On Sunday, December 13, two visitors set out on a day of skiing and snowshoeing at Mount Rainier National Park. The pair —a man from Kirkland, Washington, and a woman from Wenatchee, Washington —failed to return home and were reportedly not prepared to spend the night away from shelter.
Rangers were notified and began a hasty search—a quick, initial check of likely locations—on Monday morning. They also called in both park and mountain rescue resources and arrangements were also made for a helicopter to assist in the search effort.
There were plenty of reasons for concern. An approaching storm, avalanche conditions, limited daylight and possible medical complications for one of the missing individuals created a definite sense of urgency. Ironically, this situation came only a few days after the search for three climbers who disappeared during a winter climb on Oregon's Mount Hood attracted national attention.
Everyone involved in this incident received an early Christmas present when both of the missing visitors walked out to their car before search resources arrived on the scene. They told authorities they had spent a cold night in a snow cave, but were okay.
There are some valuable lessons from the successful outcome of this incident. Basic emergency supplies appropriate for the location and season are always an important item for any outdoor trip, and this duo make at least two vital decisions before and during their excursion.
A responsible party at home knew their plans and reported the pair overdue in a timely fashion, allowing authorities to gear up for a search before the weather made a response difficult or even impossible. Most important, the two made a good decision: rather than continuing to travel in the cold and dark, they took shelter in the snow cave and waited for daylight. That step minimized their risk of both injury and hypothermia.
Knowledge about how to build a snow cave or similar shelter is vital for any winter trip into the backcountry. While there's no substitute for hands-on experience, you'll find some basic information about snow caves and winter survival on the websites from the U. S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, Tahoma Mountain Rescue and the Colorado Division of Wildlife