Caught on mountainside Hiking: A Mount Rainier avalanche survivor gleaned skills from his son, an avid climber devoted to rescue efforts.

June 13, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

A year and a half ago, Kent P. Swanson Jr., a 25-year-old mountain guide who grew up in Baltimore County, was killed in a helicopter crash in the Canadian Rockies on the way to learn more about the complex techniques of avalanche rescue.

His father, Kent P. Swanson, 53, a Phoenix businessman, took up climbing as a memorial to his son after meeting many of Kent Jr.'s climbing friends at his funeral last year in Monkton. Since then, he has hiked twice on Oregon's Mount Hood and once on California's Mount Shasta, but caution learned from his son caused the father to turn back each time because of bad weather.

On Thursday, a beautiful day for climbing, Swanson and his brother, Gregg, 43, of Los Angeles reached the top of the demanding Mount Rainier in Washington state, a 14,410-foot peak that had been one of the son's favorites.

On the triumphant way down, they heard the most terrible word that someone can shout on Rainier: "Slide!" An avalanche hit without warning and roared over their climbing party of 10.

In the maelstrom of tumbling heavy wet snow, lasting only a few seconds, the climbers were carried 40, 50, 60 feet or more. Four climbers were left hanging over a cliff, the elder Swanson broke the tibia in his right leg, and his brother tore a knee ligament and broke some bones in a hand. Five other hikers were hurt.

One climber, Patrick Nestler, 29, of Rowayton, Conn., died of massive trauma after he dangled for more than an hour on a rope over the cliff, known as Disappointment Cleaver.

Kent Swanson was the first to unclip himself from the four other climbers on his rope. He found the radio to call for help. Guides from nearby climbing teams reached the party within five minutes, securing and calming the tangle of fallen climbers. Within 90 minutes, a helicopter took Nestler, the Swansons and five others to Takoma hospitals.

"Thank God, our ropes all got tied up or we would have been 10 dead people," said Kent Swanson. "Nine of us wereincredibly lucky. The rescuers were outstanding and well-organized. It shows again that all accidents in mountains are not predictable."

His wife, Patricia J. Swanson, who lost their only child 17 months earlier to the day, learned of the accident at their Phoenix home at 1 a.m. yesterday when her sister, Sandra, called from Virginia. Sandra had heard about the accident on television, but first called the ranger station at Mount Rainier to find out if Kent and his brother were safe before informing her sister.

"He's OK," said a relieved and tired Patricia, after talking at 1: 30 a.m. yesterday with her husband, who was being treated at Tacoma General Hospital. "And what a sweet sister, I'm lucky to have her."

Patricia, who teaches French and Latin at St. James Academy in Monkton, expects her husband will be home within days. Kent, who is state GOP treasurer, until recently served as chairman of the Republican Party in Baltimore County. He is the owner of Nurses Available, a Towson-based firm that provides private-duty nursing and staff relief for health care facilities.

By coincidence, the guide on Swanson's rope, Curt Huggins, had worked with Kent Jr. when he was also a guide for Rainier Mountaineering.

The slide on Thursday afternoon came without hint of warning after a perfect day, said Kent in a telephone interview. Rainier Mountaineering Inc. had been leading the teams on a five-day training hike in which the summit was an option only if the day was good.

"We began hiking at 3 a.m. from Camp Muir at 10,000 feet," he said.

"We had a full moon. The sunrise was beautiful. There were none of the usual pre-conditions for avalanches. We summited at 10 or 11 o'clock. Then we started down. Teams of five roped up. We were coming down Disappointment Cleaver. About 12,500 feet altitude. It was getting warm.

" 'Slide!' " someone yelled. Those who could run did.

"I started running as fast as I could. Time disappears. Then we got hit. We were all tumbling. Heavy wet snow. Deep enough to cover us for a few seconds. The people were stretched out. I was moved 40 feet. My brother was on the edge of the cliff, restrained by a lady's rope next to him, or he'd be over. Four people were hanging over the cliff; water was dripping on two of them. It was over in 10 or 15 seconds.

"My guide's arm was pinned behind him by a rope. I went into his pack and got the radio and he issued the Mayday call.

"Help came quickly. They did a great job securing us, calming people, evaluating our injuries, being totally professional."

Rainier can be severe on even competently led parties.

"We were really fortunate we did not have more deaths or more serious injuries," said Maria Gillett, spokeswoman for Mount Rainier National Park, where at least 94 climbers have died since records began in 1887, many in avalanches.

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