Rainier ranger death prompts review

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YAKIMA — Climbing rangers on iconic Mount Rainier had become comfortable working on the mountain's slopes without being roped or anchored for safety and had become desensitized to potential hazards, according to a review released Tuesday into the death of a ranger who fell during a rescue operation last year.

As a result of the report, the National Park Service plans to review all high-risk operations, including climbing, boating and diving, in the Pacific Northwest region, Regional Director Chris Lehnertz said in a conference call with reporters.

The review also recommended that Mount Rainier establish protocols and standard operating procedures for climbing rangers to protect against falls in the future, as well as plans for search and rescue and incident command operations.

Nick Hall, 33, fell about 2,400 feet to his death on the mountain's icy, exposed Emmons Glacier while helping to rescue four injured climbers from Waco, Texas, on June 21, 2012. Hall was a four-year climbing ranger originally from Patten, Maine.

Two of the injured climbers had fallen into a crevasse at the 13,800-foot level, on their way down from the 14,411-foot summit. Hall had traveled by helicopter to the site, but he had stepped away from his ice ax to secure a litter, which is essentially a reinforced stretcher, from the helicopter.

Hall lost his balance, fell backward down the slope and, without his ice ax, was unable to stop himself from sliding down the mountain.

"He was unroped and operated without an ice ax, likely because he was comfortable with what he was doing," Lehnertz said. "When we do things over and over again, it's been shown that human nature can normalize risk, which can lead to injuries and eventually death."

Park Superintendent Randy King stressed that the accident was not Hall's fault, but a result of many factors, including an overall desensitization to the risks on the mountain.

"Nick Hall died saving lives. He was only on the mountain that day because four people had fallen and desperately needed his help," he said. "We're trying to be open to continuing to learn about what we can do to help people make good decisions and stay safe in an inherently risky environment at inherently risky work."

The park brought in all of its climbing rangers for training earlier this spring, before the climbing season kicks into high gear, to help them recognize risks that people face every day doing their job, King said.