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Climber dies from hypothermia in storm on Mt. Rainier: what happened?
Climber dies on Mount Rainier; two others await rescue
By Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
One climber died on Mount Rainier this morning and two others were suffering severe hypothermia and frost bite after being caught in a blizzard that forced them to spend the night on the mountain.
Army helicopters were waiting for a break in the weather to take the hypothermic climbers to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, said Kevin Bacher, a spokesman for Mount Rainier National Park.
Because of the extent of the survivors' injuries, rescuers don't want to hike them down the mountain because that would re-expose them to the cold, he said. If the weather doesn't clear before nightfall, rescuers will have to wait until Wednesday to get the survivors to the hospital.
The three climbers — a doctor, his wife and another man — are all from Bellevue and are experienced mountaineers, Bacher said. They set off on a day hike on Monday and reached Camp Muir, which at 10,000 feet is the halfway point between Paradise and the summit.
A fierce storm blew in as the trio was heading down the mountain on Monday. They made it to Anvil Rock on the Muir snowfield, about a half mile from Camp Muir, said Bacher.
He said he thought the three may have built a snow cave for shelter. One of them called 911 from a cellphone but couldn't get through. They tried again around midnight, but the connection was so bad that a park ranger couldn't make out the information. The climbers were finally able to notify rangers that they needed help around 3:30 a.m.
"We knew at midnight something was going on but we weren't able to talk to them until 3:30," Bacher said.
Even then, it was too dangerous to send rescuers to try to find the trio, who couldn't say exactly where they were because of the darkness and blinding snow, he said.
Around 7:15 a.m., one of the climbers "made it up to Camp Muir through the blizzard and was able to lead our rangers and some guides down to the location where the other two were sheltered," Bacher said.
Rescuers reached Anvil Rock within 15 minutes. But by then, the condition of one of the climbers "was grave," he said.
"The doctor is the one who was in grave condition," he said, but he couldn't confirm which of the climbers had died.
By 8:30 a.m., all three climbers had been taken back to Camp Muir. The survivors — a man and a woman — were under the care of three medical doctors who were in a climbing party that had spent the night with their guides and park rangers at Camp Muir, Bacher said.
On Monday, cloudy conditions on Mount Rainier deteriorated over the course of the day. By 5 p.m., heavy rain was falling in Longmire, Pierce County, and temperatures had dropped significantly. At least 2 feet of snow fell at Paradise and 5-foot drifts were reported at Camp Muir, Bacher said.
"The weather can change quickly up there. This isn't the first time very experienced people have been caught off guard," he said. "Those conditions can overwhelm even the most-experienced and best-prepared climbers."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
How three hikers got trapped on Rainier
A day hike up Mount Rainier turned into tragedy for a 31-year-old Seattle software engineer who died of exposure early Tuesday after getting caught in a fierce blizzard on the mountain. His wife and friend survived the ordeal.
By Susan Gilmore and Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporters
Thursday, June 12, 2008
They left on a day hike to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier, a husband and wife and a friend, all from Romania.
Nothing prepared them, however, for the storm that took the life of the husband, Eduard Burceag, a 31-year-old Seattle software engineer who died of exposure early Tuesday after the three got caught in the fierce blizzard that produced 70 mile an hour winds and huge snowdrifts.
Burceag, his wife, Mariana, also 31, and friend and colleague Daniel Vlad, 35, were trapped by blinding snow Monday near Anvil Rock, about a half-mile from Camp Muir, which is about 10,000 feet up the mountain.
The three parked their car at Paradise about 11 a.m. Monday. They reached Camp Muir but stayed only about 10 minutes, said David Gottlieb, chief climbing ranger and incident commander in the rescue.
They knew the weather was getting bad, Gottlieb said.
"They needed to get back to their car and needed to get out. Then it (the storm) really turned up a notch," said Gottlieb.
