Fallen Rainier ranger was 'desensitized to the hazards,' review finds

Staff writerJune 5, 2013 

A pervasive level of comfort working in dangerous conditions among climbing rangers on Mount Rainier was a factor in the death of Nick Hall almost a year ago, a National Park Service board of review said Tuesday.

The review was convened after the 33-year-old climbing ranger fell to his death June 21, 2012, while rescuing four climbers on the mountain.

Originally from Patten, Maine, Hall had worked at Mount Rainier National Park for four years. The day he died he was one of four rangers rescuing the four climbers from Waco, Texas. Descending from the 14,411-foot summit, two of the climbers fell into a crevasse at the 13,800-foot level between Columbia Crest and Liberty Cap on the Emmons Glacier.

According to a Park Service report, Hall had used an ice tool, a specialized ice ax, to carve a platform in the ice and snow on which he was treating one climber. When an Army Reserve Chinook helicopter arrived to lower a litter, an unroped Hall walked across the glacier with the ice tool, but planted it in the ice at some point.

After unhooking the litter, Hall struggled as it was buffeted by wind and the downdraft from the twin-rotor helicopter, the report said. Hall spun around, trying to control the litter, but lost his balance and fell backward.

Without the ice tool, he tried to stop his slide down the 35-degree slope with the crampons on his feet. But he hit a serac — a column of glacial ice — launching him 30 to 40 feet into air. His body came to rest almost 2,400 feet down the glacier.

“While we can’t bring Nick back, we can and must learn and take action as a result of the accident that took his life,” Chris Lehnertz, Pacific West regional director for the Park Service, said in a conference call Tuesday.

“Nick Hall was on a steep, icy exposed glacier, not attached to an anchor and did not have an ice ax. He did not have what we call fall protection,” Lehnertz said.

Hall likely was comfortable with what he was doing in those conditions, she said, adding it was a comfort level found throughout the park’s team of climbing rangers.

“The investigation team determined that because the park’s mountaineering rangers had routinely performed high-risk search and rescues on glaciers on the mountain, they had inadvertently become desensitized to the hazards of their job,” Lehnertz said.

“This normalization of risk doesn’t just happen in high-risk operations on a mountain. It’s a systemic problem faced by employees across all disciplines. When we do things over and over again, it’s human nature to normalize risk, which can lead to injuries and death.”

Park Superintendent Randy King said he often deferred to the expertise of staff members in the field when it came to protecting themselves from falling.

“My deference to staff on fall protection didn’t work in this case,” King said. “If we had that requirement in place, this accident might not have happened. In the future, when it comes to fall protection, if you got it, use it.”

Park managers are taking other steps to ensure the safety of their staff. Written protocols now require fall protection be used. The more stringent protocols are not just for climbing rangers but also for other staff members who work on glaciers and steep terrain.

“We’re making sure we have the right people in the right place with the right equipment in place when we have a rescue,” King said.

This season’s climbing rangers were brought in earlier than normal this spring for training that emphasized assessing risks.

“We are working to clarify what is acceptable in a work environment and what is acceptable on a personal level,” King said.

The park has developed a draft search and rescue plan that will address issues such as training standards and how the park responds to incidents. The plan also will look at how the park evaluates its climbing rangers and future candidates.

“When you are talking about rangers, how do you evaluate skills? These are fairly unique positions,” King said. “How do you determine their competencies? We need a better way to evaluate some of those skills and measure them in the workplace.”

The park also is creating a helicopter rescue program like those at Denali, Yosemite and Grand Teton national parks. The park will contract with a company to supply a high-altitude helicopter capable of carrying a ranger to an accident scene riding at the end of a short line underneath the aircraft.

This fall, the park will work with regional chief ranger Scott Wanek and outside experts to review the park’s rescue program. Wanek once was a Mount Rainier climbing ranger.

While the park makes procedure and policy changes, King said the 10,000 people who try to reach the summit each year also bear a responsibility.

“It’s the climbers’ responsibility to keep themselves safe on the mountain and accept personal responsibility for the decisions they make on the mountain,” he said. “We’re going to be very deliberate in how we respond to emergencies. We’re not going to put our employees in undue danger to make a rescue.”

As a result of the accident that killed Hall, the Park Service will review all high-risk operations, including climbing, boating and diving, in the Pacific Northwest region, Lehnertz said.

King stressed that the intent of the review was not to assess blame and that working and recreating on the mountain is dangerous.

“Mount Rainier can never be made safe,” he said. “Rescue work on mountains like Mount Rainier is inherently dangerous. There is one important thing to remember: This accident was not Nick’s fault. There were many factors involved, some we’re still trying to understand.

“Nick Hall died saving lives. He was on the mountain that day because four people had fallen and desperately needed his help.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@ thenewstribune.com

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