Jeff Alley and his girlfriend, Ashley Melco, are committed to scaling Washington’s Mount Rainier, where Mark Mahaney, their friend and fellow climber, lost his life.
How did it happen? The question has haunted Jeff Alley since he heard that six people climbing Washington’s Mount Rainier last month, including his friend Mark Mahaney of St. Paul, were missing and presumed dead.
The climbers’ bodies were not recovered, and their fate remains something of a mystery. For days, Alley “obsessed over it,” and for good reason. He and his girlfriend, Ashley Melco, were scheduled to leave in just a few weeks to climb Mount Rainier themselves.
“Mark’s passing, with the reminder of life being so vulnerable, definitely puts in perspective what we’re doing,” Alley said recently in his St. Louis Park home, as he and Melco packed for the expedition.
Mahaney, 26, was an “incredibly fit, incredibly strong ice climber — very smart, very intelligent in the way he climbed,” Alley said. Despite his skills, and even though his group was led by two seasoned guides — one had reportedly climbed Rainier more than 50 times — something went wrong.
Suddenly, Alley and Melco found themselves thinking more about risk.
“You always know the risk factor is there, but I don’t think we really got it,” Alley said. “It sort of drove home the point.”
Still, they didn’t consider canceling the climb. They’d been preparing for the late-June adventure since January, acquiring equipment, training twice a week by donning 40-pound packs and clambering up and down from the Franklin Avenue Bridge.
To people who haven’t done it, climbing may look “insane and crazy,” said Jeff Engel, a climber for 25 years and a friend of Alley, Melco and Mahaney. Experienced climbers don’t see it that way. One climbing blogger, comparing statistics from the Census Bureau and the American Alpine Club, calculated that a mountaineer is 10 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than while climbing.
“If you use common sense and approach it with the necessary tools and protection, it’s probably safer than driving to work,” Engel said. “You wouldn’t say, ‘Omigod, there was a horrible accident on 35W; I’m never going to drive that road again.’ ”
To be sure, Alley and Melco were not facing as much risk as Mahaney had. “What we’re doing is drastically different from what they were doing,” Melco said.
Mahaney’s group was ascending Mount Rainier’s north face, a steep and heavily glaciated incline prone to harsh weather. “Nothing will be easy on this climb,” Mahaney wrote on Facebook in April.
On May 28 the group radioed from a campsite somewhere around 12,800 feet — less than 2,000 feet from the summit — reporting snowy conditions. That was the last time they were heard from. Climbers below them on the mountain had seen the group earlier that day; the next day they were gone.
Three days later, a helicopter search picked up signals from buried avalanche beacons and found climbing and camping gear scattered amid snow and rock, more than 3,000 feet below where the radio call had come from.
The evidence suggested that an avalanche had swept the group down the mountain during the night. The terrain was considered too dangerous to land, so the search was called off, the bodies unrecovered.
“Knowing what we know about the route that Mark was killed on, I don’t think I’d ever attempt it,” Alley said.
The route that Alley and Melco picked is less treacherous, though strenuous. It requires hiking 18 snowy miles up a 40-degree incline, ultimately ascending 11,000 feet, or about two vertical miles, to the summit. Alley compared it to hiking from Plymouth to downtown Minneapolis while climbing to the height of 14 IDS Towers.