Hero: Park ranger dies saving others

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 5, 2012

Here are two words for those who make sport out of bashing federal employees.

Nick Hall.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

In the ultimate demonstration of public service, Hall, a National Park Service climbing ranger, died on Mount Rainier in Washington state last month while rescuing others. A memorial service will be held Friday in Patten, Maine, his home town.

On June 21, Hall and other rangers were assisting climbers who were injured at 13,800 feet on the Emmons Glacier section of the mountain. After helping them into a rescue helicopter, he was trying to secure an empty litter in high winds when he fell 2,500 feet onto the Winthrop Glacier.

A colleague, lowered by a Chinook helicopter, reached Hall not long after the fall. He was dead. His body remained on the mountain until Thursday because bad weather and the risk of an avalanche prevented an earlier recovery.

“Hero” is thrown around too much for my taste. But it fits Hall perfectly.

His was the second ranger death this year at Mount Rainier National Park. Margaret Anderson, 34, a law enforcement ranger, wife and mother of two girls, was shot dead New Year’s Day.

“[W]e lost Mount Rainier climbing ranger Nick Hall, who died on the mountain while he carried out a climbing ranger’s greatest responsibility — saving lives,” Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, said in an all-employee message.

Hall died as he lived — devoted to the outdoors.

“The biggest thing I’m getting from the loss of my brother is the appreciation for the pursuit of his passion,” said Aaron Hall, 36. “I don’t want that to sound like a canned line. From an early age, he knew what he liked, and he was very deliberate in his goals.

“A few years ago, he said he reached his goal of year-round and full-time mountaineering employment, recreational employment. . . . He was only 33. He didn’t have a lot of minutes, but he had a lot of moments.”

Hall took to the mountains early. His father and brother remember Hall’s first climb, at age 4, up a small peak near their Maine home.

“He just tore his way to the top,” said Carter Hall, Nick and Aaron’s father.

Aaron added: “When he was a little kiddo,” Hall wasn’t into baseball, football or soccer, but “he loved the mountains and the woods from day one.”

Hall had what Aaron called “a low-overhead lifestyle” — a storage locker filled with expensive climbing equipment and a vehicle loaded “with really great gear.”

In addition to climbing, he loved skiing and biking.

“Anytime we got together, a four- to five-hour mountain bike ride was not uncommon,” Aaron said. They had plans to soon climb Mount Rainier together.

But now Hall’s body will return to Patten. Had it been up to him, Hall probably would have preferred to remain, forever, on the mountain he loved.

“ ‘What’s the fuss? Just leave me here. I’m okay,’ ” his father imagined Hall saying.

Aaron agreed, but he added that Hall’s mother doesn’t.

“We’re going to get him back. That’s mom’s choice not his,” Aaron said. “He was definitely the kind of guy who had ‘I’d-rather-burn-out-than-rust-out-type of mentality.’”

At a Mount Rainier memorial service, Nick Hall was remembered as a quiet man. He “wasn’t much for chitchat . . . but he really did radiate a quiet inner strength,” said Randy King, the park’s superintendent. King had climbed to the summit with Hall.

“Mountains like Mount Rainier can never be made safe,” King said, which makes people like Hall all the more important to the rest of us. “Nick died doing what he was trained and prepared to do: saving lives during a highly technical rescue, under difficult and unforgiving conditions. We cannot accept Nick’s death as the necessary cost of saving lives.”

Director Jarvis, a 36-year Park Service veteran who once worked at Mount Rainier, also attended the service.

“There are lessons within the loss of Nick,” he said at the ceremony. “Whatever is necessary to prevent this from happening again” will be done.

“Tomorrow or the next day,” Jarvis continued, “we will be back on the mountain . . . going into the storm” as others are coming out of it.

“That is what we do. That is who we are.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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