Six climbers on Mount Rainier believed to be dead

Mount Rainier National Park

Last Updated Jun 1, 2014 1:15 PM EDT

SEATTLE - Six climbers on Mount Rainier likely fell thousands of feet to their deaths in what would be among the worst alpine accidents ever on the iconic Washington mountain.

Mount Rainier National Park officials say six climbers are presumed dead after helicopters detected pings from emergency beacons buried in the snow and a debris field that may indicate an avalanche.

Searchers believe the group fell 3,300 feet from their last known whereabouts of 12,800 feet on Wednesday, park spokeswoman Patricia Wold told CBS affiliate KIRO in Seattle. A helicopter crew spotted camping and climbing gear in the avalanche-prone area, park Ranger Fawn Bauer said.

"It's inconceivable that anyone survived that" fall, Wold said. Officials have not released the names of those who died.

Bauer a pile of gear found at 9,500 feet that included tents, sleeping bags and jackets that belonged to the missing climbers. The rangers suspect the group might have fallen into the glacier below.

"It's a sad day at Mount Rainier," park superintendent Randy King said Sunday.

Air and ground searches were suspended late Saturday afternoon. The bodies won't be recovered Sunday because they are in an extremely dangerous area, where snow, ice and rock fall constantly, she said.

"It would expose our rangers to pretty extreme conditions, so we are not able to do any kind of ground searching of that area," she said. "And, in all honesty, we may never be able to get on the ground there."

The face where the group was climbing is very dangerous and has a chute-like area that frequently creates avalanches, she said.

Wednesday night the climbers made contact at 12,800 feet and said they were fine.

The missing group includes four clients of Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International and two guides. They were scheduled to reach the summit of Mount Rainier on Thursday and return from the mountain on Friday. When they did not return, the climbing company notified park officials, Bauer said.

Alpine Ascents' director of programs, Gordon Janow, confirmed that the missing guide is Matt Hegeman, but told KIRO he wasn't ready to release information about all of the climbers.

Officials have yet to finish family notifications. Their names will be released after that.

The National Park Service launched a helicopter Saturday afternoon to do a thorough search of the area where rangers thought the climbers might be.

The search focused on the northwest shoulder of the mountain at the Liberty Ridge area, near where they were last heard from, Bauer said. Saturday's search included a team of three climbing rangers on the ground and flyovers with a Hughes helicopter. An Army Chinook helicopter then joined the search from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle, stands at 14,410 feet and attracts thousands of climbers trying to reach its summit every year.

Snow flurries and hail hit the mountain Wednesday, Bauer said, but the weather has been clear since then.

Bauer said Saturday's weather was perfect for searching and ground crews checked "every possible area" where someone could have sought refuge in the storm.

In a statement from the park, the guides were described as skilled.

In a blog post on the Alpine Ascents website Thursday, the post said the team had turned around at 13,000 feet during their attempt to reach the summit

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