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.”