Mount Rainier Makes Changes After Ranger’s Death

By SHANNON DININNY | June 6, 2013

Climbing rangers on iconic Mount Rainier had become comfortable working on the mountain’s icy slopes without being roped or tethered for safety and had become desensitized to potential hazards, according to a review released Tuesday into the death of a ranger who fell during a rescue operation last year.

As a result of the report, the National Park Service plans to review all high-risk operations, including climbing, boating and diving, in the Pacific Northwest region, Regional Director Chris Lehnertz said in a conference call with reporters.

The review also recommended that Mount Rainier establish protocols and standard operating procedures for climbing rangers to protect against falls in the future, as well as plans for search and rescue and incident command operations.

Nick Hall, 33, fell about 2,400 feet to his death on the mountain’s icy, exposed Emmons Glacier while helping to rescue four injured climbers from Waco, Texas, on June 21, 2012. Hall was a four-year climbing ranger originally from Patten, Maine.

Two of the injured climbers had fallen into a crevasse at the 13,800 foot level, on their way down from the 14,411-foot summit. Hall had built an ice shelf to treat one of the injured climbers, but he stepped away from his ice tool to secure a litter, which is essentially a reinforced stretcher, from a helicopter.

Hall lost his balance, fell backward down the slope, and was unable to stop himself from sliding down the mountain.

“He was unroped and operated without an ice ax, likely because he was comfortable with what he was doing,” Lehnertz said. “When we do things over and over again, it’s been shown that human nature can normalize risk, which can lead to injuries and eventually death.”

Park Superintendent Randy King stressed that the accident was not Hall’s fault, but a result of many factors, including an overall desensitization to the risks on the mountain.

“Nick Hall died saving lives. He was only on the mountain that day because four people had fallen and desperately needed his help,” he said. “We’re trying to be open to continuing to learn about what we can do to help people make good decisions and stay safe in an inherently risky environment at inherently risky work.”

Mount Rainier sits about 60 miles southeast of Seattle, where the volcano towers over the skyline on clear days. The national park attracts 1.5 million visitors a year. About 10,000 climbers attempt to climb the mountain each year, and about half make it to the summit.

King said a safety and risk management program employed by the National Park Service has been used at Mount Rainier for several years. But he said that while many of the park’s permanent staff had been trained, many of the seasonal employees who do some of the most high-risk work had not.

The park brought in all of its climbing rangers for training earlier this spring, before the climbing season kicks into high gear, to help them recognize risks that people face every day doing their job, he said.

The park also plans to contract with a helicopter company to provide short-haul services that are also used in other parks popular among climbers, including Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain national parks. In such a rescue, a ranger would be suspended below the helicopter to assess and secure an injured party.

The high-altitude helicopter must be able to operate at the height of Mount Rainier, King said.

“It won’t be a perfect tool for all situations, but it’s a tool that is probably the best way and perhaps the safest way for many of the rescues that occur on Mount Rainier,” he said.

In the meantime, the park will be employing staff differently this summer to ensure its most experienced climbing rangers are on the mountain overseeing field staff operations, largely out of Camp Muir.

That may mean people will not be at Camp Sherman, a resting point for a less traveled route up the mountain, in the middle of the week as they have been in the past, King said.

“Most of what we do on the mountain is actually try to prevent accidents,” he said. “We spend a lot of time talking to climbers about what they’re doing up there.”

The park will do everything it can to continue that work and to prepare climbers for the hazards they could encounter, he said, but ultimately, the responsibility for climbers’ safety rests with them.

“If they get in trouble, we will try to help them,” he said. “And if people get in a pickle up there, there are conditions and circumstances where people can’t help them.”

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