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Out Alive Podcast

Part 2: Injured on Rainier in a Storm, Survival Seemed Impossible

In the second of a two-part episode, listen to a terror-filled tale on one of America's deadliest peaks.

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.

In part two of this memorable episode from our very first season, we dissect a harrowing accident on the icy slopes of Mt. Rainier’s Emmons Glacier. For Stacy Liedle and her team, reaching the summit of Rainier was the accomplishment of a lifetime. But a fall while descending left four climbers severely injured and in need of a rescue—before a winter storm complicated their hopes of survival. If you haven’t heard it yet, listen to part one of the story here.

Transcript

Louisa Albanese: This story contains adult content that may not be suitable for all listeners. Previously on Out Alive: 

Stacy Liedle: As we were starting to make our way down, the temperature just plummeted. 

Peter Ramos: Which is why the slope was so firm and icy. 

Stacy Liedle: I was putting my right crampon down, and then it basically just slips. 

Claire McDonald: I was looking right at ’em when they fell.

Ross VanDyke: I literally say, this is it. This is how I’m gonna die.

Stacy Liedle: My head snapped back and everything went black.

Claire McDonald: I said something pretty quickly to the two rangers I was with, so that’s when they started doing the amazing things they did that day.

Host: This episode is part two of a story we released last week. If you didn’t catch it, go back and listen to part one first.

Louisa Albanese: After months of training, five climbers made a trip to Washington to summit Mt. Rainier. Claire McDonald woke up ill and stayed behind at base camp while the other four climbers, which included Stacy Liedle and Ross VanDyke made their bid. After successfully reaching the summit, a storm front began to roll in earlier than the group had anticipated, turning the slopes to ice.

Traversing a glacier, the group is on a rope team, and a fall by Stacy sends the whole group careening out of control down the mountain. After being unconscious for 20 minutes, Stacy wakes, surprised to be alive and to find two of her partners unconscious and the other dangling inside a crevasse.

Her partner in the crevasse had become a human anchor for the group, stopping their fall and saving their lives. Everyone in the group had suffered extensive injuries. Stacy is the least injured and could only try to reassure her partners until help arrived. 

Stacy Liedle: My role was just to keep everyone as calm and peaceful as possible.

Louisa Albanese: Peter Ramos, an expedition nurse who was also on the mountain that day, reached the injured climbers 1,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Rainier, and had begun assessing immediate medical needs. 

Peter Ramos: So I ran around to check on these four people that had fallen. 

Louisa Albanese: Claire McDonald, remember, she stayed behind at base camp that day, saw the group fall and initiates a rescue.

Claire McDonald: I think I knew right away exactly what was happening and how bad it was. 

Louisa Albanese: There are two national park climbing rangers who begin the trek up to the injured climbers. They climb 3,000 feet to help assist in the helicopter rescue. 

Stacy Liedle: They were able to kind of stabilize our whole situation, and then a helicopter came in and they were hovering above us, bringing everyone in like one by one.

Louisa Albanese: David Bulger from the US Army Reserve was the pilot in command of the helicopter that day. 

David Bulger: When I first got the call, I wasn’t aware of how dire the situation was with the climbers or how bad the weather was becoming. 

Louisa Albanese: The helicopter used for this rescue is a Delta model chinook. If you’re not familiar, they have a tandem rotor system making them extremely powerful, maneuverable, and loud. There are three pilots on board that day, two upfront, and one additional pilot to keep an eye on the cliff face, a crew chief working the winch, and a flight engineer. Additionally, David’s crew picks up two paramedics from the nearby army hospital and two more of the national park’s rescue climbers. 

Climbing rangers are considered elite members of the National Park Service. They undergo extensive training in professional alpine mountaineering, aviation, technical avalanche forecasting, backcountry skiing, and emergency medical services. One of those climbers was Nick Hall. 

David Bulger: We lowered the hoist to the personnel, and lifted up the first climber with no issues whatsoever. But the winds were so bad that when we got the litter on the ground the second time, that was when the incident with Nick happened.

