Mount Rainier rangers are hoping that the cloud-obstructed northeast side of the mountain will clear long enough Sunday for them to retrieve the body of a fellow ranger killed in a horrific fall down a glacier Thursday.
That ranger, 33-year-old Nick Hall, died as he tumbled out of control about seven-tenths of a mile down the icy Emmons Glacier. Hall was helping rescue four injured climbers when he slipped and fell to his death.
Until a helicopter or a ground recovery team can remove Hall’s body, the park is keeping its Sunrise Visitor Center closed. Sunrise is the nearest spot to Hall’s body lies where a helicopter from Joint Base Lewis-McChord can land.
Mount Rainier spokesman Kevin Bacher said the helicopter lift is the preferred means of bringing out the ranger’s body because it’s in an area that’s treacherous for a ground operation.
Once Hall’s body, already wrapped against the elements and strapped to a litter, is taken either to Sunrise or to a site on the mountain’s west side, an ambulance, escorted by park patrol units, will carry it to the Pierce County medical examiner’s office.
The helicopter operation is likely to be what the recovery team calls a long-line evacuation with the helicopter flying the litter on a long cable hanging below the aircraft.
While the recovery team is still working out the details of the removal, three of the four Texas climbers rescued from the mountain were reported in stable condition at Madigan Army Medical Center. Those three were evacuated from the mountain’s 13,800-foot level Thursday after two fell into a crevasse on the descent from the summit. A fourth team member, who was only mildly injured, walked out with the rescue team Friday after weather made further air rescues impossible.
More details of the accident emerged Saturday.
Bacher said Hall, part of a climbing rescue team, was among several rangers attempting to load the injured climbers onto litters lowered from the hovering twin-rotor Chinook helicopter. One climber had been hoisted aboard the aircraft, and rescuers were lowering another litter.
The winds near the top of the 14,411-foot peak were gusting, and the helicopter’s rotor downwash caused the litter to swing around unpredictably as it was lowered from the copter. Rescue workers in the aircraft attached a weighted “tag line” to the litter for the rangers on the ground to grab. Hall was guiding the litter downward when he lost his balance and fell down the icy glacier along with the litter.
The park spokesman said the ranger’s chance of arresting his fall with his ice ax was small because he tumbled rather than just slide down the steep, slick slope.
Hall’s fall ended 2,600 feet below, when he fell into a shallow crevasse.
After the ranger’s fall, said the park spokesman, the helicopter flew to where Hall had stopped. A ranger paramedic repelled from the chopper. Hall was not breathing.
A second chopper from JBLM arrived and rescued two other injured climbers.
As the weather worsened, the decision was made to leave Hall’s body on the mountain. The rescue team took global positioning satellite coordinates so they could return to the exact spot.
They covered the ranger’s body and prepared it for removal before leaving the scene.
A heavy snowstorm Friday prevented the recovery team from returning to the site. When the team came back Saturday, the ranger’s body was covered in a deep layer of fresh snow.
Plans for a memorial service for Hall, a ranger at Rainier for four years, are in the formative stage. The park service will honor Hall’s family’s wishes, said the spokesman. The service might be a private memorial for park staff only or perhaps something larger.
Hall’s parents live in Maine. He was not married.
The park, with the exception of the Sunrise Visitor Center, remained open during the rescue and recovery efforts. An incident-response team from the National Park Service was on site Saturday. Other climbing rangers from Denali National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park were arriving at Mount Rainier to help the local staff.
The people who were rescued were all from Waco, Texas. The group was led by 52-year-old Stuart Smith, a Waco attorney and a world-class adventurer. Smith had climbed the highest peaks on seven continents and had gone to both the North and South poles.
The other group members were identified as Nicole Smith, Stuart Smith’s niece; Ross VanDyke, assistant director of admissions counseling for Baylor University, and Stacy Wren, a 22-year-old Baylor senior, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Two other Waco residents, Claire Kultgen and Josh Ward, were on the trip but didn’t climb the mountain. Ward had returned to Texas earlier last week after the group had climbed Mount Baker.
Kultgen had decided to opt out of the climb because she wasn’t feeling well. She watched their progress through binoculars.
“I was watching them and saw them fall,” she said. “What happened after that and what Nick and his team did is really incredible stuff … epic hero stuff for sure,” she told KING 5 News.
The Texas group had chosen the Emmons Glacier route to the top of the mountain over the more popular Disappointment Cleaver route on the southwest side of the peak.
Bacher said the Emmons route has some advantages and some disadvantages. It doesn’t have the danger from rock falls of the Disappointment Cleaver route. The Emmons route is mostly on the long glacier. But the Emmons route can be dangerous when warming and then cooling temperatures create ice.
The Emmons Glacier took the lives of two rangers in 1995 when they fell 1,200 feet down the slick and icy glacier.