The death of a climbing ranger last year at Mount Rainier National Park has prompted a shift in how the park uses helicopters on rescues. In the near-term, that means climbers could find themselves responsible for their own rescues.
Nick Hall died during a rescue at nearly 14,000 feet when he lost his balance on the upper reaches of the mountain and slid 2,400 feet to his death in June 2012 while rescuing a party of four climbers. An investigation determined that the 33-year-old ranger had failed to properly anchor himself on the mountainside before trying to retrieve a litter that was being lowered from a military Chinook helicopter as the key to his death.
“I want to make it clear that the military operation is not unsafe. It has been used for decades here, and it’s been used very successfully," Chuck Young, the park's chief ranger, said on Friday. "But for our staff, which is largely a seasonal staff, the amount of training we can give them and communications issues and things like that, we look to a 'short-haul' system as something that’s another tool that can be used in their toolbox. And in some cases it may be a better tool, and in some cases it’s not.
“But we didn’t have that tool (short-haul) at our disposal when Nick died, and we haven’t had it in this park. The plan is that we will have that tool during this summer’s operations and we’re moving towards that.”
While there were other contributing factors to Ranger Hall's accident, including a lack of training, in moving to prevent a similar accident park officials decided to move away from using the massive Chinook helicopters for high-elevation rescues. In their place, the park will utilize smaller helicopters that employ "short-haul" methods for rescuing injured climbers.
In a short-haul rescue, the injured individual is placed in a litter that is attached to a rope that dangles as much as 100 feet below the helicopter. Whereas the Chinook rescues would winch such litters up into the belly of the helicopter, under short-haul techniques the litter and an accompanying ranger remain at the end of the rope and are lifted a relatively short distance to a landing zone for additional evacuation from the mountain.
The procedure is routinely used at Grand Teton and Grand Canyon national parks, just to name two parks. While Mount Rainier now will move to short-haul rescues whenever possible, Chinooks will still be available if needed, the chief ranger said.
“If we need to get a pretty good number of people up to the mountain by air operations, the military Chinooks are perfect for that," he said.
With Mount Rainier's primary climbing season running out in mid-August, Chief Young said he hoped the short-haul training would be done by the end of July or early August. However, until that training is done climbers who get in trouble could find themselves without help from rangers, he said.
Along with training rangers on short-haul techniques, and commerical helicopter pilots on flying missions at 14,000 feet on the mountain, Mount Rainier staff must figure out how to pay for this change in rescues. Whereas the military flights didn't cost the Park Service any money, Chief Young said costs for short-haul operations will be "in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Where that money will come from isn't entirely clear at this point, and the federal budget sequestration that has sliced roughly 5 percent from Park Service budgets adds a complicating factor, said the chief ranger.
"It’s a matter of reprioritizing money and just figuring out how we are going to pay for it, and that’s certainly a huge issue," he said, adding that rescue missions will continue when needed, not when the money is available.
"We’re going to be called for rescues. That’s a given. And we need to have it in place," said Chief Young. "We’ll just need to look at our funding sources and move money that we’re paying for other things around, and some things will get cut because of that."
Cuts have not yet been identified he said, although it could mean fewer seasonal rangers are hired going forward.
"You need money to pay for things, it has to come from somewhere," the chief said. "It may be reduced servces, it could be increased revenues in some ways. We may be charging for things that we didn’t charge for before. But that’s just planning and conjecture at this point, nothing that’s set at this point.”