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Report: Former Marine among hurt in avalanche

Jan. 18, 2013 - 07:28AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 18, 2013 - 07:28AM  |  
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PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H An avalanche has halted an attempt by a retired Marine and amputee to climb the Northeast's highest peak, but if his past comments are any indication, he'll likely try again.

Retired Sgt. Keith Zeier was in the hospital Friday, a day after he and two fellow climbers were injured in an avalanche on Mount Washington. The climb was part of a project called "Ascents of Honor" and was the latest of several grueling challenges the 26-year-old has taken on to raise awareness and money for the families of special operations forces killed or wounded in action.

"In the middle of anything that is difficult, we have the option of quitting, slowing down, or changing course. My life has been about ignoring that option," Zeier wrote last month on the Ascents of Honor blog.

According to an update on the group's Facebook page, Zeier was part of a 12-member crew trying to reach the 6,288-foot summit Thursday evening when a slab avalanche brook loose and swept three climbers to the bottom of Huntington Ravine. Zeier and the other injured climbers were able to slowly make their way to rescuers who assisted them off the mountain, the group said.

"While this is certainly not the outcome we had hoped for, we are thankful that all in our party are safely off the mountain," wrote Thom Pollard, the project's head cameraman.

One of the injured climbers was released from the hospital Friday; the other's condition was not available. Zeier's mother said Friday morning she had not yet spoken to her son but his doctors said his prognosis was promising, and a nurse told her he was resting comfortably in stable condition.

Denise Zeier said the episode brought back memories of her son's injuries in Iraq in 2006. When she heard there had been an avalanche, "I knew. I just knew it was going to be him," she said.

Before his leg was amputated several years ago, Zeier ran several marathons to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, his mother said. Last summer, he climbed Washington's Mount Rainier and was looking forward to Thursday's climb, she said.

"He has a good heart. He'd give you the shirt off his back, and he gets very passionate about things he believes in," she said. "He has no fear. He was in special ops himself, so he has a lot of skills."

Tiffany Benna, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service in New Hampshire, said there was a "moderate avalanche advisory" in effect for Huntington Ravine on Thursday, meaning the likelihood of a naturally-occurring avalanche was nil but a human-triggered avalanche was possible. She said the forest service received the first call about the avalanche at about 5:30 p.m., and the rescue was complete about seven hours later.

Asked whether the climbers should have been scaling the mountain after darkness, Benna said it would depend on their level of expertise and the gear they carried.

"If you're prepared to be in that type of weather and in darkness, it's a hard thing to say 'should' or 'shouldn't have,'" Benna said. "I don't know how they were outfitted if they had headlamps and gear to do a nighttime trip."

According to the Ascents of Honor website, the group was keenly focused on safety and had assigned one climber to oversee safety decisions ranging from gear choice to navigation. The group plans to produce a film that would inspire viewers to contribute to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and do whatever they can to help veterans in their communities.

Mount Washington is known for its brutal weather conditions. For decades, it held the distinction as the site of the fastest wind gust ever recorded on Earth, but the 231 mph record set in 1934 was topped by a 253 mph gust on an Australian island in 1996.

Associated Press writer Lynne Tuohy contributed to this report.

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