Adventure Guys

Mount Rainier officials restate changes in climbing rescue procedures

Staff writerJuly 18, 2013 


Mount Rainier National Park will rely less on military aircraft, such as this CH-47 used to lift a seriously injured climber on May 17, 2004. (AP Photo/King-TV)


— Managers at Mount Rainier National Park earlier today issued a news release reminding climbers the park has changed its rescue procedures, especially those involving helicopters.

The News Tribune reported on the changes June 5, as part of a story about the findings of a review conducted after the June 21, 2012, death of climbing ranger Nick Hall. He fell 2,400 feet to his death while assisting with the rescue of four climbers on the Emmons Glacier.

Among the recommended changes was the use of helicopters in rescue attempts.

Here is the full news release:

Mount Rainer National Park currently has a reduced ability to perform upper mountain rescues.  Under especially hazardous conditions, no rescue may be possible.  Climbers should take special heed of this notice. 

Due to the accident last June where a climbing ranger was killed during a rescue at 13,900 feet on the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier, the park’s use of military CH-47 Chinook helicopters for hoist operations was suspended.  Mount Rainier National Park has long relied on US Army Reserve personnel and helicopters to extract injured climbers and hikers from inaccessible terrain around the mountain. This critical partnership continues, with limitations only on hoist operations.

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 and the only one available which can hoist an injured party into the helicopter at such altitudes.  This has been a very important resource for SAR operations at Mount Rainier for more than 30 years.

The remote locations and technical terrain in which many accidents occur, often makes ground evacuation of injured parties a lengthy, laborious and exceedingly high-risk operation for rescuers.  Traditionally, this helicopter resource has allowed rescuers to be lowered via hoist very near to, if not right at, the rescue site, speeding up response time, and reducing both patient extraction time and rescuer exposure time.  The absence of this resource means that response times to injured parties may be longer and, when ground transport is the only viable option, injured parties can expect a much longer rescue, if rescue is even possible.  

The park is currently working on finalizing plans for an alternative helicopter rescue resource known as short-haul.  With short-haul, rangers will clip into a line suspended from a helicopter 100 or more feet above, and be flown as ‘human external cargo’ to the rescue site. Once there they will either unclip and begin patient care, or 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.  The park has a goal of bringing this program online by August 2013, but it could take longer.

The 2012 climbing ranger accident has led to a great deal of analysis of the park’s rescue response process.  An external board of review was conducted as well as a less formal internal review.  Criteria the park has implemented in response to recommendations of these reviews will necessitate a slower, more deliberate and well thought-out response.  Where hazards to rescuers are deemed unacceptable, no response may be possible. 

This information is provided to allow climbers and other backcountry users to better understand the current capabilities for rescue response at Mount Rainier National Park and to plan accordingly.  As always, climbers must accept personal responsibility for their decisions and safety. 

Mount Rainier National Park is the only mountain in the Pacific Northwest with climbing rangers regularly staffing high camps. Over the years, climbers on Mount Rainier have enjoyed a relatively broad safety net where rangers have quickly accessed injured parties.  The National Park Service commitment to rescue climbers in need remains; every response on the mountain will be measured within existing capabilities.

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