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


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.

The slide was also reported to rescuers by cellular telephone near the avalanche debris. Making the call was the wife of disabled climber Pete Rieke, who was 400 feet above and ascending with a hand-cranked snow vehicle. Rieke was away from the danger.

The helicopter was able to land on the mountain to remove the injured. Among the rescuers scrambling up the hill from Camp Muir was famed mountaineer Lou Whittaker, who runs the guide service and who says, "No mountain is worth dying for."

Mount Rainier, the highest and most deadly peak in the state of Washington, is an especially difficult mountain to climb among 14,000-footers, illustrating that high mountains have both subjective and objective hazards.

The former are people's mistakes, such as refusing to turn around in bad weather or going without proper clothing. Objective dangers are the mountain's hazards -- ice seracs (pointed masses) falling without warning or avalanches hitting when experience shows the snow is supposed to be still.

Heavily glaciated, Rainier holds the perpetual threats of avalanches, quickly changing weather, numerous crevasses and steep grades.

Most first-time climbers don't make it to the top. And when they do, they have been known to cry in relief that the ordeal is over rather than smile at their accomplishment.

Before being accepted by Rainier Mountaineering, climbers must pass a daylong course in techniques such as walking with rest steps, climbing while roped up, stopping slides with ice axes and carrying packs of gear weighing 20 to 30 pounds.

The summit day starts with a few hours in darkness at Camp Muir, named for John Muir, the savior of Yosemite National Park. Climbers bearing headlamps on their hard hats start early so they can summit and return before the sun's rays melt the snow and threaten avalanches such as Thursday's.

"It's ironic, an avalanche," said Patricia Swanson, who goes skiing with her husband.

"The mountains were our son's passion. As a member of the Portland Mountain Rescue Squad, he had rescued people in a blizzard on Mount Hood and had climbed Hood and Rainier many times. He died while trying to learn more about avalanches. He felt it was important to understand avalanches.

"He preached caution about the weather. My husband learned caution from our son. He always goes with guides or experienced people. He was careful but not concerned when he came down Thursday."

Just two weeks ago, Kent and his brother were trying to climb Mount Hood in Oregon. They quit after seeing an avalanche far above them. "It's just not worth it," he said. Last year poor visibility and high winds also turned them around on Mount Hood and Mount Shasta.

To prepare for the ascents, Kent trained for months in different physical disciplines, said Patricia Kloiber, manager of his company. His workouts included weights, running, hiking and bicycle riding.

What's next in the mountains?

The first thing is consulting with his wife, Swanson said. Then he continued.

"Starting next year, we'll be doing memorial climbs on Mount Hood for Kent," Swanson said. "He climbed that the most. It was his favorite."

Pub Date: 6/13/98

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