SEATTLE — Six climbers, including two guides, are missing and presumed dead on Mount Rainier, officials said Saturday.
Park rangers said they believe the climbers fell some 3,000 feet and could not have survived.
A ground search spotted camping and climbing gear at the 9,000-foot Carbon Glacier. A helicopter was able to fly low enough that it detected a beacon signal in the area where the gear was found.
The climbers had indicated on Wednesday that bad weather was moving in, and it's believed they most likely hunkered down at that time.
The beacon signal was coming from a debris area, where rock, ice and snow were continuously coming down.
Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman Patti Wold said said two guides with Alpine Ascents International and four clients had been reported missing Friday at about 4:30 p.m. PT. Wold said the party went in on Monday and were due out Friday.
The last time anyone spoke to them was Wednesday around 6 p.m. via satellite phone. At that time the party was at 12,800 feet with plans to stay overnight.
Air and ground searches were suspended late Saturday afternoon. The danger of falling rock and ice in the area where searchers picked up the pings prevents a ground recovery effort, Wold said.
"It would expose our rangers to pretty extreme conditions," park ranger Fawn Bauer said. "And, in all honesty, we may never be able to get on the ground there."
The loss of life would be among the deadliest climbing accidents ever on the peak in the Cascade mountain range. In 1981, 11 people were killed during a guided climb when they were struck by a massive ice fall on the Ingraham Glacier.
Aircraft will survey the area periodically in the coming weeks and months, Wold said, but the possibility of recovering the six is uncertain.
The missing group includes four clients of Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International and two guides. They were due to return from the mountain on Friday. When they did not return, the climbing company notified park officials, Bauer said.
Officials have yet to finish family notifications, so the names of the climbers are unlikely to be released until Sunday.
Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle, stands at 14,410 feet and attracts thousands of climbers trying to reach its summit every year. It is popular with climbers of all abilities, from novices who take guided climbs to experienced alpinists who use the glacier-laden peak to train for attempted ascents on taller mountains in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges.
The search for the missing climbers 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.
The group was scheduled to reach the summit of Mount Rainier on Thursday, with a day to climb down.
Snow flurries and hail hit the mountain Wednesday, Bauer said, but the weather has been clear since then.
Bauer said ground crews on Saturday 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 because of weather conditions. The blog post said all team members were well.
Contributing: The Associated Press