Peter Ramos: The Chinook came back and was lowering the sled for this next person. I was hovering over him protecting his face from the down wash from these propellers of the helicopter.

David Bulger: The flight engineer is calling the hoist distance off the ground. He tells us he made contact with the ground and then he tells us rescue climber has unhooked the cable. 

Peter Ramos: So as the sled was coming down, I saw Nick Hall reaching for the sled. 

David Bulger: And he goes, OK, cable’s clear. I’m bringing in the cable. 

Peter Ramos: And I bent back down to cover up the victim’s face.

David Bulger: And the next thing I hear is oh god, he fell.

Peter Ramos: I was anchored into the hillside, and then I felt something hit me and it pushed me down the slope a little bit, and I had to momentarily rely on my anchor to keep me from falling down the steep, icy slope. And I looked over my shoulder, and I saw what looked like a human rocketing down the slope. I quickly looked away as I realized what had just happened, and I couldn’t quite watch the rest of it.

Stacy Liedle: It was just kind of chaos all at once. Everyone’s yelling into their radios. You heard lots of things going on, and then it was just like silence.

David Bulger: I lift up off the ground. I do a pedal turn. As I do, I see a shape just plummet over this cliff, you know, 20, 30 yards away from the left side of the aircraft.

Stacy Liedle: At the time, I didn’t know what had happened, and I definitely didn’t realize the gravity of it, but I remember kind of sensing that like something had not gone according to plan. I remember hearing a voice come over the radio and saying, can someone go down there and check if he’s still with us?

David Bulger: I nose the helicopter over and I started just following him down the mountain. I get to, I think 8,000 feet, and I turn the helicopter back around and I start doing a zig-zag pattern back up his gully looking for him. And I see him at the base of this cliff and I come up over top of him. We hover over him at about a hundred feet for a minute or so, looking for any movement, any response. And we realized we need to drop someone to him, but there is no location around here to drop anyone.

So I moved back down the gully by about a quarter mile, maintained that hover. One of the rescue climbers jumped off the aircraft and started making their way back up to Nick’s location.

And at that point we were extremely low on fuel. Went back to our helipad. And that’s when the coordinator came up to us and told us that the climber that we had dropped off had made contact with Nick. And he was passed away at the scene.

Louisa Albanese: Nick Hall was a veteran of the Marine Corps, a ski patroller, and an EMT before he joined the park service climbing rangers four years prior. 

Peter Ramos: That was a pretty surreal moment to realize that that truly was what just happened. That Nick Hall had fell. He slipped and fell down 3,000 feet on Mt. Rainier. Everyone was at a loss at that moment. It was quiet. Luckily this ranger spoke up, and he said, the plan now is that those who can go down, go down. 

David Bulger: For us, I mean, yes, we were shocked, but we had a mission to do and we weren’t gonna leave those other people on the mountain. So we went back up there and and continued the mission.

Peter Ramos: There were still three injured people in the party on the mountain with two rangers as the rest of us walked down the slope with assistance of park service. 

David Bulger: Since this whole operation had taken so long, now we were starting to look at sunset. And I knew it was gonna be really tight, but I thought we could do it.

Peter Ramos: I didn’t think they were gonna make it, as this storm was pure whiteout. And then, by the time we got down, the winds calmed for sunset, like final light of the evening, the last opportunity. We heard the Chinook flying in the air again, as they’re gonna give it one final go during this sucker hole of calm weather to try and pluck off the remaining injured party.

David Bulger: The next two climbers went the way that I wish the entire mission did. Just a couple minutes for each climber and no issues whatsoever. It even seemed like the wind died down there for us for just a few minutes. It was perfect. 

Louisa Albanese: Ross, who is in excruciating pain from his injuries, is finally loaded onto the sled.

Ross VanDyke: So they take me up into the helicopter, and I just remember when they hooked me, I had this feeling of euphoria of like, I’m gonna be okay.

