It was a blisteringly cold Sunday morning as the hunt continued for a snowshoer who went missing overnight amid whiteout conditions in Mount Rainier National Park. As each hour passed, the hiker’s chance of surviving dwindled. The rescue crews pressed on.
Already, three National Park Service teams had spent a frigid Saturday night combing the mountain’s trails for a sign — a buried jacket, a snowshoe pole, a rustic snow cave. Visibility waned, temperatures dropped into the teens. There were no tracks to follow.
As the new day dawned, a helicopter lifted into the cloudy November sky over the park. The rotors whirred, roaring as the search crew scoured the mountainside, an all-encompassing blanket of snow punctuated by rocky outcrops and evergreen trees.
Then, suddenly, the crew spied a man lying on the ground near a frozen riverbed about a mile upstream from the park’s Glacier Bridge. He waved. First two arms, then just one.
The helicopter hung briefly in the air, but couldn’t land. It couldn’t even get close, fearing to cover him with blowing snow. The pilot reported the coordinates to the ground searchers and turned around, hoping for the best.
Last year, Mount Rainier National Park rangers tallied 60 search-and-rescue operations, the most in the past five years, according to park data. Rangers said hikers, skiers and snowshoers were drawn to the mountain amid a pandemic that forced so many inside for weeks and months on end. But many were challenged by the wintry weather conditions and inexperience.
In 2019, there were 39 search-and-rescue operations, one fewer than in 2018. There were 50 in 2017 and 37 in 2016.
The 2020 total was unprecedented — and deadly, said Benjamin Welch, who runs the park’s rescue operations. “Folks are wanting to get out,” Welch said, “to get out and about.” The year ended, “unfortunately, with several visitor fatalities.”
It was the tail-end of Saturday, Nov. 7, and park rangers were closing the parking lot when they encountered a skier who hadn’t seen his friend, Michael Knapinski, since they separated on the mountain hours earlier. They planned to meet in the Paradise parking lot. Knapinski, making his first Mount Rainier trek, hadn’t shown up.
“We didn’t find anything too promising that night,” Welch said.
He called in reinforcements: responders from Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympic and the Volcano crew from the Mount Saint Helens area, plus two helicopter teams, one from Darrington-based Hi Line Helicopters and another from a Whidbey Island naval base.
After the Hi Line helicopter crew, piloted by Jason Moorhead, spied the waving man on the morning of Nov. 8, searchers on the ground headed out, coordinates in hand. In less than 30 minutes, they arrived.
The first to reach Knapinski was Tyler Severy, who’s worked with Tacoma Mountain Rescue for 21 years. He knew immediately Knapinski was too cold to move.
“He couldn’t talk. His eyes weren’t working anymore,” Severy said. “He was basically frozen stiff, but able to make some noise. … I still don’t see how it was possible he was waving an arm with how cold he was.”
The responders covered him with blankets and heat packs and laid sleeping pads beneath him, while they planned the next lifesaving move.
“It was rocky, ankle-breaking, knee-bending country,” Severy said. “If we would have had to carry him out, all that jostling would have done further harm, if not killed him. … All we could do was get him off the snow and stop the cooling.”
He called the park’s dispatch service and asked them to send the Naval helicopter, which was equipped to transport someone in Knapinski’s condition. Forty minutes later, a crew arrived to airlift him to Seattle.
Knapinski, 45, was unconscious when doctors hustled him from the heliport to the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center, but he still had a pulse. Within minutes, he went into cardiac arrest and his heart stopped beating, hospital officials said. He remained dead for about 45 minutes before his medical team restarted his heart.
Two days later, he opened his eyes.
Remembering winter safety
While Knapinski’s rescue was successful, it underscores the dangers of winter conditions, Welch said.
Outdoor excursions on Mount Rainier can be treacherous, and snowpack in the mountains remains high. On March 1, Paradise recorded 221 inches of snow, about 64 inches more than that day’s average, according to the Northwest Avalanche Center and the University of Washington.
The park responded to several hiking-related deaths last year.
In August, 74-year-old Craig Goodwin was found dead near the South Mowich River after attempting an overnight hike on the western side of Mount Rainier, and in September, 27-year-old Alex Fitzgerald died while hiking near the Muir Snowfield. University of Washington professor Sam Dubal, 33, went missing in October after leaving for an overnight hike on the Mother Mountain Loop out of the Mowich Lake trailhead. He still hasn’t been found.
And in January, Constance Markham, 65, died after falling near Ricksecker Point in the park’s southwest corner.
“When you’re recreating, you want to be in our own head space,” Welch said. “But I would also encourage folks to have their head on a swivel and be really observant. If something doesn’t seem right or seems off, I always encourage folks to listen to their instincts.”
This winter, parks are working diligently to remind the public of cold-weather safety. Their biggest advice: Always bring the ten essentials: a map, a compass, a flashlight, extra food, extra clothes, sunglasses and sunscreen, a pocketknife, matches, a candle and a first-aid kit.
At Mount Rainier National Park, many roads are closed and unplowed during the winter. All vehicles, including four-wheel drives, must carry tire chains or other state-approved traction devices inside the park.
And the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, a warming station usually open on weekends at Paradise, is closed this season because of the pandemic.
“Folks need to pack everything they need before they leave,” said Terry Wildy, the park’s chief of interpretation, education and volunteers. She also recommended visitors check weather and road conditions before heading out, since both can be unpredictable.
Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park are pushing similar reminders to plan ahead, pack responsibly and develop an emergency plan.
“Consider learning CPR and basic wilderness first aid, especially if you are planning to hike, ski, or snowshoe in the backcountry,” officials recommend on Olympic National Park’s website. “Leaving an accurate itinerary with an emergency contact is a critical step for any trip in the backcountry.”
One of the most important pieces of advice is to avoid traveling alone. And if you do get lost by yourself, don’t move.
“For your safety, it’s really important to try and stay with your group,” Wildy said. “When mountain weather changes, it’s really a lot riskier to be on your own.”
Baby steps forward
Three months after his near-death ordeal, Knapinski is still struggling with his memory and basic tasks, such as using a phone.
“It’s basically like having (someone) hit the reset button on you, and it’s taking awhile,” Knapinski recently told The Seattle Times.
But he’s making progress.
He’s been on two easy hikes since he was discharged, started running again and recently took up yoga. He’s participating in physical and speech therapy several times a week, and he’s using his experience as an opportunity to learn more about outdoor safety. He’s encouraging others to do so as well.
Shaken by the experience, Knapinski, of Woodinville, joined the volunteer-run Tacoma Mountain Rescue. For now, he’s focusing on administrative work, but said he hopes to share his story to raise awareness of outdoor safety.
“It’s definitely had a big impact on my life,” he said. “Having people do this without knowing me — it’s just really nice.”