Secrets from the Park Ranger Files: Mount Rainier

Part 1 of 6: These funny, scary, and downright bizarre true stories come from rangers in some of America's favorite national parks. We'll post a new story each week for six weeks. Here, we start things off with a tale from Mount Rainier National Park.
Aerial photo of Mount Rainier, Washington
Mount Rainier, Washington (iStockphoto)

Mount Rainier National Park
Mike Gauthier was a seasonal ranger at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park when he got a call saying a two-seater Piper 18 plane had crashed into a shallow crater near the volcano’s 14,411-foot summit. It was winter, and the small plane had likely been caught in a downdraft. The next day, a team of four rangers flew in a Chinook helicopter to the crash site and recovered the two victims, both of whom had been killed. The downed plane would have to stay on the mountain until spring.

When the weather finally grew warmer and more stable, Gauthier, who went on to run the park’s climbing program for 19 years before becoming chief of staff in Yosemite today, climbed to Rainier’s summit to find the wreckage. Only problem: It wasn’t there. “We couldn’t find it,” he says. “It had been buried in the snow.”

That’s pretty typical, of course, so Gauthier figured they’d wait until the snow had melted off toward the end of summer to go look for it again. They did, but once again they found no plane. The next winter came and went, and the following summer Gauthier went searching for it again. No dice. That happened a few more times as the seasons when by. “It was like it had just disappeared,” he said. It was like something straight out of The X-Files.

Then one day several years later, Gauthier climbed up to the summit and slipped into one of the many ice caves that form near the steamy crater rim. To his utter surprise, he looked up, and there, dangling from the ceiling of the cave, was the plane. “It looked like something out of the Air and Space Museum,” Gauthier said. “It was just hanging there.”

The plane had crashed over the roof of the cave and had slowly melted its way down through the snowpack, which Gauthier estimates was 20- to 30-feet deep. Eventually it started to come through the hollow area below. With the top of the plane still frozen into the ice and the bottom dangling free, the plane had the appearance of hanging from the ceiling.

“Eventually it just fell to the bottom of the cave,” Gauthier says. “But seeing it hang there like that was pretty weird.”

Don’t be that guy…
At least 68 people have died in plane crashes on Mount Rainier since 1944, including a Marine air transport disaster in 1946 that killed 32 soldiers when their Curtis Commando R5C plummeted into the South Tacoma Glacier. Only one of the bodies has ever been removed. A memorial commemorating this event, the park’s worst disaster, sits on the southwest corner of the peak at Round Pass on a road that’s closed to cars because it is continually washed out. It’s one of the few places in the park, however, where you can mountain bike. From the Nisqually entrance, head out on the Westside Road until you can drive no farther. Get on your bike and pedal up toward Round Pass, at 3,900 feet. The memorial is a bronze plaque affixed to a large boulder in one of the more quiet corners of the park. It’s here that you can meditate on how mountain biking on the peak is probably far superior to flying anywhere near it.

Published: 2 May 2012 | Last Updated: 9 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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