Climbers of Mount Rainer have one less way of being rescued if they get into serious trouble, and in some cases might not be rescued at all.
That’s the cautionary note struck this month by Mount Rainier National Park officials as they advised the climbing public of a reduced ability to perform upper-mountain rescues.
In an accident in June 2012 in which a climbing ranger, Nick Hall, was killed during a rescue attempt at the 13,900 feet level of the mountain, the National Park Service has stopped the use of Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters for hoist operations. The park has relied for 30 years on Army Reserve personnel and helicopters with hoists to lift injured climbers and hikers from the mountain.
The military aircraft will still be used when needed in other ways, particularly during major rescues. “We just can’t use the hoist,” said Chuck Young, the park’s chief ranger. “We don’t feel the hoist is unsafe overall. But it’s designed for military operations that are different from our use of it.”
Hoists were used because of urgencies such as conditions on the mountain and the need to get a victim off the mountain before darkness for treatment of serious injuries.
National Park Service officials in Washington, D.C. made the decision to stop the use of hoists. The decision was tied to an investigation by a review board of the death of Hall, who slipped and fell while preparing to place an injured climber in a hoist. The review led to “slower, more deliberate and well thought-out” strategy for rescues, officials said.
No rescue of any kind may be possible under especially hazardous conditions that create too much of a risk for rescuers – something climbers should take special heed of, park officials advised. They noted that climbers and others venturing into backcountry must understand the capabilities for rescue attempts and accept personal responsibility for their decisions and safety.
Mount Rainier is the only mountain in the Pacific Northwest with climbing rangers regularly staffing high-altitude camps. Climbers have been able to expect “a relatively broad safety net” of quick rescues, and while there is still a commitment to rescuing climbers, responses to emergencies now “will be measured within existing capabilities,” officials said.
The CH-47 helicopter is one of only a handful of helicopters in the Pacific Northwest that can perform sufficiently at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, including hoisting an injured person into the helicopter at such altitudes.
Rescues on the ground of injured climbers can be a lengthy, laborious and exceedingly high-risk for the rescuers. CH-47s could speed up the process by lowering hoists near or right at a rescue site. Rescues without the hefty helicopter may be longer, if they can be attempted at all, officials said.
By August, park officials hope to have another method for helicopter-aided rescues, known as short-haul. Rangers will clip into a line 100 feet or longer that’s suspended from a helicopter and be flown that way “very short distances” to rescue sites, officials said. Once there, the ranger’s actions will depend on the terrain and conditions. They will either unclip and begin patient care, or remain clipped to the hovering helicopter and secure the injured person for a flight to a location that’s safe to land and complete the rescue on the ground. depending on terrain or other hazards, remain clipped to the hovering helicopter while working to secure the injured climber/hiker and immediately fly them to safe terrain.
Short-haul has become the rescue standard at national parks, on other large mountains and in Europe, according to officials.
Renting helicopters for short-hauls can cost $1,500 to $1,800 an hour for flight time.
“It’s a safety issue, not a financial issue. We’re still going to considerable expense to carry out rescues,” Young said.
He said the first choice in all rescues “will always be for people to walk off the mountain on their own or with assistance. If they have to be flown off, the first choice is to get them to a flat place where a helicopter can land and load them that way. After that, the next option is to use the short-haul method.”