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Two national parks in Washington among U.S. search-and-rescue hot spots, analysis finds

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 23, 2022

People hike toward the Tahoma Glacier on the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. An analysis of search-and-rescue incidents between 2018 and 2020 shows that Mount Rainier had the 13th highest number of search-and-rescue incidents in America. Coming in at No. 9 was Olympic National Park.  (Drew Perine/(Tacoma) News Tribune)
People hike toward the Tahoma Glacier on the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. An analysis of search-and-rescue incidents between 2018 and 2020 shows that Mount Rainier had the 13th highest number of search-and-rescue incidents in America. Coming in at No. 9 was Olympic National Park. (Drew Perine/(Tacoma) News Tribune)
By Christine Clarridge Seattle Times

The alluring Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks draw people from around the world. But both appear to be among the nation’s most dangerous parks, according to new analysis by online outdoor research guide Outforia.

The analysis of search-and-rescue incidents between 2018 and 2020 shows that Olympic had the ninth highest number of search-and-rescue incidents in America. Mount Rainier came in at No. 13. Grand Canyon National Park had the highest number of search-and-rescue operations nationwide over the three-year period, recording 785 incidents.

In those three years, Olympic National Park had 204 search-and-rescue incidents, according to the 2021 analysis.

Mount Rainier National Park rangers, meanwhile, tallied 60 search-and-rescue operations in 2020, the most in the past five years, according to park data.

Nationwide, Washington had the seventh most search-and-rescue incidents over the three-year span, with 465 incidents around the state, the analysis found.

National Park rangers have said that the pandemic that forced so many inside for months has brought many newer hikers, skiers and snowshoers, but many have found themselves challenged by weather conditions and inexperience.

In 2020, there were 237 million visits to the country’s more than 400 national parks, according to the National Park Service. About 2 million people visit Mount Rainier each year. In 2021, the park had 2,477,816 visitors. Visitors to Olympic National Park in 2020 were estimated at 2.5 million, down from 3.25 million in 2019.

According to Outforia, there were 146 search-and-rescue incidents reported at Mount Rainier National Park during the three years looked at. Of those, 101 are still open, accounting for 69% of total incidents in the park.

With elevations up to 14,000 feet and an area of 369.3 square miles, it’s not hard to imagine how a person – experienced or not – could find themselves in trouble at Mount Rainier.

However, Outforia noted that in some cases, search-and-rescue operations can go on for a number of months. Sometimes, a missing person may not be involved, but an incident is being investigated, leading to a higher number of cases remaining open, Outforia said.

One ranger with North Cascades National Park also cautioned that search-and-rescue statistics can be misleading.

For one thing, said North Cascades District Ranger Gabe Asarian, it’s not uncommon to get reports of missing hikers that may be logged as incidents but are never followed up on because the hikers show up quickly.

“We get calls every single weekend about missing hikers and most do not end up as searches,” he said.

Asarian said he did not know the numbers for Mount Rainier, but said the number of open cases there could be the result of a quirk in the system or could be due to hikers being found and the case never officially being closed.

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