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Rescue Calls In Mount Rainier National Park Increase Sharply

National Park Service
National Park Service rangers search for a missing climber from above the glaciers of Mt. Rainier National Park this past June.

Everyone is accounted for and no one was injured by a flash flood and debris flow in Mount Rainier National Park. It happened Thursday when the terminus of the South Tahoma Glacier broke off and released trapped meltwater.

The glacial outburst and debris flow sparked the 42nd search and rescue mission of this fiscal year, as recorded by Mount Rainier's SAR coordinator Stefan Lofgren. Compared to the same period of last winter, spring and summer, Lofgren said search and rescue responses are up an eye-popping 40 percent.

The veteran ranger said it's mostly hikers and casual visitors, rather than climbers, who get in trouble.

"There have been some fatalities associated with heart attacks that have happened in the backcountry,” Lofgren explained. “There have been quite a few leg injuries and other types of injuries. There have been people who have fallen into some of the waterfalls close to the road."

Lofgren said the unusually warm summer could lead one to assume the high alpine climbing routes would become more dangerous, with more crevasses opening up and exposed, crumbly rock. But that has not been the case. "We're seeing average climbing conditions," he said.

Lofgren correlated the sharp rise in search and rescue calls to increased visitor traffic to the park. He figures good weather, an improved economy and reasonable gas prices all push more people to head out in the wilds.

"The weather is one of the most important contributing factors" to mishaps according to Lofgren. "Being flexible when you're on the mountain and not being too goal-oriented or summit-oriented and ignoring the weather in favor of your desire to reach your destination is probably one of the most important things."

Statewide numbers tallied by the Washington Emergency Management Division also show a rise in search and rescue missions, but not nearly as large on a percentage basis as at Mount Rainier National Park.

The state agency logged 474 search and rescue responses from January through July of this year. During the same period last year, it had a role in 458 call outs.

The Alert and Warning Center within the Emergency Management Division coordinates between land managers, county sheriffs, volunteer search and rescue teams and other responders. Not every mission involves state coordination, but agency spokesman Mark Stewart said the EMD statistics probably capture most of them.

Lofgren recommends starting day trips on the early side if possible in order to leave a margin for safety at the end of the day. In the national park, it can take many hours for help to arrive at a backcountry scene.

"If you hurt yourself early in the day, that's great because we can often get to you within the same day and get you out," Lofgren noted.

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Video footage of the August 13, 2015 debris flow on Tahoma Creek at Mount Rainier National Park taken by Zachary Jones and Caroline Pedro.

Credit: USGS Volcanoes via Facebook

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.