SEATTLE -- An elite mountain rescue team headed up Washington's Mount Rainier on Thursday to search for four people missing in a vicious storm while frantic relatives awaited any word on their fate.
The 10 experienced mountaineers were looking on a portion of the intended route of a pair of overdue campers and two climbers who were trying to summit the 14,410-foot volcano. The rescuers reached Camp Muir at the 10,000-foot level by midday Thursday, where they planned to spend the night.
The campers – Mark Vucich, 37, of San Diego, and Michelle Trojanowski, 30, of Atlanta – were due to return Sunday from a trip to the Muir snowfield. The climbers – a Springfield, Ore., couple whose names have not been released – had been scheduled back down Monday. A storm has brought feet of snow and wind gusts of greater than 100 mph to the mountain in the past few days.
Rangers believe both parties were well-equipped but worry they're running out of supplies. Visitors to the upper mountain are advised to stop moving, dig in and wait for better weather during severe weather, and officials hope that's what they've done.
"They've been up there much longer than they planned," said Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Patti Wold. "We are becoming more concerned at this point."
Fay Vucich, Mark's stepmother, said he was well-equipped and had some outdoors experience – but not in the snow.
She and Mark's father live in Auburn, a Tacoma suburb northwest of Rainier. They had never met Trojanowski and did not know how Mark knew her, she said.
"The whole family is saying `no comment.' My husband is too distraught to even talk," she said. "The Park Service has been incredible in calling us and telling us what they can do and what they can't.
"Mark is very knowledgeable about survival techniques – mostly self-taught, from going places with other mountain climbing friends. They've got everything they need to survive something like this, but I don't know how many days. We're trying to stay optimistic."
The rescue team comprised highly skilled mountaineers who are familiar with the route and with techniques for avoiding avalanches, the Park Service said. Rescuers included Mount Rainier climbing rangers and park staff, as well as members of Everett Mountain Rescue, Seattle Mountain Rescue, International Mountain Guides and Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated.
A helicopter remained on standby at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, but freezing rain kept it grounded Thursday.