Shortly after sunrise, Brendan Pierce and Terry Brennan exchanged high fives and hugs at the top of Mount Rainier, more than 14,000 feet above the Pacific Northwest.
They were part of a group of seven Charlotte friends – all married with kids – who had signed up for an arduous, three-day climb. After months of training, they had reached the summit, but their trek was far from over.
Now they had to get back down.
Brendan and Terry knew the descent could be the most dangerous leg of a climb, as exhaustion took hold and melting ice made for treacherous footing. They were now traversing a narrow, snow-covered trail after tackling a formation aptly named Disappointment Cleaver.
The mountain rose above them on the right. To their left was a steep drop-off, riddled with gaping crevasses.
Dripping in sweat, they could see a welcome sight up ahead: a campsite where they would get a few minutes to rest, guzzle some water and gobble a snack.
“The worst is over,” Brendan thought. “We’re almost there once we get past this last little stretch. We’ve made it.”
Moments later, an explosion-like sound shattered the solitude. Up above, a boulder – bigger than an armored car – had split off the mountain and was now rumbling toward Brendan and Terry. A torrent of smaller rocks, snow and ice followed.
Brendan ran forward but could only go so far because ropes connected him to Terry and their guide. As they had been trained, they turned away from the rock slide, so their backpacks would absorb the first blow.
They braced for impact.
‘Not a golf trip’
The trip started with an email carrying a one-word subject line: “Expedition.”
Around Labor Day 2014, Tim Brennan challenged his twin brother, Terry, and a few friends to sign up for a major trip that would require commitment and training. Many of them participated in a popular Charlotte work-out group called “F3,” which stands for Fitness, Fellowship and Faith.
“Something cool but not too dangerous,” he wrote.
The group quickly latched onto Mount Rainier – the highest volcano and largest glaciated mountain in the contiguous U.S.
Brendan said it took a couple of weeks for him to get comfortable with the trip. A quick Internet search brought up news articles about fatalities on the mountain, including six who had died in May 2014.
Those deaths, however, occurred on the more difficult Liberty Ridge route up the mountain, not the more traveled Disappointment Cleaver path the Charlotte group planned to take. Three-fourths of the 11,000 who attempted Rainier in 2014 took that route. Of those climbers, about half made it to the top, overcoming exhaustion, altitude sickness, bad weather and accidents.
Still, it would be a punishing climb across glaciers. They planned to hire a guide service called Alpine Ascents International at a cost of nearly $1,500 each. On its website, the company boasted that it sent one guide for every two climbers, for improved safety and summit success.
By November, seven had plunked down deposits. Five were in real estate-related fields: the Brennan twins, Brendan, Walker Collier and Scott Mansfield. Rounding out the group: Carroll Jones, an orthopedic surgeon, and Jay McDonald, who worked for a software company.
Ranging in age from 39 to 51, they wanted to do it to test their physical limits, deepen their friendships and accomplish something few people get to do. To be able to say they’d conquered Rainier – that would be life-changing.
“It was going to be a men’s adventure thing,” Terry said. “It’s not a golf trip. It’s not a rafting trip. We would all have to train together to go.”
With the trip scheduled for early June 2015, the group had about six months to get ready.
All worked out regularly, but only Jay McDonald had scaled a big mountain: Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in 2011. It was taller than Rainier at 19,341 feet but didn’t require technical climbing skills or special equipment.
He’d dealt with peril before. In 2009, he was on the “Miracle on the Hudson” US Airways flight that made an emergency water landing in New York City. And in 2006, he had successful surgery to remove a noncancerous brain tumor.
In November, the group began climbing stairs in uptown towers and parking garages, starting with the 15-story Ally Financial building. In their first time out, they went up and down twice with no packs. They were sore for days.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the group scaled Mount Mitchell in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains – the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet but nearly 8,000 feet lower than Rainier. On the drive up, they watched a documentary called “Everest: The Death Zone.” They made it back in time for kickoff.
That spring, Tim, despite being the instigator, was growing nervous. After doing more research on Rainier, he tried to persuade the group to switch to a safer option. That idea didn’t go far. They had already paid deposits, bought expensive gear and spent weeks training.
