The national park has a reduced ability to do rescues on the upper mountain right now, since its use of the Army Reserve’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters has been suspended.
That means when climbers are in need of rescue at higher elevations, especially under hazardous conditions, it’s possible no rescue could be attempted.
The restricted use of the choppers are due to an accident last June where a climbing ranger was killed during a rescue at the 13,900-foot-level Emmons-Winthrop Glacier. After the ranger’s death, the park’s use of military CH-47 Chinook helicopters for hoist operations was suspended.
Mount Rainier National Park has used Army Reserve pilots and choppers for more than 30 years to pull injured climbers and hikers from inaccessible areas of the mountain. The CH-47 helicopter is one of the few helicopters that can fly well at altitudes up to 15,000 feet and the only one available that can lift an injured party at those kinds of altitudes.
The park can still use the choppers for search operations. It’s the use of the hoist that’s been suspended. With hoist operations suspended, park rangers are working on getting approval for something called “short-haul” operation. With short-haul, rangers suspended from a helicopter 100 or more feet above the ground are flown to the rescue site.
Once there, they can detach from the helicopter and start treating the patient, or remain clipped to the hovering chopper and work to stabilize an injured climber.
Here’s a statement released by Mount Rainier National Park regarding the limited rescue capability on the mountain:
“The 2012 climbing ranger accident has led to a great deal of analysis of the park’s rescue response process. An external board of review was conducted as well as a less formal internal review. Criteria the park has implemented in response to recommendations of these reviews will necessitate a slower, more deliberate and well thought-out response. Where hazards to rescuers are deemed unacceptable, no response may be possible.
This information is provided to allow climbers and other back country users to better understand the current capabilities for rescue response at Mount Rainier National Park and to plan accordingly. As always, climbers must accept personal responsibility for their decisions and safety.
Mount Rainier National Park is the only mountain in the Pacific Northwest with climbing rangers regularly staffing high camps. Over the years, climbers on Mount Rainier have enjoyed a relatively broad safety net where rangers have quickly accessed injured parties. The National Park Service commitment to rescue climbers in need remains; every response on the mountain will be measured within existing capabilities.”
– Mount Rainier National Park News Release