Disoriented, the three were about a quarter-mile from Camp Muir when they got lost in the zero-visibility weather. "They spent a lot of time wandering around trying to find their way back to a camp or a trail," Gottlieb said. "But they couldn't find their way."
So they dug a trench to try to get out of the gale-force winds and, said Gottlieb, it appears Burceag lay at the bottom of the trench, put his wife next to him and Vlad on top.
They had down coats, gloves and hats but were not prepared to spend the night, Gottlieb said. The 20-degree snow melted under Burceag's body and refroze, layer by layer, eventually causing him to die of hypothermia.
"Burceag (pronounced bore-chug) was lying against the snow and ice," said Gottlieb. "Maybe he wasn't sacrificing himself, but he was protecting his wife from the snow. I absolutely believe he was a hero. He was heroic in protecting his wife and his friend."
They had no cell phones, but did have a two-way radio. When Vlad's wife, Julia, became alarmed when they didn't return from their hike, she called a friend who drove to Paradise at midnight, with his own radio. He was able to contact Vlad around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, who said the situation was dire.
Meanwhile, rangers at Camp Muir knew there were overdue hikers and were alarmed because of the drastic weather conditions. But they couldn't mount a search because there was no visibility.
About 7 a.m. Tuesday, Vlad was able to make his way back to Camp Muir, and as he hiked to the shelter he was spotted by rangers using binoculars. "My friends are down there," he said, pointing the rangers toward Burceag and his wife.
Vlad, suffering hypothermia, was left at Camp Muir. A climbing ranger, Kevin Hammonds, and a guide from International Mountain Guides, Eben Reckord, hiked down to the couple.
They found Burceag with no pulse and freezing cold, so they made the decision to put Mariana Burceag on a sled and pull her back to Camp Muir. She was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
"They were soaked to the skin," said Gottlieb. "There was knee-deep snow. Their clothes were soaked and the outside clothing totally frozen."
Three doctors, who were in the hut and preparing to climb the mountain instead turned their attention to helping Mariana Burceag and Vlad.
Another team went down and retrieved Burceag's body. Doctors tried to revive him and checked his body temperature and for any sign of a heartbeat, but they pronounced him dead about 10 a.m.
Mariana Burceag was incoherent, said Gottlieb, and very distraught. She knew her husband was dead.
Mariana Burceag and Vlad were kept at Camp Muir overnight. A Chinook helicopter was able to pierce the clouds on Wednesday, lowered a cable hoist and took the two to Madigan Army Hospital. They later were moved to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where they were treated and released. Doctors want to keep an eye on their frostbite, so both will return next week for follow-up care.
Burceag's body was brought down from the mountain Wednesday afternoon.
"It's surprising that anyone lived at all," said Gottlieb. "Up there you can die very quickly." He said the park service was warning people about the weather, but park officials weren't prepared for the magnitude of the storm.
"This is a wilderness area, a wilderness without handrails," said Gottlieb. He said he didn't fault the three for attempting the hike because the weather wasn't bad when they left Monday morning and they were experienced on the mountain. He said Vlad and Burceag had climbed to the top of Mount Rainier and had been to Camp Muir several times.
"It caught us by surprise and most certainly caught them by surprise," Gottlieb said. "These were reasonable people with reasonable expectations and were well equipped for a day hike."
They didn't have a stove or a sleeping bag, "but no one carries that for a day trip. You don't bring it on a day trip you expect to come down from," Gottlieb said.
Eduard Burceag, director of Linux Engineering, worked for Active Voice, a Seattle-based company that specializes in helping companies transition from voice mail to unified-computer communications and messaging. He's worked for the company for seven years.
The company's Web site says that Vlad, who has worked for Active Voice since 2000, is the general manager of its engineering department. He earned his degree from the Polytechnic University of Bucharest in artificial intelligence and speech and image recognition, according to the site. Vlad could not be reached today.
