think of your parents once in awhile.....they didn't bring you into this world to see you thrown yourself off of a mountain to a miserable death. ALL this .......is vanity.

griz2huskie
griz2huskie

I highly suggest you know what the hell you're talking about before you decide to comment and barf your ignorance all over the internet. Thanks.

badair
badair

agreed!

Corvallisjohn
Corvallisjohn

These climbers will look back at this and say "um,I should have thought this climb out a little better." We all learn from our mistakes and I think they will too.

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