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Woman Recounts Avalanche Tragedy

June 12, 1998

PARADISE, Wash. (AP) _ Flying off rocks, with the snow shoving her down Mount Rainier, climbing guide Ruth Mahre feared the worst for herself and the four climbers below.

``You can’t get an anchor and people are pulling you down, you don’t think you’ll live,″ Mahre, 25, said Friday.

She managed to secure her rope to the rocks and held on for hours before searchers rescued her and another climbing party trapped by an avalanche Thursday.

One person was killed and seven hurt, although all of the injured were released from the hospital Friday.

Twenty-nine-year-old Patrick Nestler, who dangled 100 feet over a sharp-edged rock formation known as Disappointment Cleaver, died of hypothermia, according to an autopsy that also found blunt injuries.

But Mahre was praised for saving the lives of the other three climbers linked by the rope between her and Nestler.

``I wasn’t the heroine. I was just lucky ...If anybody moved it was all over for all of us,″ said Mahre, sister of Olympic skiing twins Steve and Phil Mahre. Phil Mahre won a silver medal in slalom in 1980 and a gold in 1984; Steve won a silver in slalom in 1984.

The slide swept over two climbing teams _ both part of a 27-member group in a five-day, $745 school arranged by Rainier Mountaineering Inc. The second team held their ground using ice axes to arrest their fall. The injured people were taken off the mountain. The rest of the group finished their descent Friday.

``I saw people go right by me,″ Mark Hunter, 39, of Westport, Conn., said at a news conference. ``The avalanche was just a few feet from hitting us all.″

``I heard people screaming `help,′ screaming that they were cold, screaming that they were going to die,″ said Jeff Fisher, 38, of Bloomington, Minn. ``At the end, it was like tumbling bodies and they just kept going.″

This time of year there is particular danger from avalanches as rising temperatures melt the snow that each winter buries the slumbering volcano 50 miles southeast of Seattle.

And warm temperatures Thursday followed two days of cold that dumped new snow on the peak.

Despite the disaster, many of the climbers said they would be back to scale the 14,410-foot summit.

``It’s more dangerous to drive on the freeway than to climb Mount Rainier,″ said Lori Cowen, 28, of Sacramento.

Mount Rainier is the state’s highest peak and its most challenging. There have been at least 94 climbing-related deaths there since record-keeping began in 1887 _ 12 years before Mount Rainier National Park was established in 1899.

The worst climbing accident on Mount Rainier also occurred in June _ June 21, 1981 _ when 11 people died in an icefall at 11,000 feet.

``Mountaineering has inherent risks,″ veteran RMI climber Lou Whittaker said. ``That’s probably the lure of mountaineering _ the risks.″

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