YAKIMA — Climbing rangers had become comfortable working on Mount Rainier’s slopes without being roped or anchored 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 Texas, on June 21, 2012. He was a four-year climbing ranger originally from Maine.
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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 traveled by helicopter to the site, but had stepped away from his ice ax to secure a litter.
Hall lost his balance, fell backward down the slope and, without his ice ax, was unable to stop 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 desensitization to 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.”
Dangers and changes
About 10,000 people attempt to climb Mount Rainier each year, and about a 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 years. But while many permanent staff members had been trained, many seasonal employees who do some of the most high-risk work had not.
The park brought in all its climbing rangers for training 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 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 from the helicopter to assess and secure an injured party.
It won’t be a perfect tool, he said, but it’s “probably the best way and perhaps the safest way for many of the rescues,” he said.
Prevention comes first
The park will be deploying 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 that at midweek, people will not be at Camp Schurman, a resting point for a less traveled ascent route, King said.
The park will continue that work and prepare climbers for hazards they could encounter, he said, but ultimately, climbers are responsible for their own safety.
“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.”