by Bruce A. Smith
Amidst Paradise’s snow and fog, Nick Hall’s family, friends and colleagues gathered to commemorate the climbing ranger who lost his life last week during a rescue operation high on the Emmons Glacier.
Over 400 mourners gathered, some dressed in polished uniforms and pristine Smokey-the-Bear “flat hats” while others wore jeans and flannels shirts, looking as if they could make a quick climb as easily as attend a funeral. The mix seemed to reflect the life and nature of Nick Hall, the first climbing ranger to die in the line of duty since 1995, but the second Mount Rainier Ranger to lose their life this year.
In January, Mount Rainier law enforcement Ranger Margaret Anderson was killed just a few hundred yards from where Hall’s ceremony was held at the Paradise Visitors’ Center. Anderson was murdered by a disturbed gunman during a confrontation January 1, 2012, and the association was on the minds of many who spoke.
“After mourning Nick, we will be back on the Mountain, helping people have a grand experience,” said NPS Director Jon Jarvis in his eulogy. “That is what we do.”
Jarvis had also spoken at Anderson’s memorial service, and is a former Superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park.
“It’s good to be back home,” he said in his opening remarks.
Hall’s professionalism, courage and toughness were touted often during the eulogy, along with his quirky personality.
“He was not much for chit-chat,” announced Superintendent Randy King, who summited Mount Rainier several years ago with Nick as one of his guides. “But he radiated a quiet inner strength. I will him greatly.”
Nick’s older brother Aaron added to those remarks.
“Nick wasn’t a big talker. But he was a Big Do-er,” said Aaron, who was accompanied by his wife Sherry. Together, they honored their brother, his life and the mountain where he died.
“This is our first time at Mount Rainier,” said Sherry in private remarks after the ceremony, “but Aaron plans to make a summit climb this year, and I hope to make it to Camp Muir.”
During the service, though, Aaron honored many in the audience with his heartfelt words.
“This place has a lot of Nicks!” he exclaimed as he described his reactions to Mount Rainier, Ashford and the Pacific Northwest. “I see a lot of rusted-out Subaru’s filled with mountaineering gear – and the equipment is worth twice what the car is worth,” which summoned a round of laughter from many in attendance.
Aaron spoke deeply about his younger brother, especially the bonds they forged growing up in northern Maine – even taking Nick on an overnight camping trip when he was four year old – and living together in Colorado near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park after Nick had been discharged from the Marine Corps.
“Losing my only brother is pretty tough,” Aaron confessed. “He was the only person on earth who knew what I was thinking without talking.”
Aaron also described how he could find his younger brother, almost psychically, in the wilderness.
“I’d ask in town which direction he went – you couldn’t miss his pumpkin-orange van – and I’d go toward a trail head, and I’d find him.”
Aaron’s grief was palatable, and his voice cracked as he shared his feelings of loss.
“It’s gonna be tough…,” said Aaron. “The world will be a much lonelier place…I will miss him.”
Nick’s parents also expressed a deep loss. His mother chose not to speak at the ceremony and her husband, Carter Hall, spoke softly but with an earnest intensity. Mr. Hall acknowledged that he is not a particularly religious man, but his voice cracked as he described his son while invoking a biblical passage
Carter Hall also touched on the simple, unpretentious values of his family and community.
“We’ve been busy grieving this past week,” he said. “But I want to say – Nick, you have done your parents and hometown proud. Your friendships are deep and your friendships are true…We will miss you.”
Mr. Hall also announced that two memorial funds have been established to support the search and rescue organization that has attended to Nick here at Mount Rainier, and also one Back East in Maine.
“From Mount Katahdin to here,” Mr. Hall said eloquently, knowing that many at the ceremony would recognize the famous terminal point of the Appalachian Trail near the family’s home in Patten, Maine.
Reflecting the informality of the back-country community, Erin Schwartz, a long-time friend and colleague of Nick’s, took off her shoes as she approached the podium.
