By Pat Jenkins
A Mount Rainier National Park ranger fell to his death last year while helping rescue mountain climbers because he’d become “desensitized” to the dangers in such work, according to a panel that reviewed the accident.
The review also concluded that safety training and policies for park personnel need to increase emphasis on recognizing and managing risks in high-altitude rescues and other dangerous missions on the mountain.
The National Park Service ordered a study by a Serious Accident Investigation Team and Board Review of the events and circumstances surrounding the death of Nick Hall on June 21, 2012. The 34-year-old climbing ranger fell and slid more than 2,000 feet on Emmons Glacier. Four climbers from Texas that he and others were rescuing, including two who’d fallen into a crevasse, later made it to safety without serious injuries.
Park Service officials who released findings of the investigation June 4 said there were many contributing factors in the accident. But the primary causes were that Hall didn’t anchor himself with ropes which could have prevented the fatal fall, and he wasn’t carrying an ice axe, with which he might have stopped his slide down the face of the mountain after he lost his balance.
Officials attributed those factors to “significant normalized risk” within the park’s search and rescue and mountaineering program.
Chris Lehnertz, director of the Park Service’s Pacific West region, said the climbing rangers who “routinely” carry out “high-risk search-and-rescues on glaciers on the mountain” are so accustomed to the work that they “inadvertently become desensitized to the hazards of their job. This normalization of risk doesn’t just happen in high-risk operations on a mountain. It’s a systemic problem” among all Park Service employees.
In the hope of counteracting “human nature” to overlook potential for injuries and death, Lehnertz said she is calling for a regional effort to strengthen safety precautions “so we can prevent (accidents like Hall’s) in the future.”
Lehnertz said the investigation by the review board wasn’t “about signing blame.” But she has accepted the review board’s recommendation to develop fall-protection protocols and standard operating procedures, a park search-and-rescue plan, and peer-reviewed training in mountain rescues and other potentially risky duties of park personnel, including aviation and boating.
“This accident wasn’t Nick’s fault,” said Randy King, superintendent of Monnt Rainier National Park. Since Hall’s death, King added, “we’ve been working hard” to improve safety for rangers on the mountain and to have safety procedures in place by the end of this year.
“We need to acknowlede risks and manage them,” which includes determining “what’s acceptable in the workplace” and establishing boundaries between actions rangers might feel comfortable with personally and how situations should be handled “professionally,” King said.
Lehnertz said Hall, who was a climbing ranger at the park for four years, likely was “comfortable with what he was doing” and didn’t feel a need to take precautions for his own safety while unhooking a litter that had been lowered from a hovering helicopter for use by one of the rescued climbers. Hall lost his balance and fell backward, starting his tumbling, skidding plunge 2,400 feet down the mountain.
Fellow rescuers reached Hall several hours later and determined he was dead. His body couldn’t be recovered for several days because of dangerous conditions brought on by weather.
The climbers from Waco, Texas were returning from reaching the 14,411-foot summit. They were at the 13,700-foot level when two of them slid into a crevasse. The other two prevented themselves from also tumbling into the crevasse, and one of them used a cell phone to call for help.
Injuries suffered by the climbers were serious but not life-threatening, park officials said.
Approximately 10,000 people per year attempt to climb to the top of Mount Rainier. The park will continue its rescue services for climbers who get in trouble, King said, but he emphasized that the public needs to accept responsibility for being in situations that might jeopardize them and rescuers.
“If they get in trouble, we’ll try to help.” he said. Weather and other conditions on the moutain can make rescue attempts too dangerous, however, and in such cases there may be times when “we can’t get to them,” he added.
King noted that Hall “was only on the mountain that day to save lives. And the mountain can never be made completely safe.”
The rescue effort was hampered by high wind and a rapidly lowering cloud ceiling. But by about 9 p.m., nearly seven hours after their trouble began and four hours after Hall fell, three of the climbers were airlifted off the mountain and taken to Madigan Army Medical Center for treatment of injuries. The fourth member of the party, a woman, was unhurt and remained on the mountain overnight with climbing rangers. She was able to finish her descent off the mountain the next day.