Rainier rangers: A sharp eye on the slopes
CRAIG HILL; The News Tribune
In 1992 when Mount Rainier National Park hired Stefan Lofgren to keep climbers safe on the upper mountain, his climbing résumé could be summed up in one line:
Mount Anderson, Olympic National Park, 7,321 feet.
“I just want to make sure nobody like me is ever hired to work here again,” Lofgren said.
As the new director of Rainier’s climbing program, Lofgren, 38, can follow through on that effort.
Today the climbing rangers are accomplished members of the mountaineering community and even the volunteers’ experience would put the ’92 version of Lofgren to shame.
“This season, we might have the best staff we’ve ever had,” said Chuck Young, Mount Rainier’s lead ranger.
This month the climbing programs, along with partners like the guide services and the Tacoma Mountaineers, were honored for Rainier’s recent safety record. There has not been a climbing fatality on the mountain since 2005.
The award is a point of pride for Lofgren, who has witnessed the evolution of the climbing program firsthand.
“My goal,” Lofgren said, “is to professionalize even further the direction Mike (Gauthier) was taking the program and get the absolutely best mountaineers and rescuers on the hill.”
As Lofgren’s predecessor, Mike Gauthier’s reputation reached almost legendary status in local climbing circles.
Gauthier, who now works in Washington, D.C., wrote a Rainier climbing guide book, started a climbing blog, took part in numerous high-profile rescues and recoveries and in 2004 was named the fourth toughest guy in America by Men’s Journal.
“I would not be able to push the bar as high as I want to if Mike had not pushed the bar as high as he did for so many years,” Lofgren said.
Lofgren, who started volunteering for the park service when he was 12, draws motivation for his work from the death of two friends.
In 1995, climbing rangers Phil Otis, 22, and Sean Ryan, 23, fell to their deaths trying to rescue a man with a broken ankle on the mountain’s east side. The men were the first climbing rangers to die in the line of duty and their deaths led to changes in the program, including better training and gear.
“Their accident was the most important point in the development of what we have today,” Lofgren said.
It’s also a reminder of how dangerous the job can be. Lofgren knows all too well how stressful it can be to work in such hazardous conditions.
In 2001 he took a year off to decompress by hiking the 2,655-mile Pacific Crest Trail. He jokes that it was the need to burn off work-related stress that enabled him to hike from Mexico to Canada in 831/2 days, the record at the time.
“I couldn’t handle working here,” Lofgren said. “… It is the same reason that makes the job difficult now. Climbing rangers are asked to do everything from helicopter training to angled technical search and rescue to avalanche assessment – and a lot of the guys are firefighters. This makes it one of the most complex jobs in the national parks.
“These are all high-risk hazardous jobs.”
And at the end of the day the rangers are rewarded with a pile of paperwork.
“We definitely don’t do this for the money,” said Ryan Leary, a 22-year-old volunteer ranger who gets a $10 per diem.
Recently Lofgren was at rescue training where the rangers had to figure out how to make a litter fit inside a rescue helicopter. The best option left the victim’s head and feet sticking out each side of the chopper. This meant the rangers would have to stand on the skids during the flight.
When the group was asked who felt comfortable performing this risky move, everybody raised their hand.
“I looked around at them,” Lofgren said, “and I realized half of these people only make $15 per hour.”
This is something Lofgren would like to see changed. The starting wage for a climbing ranger is $15 per hour, but rangers make an additional 25 percent when they are involved in a rescue or patrol the upper mountain.
The climbing program is funded by a $30 annual permit that’s required of each of the approximately 9,000 climbers per year.
Climbing permit sales have generated an average of $248,000 per year from 2006-08, park budget officer Donna Mettler said.
There has been talk about raising the fee to $45, but Lofgren says, “We do not want to do that.”
While the salary might be low, the standards are high for climbing rangers.
The minimum requirements are emergency medical technician, helicopter crewman, advanced avalanche and rope rescue training. And, Lofgren said, “last but probably most important is some kind of world-class climbing experience.”
David Gottlieb, who is in his 14th season at Rainier and is the park’s most experienced climbing ranger, did several first ascents in Nepal over the winter.
“A lot of these guys are climbing hard stuff all around the world,” Lofgren said. “And those are the kinds of the people you want up there in tough situations.”
Lofgren has climbed Rainier 94 times and has a wide range of skills.
He is a law enforcement ranger, the park’s aviation director (he owns his own Cessna) and he is a highly trained firefighter.
Lofgren says he usually finds time to help feed his newborn daughter in the morning and help with her bath at night, but he feels overwhelmed by the breadth of his many responsibilities. He says there are two unfilled positions that, when filled, should relieve some pressure on him.
“My first priority is the climbing operation,” Lofgren said. “Every day when I come into the office, I look at the pictures of Sean and Phil hanging on the wall and I know I can’t let anything like that happen again.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
BEHIND THE AWARD
The Mount Rainier National Park climbing program and its partners recently won the Andrew Clark Hecht Public Safety Achievement Award. This is the park service’s highest honor for public safety. Climbing search and rescues decreased from 1.14 per 1,000 climbers from 1998-2005 to 0.49 from 2006-08. Injuries have decreased from 1.03 per 1,000 climbers to from 1998 to 2005, to 0.35 from ’06-08. And fatalities have dropped from 0.18 per 1,000 climbers from ’98 to ’05 to none in the past three years.
