Three of four were members of Oregon State climbing club
ASHFORD, Wash. – The four friends whose trek to the summit of Mount Rainier ended in disaster and three deaths were expert climbers in search of the breathless views at the top of the region’s rugged mountain ranges, their friends say.
“I don’t think they were beyond their ability,” said Keith Pearen, president of Mountaineering Club at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Three of the four climbers were OSU students and club members.
“It’s just that, sometimes, things like this happen,” Pearen said as friends gathered at a park to remember those who died — Keeta Owens, 21, of Lebanon, Ore., and two German climbers: Cornelius Beilharz, 26, of Stuttgart and Grit Kleinschmidt, 26, of Dresden, who was here visiting.
Autopsies on Beilharz, a computer-engineering graduate student at OSU, and Kleinschmidt were scheduled late Friday. Owens, an animal-sciences major originally from Alaska, died of blunt head and neck trauma, the medical examiner’s office reported.
“I just can’t imagine not seeing her again,” said Donna Yanik, who owns a ranch in Lebanon, Ore., where Owens lived and kept her animals, including a thoroughbred named Quinton. “She was part of our family.”
Yanik told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer she and Owens had talked about the climbing trip last week, and Owens had promised they would not attempt the climb if the weather was bad.
“She was a very conscientious person,” Yanik added. “I’m sure she wouldn’t try it if she wasn’t sure it was OK.”
But the weather took the climbers by surprise.
Just one of the party survived — the 29-year-old group leader, Andreas Kurth, who fell from their precarious emergency campsite before dawn Wednesday and then set out for help. Park spokeswoman Lee Taylor released Kurth’s name Friday, but his hometown in Germany was not provided and Taylor could not immediately be reached for further information.
He managed to contact rescuers using a cell phone from another climbing party he met at St. Elmo’s Pass at the 7,800-foot level. But by the time rescuers reached the peak late Wednesday, all three of the others had fallen to their deaths in high winds and whiteout conditions, park spokesman Maria Gillett said.
The climbers had set out Saturday, hoping to summit on Monday. Deep snow slowed them down, and by the time they reached the summit by way of Liberty Ridge — a tough, challenging climb — the weather had turned for the deadly worst.
They huddled just below the 14,411-foot summit, struggling to build snow shelters when 60 mph winds snapped their tent poles and left them exposed to whiteout conditions. When Beilharz fell and the completed shelter collapsed, Kurth tried to put together a makeshift shelter for the two women, said Gillett and park spokeswoman Lee Taylor.
When he went to see to their fallen friend, Kurth fell himself and damaged his climbing boot so he was unable to return to the women near the summit. Instead, he set out for help.
Kurth told rangers both women were still alive at the collapsed snow caves when he left at about 4 a.m. Wednesday to seek help, Gillett said, but sometime after that, it appears both women fell as well.
Owens landed near Beilharz, where her body was found Wednesday. Kleinschmidt landed in a nearby crevasse. Rangers were able to retrieve her body with ropes on Thursday, Taylor said.
Mount Rainier, the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest, is about 60 miles southeast of Seattle.
“Mount Rainier makes its own weather,” Gillett said Wednesday. “You can see sunny skies and five minutes later see clouds come in, and the weather can change very, very quickly.”
Thirteen climbers have died on Liberty Cap and Liberty Ridge since 1968, including three men who died while climbing together on May 13, 1988.