"Active Voice and its employees extend their deepest sympathies to the family of Eduard Burceag. We are honoring the Burceag family by respecting their request for privacy," according to Victor Foia, Active Voice President and Chief Executive Officer.
"His loss is being felt widely across our company," said Foia in a prepared statement. "He was a natural leader who was enormously well liked and made an enduring impression on those he encountered."
Tom Cornelius, who now works for Microsoft in Denmark, said Eduard Burceag was his boss at Active Voice.
"This is devastating. I'm shocked," Cornelius said.
He said he learned much about programming from Burceag.
"He really taught me a lot about testing and software development and he was very passionate about his work," said Cornelius. "He put in a lot of late hours at work and he was so passionate about it, it was hard (for him) to delegate."
Cornelius remembers when Burceag's first son was born and said he often brought his children to work.
"It was neat to see how ebullient he was around his kids. They were something special to him," he said.
Cornelius also said Burceag was passionate about music and played the guitar. He said he was told that Burceag studied classical guitar and was so good he had to choose between a career in music and one in engineering. He chose engineering.
"We swapped CDs a lot," said Cornelius. "I listen to jazz and he was a big music fan. It was really neat sharing jazz with him."
A woman who answered the door at Eduard and Mariana Burceag's Interbay town house Wednesday declined to be interviewed. But neighbors confirmed the couple and their two young sons, ages 5 and 3, moved in about a year ago.
"It seemed she was a stay-at-home mom and he was the breadwinner. They're a super sweet family," said a woman who asked not to be identified. "They're a totally active family and really into camping."
Her husband said he often saw Eduard Burceag playing with his sons, just hanging out or racing remote-control cars in the driveway.
"I talked to him Sunday and he said he had the day off [on Monday]," said the man, who also asked not to be named. "He's a great guy. I know he managed a team of developers at Active Voice."
The man said he had noticed all kinds of "random cars" in front of the house over the past couple of days, but just thought friends were house sitting while the family was out of town.
"This is really sad news," his wife said.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
What can mountain climbers learn from this tragic event?
The primary purpose of our TraditionalMountaineering experience reports (and the purpose of the American Alpine Club's sixty published Annual Report's of Accidents in North American Mountaineering) is to "aid in the prevention of accidents".
The official Report to Accidents in North American Mountaineering will be made by Rangers at Mt. Rainier. We are not reporting this independent analysis to the American Alpine Club or to anyone else. However, we feel there are important traditional mitigations of the many inherent Risks of hiking and mountaineering that contributed to this tragedy. There are traditional ways to mitigate inherent risks that can be learned by concerned people.
We always prefer to talk to the survivors if possible and to the rescuers. In this case we felt it was inappropriate as we have no "official status". Since the facts have been widely publicized and the official press releases from rescuers have been clearly quoted, that information is what we have used in this analysis.
The first thing that we note is the lack of accuracy of the
first reports from Kevin Bacher, a spokesman for Mount Rainier National Park.
"He said he thought the three may have built a snow cave for shelter."
However, the three people did not carry the clothing insulation, insulation from
the snow or snow shovels or any tools to dig a "snow cave". Snow caves.
"One of them called 911 from a cellphone but couldn't get through. They tried again around midnight, but the connection was so bad that a park ranger couldn't make out the information." (They did not carry a cell phone.) The climbers were finally able to notify rangers that they needed help around 3:30 a.m."
The second is the failure of David Gottlieb, chief climbing ranger and incident commander in the rescue to note for concerned readers the several failures of individual traditional responsibilities that led to the tragic death of Eduard Burceag and the loss of her husband by Mariana Burceag and the possibly grievous cold injuries suffered by Mariana and their friend and colleague Daniel Vlad.
This web page is not an exercise in second guessing decisions made. Nor is it a misleading simplification of the risks and the preparedness required, such as: "It caught us by surprise and most certainly caught them by surprise,' Gottlieb said. 'These were reasonable people with reasonable expectations and were well equipped for a day hike. They didn't have a stove or a sleeping bag, but no one carries that for a day trip. You don't bring it on a day trip you expect to come down from,' Gottlieb said." We suggest that this was a "day trip" back to the Lodge, that they had no informed expectation of completing.
