Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Injured hikers airlifted from Camp Muir with help of Army Reserve team

Here is the NPS press release about the recent incident on the Muir Snowfield. We'll attempt to put more information online when we can.

Injured hikers airlifted from Camp Muir with help of Army Reserve team

Two hikers suffering from hypothermia and frostbite were airlifted from Camp Muir on Mount Rainier at 6:15 this morning, with the help of a Chinook helicopter operated by members of the Army Reserve’s 159th Aviation Regiment at Fort Lewis. They were taken to Madigan Hospital and from there by ground transportation to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

The injured hikers were Mrs.Mariana Burceag and Mr. Daniel Vlad of Bellevue, Washington. A third hiker, Mr. Eduard Burceag, the husband of Mrs. Burceag, died of injuries sustained in the incident. His body is being removed off the mountain this afternoon.

The three individuals are experienced mountaineers who had visited Camp Muir in the past and have enjoyed hiking and climbing on Mount Rainier for many years. Two had previously reached the summit. On Monday afternoon, they became trapped on the Muir Snowfield by a sudden blizzard while descending from a day hike to Camp Muir. Early Tuesday morning a 911 emergency call came through to park rangers advising them of overdue hikers on the Muir snowfield. Due to heavy, drifting snow, seventy miles per hour winds, and near zero visibility, a rescue team was unable to safely initiate a search at that time. At about 7:15am, one member of the party found his way to Camp Muir and was able to direct a search team, made up of climbing guides and park rangers stationed at Camp Muir, to the party’s location near Anvil Rock. All three of the stranded hikers were under shelter by 8:30am. Three doctors, who were at Camp Muir as clients of one of the park’s guide services, provided immediate medical care. Mr. Burceag was unconscious and unresponsive upon arrival. Rescuers were unable to revive him.

The shelter at Camp Muir is warm, dry, and well-stocked with food and water. A carry-out rescue could have been initiated following the rescue, however, rangers and doctors determined it would be in the best interest of the patients to spend the night and wait for a break in the weather to safely fly the next day. This morning dawned clear above Camp Muir, with heavy clouds below. The Chinook helicopter arrived at 6am and, in approximately 15 minutes, lifted Mrs. Burceag and Mr. Vlad, along with one of the park’s climbing rangers, into the helicopter by hoist and cable. Those on scene report that the cloud ceiling had risen somewhat by the time the helicopter arrived, and that the rescue occurred amid swirling clouds that threatened to engulf the mountain in fog.

The Chinook helicopter was operated by members of the U.S. Army Reserve, “A” Company, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington. [Note: Yesterday’s press release attributing the helicopter to the 101st Airborne Division was incorrect.] This reserve unit has worked with park officials at Mount Rainier on numerous rescues over the years, and has been invaluable as a backup resource when private vendors are unavailable or lack the capabilities required by the mission. In this case, for instance, the Chinook was able to fly out of Fort Lewis by instruments, despite the low clouds and poor visibility that grounded commercial helicopters. Over the years, the Reserve unit’s helicopter has been modified in several ways to accommodate the needs of Mount Rainier’s climbers: with a fixed line inside the aircraft for climbers to clip into; with removable plywood flooring to accommodate climbers’ crampons; with a special hoist for lifting individuals into the helicopter; and with flight helmets for use by park rangers, outfitted with avionics for communicating with the helicopter team.

Every year, roughly 9,000 people climb Mount Rainier and only about half of them reach the summit. Thousands more take day hikes or overnight camping trips to Camp Muir (48 were registered there on Tuesday night). These individuals are attracted by the majesty of the mountain, the wilderness experience, and the breathtaking beauty of mornings like this one, high above the clouds on the side of the volcano. Like many things in life, there are inherent risks in the wilderness. Sudden storms like Monday’s blizzard can catch even the most experienced and prepared hikers off guard. Visitors should check in with park rangers for the latest information about conditions on the mountain, and should always be prepared for an emergency.