Some of their wives were also apprehensive. Caroline Pierce said she didn’t want Brendan to go for safety reasons but knew he relished the training. “When I saw how excited he was and these other guys were, how do you say ‘No’ to that?” she said.
As early June approached, they knocked out one last stair climb in the Ally building. This time, they clocked 10 round trips with 50 pounds in two hours.
Soaked in perspiration, they whooped and congratulated each other. They wouldn’t be able to control the weather on Rainier, or how their bodies reacted to altitude. But they would be physically prepared.
“We’re ready,” Walker said. “Rainier, here we come.”
Flying into Seattle on Thursday, June 4, Brendan glanced out the window: Mount Rainier loomed above the clouds.
“That’s where you’re going,” the Seattle resident next to him grinned, as the immensity of the climb hit Brendan.
He had other worries on his mind. Back home, Brendan’s mother was dealing with some health issues as he prepared to make the climb.
After some sightseeing, they arrived for a gear check Friday at Alpine Ascents’ Seattle office. Pumped for their trip, the guys were in a joking mood. But their lead guide, Brent Langlinais, set a no-nonsense tone as he briefed them on their expedition.
Over three days, they would cover about 9,000 feet in elevation – the most the guide company ascends per day on any of its trips worldwide. Langlinais, a 39-year-old Louisiana native who had gone to the University of Alaska because it was in the state with the highest mountains, was a serious leader for a serious endeavor.
Another veteran guide would also join them: Lakpa Rita Sherpa, 49, a renowned climber from Nepal who lived in the Seattle area. He was the first Sherpa to climb the highest peaks on the seven continents and had scaled Mount Everest 17 times. Two more junior guides would complete the team.
Most of the Charlotte climbers stayed in a Seattle hotel Friday night, but Tim and Terry had reservations at the Paradise Inn, a lodge at the starting point for the next day’s climb. The oldest on the trip at 51, the twins hoped sleeping at 5,000 feet above sea level would give them an edge.
Both had suffered altitude-related symptoms on past ski trips. At high elevations, the body gets less oxygen, potentially causing headaches, loss of appetite, sleeplessness and sometimes more serious ailments.
The drive to Paradise that night was quiet. The Charlotte climbers were getting anxious, Terry said.
“You could see it, hear it, feel it,” he said.
To High Camp
Saturday’s climb covered ski slope-like terrain, with the guides keeping them at a steady pace. With above-average temperatures in the 80s, staying hydrated would become an overriding concern.
The first stop, at 10,000 feet, was a spot called Camp Muir, where they would spend the night in a stone hut. When it was time to go to bed, most of the group crashed easily on the wooden bunks, except for Tim and Terry. Both barely slept, if at all.
After breakfast on Sunday, it was time for their glacier-climbing lessons: how to use their gear, rope together and stop themselves if they should fall. Rainier, an active volcano that last erupted about 150 years ago, is draped in 25 glaciers covering 35 square miles.
After training, they marched to their High Camp at 11,200 feet. Their equipment now included helmets and crampons – metal claws attached to their boots for extra grip. They were roped together in groups of threes and fours, spaced around 35 feet apart. Radios allowed the guides to keep in touch.
They stepped across small crevasses – fissures in the glaciers – and kept alert for loose snow and rocks. The guides had instructed them to focus on breathing deeply and carefully placing every step.
“The danger level goes from 2 to 10 after Muir,” said Carroll, the orthopedic surgeon.
By midafternoon on Sunday, they had reached High Camp, the last stop before the final, grueling ascent. They had a few hours of down time before dinner. Brendan Face-timed with his wife, panning his iPhone around so she could see the breathtaking landscape.
As they ate dinner in the meal tent, Brent, the lead guide, briefed them on the much-anticipated day ahead.
After a few hours’ rest in their tents, they would wake at 11 p.m., eat breakfast and attack the mountain a little after midnight on Monday morning. The plan was to reach the summit at 14,410 feet and make it all the way back to the parking lot at 5,000 feet by that same afternoon.
There were good reasons to launch in the middle of the night. The snow and ice would be firmer at colder temperatures. And if a climber became sick or injured, there would be more daylight in which to provide help.