We wonder if they shared with others, at the Camp Muir building, their need to risk their three lives in order to get back to their car. "They knew the weather was getting bad, Gottlieb said. "They needed to get back to their car and needed to get out. Then it (the storm) really turned up a notch," said Gottlieb.
Were they advised by Guides or other climbers waiting out the storm at Camp Muir, not to try to return to their car, because they might lose their lives? Were they offered dinner and sleeping space at the Camp Muir building? They seem to have become lost only a few minutes from Camp Muir. Were they questioned about being Prepared: having common cell phones, at least one GPS receiver with waypoints for Camp Muir and the Paradise Lodge and the technical knowledge of how to navigate in a snow storm? Did they have insulating pads and snow shovels and an ice axe to make a real snow cave if they became stranded? Did they have waterproof shells and pants? Did they have enough personal clothing insulation for the forecast temperatures? Were they asked to call Camp Muir to report their arrival at the Paradise Lodge? (No guided group ascends or descends without such communication arrangements, I have confirmed.)
We show below, that the three climbers were not "well equipped" for this particular day's hike, especially one climbing up about 4,500 vertical feet to about 10,000 feet on Mt Rainier and starting at 11 AM in the face of warnings that forecast deteriorating weather in a late Spring heavy snow year. Un-prepared, they left the safety of a warm stone building at Camp Muir, with food and water (and many well equipped climbers and reportedly, five guides) waiting out the storm before climbing on or descending and the three became disoriented in the blizzard within a very few minutes and a life was lost and two others injured unprotected overnight from the wet, windblown snow.
In short, a tragic death and possible grievous cold injuries might well have been avoided if each climber had had the light and fast "mandatory" clothing and gear listed by the Seattle Mountaineers Ten Essential Systems. Had they been advised by other climbers at Camp Muir that their obvious lack of knowledge and gear made their proposed descent foolhardy? Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills, The Mountaineers Books, 8th Edition, 2003.
We will use the traditional mountaineering "Four Basic Responsibilities" to frame our analysis:
1. "Responsibility number one: Tell a Responsible Person what you plan to do and when you plan to return and make sure that Responsible Person knows they are being relied upon to call 911 at an agreed time if the climbers have not returned!"
Their Responsible Person may not have been given instructions on when to call 911 for a Rescue. "They had no cell phones, but did have a two-way radio. When Vlad's wife, Julia, became alarmed when they didn't return from their hike, she called a friend who drove to Paradise at midnight, with his own radio. He was able to contact Vlad around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, who said the situation was dire." The news reports do not specify whether a clear message of a dire emergency was given by Vlad's friend by phone at 3:30 AM to the National Park Service officials responsible for rescue coordination. The Four Basic Responsibilities
2. "The Second Responsibility of each individual backcountry traveler or climber is to be equipped with a light weight daypack and enough seasonal extra clothing, water, food and selected gear from the Mountaineer's Ten Essential Systems to survive an emergency stop of several hours or overnight!"
Although weather reports were available warning of an impending storm, the climbers apparently were not dressed for the forecast weather and clearly did not have the right extra clothing to keep them warm under the seasonal conditions when stranded or forced to overnight.
It seems clear that none of the climbers had waterproof-breathable layers to keep them dry. Down clothing, like cotton, absorbs water and loses almost all insulating value when wet. Wet clothing can induce hypothermia at a rate 20 times that of air itself. Down jackets alone are not appropriate for climbing Mt. Rainer with June weather impending. Clothing suitable for a high level aerobic dash up thousands of feet is not suitable for stranding for hours or staying in one place overnight. Extra clothing must be carried in a "light and fast" day pack. "On Monday, cloudy conditions on Mount Rainier deteriorated over the course of the day. By 5 p.m., heavy rain was falling in Longmire, Pierce County, and temperatures had dropped significantly. At least 2 feet of snow fell at Paradise and 5-foot drifts were reported at Camp Muir, Bacher said." "They had down coats, gloves and hats but were not prepared to spend the night', Gottlieb said. 'The 20-degree snow melted under Burceag's body and refroze, layer by layer, eventually causing him to die of hypothermia.' 'Their clothes were soaked and the outside clothing totally frozen." Clothing basics Hypothermia The Ten Essential Systems Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills.