Stacy Liedle: Because I was the least injured, the helicopter was gonna bring me up last, and at this point there’s this pretty substantial storm blowing in so that there’s like massive winds coming off of the ridge above us. So the helicopter is battling all of this the whole time. 

David Bulger: And when you’re trying to hover over an area with very little contrast, not much to see except for sheets of white ice and snow, in high wind conditions, it’s kind of like trying to balance on the head of a pin. The pilots have to take turns hovering because it is a taxing endeavor for you. And especially on that day, I can tell you that up to and after that day in my career, I’ve never experienced hovering conditions that were that difficult.

Ross VanDyke: They put me in like a shelf, think of it like bunk beds, but they’re like with litters. And I just remember thinking to myself, don’t hit the mountain. Don’t hit the mountain. Don’t hit the mountain. 

David Bulger: The, the clip face was 20 feet away from our rotor system on the right hand side. And my pilot in the left seat was hovering the helicopter. The sun was going down behind the ridgeline in front of us. We lowered the jungle of penetrator, it’s kind of a seat. As soon as the penetrator touched the ground, the rescue climber hooked her in and my pilot said, I have lost all outside visual references. I need you to take the controls.

And what had happened was when the sun went down below the ridgeline in front of us, all of the snow around us turned just the uniform shaded gray. So I take the controls because I can still see out my window, one footprint from a climber, and that is my visual reference point. And I’m holding a hover, maintaining just on that one footprint as long as I can. And I held it for about 20 seconds, which was long enough for the rescue climber to get the climber secured into the seat. 

Stacy Liedle: So they’re about to bring me up. I’m like, harnessed in, ready to go. 

David Bulger: Well, the footprint disappears with the setting sun.

Stacy Liedle: And they’re counting down. And I remember them saying, three, two, and then just before one…

David Bulger: The aircraft started moving left, right, back, forward, and the rescue climber on the ground sees what the helicopter’s doing. He runs up and he…

Stacy Liedle: …tackles me to the ground and I feel them unclip me. And then I remember hearing them yell into the radio like, go, go, go. 

David Bulger: My flight engineer says, climber’s clear of the cable. Let’s get out here.

At that point we said, okay, that’s it. There’s nothing else we can do. 

Stacy Liedle: And then the helicopter just took off. It was me and a couple of climbing rangers, and I just remember them being like, cool, so we’re here for the night.

David Bulger: We felt terrible because, I mean, we knew she was uninjured, but we wanted to get her home. She’d had such, for lack of a better term, a bad time up on that mountain. We wanted to get her home and get her safe. 

Stacy Liedle: I’m like, I’m so cold. I’d been out since 2:00 AM that morning and it’s 10:00 PM at night. I’m the coldest I’ve ever been in my life and had also like, thought I was gonna die earlier that day and was completely traumatized. 

David Bulger: We felt terrible, but we knew there was no other option. I mean, when we landed, I went up to the pilot I was flying with and I said, Hey, in my, at this point I had 10 years of flying experience. I said, my 10 years, I think that was the most scared I’ve ever been. And he looked to me and he goes, I’ve been flying for 30 years, and that was the most scared I’ve ever been.

Stacy Liedle: I spent the night like wedged between these two incredibly kind rangers. And we had all kind of had this like hope and expectation that the helicopter was just gonna come back the next morning to get us. And so we were all kind of expectantly hopeful. 

David Bulger: I had the next day off, but I talked with two of the pilots the next day and they actually went up there, they climbed as high as they could. They got above the cloud layers over Mt. Rainier and they tried to find a hole in the clouds that they could circle down through. And they could not do it. And for the next, I think 10 to 12 days, it was just completely socked in up there.

Stacy Liedle: So we wake up the next morning and open the tent door, and it’s like a complete whiteout. Can’t even tell which way is down, and one of them just hands me an ice axe and is like, cool, it’s go time. At that point I realized , OK, this is just, you know, you thought the challenge was over, but like it keeps going. You have to continue to kind of rise to this occasion. And I didn’t know if I was capable, I guess. I didn’t know if I was capable of what I had to do.

