Rangers recover body of skier killed on Mount Shuksan

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 15, 2014 

Rangers with North Cascades National Park have recovered the body of a skier who was killed in an avalanche on Mount Shuksan Wednesday, May 14.

With the help of a contracted helicopter, rangers were able to move the body from a still slide-prone area to a location where Whatcom County authorities could safely retrieve his remains Thursday morning, Ranger Rosemary Seifried said.

The crew set out about 9 a.m. and was able to complete the short haul within an hour. Rescuers were waiting for the medical examiner to arrive just before noon.

John Cooper IV, 46, of Seattle, had been climbing the mountain with a friend on Wednesday when an avalanche swept him about 2,000 feet to his death.

The two men had been scaling the north face of the craggy mountain - with plans to reach Summit Pyramid before skiing back down - when the snow above them came loose as they ice-axed their way along a steep, precarious slope at about the 7,000-foot level, high above Price Lake, said Kelly Bush, a North Cascades National Park ranger.

One climber crouched and, once the slide passed, found he'd narrowly missed getting hit. But afterward he couldn't find any sign of Cooper or Cooper's locator beacon. The snow had swept him away.

Both men were skilled climbers and skiers, Bush said. They wore crampons and carried skis on their backs. They weren't roped together when the snow slid.

Because of the unsteady snow above him, the survivor hiked down a ways in search of cell reception. He dialed 911 from a safer spot on the mountain around 10:45 a.m. He stayed on the mountain, unharmed, in touch with rescuers via radio and cellphone. He skied down in the afternoon. Ground search-and-rescue teams, with Bellingham Mountain Rescue and Whatcom County Search and Rescue, met him on his way down.

Meanwhile, two park rangers boarded a helicopter to search from the air. The MD 500 helicopter crew found Cooper at 3:30 p.m., about 2,000 feet below the slide. His body couldn't be recovered Wednesday because of the dangerous, melting snowpack and the rough terrain.

A recent heat wave likely catalyzed the snow slide, Bush said. Temperatures rose to 75 degrees along the Nooksack crest Wednesday, making it one of the warmest, most avalanche-prone days so far this year on Shuksan, a 9,130-foot massif that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Mount Baker.

Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or caleb.hutton@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Dispatcher Blog at bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamcrime.

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