Here are the people and the organizations cited in the nomination for the improved.
The park keeps a stable of elite rescue rangers on hand to respond to incidents all over the mountain. Mike Gauthier, the program’s former director, is credited for improving the climbing program. He stepped down from his post in January to take a position in Washington, D.C. Gauthier launched a climbing blog in 2006 that posts route and weather conditions and safety information. The blog, mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.com
, is still maintained by the climbing rangers and gets about 400,000 page views per year. In 2006, the climbing rangers started sharing a work space with interpretive rangers to help improve education for visitors wanting to scale Rainier.
The nomination states that adding two climbing services – Seattle’s Alpine Ascents and Ashford’s International Mount Guides – to the mountain in ’06 created healthy competition. Rainier Mountaineering Inc. has long been the only guide service on the mountain and is still the largest operation. Now there are higher client-to-guide ratios (2-to-1 instead of 5-to-1), meaning there are more experienced mountaineers on Rainier. IMG director Eric Simonson says the relationship between guide services and climbing rangers has been very good.
Roberts of the Tacoma Mountaineers developed an accident-prevention program that studies climbing incidents. Roberts also leads the mountaineering leadership program.
As a cartography graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Ferrare said her “body might have been in Madison, but her brain was in Washington.” So the Tonasket native decided to launch a mapping project based in her home state. The end result was a map showing where and how climbers have died on the upper mountain since 1980. Ferrare, who now lives in Bellingham, hopes the map will help climbers understand the danger of climbing Rainier and keep them from repeating fatal mistakes such as using the wrong gear. She hopes to expand with more detailed information in the future. View the map at mtrainierincidents.com
Craig Hill, The News Tribune
MEET THE RANGERS
The mountain Year of first known summit ascent The average number of climbers each year * The average number of climbers who summit * Success rate * Prime climbing season The number of rangers on the mountain at one time These men and women make up Mount Rainier National Park’s 2009 climbing ranger staff.
Lofgren, 38, takes over as the director of the climbing program this year after working in many capacities in the park, including as a climbing ranger. He’s also worked on Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park.
CAMP MUIR TEAM I
Olson has worked most of the past 10 seasons on Rainier and is “considered one of our best technical rescuers,” Lofgren said. The Snohomish resident won the National Park Service’s valor award for helping with a 2002 rescue shortly after surviving a helicopter crash.
Payne started as a volunteer but now Lofgren says the Corvallis resident is “probably the third most experienced” climbing ranger.
The Telluride (Colo.) Ski Resort ski patroller is in his second summer on Mount Rainier.
“Medically speaking he is very good,” Lofgren said. Weber is an EMT, and a National Outdoor Leadership instructor.
Buckingham has made several winter ascents on Rainier and is the team’s newest volunteer.
“She is working out super well,” Lofgren said of the volunteer. “She’s very sharp.”
CAMP MUIR TEAM II
Edmonds, who lives in Driggs, Idaho, is a firefighter and a former ski patroller. “He is a proactive guy,” Lofgren said. “Very energetic.”
Giguere has worked in the park since ’94 and has been a climbing ranger since ’99. The Bellingham resident helped coordinate climbing out of Paradise in the early 2000s. “He could do my job,” Lofgren said.
In 2007, Hammonds was a member of the Baker River Hotshots, an elite forest firefighting team. This is the Kentucky native’s second year on Rainier.
When he’s not attending medical school classes in Washington, D.C., Scheele works on Rainier. This is his second season.
This is the second season as a volunteer on Rainier for the Whitman College graduate. Leary is a geology graduate student at the University of Arizona.
Cox is in charge of maintenance at Camp Muir. While the Port Angeles resident’s responsibilities are many, he is well known among climbers as the guy who empties the toilets at Muir. “He does a great job,” Lofgren said. “And he doesn’t complain.”
CAMP SCHURMAN TEAM
David Gottlieb, team leader
Gottlieb’s former boss, Mike Gauthier, called him “the star in the field.” The Methow Valley resident started at Rainier in ’96 and is the most experienced climbing ranger. He also helps with aviation training.
Self works on the Crystal Mountain ski patrol in the winter. Lofgren says he has climbed some of the hardest routes on Rainier.
Wick is in his fourth season on the mountain. He was honored for more than 1,000 hours of volunteer service in the park in 2007.
Shank handles maintenance at Camp Schurman. Some of his peers call him “The Force of Nature” because he is strong. “We always give him the heavy stuff to pack out,” Lofgren said.
The Schurman team’s volunteer is from North Carolina and is certified in wilderness first aid.
The Seattle resident helps fight forest fires and is in his third year volunteering, mostly at Camp Schurman.
Finnel is a Microsoft employee who volunteers on many weekends at Camp Muir.
The longtime volunteer also works with Tacoma Mountain Rescue. Lofgren made his first summit climb with Davies. “He is a great resource,” Lofgren said.
Craig Hill, The News Tribune