“’Get over it,’ I keep hearing Nick say to me in my head,” she told the assembled. “That was kind of a theme in our friendship.”
Schwartz had worked with Nick as a professional ski patroller at the Northstar Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, and was instrumental in having him move to the Pacific Northwest and take a similar position at Stevens Pass Ski Area.
Schwartz said she was unable to sleep in anticipation of delivering a eulogy for her friend, and had to take a walk along the Tieton River this morning at 5:30 am to steady her nerves.
“I didn’t want to leave anything out,” she said.
She didn’t, giving a moving account of her trusted and respected friend.
“We called him a ‘high concentrate,’” Schwartz said, with a soft chuckle. “He was so intentional and real, in a soft way.”
She continued and described Nick as an “amazing” skier and dedicated ski patroller.
“He was competent and smart,” she said, and characterized her friend as someone with a tangible command presence.
In private comments after the memorial service, Schwartz described Nick as exceptionally methodical, and not anyone who took needless chances or was impulsive. Repeatedly, she called Hall “intentional.”
Nick’s immediate boss, Mount Rainier’s climbing chief Stefan Lofgren, also spoke and offered an exquisite view into the life of a climbing ranger.
Lofgren praised Nick’s background, saying he hired him in 2009 because he was a vet, an experienced ski patroller at both Stevens and Northstar, and a former climbing ranger at Mt. Baker.
Surprisingly, Nick didn’t have much technical skill initially, and had to study vigorously.
“But fortunately, Nick was physically a strong climber and a quick learner,” said Lofgren, adding that Nick was scheduled to teach several rescue classes this season to fellow mountaineers.
Lofgren also said that he and his core group of twenty climbing rangers at Mount Rainier were sad, disbelieving and angry when they heard of Nick’s death on Friday, June 21.
“We started throwing things,” Lofgren acknowledged, and also said that professional doubts began to creep into their psyches, compelling Lofgren and others to re-evaluate their decision to become climbing rangers.
“Duty, respect, camaraderie, integrity, being out in some of the most beautiful places, challenging yourself – those are some of the reasons we’re climbing rangers, I realized,” Lofgren said, feeling re-energized and re-committed to his profession after his dark night of the soul.
“Climbing rangers even climb on their days-off!” he exclaimed.
Lofgren praised Nick’s particular skills and abilities, noting that he was “noble, deliberate and strong.”
Stefan also rebuffed the idea that an individual like Nick “died doing what he loved.”
“I reject that cliché,” said Lofgren. Nick lived doing what he loved, and I want to be like Nick.”
In later comments Lofgren discussed the details of the incident, in particular the issue of how rangers should secure themselves during a rescue operation, such as loading injured climbers aboard a helicopter.
“It was a judgment call of the rangers on the helicopter not to be roped-off,” said Lofgren, “and I accept that. I’m comfortable with the decision they made.”
Lofgren described the conditions on the Emmons Glacier as being not completely icy and not thick with snow, either. He also said that a Board of Inquiry is investigating the incident and is currently in the process of determining all the events that led to Nick Hall’s death.
“After that, there will be an evaluation of what happened,” he said, adding that the wind was exceptional fierce during the rescue and was an important cause of Nick falling.
Lofgren said that he expects a recovery team to make another attempt to collect Nick’s body on Monday, declaring that winds of over 50 mph during the recent sun-break on Wednesday prevented any recovery action that day.
In addition, Lofgren said that avalanche conditions and troubling crevasses in the area between Camp Shurman and the body’s resting site made a ground approach very problematic.
“It’s best to send in the recovery team with the helicopters,” said Lofgren.
They will be accompanied by scent dogs as well.
“Nick’s buried in the snow, right now,” said Lofgren. “That’s okay – he’ll melt out and we’ll retrieve the body when it’s safe.”
© 2012 Mountain News-WA