So we started hiking down. It’s super steep, you can’t see anything. And I remember for the first part of it we’re like traversing along the crevasse that my partner had been dangling inside of. And all of the images of the day before I kept flashing in my mind and it was just like unending.

But there was one point where, because we couldn’t see anything, we couldn’t figure out a way to get around this one pretty big crevasse, so we just kept going like up and down and around and just couldn’t figure it out. I was so completely out of energy, like physical energy, emotional energy, mental willpower, that I did not think that I could physically take another step.

I’m not one who really, like, I don’t really give up on things and I certainly don’t give up on like being alive, but my tank was completely empty in every regard, and I was willing to accept what the consequence of that would be me dying there.

I asked one of the guys that I was with, I was like, Hey, can you just dig me a hole and just leave me here? I think I’m done. I think that was probably the darkest moment that I have ever had and hopefully we’ll ever have. And then I remember he got very close to me and was like, this is when you find out what you’re made of. This is when you have to dig deep because this is the moment that it matters. And so I stood up, I kept walking, and over the course of the day, made it all the way down to the trailhead.

 There were news cameras there, which was kind of mind blowing, and they snuck me out. And I remember running through the woods and there’s this car waiting, and they pushed me inside and closed the doors. And they take me to this house further down the road and there’s a guy standing there and he says, there’s someone here who I think might wanna see you. And he opens the front door and my parents are there. 

My mom just drops to the ground and is sobbing and my dad is crying and then I’m crying, and I’m just like, how did all of this happen? How did I survive and how am I still here? And then also like, how do I move forward?

Louisa Albanese: Earlier that day, Ross was taken to Madigan Army Base where he learned the extent of his injuries for the first time.

Ross VanDyke: I remember being wheeled in on the gurney, and I remember them telling me, you’ve suffered a dislocated hip, that you, have also suffered a pulmonary embolism. So I had a blood clot of my calf and a piece of that blood clot broke off and went through my heart and splattered into my lungs. And they said it’s probably going to be about a year until you can walk again. And I just remember at that moment, like, I didn’t care. I mean, I can still see it today and it makes me emotional every time I talk about it. 

An Army officer walked in and asked, are you Ross? Are you Ross Van Dyke? And I said, , yes sir, I am. And he said, I regret to inform you that there was a ranger that was killed in your rescue. And, sorry. I just lost it. I couldn’t believe that what had happened to us caused the death of somebody else. Not to mention the fact that it wasn’t even our own party. It was an innocent person who was just trying to help us. 

Claire McDonald: You know, we kind of went into that with, you need to be totally self sufficient. Nobody’s gonna come help you. 

Louisa Albanese: This is Claire McDonald. 

Claire McDonald: And then when help was needed, there were experts right there, willing and capable, and their whole lives were committed to helping folks. And then for one of them to give their life in that. It’s just a lot to think about. 

Stacy Liedle: This was so much deeper than just like a really traumatic day for us. Someone literally lost their life and made the ultimate sacrifice just trying to save ours. 

David Bulger: I was pretty numb about the events of that mission until my drive home that night.

Louisa Albanese: This again is David Bulger, the helicopter pilot. 

David Bulger: Around one in the morning, on the drive home, I just pulled over and just started shaking. It all kind of hit me. 

Stacy Liedle: I don’t think it fully hit me like I knew in my head, I knew logically what had happened, but I don’t think it hit me emotionally for a few days. And I think watching the memorial service and just seeing all the people that were there and realizing, this was a person who led this incredibly rich wife. I don’t know. Like he was someone’s son. He was someone’s brother. 

Aaron Hall: Hi, thanks for coming out today. My name’s Aaron Hall. I’m Nick’s brother. The loss of a brother is pretty tough. He’s my only brother, you know, he’s the only person that, uh, I think he’s the only person on this earth that could know what I was thinking without talking. Just the world’s just gonna be that much more of a lonely place without him for me. I’m gonna miss him a great deal.

