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Heavy weather hinders search for ranger's body on Mt. Rainier

June 22, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson
  • Washington's Mt. Rainier is considered a training hike for Mt. Everest. It's one of the snowiest locations on Earth.
Washington's Mt. Rainier is considered a training hike for Mt. Everest.… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

Officials at Mt. Rainier National Park battled wind, clouds and snow Friday as they searched for one of their own, a ranger who died on the mountain during a rescue attempt of four injured hikers.

Nick Hall, 33, slid more than 3,000 feet down the mountain Thursday while helping rescue climbers who had fallen into a crevasse near the 14,411-foot summit. After his fall from the steep Emmons Glacier, Hall did not move or respond.

The four hikers were identified as Stuart Smith, Ross Vandyke, Stacy Wren and Noelle Smith, all of Waco, Texas, park spokeswoman Fawn Bauer said. All four were battered and bruised, with possible broken bones, but no injuries seemed life-threatening.

Poor visibility, heavy rain and snow at high altitudes kept the helicopters designated for the search and recovery efforts grounded nearby.

“When you’re weathered in like this, you have fewer possibilities of how you rescue someone,” Bauer said. “We can’t get in with any kind of aircraft.”

A Chinook helicopter from Joint Base Lewis-McChord airlifted three of the hikers to Madigan Army Medical Center, where they were in fair condition Friday. The fourth, whose injuries were the least serious, spent the night on the mountain. She and rangers began the return hike at Friday’s first light.

A ground crew is hiking toward the location where Hall was last seen, Bauer said. They have taken a litter to carry his body, and do not expect to find him alive, she said.

The four Texans were returning, roped together, from the summit of Mt. Ranier when two in the group slid into a crevasse on Emmons Glacier. Another called for help on a cellphone at 1:45 p.m. Thursday.

A team of rangers, including Hall, went to meet them. Hall had just hoisted the first hiker onto a litter and into the Chinook helicopter hovering overhead when he fell. After sliding 3,700 feet down the glacier, he lay unresponsive.  

The crew mentioned repeatedly how windy it had been on the mountain Thursday, Bauer said. But the official cause of the fall is unknown.

Hall was a four-year veteran of the climbing program at Mt. Rainer National Park and a native of Patten, Maine, the park said. He was unmarried and had no children. He had also worked as an avalanche forecaster at Yellowstone National Park and a ski patroller at various parks in the western United States, according to his Facebook page.

“He’s well-loved – he’s been with us for four years,” Bauer said. “He was clearly a competent climbing ranger, and it’s definitely hard for the folks working around us to deal with a tragedy like this.”

Hall is the second Mt. Rainer ranger to die this year. On New Year’s Day, Maragaret Anderson was fatally shot as she tried to stop a man who drove through a checkpoint at Longmire, park headquarters. Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, was a suspect in a Seattle shooting at a New Year’s Eve party. His body was found the next day in the snow.

Rangers continue to search for four more people, two campers and two climbers, who disappeared on the mountain during a storm in January.

Nearly 10,000 people a year attempt to climb Mt. Rainier. Half reach the summit, the highest point in the state of Washington. The mountain is considered a training hike for Mt. Everest. Climbing up glaciers and across snowfields requires technical training and a barrage of equipment, Bauer said.

The mountain is one of the snowiest locations on Earth.

“That’s just one of those components, that you can’t – of course – control,” Bauer said. “Weather conditions that change at the drop of a hat.”

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laura.nelson@latimes.com

twitter.com/laura_nelson

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