Rainier alluring despite danger

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004

SEATTLE On clear days the mountain seems to float above this city, almost close enough to touch, beckoning hikers and climbers to its snowy peaks.

Two experienced mountaineers have died in the past month trying to reach Mount Rainier's summit. On Thursday Jonathan Cahill, a father of four, became the 91st climber to succumb to Rainier's deadly allure.

Despite the dangers, the mountain's iconic power continues to lure city-dwellers into the wild.

''It's so close, it's so accessible, and yet within a couple of hours you can be in a very unforgiving environment,'' said Eric Simonson, an owner of Mount Rainier Alpine Guides, one of two companies that leads people to the summit.

More than 2 million people each year visit Mount Rainier National Park, which is an easy drive from Seattle or Portland. Most are happy to drive to the Paradise visitor's center, snap a few photos and hike around the paved trails.

For 11,000 people a year, though, Paradise is just the starting point for attempts to reach the 14,411-foot summit. Experienced climbers relish the challenge of Rainier, especially the treacherous Liberty Ridge route, which in recent weeks claimed the lives of Cahill, a fire captain from Auburn, Wash., and Peter Cooley, a father of three from Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

An average of three people a year have been killed on summit attempts since 1990. The deaths don't seem to dim the ardor for Mount Rainier among novices and experienced climbers alike.

''It amazes me the number of people who come here specifically to climb that mountain. There are a lot of people who make that their only objective in life,'' said Matt Kerns, store manager of a Recreational Equipment Inc., store the Seattle based company has equipped hikers and climbers for decades.

Even for people who think crampons are something you take Midol for, Mount Rainier holds a powerful place in the imagination. ''The mountain is out'' is the localism for good weather in Seattle and other cities in Western Washington. The sight of Mount Rainier rising out of the clouds on a sunny day has become a symbol of Seattle's outdoorsy values, and has inspired many a mountain newbie to head for the hills.

''It definitely is a cultural icon as well as a geological landmark,'' said Seattle historian Walt Crowley. ''Before we started building giant pokey things like the Space Needle, it was THE emblem with which the city identified and promoted itself.''

The mountain is so close to Seattle and looks so serene, it can be easy to underestimate its dangers. Joe Wood, 34, a book editor visiting Seattle from New York, headed to Mount Rainier one afternoon in 1999 for an afternoon hike. He never returned and was presumed dead, one of six fatalities on the mountain that year. His body was never found.

''Whether you're a novice climber with a guide or an experienced climber going it along, the mountain doesn't care,'' Simonson said. Cahill's death, he said, ''is just one more example of how challenging Mount Rainier is, for both experienced climbers and novices.''

Tanna Osterhaus had barely worn a backpack the first time she climbed Mount Rainier. She grew up in a south Seattle suburb with Mount Rainier in her backyard, and now owns Jasmer's Inn near the park.

''There's a real attraction to Rainier. I thought, 'Gosh, I need to climb that mountain,''' Osterhaus said. She reached the summit safely with a guide company, and admits to being slightly obsessed with the mountain.

''You think of an island in the sky ... people who live here, they don't have to dream it, they actually see it,'' she said.

Despite the allure, she said, the view from the top is anti-climactic. People who reach the summit are up so high, there's not much to see during the daytime.

''It's better from the bottom looking up,'' she said.

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