David Bulger: I met with Nick’s family at his memorial. I learned a lot about him. This is a guy who dedicated his life to helping other people, and, as always, my thoughts and prayers go out to Nick’s family. I mean, they suffered a great loss and he was a wonderful man and he’ll always be missed.

Recording: On behalf of the Mountain Rescue Association and all mountain rescue teams, thank you for allowing us to be here. This is an adaptation we call the Rescue Mountaineers Prayer. When I am called to duty, God, wherever people fall, give me strength to save a life whatever be the call. Help me embrace a little child before it is too late, or save an older person from the horror of some fate. Enable me to be alert and hear the weakest shout. And quickly and effectively bring my neighbor out. I want to fill my calling and to give the best in me, to bring my every neighbor back to their family. And when it happens on some day, my earthly tasks must end. Please bless with your protecting hand, my family and my friends.

Ross VanDyke: I’ve recovered physically. I think more than anything it would be, you know, carrying on, , I don’t know how to put it into words, but essentially, you know, carrying the weight of, you know, the loss of somebody, because there was a lot of friends who have said, and I don’t disagree with them, that, hey, that there was a miracle that happened that day. But sometimes I have a hard time wrapping the miracle of us living with the fact that somebody died in that process. And so that’s probably something that’s tough and that I still, to a great degree carry with me today.

When I originally wrote to the Hall family, I really, despite this horrible, horrible thing that happened, I wanted them to know that there was a human on the other side of it that really cared deeply. And my hope was that there would be a relationship that came with that, but it’s definitely been a slow process. I think that it went from exchanging a letter here and there to a huge moment for me personally was when Carter had reached out and said, you interested in going bear hunting? And I was like, bear hunting? Sure. 

Carter Hall: I could see Ross’s pain in publications. 

Louisa Albanese: This is Nick’s dad, Carter Hall.

Carter Hall: When Ross came to visit Maine last September, he came to do a bear hunt. So I explained to him, I said, Ross, I said, it’s a little difficult getting you a successful bear hunt when you’re only gonna be here two days. This is what he responded. I don’t care. Carter, I came to visit you.

Ross VanDyke: I initially, my intentions were that me being there would be healing for them. But in reality, I think that it was that much but more for me. I will say that I was nervous, maybe scared slash intimidated. I didn’t know that Aaron was gonna be there. And so I had not had a lot of correspondence with Aaron and the opportunity to be able to be with him was sincerely and utterly humbling, and one that I will never forget. Riding in a pickup truck, just he and I, on these back roads in Maine, far exceeded the euphoria that I felt standing on the top of Rainier. You know, I would put it as one of my greatest life moments.

Carter Hall: You know, Ross, one way or the other, had reached out. And maybe the others haven’t. Maybe they didn’t know how they could reach out. You know, I don’t know what everybody needs to learn and feel in this whole scenario. 

Stacy Liedle: felt so ashamed. I couldn’t let go of the idea that I hadn’t spoken up and I was the one who fell. Even though there were a lot of things that went into us taking that fall, my lack of gracefulness was sort of the catalyst for all of this catastrophe that happened. And I didn’t know how to grapple with that feeling because that’s so heavy. But after seeking out therapy, I realized that I wasn’t guilty of anything. I didn’t do anything wrong. I slipped and I was really ashamed that I had been imperfect, because it’s not the perfect version of myself, right? Who wants to wear the imperfect version of themself on their sleeve? 

We did not make all of the best decisions that day. We were now perfect people that day and it led to a lot of really horrible things happening. But that doesn’t make us, and that doesn’t make, I guess me any less worthy of love. It doesn’t make me any less strong. And the thing that I constantly tell myself is, you’re going to be OK and you will survive this.

Louisa Albanese: This episode is in honor and memory of Nick Hall.

This episode was produced by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates, and story editing and sound design by Matt Coddaire. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from Electric Audio, Inc. Thank you to Stacy Liedle, Ross Van Dyke, David Bulger, Claire McDonald, Peter Ramos, and Carter Hall for talking with us and sharing your stories.

A special thank you to Mt. Rainier National Park Climbing Rangers and Search and Rescue. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.


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