Rangers battled unusual icy conditions during deadly Mount Rainier rescue
Unseasonably icy conditions might have played a role in the incidents that led to the death of a Mount Rainier climbing ranger Thursday, but a day after Nick Hall fell to his death park officials were uncertain about some details surrounding the fatality.
Hall fell 2,600 feet on the Emmons Glacier while helping rescue four climbers from Waco, Texas, but it remains unclear what caused the fall, park spokesman Kevin Bacher said.
“It could have been a number of things,” he said. “But it’s just speculation.”
What he knows for certain is that he and other park employees were left feeling “numb” as they dealt with the second death of a colleague in less than six months. Law enforcement ranger Margaret Anderson was shot and killed by a man suspected of fleeing from law enforcement on Jan. 1.
Climbing rangers are at the 11,200-foot level of the Emmons Glacier with Hall’s body, but inclement weather prevented helicopters from recovering him Friday. Bacher says it’s likely the rangers would have to carry their colleague off the mountain on foot. Weather conditions are not expected to improve enough to use a helicopter.
The four climbers who fell sparking the rescue were identified Friday as Stuart Smith, Ross Vandyke, Stacy Wren and Noelle Smith. They range in age from 18-53, Bacher said, and suffered non-life threatening injuries. Three were airlifted off the mountain to Madigan Army Medical Center during Thursday’s rescue while Wren, who had the fewest injuries, stayed on the mountain and was attempting to walk off with rangers on Friday afternoon. Several sources, including the Associated Press, said she made it down during the afternoon.
Hall’s death also hit another outdoor community recovering from a recent tragedy. The 33-year-old former Marine from Maine was a member of the Stevens Pass ski patrol from 2008-10. Stevens Pass marketing director Chris Rudolph was one of three men killed in an avalanche near the resort in February.
“What a bad damn year for the local rescuers and people who work in this business,” said Paul Baugher of International Mountain Guides.
RESCUE GONE WRONG
The Texas climbers slipped and fell while descending the Emmons Glacier on Thursday afternoon shortly after summiting the 14,411-foot mountain.
Wren and Noelle Smith slid into a crevasse at 13,800 feet, but Stuart Smith, who has climbed the highest peak on every continent, and Vandyke dug in with their ice axes and crampons and managed to stay out of the crevasse.
After calling for help, climbing rangers launched the rescue and successfully removed the climbers from the crevasse.
Hall arrived on the scene in a Chinook helicopter from Joint Base Lewis McChord. He was lowered from the helicopter to help with the rescue.
After successfully loading Noelle Smith into a litter and raising her into the Chinook, a second litter was lowered.
Bacher said rangers had difficulty with the second litter because of the wind, which was gusting up to 40 mph. Rangers were also trying to manage icy conditions, steep slopes and rotor wash from the helicopter.
Hall fell while preparing the second litter. He was not roped to other rescuers. He had an ice axe, but rescuers were unsure if it was in hands when he fell or attached to his belt, Bacher said.
Baugher has been involved with rescue attempts on the Emmons Glacier under the whirling blades of Chinook and said the experience is intense.
“The rotor wash is probably 40 mph,” he said. “You are screaming into your radio, and you still can’t tell if people are talking. You can feel the wind from the rotor wash beating right through you.”
Baugher said he did not rope up either in order to avoid getting tangled.
“A climber always wants to have his ice axe in his hand, but in a situation like that you might not be able to because you need both hands to work,” he said.
The park will investigate the incident.
“We will see if there is anything we can do to keep this from happening again,” Bacher said.
When climbing rangers Phil Otis and Sean Ryan died near the same spot on the mountain 1995, the investigation led to a major overhaul of the climbing program. Today the unit, honored for its safety record in 2009 by the Department of the Interior, is considered one of the best in the country.
During a meeting Friday morning climbing rangers noted that the area where the climbers and Hall fell was especially icy, Bacher said.
In fact, Baugher says that the glaciated peaks of the Cascades have been icier than normal this month. Snow typically is softer in June allowing for surer footing and improved chances of arresting after a fall.
Baugher said conditions have been so icy of late that International Mountain Guides has turned around two of its climbing parties on the Emmons Glacier in the last two weeks.
Two climbers fell on the upper slopes of Oregon’s Mount Hood this month and one, Mark Cartier, died.
“It (snow conditions) is more typical of late season, like late September,” Baugher said.
Late in the season guide services typically send extra guides with climbing parties to travel ahead kicking steps into the ice in an attempt to make the route safer.
“It’s not always the answer,” Baugher said, “but it tilts the odds in our favor.”
Baugher said IMG is using this extra-guide approach now because of the icy conditions. IMG and Rainier Mountaineering Inc. both successfully guided clients to the summit on Friday morning.
“When snow is a little firm like this you expect people to slide,” Baugher said. “People need to be aware that it is icy right now.”
PARK TO STAY OPEN
While the park closed for nine days after the death of Anderson, Bacher said that’s unlikely to be the case this weekend.
The park was short-staffed because of winter operations when Anderson was killed. The park has considerably more staff on duty in the summer and can remain fully operational.
Additionally, National Park Service emergency response teams are scrambling from up and down the West Coast to assist at Rainier. Included in the group will be three climbing rangers from Denali National Park, some of whom worked previously at Rainier, Bacher said.
Bacher is not sure how many employees will be sent to the park. This is the third time the NPS has needed to send support crews to Rainier this year. Crews were also sent following the Anderson shooting and when four people died in storm conditions on the mountain in January.
Bacher says it’s too early to know for sure exactly how the park will memorialize Hall. He said services could be held locally, in Maine or both.
“In situations like this,” he said, “it will depend on the family’s wishes.”