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Saturday, June 23, 2012 - Page updated at 11:00 p.m.
Rangers at Rainier recovering one of their own after fatal fall
By Craig Welch
Seattle Times environment reporter
The helicopter hovered above in the thin mountain air as rescuers steadied the empty litter.
Mount Rainier climbing ranger Nick Hall and his fellow rescuers were 700 feet below the volcano's summit, trying to get four injured climbers to safety.
It was late afternoon on Thursday, and one victim had just been hauled up to the waiting Chinook. The rangers were preparing to load a second climber, but howling winds were whipping the steep, icy Emmons Glacier.
Hall was trying to anchor the wind-battered empty litter with another line to keep it under control amid the gusts. But something went wrong.
"Something caused Nick to fall and the litter to come loose, and they both went tumbling down the mountainside," said Mount Rainier National Park spokesman Kevin Bacher.
Hall came to rest 3,000 feet below, becoming only the fourth Rainier ranger in the park's history to die in the line of duty.
Hall, who grew up in a small town in Maine, had transformed his love of the outdoors into a job with one of the Lower 48's most elite mountain-rescue teams. Along the way he had been a Marine and a ski patroller, rock climber and hiker who had worked his way from New England to Colorado to Yellowstone and Rainier.
Friday, Gov. Chris Gregoire praised his selflessness. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called his actions heroic. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray phoned Hall's father in Maine to thank the family for Nick Hall's service. Even a climbing group in Texas, home to the victims Hall was rescuing, has reached out to thank his family.
"We are heartbroken and in awe of Nick," his father, Carter Hall, said from his home in Maine. "A mountain is a hostile place, but we are grateful that so much appreciation for his actions is being expressed to us. We are happy so many people want to honor him."
Hall was Rainier's second park ranger to die this year. Margaret Anderson was gunned down on New Year's Day by Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, a suspect in a Skyway shooting incident the night before. Barnes fled in the snow and was found dead the next day.
Two other climbing rangers were killed in 1995 when they fell 1,200 feet during a rescue, also on Emmons Glacier.
While the circumstances of Thursday's accident are still being sorted out, the incident appeared to start like many others.
Conditions were unusually slick and changing quickly on the 14,411-foot peak, said John Race, a mountain guide from Leavenworth, Chelan County. He'd been leading clients up the Emmons Glacier but turned back because he considered the route unsafe.
"I've worked on Rainier since 1989, and it was really primed for big sliding falls," Race said. "The surface was quite firm and icy, so we bailed."
2 fall into crevasse
Around noon, another group of four mountaineers, led by Texas lawyer and experienced climber Stuart Smith — an adventurer who has crossed Greenland on skis and scaled the highest summits on all seven continents — had been descending from a successful summit attempt as part of a single rope team when someone slipped. The whole team skidded down the mountain and two members tumbled into a crevasse at 13,700 feet. One or both of the other two caught the fall.
Two or three other rescuers and Hall, who had been a climbing ranger for four years, worked their way to the group. It's not clear if the injured climbers extracted themselves from the crevasse or if the rangers did, but by midafternoon it was obvious the injured climbers would need assistance getting down.
"The rangers could tell in the field that in addition to bumps, bruises and contusions, that there was the clear possibility of broken bones and minor head injuries," Bacher said. A Chinook was on scene, but the weather was worsening.
"They were dealing with some very challenging conditions," Bacher said. "A storm front was coming in. There were 30- to 40 mile-per-hour winds. The conditions were really icy, and it's a steep part of the mountain."
After the first victim was hauled up, the rangers tried using a line to help stabilize the litter. That's when Hall fell.
Bacher said it's too soon to know what happened — whether Hall was knocked off balance by the wind, the litter or the tagline, whether it was rotor wash from chopper blades, or if he simply lost his balance. He wore crampons and had his ice ax with him, but was unable to self-arrest and stop his fall.
Rangers got to him quickly, but could not revive him. A second chopper was called and the rangers returned their focus to the rescue.
Three of the climbers — Smith, of Waco, Texas, his niece Noelle Smith, and Ross VanDyke — were airlifted off the mountain by 9 p.m. and taken to Madigan Hospital, but deteriorating weather conditions prevented a rescue of the fourth victim.
Rangers spent the night on the mountain with that climber, Stacy Wren, who on Friday descended in near white-out conditions at times before reaching the bottom.
Grim task awaits
Rangers initiated an attempt to retrieve Hall's body Friday, but were pinned down by poor visibility.
Hall had grown up in tiny Patten, Maine, 85 miles north of Bangor, in a place where the biggest mountain is 5,000 feet high, "and I can see it from my window," his father said.
Hall and his older brother, Aaron, grew up outdoors, swimming at a lake near their grandfather's cabin and skiing in winter. They both lived for a time in the Rockies where Nick sometimes took multiday hikes alone near the Delores River. He scaled Colorado's famed 14,000-foot peaks with his dog, mountain biked through Utah with his brother and rafted the Colorado River.
But it wasn't until the two brothers skied together at Crested Butte, Colo., that it dawned on Aaron just how skilled an outdoorsman his brother had become.
"He just sailed down this expert terrain effortlessly, and I realized he and I didn't belong on the same mountain anymore," Aaron said.
Aaron said he was about to go running Sunday when Nick called and the two brothers caught up for about half an hour.
"He was saying things were pretty slow so far this year, that there wasn't much going on," Aaron said. "But he was having fun."
Carter Hall said the family wants to come to Washington and meet his son's friends and get a closer glimpse of the life he led.
"We're just so tearful thinking about what he was doing," Carter Hall said. "We want to do something to promote rescue work."
Associated Press reporter Shannon Dininny in Yakima contributed to this story.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093, firstname.lastname@example.org
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