Gone

On Monday May 26 my husband departed to climb Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier.  He had been a climber for 20 years and had trained for this specific climb for a full year.  I received texts from him, detailing his process, until 7:04pm on Wednesday May 28.  He told me they were going for the summit Thursday morning, would finish their descent Thursday or Friday, and that he would be home Friday night at the latest.  I was delighted, and posted the following to friends on Facebook –

I’m so incredibly proud of my sweetheart, John Mullally. He is 3 days into his Mt Rainier Liberty Ridge climb at the moment. Liberty Ridge is an extremely technical route on Rainier including (among other objective hazards) a section of vertical ice climbing. The route is not safe to descend (because it is so steep), so climbers on this route have to carry their FULL pack up and over the summit in order to descend via another route. Most summit attempts involve leaving the majority of your gear at high camp, carrying a light pack, and picking up your tent and other gear on the way down. Doing it with a full pack is much harder, to say the least. This also means that at a certain point you are fully committed to the climb and there is no option to turn back – you must summit whether you are wrecked or not.

John has had some intermittent connectivity and sent the pics below at the end of day 2 (yesterday). Just now he sent me the following text (end of day 3) –

“Still on the mountain. Totally epic. We are doing a bivy at 12,500′ right now, took 2 hours to dig tent platforms. Totally variable conditions, lots of belayed pitches. Took 7 hours to gain 2000′ elevation today. Cold strong winds. The guides are doing an awesome job keeping us safe. Weather is supposed to improve tomorrow and we will top out the ridge at 14,100′ and probably descend all the way unless someone has issues.”

I love my mountain man.

Stay safe, John.

I didn’t hear from him on Thursday, but I knew they wouldn’t have cell coverage on all parts of the mountain so I didn’t worry.  I became concerned when I didn’t hear from him by late afternoon on Friday.  They should have been off the mountain, in the van on the way home.  However, I also knew that everything might be ok.  There might have been a storm, forcing them to dig a snow cave, and then after the storm they would hike out.

I lost my ability to remain calm by about 5pm.  I called Alpine Ascents (AAI) the guiding agency, to see if they had heard from the guides, who had satellite phones.  A chipper woman named Melanie told me that no one had been called in, but that everything might still be fine.  Then, an hour later, Gordon, a director at AAI, called me, and that’s when the darkness descended.

“Holly, this is Gordon.  We have not heard from the team”

“Are you concerned?  Is this normal?  I’m very worried.”

“Yes, we are very concerned.   We called the rangers.  There have been other teams on the mountain on the same route and they have not seen our team.  They are… missing, gone.”

“What happens now.”

“Search and rescue helicopters will be dispatched in the morning.”

Gordon’s voice was heavy.  There wasn’t much more to say at that point.  I hung up the phone, walked out of my bedroom, and put a smile on my face for my children (Isabell and Melanie, age 9 and 5 at the time).  I was in the middle of cooking the celebration dinner I had planned for John.  He would be hungry after the climb, so I was cooking his favorite steak recipe (flank steak marinated overnight in balsamic, soy sauce, fresh oregano, garlic, jalapeno, fresh thyme, alder smoked salt, and cumin).  He would want a lot of meat, and I loved making him happy at the dinner table.   The kids asked “Where is dad?” so I weakly told them he was a bit late getting back from his climb, but everything would be fine.

I was scheduled to depart the next morning at 5am to lead a team of 3 friends up Mt Adams.  I’d climbed Adams before and was excited to have planned an early season expedition up the mountain in spring snow conditions.  My team was all trained up, all the gear was packed, and it was to be a glorious weekend.  John and I often did this – one of us would climb, come home, we would stay up late excitedly breaking down the details of said climb, and the other would depart for some other adventure the next day.  One of us had to always be home to care for the children.

Of course, I never went on that climb.  I sent Brian and Leo off without me (Brian was ready to lead) and Sean said he would stay with me on Saturday while I waited for the call.  Saturday morning I sent my kids off for the day with loving friends, knowing that the calls I was to get were calls I needed to receive without them there.   The rest, as they say, is history.  The helicopters spotted gear splashed all over the Carbon Glacier, which is 3300 feet below the ridge that John’s team was climbing on.  No bodies were found, but an exposed hand was seen sticking out of the snow.  There was constant rock and ice fall where the gear was, so it was not safe for any rangers to get on the ground and investigate more closely.   It was eventually concluded that the team made no mistakes – no one slipped, no one made a bad call as to if they should continue or not.  An avalanche or ice fall came down (probably during the night, based on other data we had) and took them straight off the ridge, 3300 feet down.  They didn’t suffer, and probably never knew what happened.

This is the story of my grief.

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