Not one of the climbers carried an in-expensive, simple Essential 6 ounce insulating pad fastened on their winter daypacks to keep them off the snow if forced to stop for a few hours or overnight. Three climber's insulating pads can provide as much as three inches of insulation. Each of the climbers could have carried (summer and winter) a $30.00 personal waterproof 7 ounce individual emergency bivy sack as well as the $17.00 seasonal sized insulating pad.
None of the climbers appear to have had the knowledge of how to shelter in snow. Did they have at least one shovel among the three climbers to dig a proper cave in a snow bank? Digging a trench in the snow does not provide adequate shelter. "Disoriented, the three were about a quarter-mile from Camp Muir when they got lost in the zero-visibility weather. 'They spent a lot of time wandering around trying to find their way back to a camp or a trail,' Gottlieb said. 'But they couldn't find their way.' So they dug a trench to try to get out of the gale-force winds and, said Gottlieb, it appears Burceag lay at the bottom of the trench, put his wife next to him and Vlad on top." Experience tells us they simply sought shelter in a "ditch" created by wind blown snow or differential melt near rocks. Sacrifice Snow cave dangers Essential light and fast winter day pack
3. "The Third Responsibility is to have a topo map of the area, a declination-corrected base-plate compass (seventeen degrees currently in Central Oregon) and an inexpensive GPS. Experience tells us that you cannot get by with GPS alone – you need a USGS topo map and declination adjusted base plate compass, and new skills to use them together!"
Not one of the three climbers appears to have carried an inexpensive GPS (the new $99.00 Garmin eTrex H model) which would have led them back to safety at Camp Muir in a few minutes. While a map and compass are difficult to use in a snow storm with an inexperienced un-roped group, the $99.00 GPS provides a direction arrow that points constantly to an input waypoint, (Camp Muir) and gives the distance to go (just a few hundred meters in this case).
Garmin confirms that their basic $99.00 eTrex H GPS (and earlier models without the new high sensitivity H antenna) can function well in a snow storm. For the uninformed, the GPS "arrow" always points to the selected input waypoint (Camp Muir, Paradise, etc., unlike the compass. Following a compass course in white out or storm conditions requires a learned skill, practice and best, tools: a rope and wands at least. The GPS pointer constantly adjusts and does not require special compass skills. Again, the GPS also gives the distance to go.
No information is given about whether each or them carried the traditional $7.00 USGS Quad map (or personal computer printed equal), or an inexpensive base plate compass (the $30.00 Suunto M3 model) or the skills to use them together in a white out. Is this not important information to inform the public? From their location near Anvil Rock, the USGS Quad topo map clearly shows that steep slopes on the right funnel up to Camp Muir if one generally goes in the correct compass direction, bearing off to the right and following the steep terrain up to safety. The National Geographic computer TOPO map program shows that they were only about 845 meters from Camp Muir at a compass bearing of 139 degrees True with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain required. Lost on Mt. Hood Basic use
4. "The Fourth Responsibility is: Carry your common digital cell phone in a warm pocket"
Initial incorrect reports by the Park Service talk of cell phone failures. It appears that the three climbers did not carry their three cell phones. They carried only a simple (FRS) radio, broadcasting out on one of several channels, in hopes of reaching "some one that might be listening" who would take action and call 911. (A friend, alerted by Vlad's wife, Julia, drove to Paradise at midnight to successfully communicate line of site by FRS at 3:30 AM. He immediately contacted the Park Service by his own cell phone from the parking lot at Paradise Lodge. See reference above).
