Editor's note: This updates that rangers are waiting for a break in the weather to remove Nick Hall's body from the mountain, adds reaction from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
Deteriorating weather conditions Friday were delaying climbing rangers at Mount Rainier National Park from retrieving the body of a fellow ranger who died while coming to the aid of four climbers.
Climbing Ranger Nick Hall tumbled more than a half-mile down the flanks of the snow-and-ice covered mountain to his death on Thursday while working to get four injured climbers off the mountain. The 34-year-old ranger had helped rescue two of four climbers who had fallen into a crevasse and was helping to load them into a helicopter for a flight off the mountain when he fell just before 5 p.m. Thursday, officials said.
The four, two men and two women from Waco, Texas, had gotten into trouble shortly before 2 p.m. at the 13,700-foot level of the Emmons Glacier as they were returning from summiting the 14,411-foot mountain. Two of the climbers had slid into a crevasse. A third member of the group was able to call for help using a cell phone.
During the subsequent rescue, at 4:59 p.m., as the first of the climbers was being evacuated by helicopter, Ranger Hall fell and slid down roughly 3,700 feet to the 10,000-foot level of the mountain. He did not respond to attempts to contact him and was not moving, park officials said in a release.
It was not immediately known how the ranger fell, though the wash from a helicopter's rotors can be staggering. Calls to park officials for additional details were not immediately returned Friday.
High winds and a rapidly lowering cloud ceiling made rescue efforts extremely difficult, but with the help of Chinook helicopters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, three members of the climbing party were lifted off the mountain by about 9 p.m. and taken to Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington. The fourth member of the climbing team spent the night on the mountain with climbing rangers. On Friday she was descending with help from rangers.
"Stacy Wren overnighted on the mountain with the climbing rangers after her climbing partners Stuart Smith, Ross Vandyke and Noelle Smith were airlifted off the mountain last night. The three are currently hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries," said Patti Wold, a park spokeswoman, in a release.
Climbers reached Ranger Hall several hours after the incident began and found him to be deceased. On Friday afternoon a ground team was en route to the fallen ranger's location.
"The team’s mission is to bring Nick down the mountain," said Ms. Wold. "They are encountering heavy precipitation and thickening clouds. It is unknown at this time if they will complete their mission today.
"Air operations are currently grounded by the unfavorable weather," she continued in a release. "Air operations are supported by a Chinook and crew from Joint Base Lewis McChord and an MD500 from Northwest Helicopters."
In Washington, D.C., Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Park Service Director Jon Jarvis offered their condolences.
“It was with a heavy heart that I learned of the tragic loss of Mount Rainier Park Ranger Nick Hall, who heroically gave his life to save others during a dangerous rescue on the mountain," said Secretary Salazar in a release. "Nick embodied the brave and selfless nature of the men and women of the National Park Service who dedicate their lives to protecting and helping the millions of visitors to our cherished national parks across America. On behalf of the entire Interior family, I offer our heartfelt support and prayers to Nick’s family, friends and coworkers.”
Added Director Jarvis: “Nick Hall died while he carried out a climbing ranger’s greatest responsibility – saving lives. That fact will give us comfort in the future, but not now. Our thoughts and prayers are with Nick’s family and our National Park Service family at Mount Rainier National Park. They bear too great a burden today, and we will do everything in our power to support them as they have been thrown into the depths of loss yet again.”
Ranger Hall was a 4-year veteran of the park's climbing program and a native of Patten, Maine. He was unmarried and has no children.
As a result of the operation, the park's Sunrise area, which had been scheduled to open for the season this morning, will remain closed while the incident is under way.
Ranger Hall is the second of the park's rangers to die this year. On January 1 Margaret Anderson, a law enforcement ranger, was shot and killed when she tried to intercept a motorist who had fled a routine checkpoint where park visitors were checked to see if they had chains for their tires. The man sought for killing her, an Iraqi war veteran, later was found dead in a drainage near one of the park's hallmark waterfalls just south of Paradise.
According to Mount Rainier officials, the park's climbing rangers are among the world’s most experienced mountaineers, with many spending their off season climbing the great peaks of the world. The climbing program staff is comprised of over 20 individuals responsible for visitor and resource protection in the alpine regions of the mountain. In 2011, climbing staff collectively accrued over 3,000 training hours on skills such as search and rescue, aviation, avalanche safety and high angle rope rescue.
The park conducts 30 -40 major search and rescue operations in an average year. The park has had 395 fatalities since 1897 and 117 of those are climbing related. There have been five line-of-duty deaths in Mount Rainier National Park’s history; Climbing Ranger Nick Hall fell during yesterday’s rescue operation and Park Ranger Margaret Anderson was shot during a traffic stop; in 1995 two climbing rangers fell 1,200’ during a rescue on the Emmons Glacier; and a maintenance worker died in a work-related incident in the 1950s.