Rescuer returns to U.S. after search for missing Littleton climber in Russia

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LITTLETON, Colo. -- Reality is sinking in that Steven Beare might never return home.

Beare has been missing for three weeks, when he is thought to have been caught in a snowstorm high on Mount Elbrus in Russia.

Elbrus is a bucket list destination for climbers. The 18,510-foot peak is considered one of the seven world summits. Every day hundreds of guided climbers scale its peak.

“It’s extremely straight forward. There is no fear of falling. You’re not in terrain that is steep,” climber Don Bowie said.

Bowie, who lives in California, is a professional altitude climber and volunteered to lead American search and rescue efforts in Russia. He had only met Beare and his wife, Olivia, briefly once before.

“There is just something about it that really tugged at my heart. You try to stay professional and try to make the best decisions and not be moved by your emotions, but it’s impossible,” he said.

Mount Elbrus is considered a relatively safe mountain for climbers who stay on the well-marked trail. Once off the trail, however, conditions become drastically more dangerous. In 2016, 51 people died on the mountain.

“Once you’re off that trail, I mean 10, 20 feet off that trail, people fall into crevasses right there and then,” Bowie said.

Some of the crevasses can reach as far as 500 feet deep. In whiteout conditions, the entrance holes are impossible to see.

Beare was climbing alone when thick clouds rolled in earlier than expected. It is believed he might have gotten lost during whiteout conditions and fallen.

It is unlikely he survived.

“Perhaps for a short period of time,” Bowie said. “The harsh reality is, being out in the open on that mountain in that elevation overnight would have been very difficult to survive.”

The storm dumped several feet of snow and dropped temperatures below zero.

“One day possibly. Two days I don’t think so. In my opinion, it would have been very difficult to survive that,” he said.

Still, over the next two weeks, Bowie and Russian search and rescue teams combed as much of the mountain as possible by foot and using helicopters in hopes of finding him.

“The first thing that struck me was the size and scale of Elbrus. It’s big. It’s a colossal peak,” Bowie said.

According to Bowie, the most challenging parts of the search and rescue operations were the windy, wintry weather, the size of the search zone and the thousands of dangerous crevasses covering the slopes.

Aside from the physical conditions, there are a lot of unknowns about where Beare might have traveled.

Mount Elbrus is cone shaped, meaning it is relatively flat and the topographical features are the same all the way around.

“It’s not like you have a mountain feature where you have a gully here and a tree line there. It’s all the same, just in large scale. So, if you’re lost, all you know is that the slopes go down in generally the same direction and you can’t tell where you are at, at all,” he said.

The rescue efforts were officially called off on June 28.

“I had a lot of hope,” Bowie said. “The possibility of finding him alive was really almost zero, if not zero at that point. You’re still flying in the helicopter and your eyes automatically are looking for somebody waving their hands. The human heart just hopes.”

Russian rescue teams, locals and volunteers are still continuing to search as conditions allow, and as any new information comes in. However, their mission has shifted from rescue to recovery.

Bowie plans to return to Russia in August when the snow melts to continue searching for Beare’s remains.

“Bringing him home really means a lot,” he said. "Just to know what happened and some, I hate to use the word, but closure.”

Continuing the recovery efforts will require private search and rescue helicopters. They cost $2,500 per hour to use.

Beare’s family is accepting donations to help cover the costs.