Into the night
Brent rattled their tents at 11 p.m. Each climber flashed his headlamp to show he was awake.
In his tent, Jay gathered his gear and stood up. Suddenly, the world was spinning. He had vertigo.
Jay entered the meal tent as the rest of the group was finishing bowls of oatmeal and cups of coffee and tea. He explained his condition to Brent. The lead guide told him to walk the perimeter of the camp and report back.
He did. The vertigo hadn’t gone away.
“You are staying,” Brent said.
Jay welled up. After six months of training, his ascent was over. He would head back down the mountain with one of the junior guides, Joe Zuiches.
Outside, the climbers were already roping up. It was tough to leave one of the seven behind, but they had a schedule to keep.
Three groups would go to the summit.
Brendan attached to Terry and Lakpa. Carroll and Walker hooked up with Brent. Tim – who did not want to be teamed with his brother in case of an accident – joined Scott and the fourth guide, Brian Houle.
With the moon yet to rise, nine headlamps bobbed off into the night.
In the darkness, all each climber could see was the patch of headlamp light 3 feet in front of him. That was probably a good thing, as they crawled antlike up the side of the mountain.
The route to the top went through Disappointment Cleaver, the rocky spine that divides two glaciers. Here an avalanche killed one climber in 1998, and another died in a rockfall in 2002.
Early on, Tim, who had hardly slept in two nights, began to struggle. He felt dehydrated, and the cold wind stung his eyes. He was finding it increasingly hard to see, causing him to stray from the path.
Before he could take a break, though, they had to cross a crevasse. An aluminum painter’s ladder anchored in the snow would serve as their bridge across what looked like an unending void.
Tim focused on his footwork, not the abyss below him. “It was three extra-cautious steps or you were in trouble,” he said.
Around 4:30 a.m., the groups led by Brent and Lakpa reached their planned rest stop at about 13,400 feet. A glimmer of orange in the east had started to pierce the darkness.
When Tim arrived with his group, he could make out the fuzzy glow from his friends’ headlamps, but that was about all. He estimated that he had lost 80 percent of his vision.
Brent told Tim his climb was over. He would head back down Disappointment Cleaver with Brian, one of the guides. Now two of the climbers were out.
As Tim’s vision faded, Brian had to tell him where to put his foot with each step. Sometimes the guide would grab his boot and place it for him.
“I’m thinking about my wife and kids,” Tim said. “I’m saying my prayers with every step.”
The rest of the group – down to five Charlotte climbers and two guides – forged on.
Sticking to a narrow trail, they wound their way up the mountain in single file, gripping ice axes that gave them a crutch to lean on or to dig into the mountain if they should slip and fall. The sun was up now, revealing the panoramic view of blue sky and rippling mountain ranges that surrounded them.
Around 5:30 a.m., the group arrived at the wind-whipped volcanic crater that crowns Mount Rainier. After six months of training and two-plus days of climbing, they had made it.
Terry, whose own vision was starting to fail, stayed there to rest and hydrate. Reaching the crater traditionally constitutes scaling the mountain, although climbers can hike another 45 minutes round trip to Columbia Crest, the highest point on the rim, to sign a register tucked in a metal box.
Brendan, Walker, Scott and Carroll made the final push, posing for a photo as they held an outstretched F3 flag.
And just like that, it was time to go.
They were now organized in two rope teams. Brendan, Terry and Lakpa led the way down, while Scott, Walker, Carroll and Brent trailed behind.
As the sun turned ice and snow into slush, the terrain grew even more challenging. Crampons clacked against rock, as they navigated down Disappointment Cleaver.
After Brendan, Terry and Lakpa reached the bottom, they had to negotiate one more stretch before they reached High Camp. The trail ahead was bordered by a fixed rope that served as a handrail, secured to the mountain with metal spikes.
In the distance, they could see Tim and his guide shuffling toward the tents. Despite having gone all the way to the summit and back, they were only a few minutes behind the pair after Tim’s near-blind descent. It was around 9 a.m.
Leading the group, Brendan stepped forward, with Terry next in line, followed by Lakpa. Only a few strides in, they heard a blast of noise up above them and to the right, as the giant boulder broke off the mountainside.
Seemingly in slow motion, the chunk of volcanic rock slammed into the snow-covered slope, sending up a puff of white. More debris fell. More puffs.
Terry cupped his hands and yelled to Brendan: “Rocks!”
The biggest boulder was coming right at Brendan, joined by an avalanche of snow and ice. Brendan wanted to run back to Terry but knew he wouldn’t make it. Instead, he sprinted forward and then hunched down.
Brendan had created a gap big enough for the largest boulder to burst through, missing both climbers. But the rock and debris crashed into the taut rope, slinging both him and Terry off the path.
Behind them, a quick-thinking Lakpa braced himself between two rocks. His hands locked around the rope that linked him to the two climbers in his care.
Smaller rocks pelted Terry’s shoulder and arm, as he tumbled off the trail. Terry could feel the rope connecting him to Brendan tighten – then recoil as it snapped. Terry came to a stop about 15 feet off the path, flipped around so he was looking up at the mountain, covered to his shoulders in snow.
No longer connected to Terry, Brendan flew down the slope, slid off a lip and fell about 40 feet before he landed on a ledge inside a crevasse. About 10 feet away yawned a much deeper opening.
Encased in ice, snow and rocks up to his waist, Brendan was trapped.
Terry, who hadn’t fallen as far off the trail, started digging himself out of the snow. As he pushed forward with his arms, he hit something hard.
It was one of the metal spikes that had secured the fixed rope. It had skimmed his jacket, slitting the breast strap on his backpack. Any closer, it could have pierced his chest.
Lakpa helped Terry out of the snow and told him to run about 50 yards down the path. They needed to hurry. More rocks could be on the way.
Lakpa jumped off the path and scrambled down the slope to Brendan, who was still screaming for help and unable to move.
Brendan’s left leg was bent beneath his body, and his right leg was sticking back behind him at an awkward angle.
He was spitting blood, staining the snow red around him. He worried he might have internal bleeding, but he’d actually bitten off part of his tongue during his fall.
Lakpa dug into the debris around Brendan with a small shovel. After he cleared enough space around Brendan’s right leg, he told him to pull it out.
The leg wouldn’t move. Brendan panicked. It must be shattered.
Lakpa, however, discovered a piece of rope wrapped around Brendan’s leg. Lakpa ran back to his pack, grabbed a pair of shears and returned to cut him free.
Brendan struggled to his feet. He looked around and realized how close he had come to dying. He could see over the edge into the deeper part of the crevasse. There was no bottom in sight.
Brendan roped onto Lakpa and started walking back toward the path. After a few steps, his right leg crunched through the ice, and he sank up to his thigh. He screamed again, as pain shot up his sides. He had broken ribs for sure.
After Lakpa pulled his leg out, the guide delivered a stern message to Brendan. He needed to focus. They had to get out of there.
Brent, Carroll, Walker and Scott were still coming down Disappointment Cleaver and didn’t see Brendan’s fall.
Their group had fallen behind after Scott dropped his iPhone while trying to take photos. The phone had skidded off the trail, requiring a side trip to retrieve it – much to the irritation of his friends.
A voice crackled over Brent’s radio. Sounding out of breath, Lakpa said there had been an accident involving Brendan, but everything was OK.
A few minutes later, the group arrived at the scene and could tell it was serious. Rock, snow, ice and tangled rope littered the trail. In the distance, they could see Lakpa, Brendan and Terry stumbling into camp.
Once they regrouped at High Camp, they assessed Brendan’s condition. Brent, also an intensive care nurse, and Carroll, a surgeon, checked for internal injuries.
The diagnosis was cracked ribs – one on the left side, two on the right – and a severely bruised right leg. His left leg was hurting, too, but it didn’t seem as serious.
Although it would be painful, Brent determined that Brendan could walk down the mountain with the rest of the group. It was the quickest way back down, and they needed to move fast. As the hot, sunny weather thawed the mountain, Brent worried about more rockfalls.
The trek to the bottom was grueling for everyone. Their feet ached inside their rigid boots. Exhaustion weighed on every step. The sun scorched any exposed skin.
Brendan grimaced with every breath.
“I was thinking about my family and my kids and my mom,” he said. “If I wasn’t there (for them) because of Rainier, there would have been a lot of people that relied on me that all of a sudden couldn’t anymore.”
Around midafternoon Monday, as they neared the parking lot where their climb had begun, they saw Jay hiking up to greet them.
It was a boost for the ragtag group, which now had been climbing for 15 hours straight, to see he had recovered from his vertigo. Tim and Terry’s vision had also returned to normal.
Once they made it to the parking lot, Brendan did a more thorough check of his injuries and discovered a deep gouge in his left calf. A crampon had cut his leg during his fall. He would have bled much more if he hadn’t been wearing compression pants.
Back in Seattle, Jay accompanied Brendan to an urgent care center, where he received stitches for the gash on his leg. The rest of the group went to dinner. It was much more somber than they had imagined. They were exhausted. Nerves were frayed.
“We figured it would be seven go up and seven go down,” Carroll said. “We’d have beers in the van and have a big celebratory steak dinner in Seattle. It was not like that. It was real quiet.”
When the weary climbers arrived back in Charlotte, they were greeted with hugs and “Welcome Home” signs on their doorsteps.
With kids in bed, Brendan told Caroline everything about his fall. They hugged and cried on the couch in their den.
The next day, they attended their son’s fifth-grade graduation and a swim meet for their daughter. For Brendan, it was a surreal plunge back into normal life.
For weeks, the pain from his injuries and the memories from the fall would overwhelm him. While driving or in other moments alone, he would find himself reliving the accident.
The others, too, were replaying the events in their minds. They had researched the climb, hired experienced guides and prepared extensively, but now knew they had underestimated the danger. Even with all their training, they couldn’t control nature. Mount Rainier had the final say on whether a climber made it to the top – and back down again.
“It was way more physically challenging than I anticipated and way more dangerous than any of us imagined,” said Tim, who had conceived the trip. “I will never climb a glacier again. I would climb a mountain. Glaciers have a mind of their own.”
What happened to Brendan is rare. At the location of his accident, there might be a couple of incidents with similar circumstances per year, said Stefan Lofgren of the National Park Service. Brent, the lead guide, said it was particularly alarming to see a rope – literally a climber’s lifeline on the mountain – get severed.
Like others on the trip, Terry, who was thrown from the trail himself, said he has no regrets about climbing Rainier once. But he wouldn’t do it twice. “I felt really lucky and fortunate to come out of that,” he said.
A couple months after the trip, all seven Charlotte climbers gathered at a South End restaurant to reminisce about the experience and celebrate their safe return.
As they took turns talking about their personal experience on the mountain, Brendan was struck by how so many little moments and circumstances piled up to determine the climbers’ fate.
If it hadn’t been so hot, would the piece of mountain have broken off after thousands of years? If they had moved faster or lingered longer in a break, would they have missed the rockfall – or been more seriously injured? What if a skilled guide like Lakpa hadn’t been on hand? Even Scott’s dropped iPhone might have kept his group out of harm’s way.
“Ten feet one way or another, it’s a different story,” said Brendan.
Brendan knows the “what-ifs” will always be with him. But so will the memory of being at 14,000 feet watching the sunrise over Mount Rainier – and of teaming up with a group of friends to accomplish a Herculean goal.
Already, the group is kicking around ideas for another trip, but they haven’t selected a destination. They agree on one thing: no glaciers.
Here are the seven climbers who set out to scale Mount Rainier in June 2015 and their ages at the time.
▪ Terry Brennan, 51, commercial real estate
▪ Tim Brennan, 51, commercial real estate
▪ Walker Collier, 39, commercial real estate
▪ Carroll Jones, 43, surgeon
▪ Scott Mansfield, 43, real estate attorney
▪ Jay McDonald, 45, software
▪ Brendan Pierce, 43, commercial real estate
How we did this story
This account is based on interviews with the seven Charlotte climbers and guides Brent Langlinais, Lakpa Rita Sherpa and Brian Houle. Dialogue in the story is based on the best recollection of the participants and a video that captured radio calls after the accident.