It was wet and heavy and frighteningly fast.
An avalanche slammed into as many as a dozen climbers on the upper reaches of Mount Rainier on Thursday afternoon, killing one man who spent hours dangling off an icy cliff from a rope.Park officials said five others were injured, though hospitals reported receiving seven patients, most with minor injuries. The rest of the climbers escaped unharmed from the 14,410-foot peak about 50 miles south of Seattle.
"We were really fortunate we did not have more deaths or more serious injuries," Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Maria Gillett said.
The slide hit two climbing teams, each roped together and containing five or six people. The climbers were at 11,400 feet, on their way down from the summit at midafternoon, when the sun makes walking on the melting snow particularly precarious. The snow was unstable after recent hot weather.
One of the teams was swept over Disappointment Cleaver, a 300-foot high sheet of rock so named because it is often where climbers decide to turn around.
Patrick Nestler, 29, of Rowayton, Conn., fell about 100 feet off the lip of the cliff and spent several hours hanging by a rope before he died Thursday night. Gillett said he suffered massive trauma.
Kent Swanson, 53, was on the other climbing team. After sliding about 30 or 40 feet, he made it to the edge of the avalanche.
"Somebody yelled, `Slide!' and as soon as we heard it, we took off down a path," he said. "I was one of the lucky ones. I just ran as fast as I could."
Helicopters were able to land on the mountain and remove the injured. Swanson, of Phoenix, Md., was treated for hand and leg injuries at Tacoma General Hospital. He said the injuries were not serious.
The avalanche did not affect disabled climber Pete Rieke, who is using a hand-cranked snow vehicle to ascend. His party was about 400 feet above the point where the climbers were hit. His wife saw the slide and used a cellular telephone to report it, park officials said.
"His wife came out of the tent and saw two teams of hikers being swept away," Gillett said.
The mountain is the state's highest, most challenging and perhaps its most dangerous. There have been at least 94 climbing-related deaths - including Thursday's - on the mountain since recordkeeping began in 1887.