One wonders why these intelligent people did not each carry their small personal cell phones in pockets or packs on their challenging climb.
I have confirmed with a representative of Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) that cell phones work very well on the urban facing slopes of Mt. Rainier. Cell phone communication between Camp Muir and the Lodge is constant, I am told. I understand that most all of the Guides on Mt Rainier carry cell phones and weather radios. I note that most of the accidents on Mt. Rainier reported by the NPS over the five years from 1997 to 2004, were reported and resolved by cell phone communications. On remote slopes where urban cell coverage is not good or is non-existent, experienced climbers can carry a $149.00 SPOT-2, Satellite Messenger Oregon legal requirements Cell phones Electronic communications SPOT
We are very sorry for the tragic loss of the life of this heroic husband and friend and the cold injuries sustained by the survivors. We hope this discussion of the tragic circumstances will help many others who venture up to the high places. --Robert Speik
A suggested minimum standard news advisory for all backcountry travelers
"We would like to take this opportunity to ask our visitors to the backcountry of Oregon to plan for the unexpected. Each person should dress for the forecast weather and take minimum extra clothing protection from a drop in temperature and possible rain or snow storm or an unexpected cold wet night out, insulation from the wet ground or snow, high carbohydrate snacks, two quarts of water or Gatorade, a map and compass and optional inexpensive GPS and the skills to use them, and a charged cell phone and/or a SPOT-2 GPS Communicator. Carry the traditional personal "Ten Essentials Systems" in a day pack sized for the season and the forecast weather. This gear for should enable each individual to survive an overnight in an emergency.
Visitors are reminded to tell a Responsible Person where they are going, where they plan to park, when they will be back and to make sure that person understands that they are relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler has not returned. If you become lost or stranded, mark your location and stay still or move around your marked location to stay warm. Do not try to find your way until you are exhausted, or worse yet - wet. Wait for rescuers.
THE MISSION of TraditionalMountaineering.org
"To provide information and instruction about world-wide basic to advanced alpine mountain climbing safety skills and gear, on and off trail hiking, scrambling and light and fast Leave No Trace backpacking techniques based on the foundation of an appreciation for the Stewardship of the Land, all illustrated through photographs and accounts of actual shared mountaineering adventures."
TraditionalMountaineering is founded on the premise that "He who knows naught, knows not that he knows naught", that exploring the hills and summitting peaks have dangers that are hidden to the un-informed and that these inherent risks can be in part, identified and mitigated by mentoring: information, training, wonderful gear, and knowledge gained through the experiences of others.
The value of TraditionalMountaineering to our Friends and Subscribers is the selectivity of the information we provide, and its relevance to introducing folks to informed hiking on the trail, exploring off the trail, mountain travel and Leave-no-Trace light-weight bivy and backpacking, technical travel over steep snow, rock and ice, technical glacier travel and a little technical rock climbing on the way to the summit. Whatever your capabilities and interests, there is a place for everyone in traditional alpine mountaineering.
A QUOTE FROM EDWARD WYMPER 1871
See yonder height! 'Tis far away -- unbidden comes the word "Impossible!"
"Not so," says the mountaineer. "The way is long, I know; its difficult -- it may be dangerous."
"It's possible, I'm sure; I'll seek the way, take counsel of my brother mountaineers,
and find out how they have reached similar heights and learned to avoid the dangers."
He starts (all slumbering down below); the path is slippery - and may be dangerous too.
Caution and perseverance gain the day
-- the height is reached! and those beneath cry, "Incredible! 'Tis superhuman!"
WARNING - *DISCLAIMER!*
Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated
Read more . . .
About Alpine Mountaineering:
The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
Following the Leader
The Mountaineers' Rope
Basic Responsibilities Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
The Ten Essential Systems Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales