By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A climber attempting to reach the 14,410-foot peak of Washington state's Mount Rainier was overcome by hypothermia and probably slid 2,000 feet to his death, national park officials said on Thursday.
Rob Plankers, an experienced expedition climbing guide and retired Army sergeant from Olympia, Washington, is presumed to be the 116th recorded climbing-related death at Mount Rainier National Park since 1897, when officials began tracking statistics, spokeswoman Patti Wold told Reuters.
Park workers were conducting a limited search for Plankers, 50, after suspending an "active, high intensity search," two days ago because of the park's rugged terrain with 36 square miles of glacier ice, Wold said.
Seven independent search parties were also looking for Plankers, but Wold said his body may never be recovered.
The climber likely fell into a treacherous "icefall" area, where "snow, ice chunks and boulders the size of houses" plummet down the mountain's northwest slope, said Joe Hyer, owner of Alpine Experience in Olympia, where Plankers worked.
Two climber friends last saw Plankers at an altitude of 13,600 feet on Monday after he became ill and they left him to seek help.
He was unable to walk, suffering from hypothermia and frostbite after encountering snow-whirled winds of about 60 miles per hour and frigid night temperatures that dipped into the 20s.
Helicopter searchers in a 214th Airborne Chinook and MD-530 spotted a 2,000-foot-long snowy slide that led down an icy 50-degree slope on the mountain's "most inhospitable terrain" at a 11,500-foot altitude, on Tuesday.
Nearby, searchers found the climber's backpack and helmet.
Plankers had trained for the climb and sometimes led Mountaineers Club expeditions of adventurers seeking to climb Mount Rainier, the highest inactive volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range and about 80 miles southeast of Seattle.
The park describes Rainier as "the largest and most heavily glaciated" peak in the country's lower 48 states. The park's snow typically melts by late August.
A decorated Army veteran, Plankers served in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and had "a spirit of service to the community, his country and his friends. You could rely on him for anything," Hyer said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)