Mount Rainier National Park officials are working to implement a new rescue strategy to compensate for reduced helicopter resources for upper-mountain rescues.
Until the new strategy is in place, the park’s ability to perform upper-mountain rescues is diminished, the park said in a news release Thursday. And park officials say when hazards to rescuers are deemed unacceptable, no response may be possible.
The park has suspended its use of military CH-47 helicopters and is finalizing plans for an alternative rescue method called “short haul,” according to the release. In a short-haul rescue, a ranger is clipped to a line suspended 100 or more feet from a helicopter and flown as “human external cargo” to the rescue site.
Once at the rescue site, the ranger either unclips and begins patient care, or, depending on terrain or other hazards, remains clipped to the hovering helicopter while working to secure the injured climbers or hikers so they can be flown immediately to safe terrain.
Short-haul has become the rescue standard at national parks, on other large mountains and in Europe. The park is aiming to bring the program online by August, but it could take longer.
The new strategy comes a year after the June 2012 accident in which Nick Hall, a 34-year-old climbing ranger, was killed during a rescue at 13,900 feet on the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier. It was as a result of that accident that the use of the Chinook helicopters was halted.
The park has long relied on U.S. Army Reserve personnel and helicopters to rescue injured climbers and hikers from inaccessible terrain. The 30-plus year partnership still exists but is limited to hoist operations.
The CH-47 helicopter is one of the few helicopters in the Pacific Northwest that can perform sufficiently at altitudes up to 15,000 feet and lift an injured party at such altitudes. Because of the remote locations and terrain where many accidents occur, ground rescue of injured climbers can be “a lengthy, laborious and exceedingly high-risk operation for rescuers” according to the news release.
The CH-47 helicopter allowed rescuers to be lowered via hoist close to the rescue site, speeding up response time and reducing both patient extraction time and rescuer exposure time. Without the helicopter, response times to injured parties may be longer and, when ground transport is the only viable option, injured parties can expect a much longer rescue, if rescue is even possible.