Sad news late last week of a climbing ranger's death at Mount Rainier National Park again reminds me—maybe you, too—of what I consider an outdoor fact of life: Some of the finest human beings walking this planet wear park ranger uniforms.
Nick Hall, 34, in his fourth year as a climbing ranger at Rainier, died in a fall late Thursday (June 21) as he was helping evacuate injured climbers by helicopter near the summit of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.
"What Nick and his team did is really incredible stuff," Claire Kultgen, a friend of the rescued climbers who waited for her companions at a base camp on the mountain, told a Seattle television station. "Epic hero stuff for sure."
All rangers who interact with the public have my respect for their upbeat demeanor, eagerness to help and willingness to accept inconvenience in the name of service to visitors.
Climbing rangers such as Nick Hall, though, are to me the special ops forces of ranger personnel, wilderness-savvy studs (Rainier has a staff of 15) who are always willing to toss self-interest to the 4 winds when a distress call comes in.
"They're a breed apart," says John Colver, a former Rainier guide (1999 to 2010) who has been involved with all 3 commercial services that lead trips up Rainier and the fellow who took me, a non-mountaineer, to Rainier's summit in 2010.
Colver has summited Rainier more than 80 times and has often interacted with rangers who patrol the 40-plus summit routes on Rainier, including the 2 most heavily traveled routes:
• Disappointment Clever, which attracts about 65% of Rainier's 10,000-plus summit attempts each year.
• Emmons Glacier/Winthrop Glacier, carrying nearly 20% of summit traffic. The party Nick Hall was assisting was on this route.
"There's a common quality about these guys," he says. "They have a level of compassion and kindness that is off the charts.
"If you've never been in a serious accident on a mountain, you can only imagine what it's like to be in a terrifying situation," he says. "You think you're going to die. And all of a sudden a ranger comes along. They're willing to not only rescue you, but they're kind as well. That defies the imagination a little bit."
"A lot of times I think people believe rangers sit there in a stone hut at Camp Muir (a base camp at 10,080 feet on the Disappointment Clever route) as sort of an interpretive guide," he says. "No, they're not. They're all over the place. They patrol all the time. You don't see most of what they do.
"At Camp Muir they remind me of a base camp manager," Colver says. "They need to know everybody who's in camp to fulfill the regulatory process. They check in with everybody and see that they're doing OK, and there can sometimes be 100-plus people at Camp Muir. When all that's done they're doing upkeep or patrolling the mountain.
"A lot of stuff they do that goes unnoticed. Not only are they professional climbers, they're professional rescuers, experts on natural history and environmental stewards. That's about 6 jobs being done by one person.
"As guides, we climb the mountain for financial considerations," Colver says. "These guys take on a lot of risk and a lot of duties for not much money. It's sort of a selfless gift that they give.
"Another thing people don't realize is the skill level up there. Their abilities are unbelievable. It's fair to say that rangers on the whole are probably the most skillful climbers on the mountain, patrolling some of the toughest routes.
"And if you're a ranger in a rescue situation, once you arrive you're not leaving until everything is taken care of. Oftentimes what that means is you're getting left on the mountain. Now you have to fend for yourself, because there's no one to call."
Colver had crossed paths a few times with Nick Hall and was casually acquainted with him. "Hero seems to be sort of an overused word," Colver said, "but that's the highest level to which a man can live, you know? What he did was give his life for someone he didn't even know. To do that takes a commitment to service that is very high."
Nick Hall is the second Mount Rainier ranger to die this year. Ranger Margaret Anderson was fatally shot on New Year's Day as she tried to stop a man who drove through a tire-chain checkpoint at the park's Longmire entrance. A man suspected in a Seattle shooting earlier that day killed Anderson. His body was found the next day about a mile away in the snow.
The Associated Press reports that Hall is the first climbing ranger to die at Rainier since 1995, when 2 rangers died after falling 1,200 feet during a rescue on Emmons Glacier.
All 4 climbers Hall was serving are off the mountain. Poor weather has hampered efforts to recover Hall's body from the mountain, which may not be accomplished until midweek.
Parting thought: Rangers do their best to make our visits to parks as enjoyable as possible and stand willing to do so much more. Maybe thank the next ranger you see and express appreciation for what they do.
Park officials say Hall's family has asked that donations, in lieu of flowers, be made through the following accounts:
Nick Hall Memorial Fund
P.O. Box 431
Patten, ME 04765
Please make checks payable to Nick Hall Memorial Fund. Donations to this fund will support search and rescue in Maine and assist the Hall Family with travel expenses.
MORA Search and Rescue Fund
55210 238th Ave E
Ashford, WA 98328
Please make checks payable to DOI-NPS and note that the donation is in honor of Nick Hall.
Cards and condolences may also be sent to the above addresses.
Photos, top to bottom: Nick Hall (NPS photo); Rainier climbing rangers, with Nick Hall on the far left (NPS photo); a rescue helicopter with a ranger dangling by a cable (Mike Gauthier photo; Gauthier, former lead climbing ranger at Rainier, is now Chief of Staff of the superintendent's office at Yosemite National Park); John Colver, blue jacket, poses with a couple of Rainier climbing rangers outside their Camp Muir hut (T.D. Wood photo); climbing party approaching Camp Muir (T.D. Wood photo).