Eleven people had been buried by falling ice on the day the second group arrived. But the climbers went to Mount Rainier to prove a point and yesterday, after initial fear, four days of grueling work and one near-disaster on their descent, 11 men and women usually called "disabled" came down from the mountain triumphant.
The group arrived at the mountain's shoulder to cheers and champagne yesterday. Nine had reached the top of the 14,410-foot mountain, one had waited in a camp 11,200 feet up and another had stopped in an ice cave 12,500 feet up.
Seven of the climbers are blind, two are deaf, one is an epileptic and one is an amputee. Most of them had done little or no mountain climbing before tackling Mount Rainier, and only one had tried Rainier previously.
The climbers arrived at the Washington mountain June 21 and heard the news that 11 climbers had been buried under tons of falling ice on the mountain that day.
"I talked to my husband about it that night," said Henrianne Wakefield of Arlington, wife of one of the blind climbers. "But you can't say to your husband, 'You've got to come home now' . . .He had second thoughts that night. But he decided he really wanted to do it."
The success of gaining the summit nearly became a disaster yesterday when huge pieces of ice broke loose above two groups of the climbers and came roaring down toward them as they tried to run, dive, or slide out of the way.
The ice broke loose when the heat of the noon sun softened and cracked large pieces in an area of the ridge called Disappointment Cleaver, near the spot where the bodies of the 11 climbers killed in the nation's worst mountaineering accident are still entombed in ice that dropped from the glacial outcropping.
One of the teams had delayed and gone back up to help down another climber, Raymond Keith of Arlington, said Dr. Judith Oehler, a blind diabetic who helped organize the climb.
Just as they did, ice from 400 yards above broke loose with a roar and fell toward them.
"Run!" a shout went up from the camp below.
They tried to dash away, but Justin McDevitt of Rosemont, Pa. tripped on his crampons and fell. Frederick Nosler of Glenside, Pa., lost his ice ax and stumbled as climbers below frantically called for them to hurry.
Sheila Holzworth, 19, a blind athlete from Des Moines, Iowa, hearing the roar above, fell on her knees and began to pray for her companions. "I thought I was gonna die," she said.
"I heard them run, and I tripped.I heard the noise, but I didn't know how big it [the ice] was," she said.
Within seconds, the crashing ice had stopped -- just 200 feet from the climbers, with their climbing rope still snagged on a large hunk of ice.
Jjust before they reached the summit, the group had an omen from home. Charles O'Brien, a Phiadelphia-area attorney who lost his left leg in Vietnam, received a radio-telephone call with news from his wife in a Carlisle, Pa., hospital.
She had just given birth to a girl and a boy, deliverd eight minutes apart. The twins were due two weeks earlier, before the climb started.
"I'm glad he went . . . We had made the decision together that he should go because it is very important for him and very important for the handicapped," Susan O'Brien said in a UPI interview from the hospital.
The handicapped climbers' feat was intended to celebrate the International Year of the Handicapped and make the point that the disabled are far more able than most people believe.
The expedition went with encouragement from the White House, which is to host a reception Tuesday for the climbers.
Included in the group were Wakefield, 39, who heads a radio news section for the Agriculture Department, and Raymond Keith 41, of Arlington, an equal employment officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. Both are blind.
Wakefield reached the summit Friday.
Said his wife: "I didn't know he had made it until Friday. Then on the [television] news, I heard his laugh. I couldn't see him, but I knew it was his laugh and that he made it to the top," she said.
Judith Oehler said, "What really handicaps people is not physical disability, but emotional ones. People who are fearful or very depressed are more handicapped than we are."