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Dramatic Mount Baker rescue came just in the nick of time

A group of climbers rescued from the summit of Mount Baker had become lost in poor visibility and dug into the snow for shelter as nighttime temperatures plummeted below freezing, according to search teams who found them Monday morning.

All four climbers – a man, woman and two 13-year-old boys – were saved in a dramatic helicopter airlift from the summit of the 10,781-foot volcano east of Bellingham.

"Yesterday was one of the coldest days I've felt all winter," said Chuck Foster of Bellingham Mount Rescue Council, one of several government agencies and volunteer groups that worked to find the two adults and two teenagers.

"It was a good ending. We're pretty excited about it," Foster said.

Deputy Mark Jilk, who helps manage search and rescue operations for the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office, said the climbers carved a trench into the snow for protection from howling wind.

"They hunkered down due to poor visibility," Jilk said. "The visibility just didn't open up for them. It was very cold up there."

Both Foster and Jilk said the climbing party had appropriate gear and clothing, but they had minimal mountaineering experience.

Sheriff Bill Elfo said the climbers had become separated from their companions and were reported missing Sunday morning.

Search efforts began immediately, Elfo said.

Ground teams began to assemble their gear and head toward a staging area up Glacier Creek Road off the Mount Baker Highway and helicopter crews were notified.

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A member of the U.S. Navy's search and rescue helicopter crew assists one of the missing climbers Monday morning at the summit of Mount Baker. U.S. Navy Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

All four climbers were at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on Tuesday, suffering from injuries related to hypothermia, said hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg.

Both adults, a 46-year-old man and a 40-year old woman, were in satisfactory condition, she said. Both boys were in serious condition in the hospital's intensive care unit.

"They're all going to be OK," Gregg said.

Officials didn't release their names or other information, citing medical privacy laws.

Elfo said the climbers are affiliated with a Seattle-area Boy Scout troop.

Efforts to contact to the Scouts' national office in Texas and the regional Chief Seattle Council were unsuccessful.

Gregg said family members weren't ready to talk with reporters.

Foster said Bellingham Mountain Rescue volunteers searched through Sunday night, ascending the Coleman-Deming Route past the groups' base camp at 7,000 feet.

Helicopters couldn't fly Sunday night because of clouds, Foster said.

He said climbing teams probed deep glacial crevasses and searched for footprints in the dark.

Foster said he layered up to five jackets in an attempt to stay warm, and his water bottle froze.

Helicopter rescue crews from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and Customs and Border Protection said it was touch-and-go Monday as clouds began to move across the summit about 9:30 a.m. Monday.

"Due to the conditions, this was definitely one of the most challenging rescues I've been on," said U.S. Navy Lt. Chris Pitcher.

"The fog bank on the northwest side was creeping in," Pitcher said in a statement. "Wind, the high altitude, and the weight of the crew and rescued climbers on board were additional challenges."

Pitcher, originally from Ferndale, is SAR mission commander of the rescue helicopter based at Whidbey Island. His crew worked in concert with the crew of the U.S. Customs helicopter, which used infrared technology to spot the stranded people.

Foster said he was certain that his team hadn't passed the missing people.

"I thought to myself, 'They must be at the summit because we've searched everywhere else,' "he said.

They kept pushing higher up the mountain.

"At that point the clouds were below us and I thought, 'Let's get a helicopter up here fast," he said.

According to a Seattle nonprofit climbing group called The Mountaineers, the Coleman-Deming Route is a moderate approach that starts from the Heliotrope Ridge hiking trail east of Glacier.

It gains 7,000 feet of elevation in 5.5 miles as it crosses crevasse-strewn glaciers toward the mountain's iconic Roman Wall.

Weather at the 5,000-foot level Sunday was rainy with temperatures in the 40s during the day and in the low 30s at night, said meteorologist Danny Mercer at the National Weather Service in Seattle.

Mercer said it would have been colder at higher elevations, with snow possible.

April and May is when many climbers start their ascents in the North Cascades, said Bill Ashby of The Mountaineers.

He said the Coleman-Deming route is favored among novices and less experienced mountaineers.

Ashby said dangers such as deep crevasses or snow bridges are less serious in early spring than they are in July and August, as snow begins to melt.

For the rescuers, hiking to the summit is about a 12-hour effort carrying heavy gear.

It was the third incident in the Mount Baker wilderness in as many weeks.

A woman was rescued in a technical rope operation at Racehorse Falls over the Memorial Day weekend and Liam MacDonald, a 19-year-old Western Washington University student from Seattle, died in a May 19 fall near the Skyline Divide Trail.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty
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