Mount Rainier's recovery requires heavy lifting

ASHFORD - A Sikorsky S-64E Skycrane thundered over Mount Rainier National Park, lifting more than 50,000 pounds of steel I-beam bridges to three backcountry locations.

The bridges, and the $104,000 bill for the Sikorsky, are part of the park's $36 million effort to recover from flooding in November. The work is progressing faster than expected, said park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga.

"I've had only continuously good news on every project this summer," he said.

The heavy-lifting ability was necessary to replace three bridges along the Wonderland Trail.

But the weather affected even that effort. While Tacoma basked under blue skies, the Siller Brothers Aviation crew of eight and 35 park employees had to wait for clouds over the park to clear.

The Sikorsky is part of a fleet of heavy-lift helicopters owned by the Yuba City, Calif., company. It was flown into Morton on Sunday and arrived at the park's Kautz Creek helipad Monday morning.

As morning passed, pilot Vic Pendleton opted to nap on a picnic table while co-pilot Ken Fritz read a book and ate his lunch. Finally, shortly before noon, the go-ahead came.

With two 4,500-horsepower engines driving the six-blade rotor, the Sikorsky lifted off amid a cloud of dust driven by the 115 mph rotor wash.

Park employees on the ground attached the first bridge to the 200-foot cable hanging beneath the aircraft. With a surge of power, the 13,540-pound bridge was on its way to a spot over Stevens Creek in the park's southeast corner.

Within 25 minutes, the chopper was back for the second load. This bridge, bound for the North Puyallup River crossing, weighed 17,000 pounds. The weight became an issue as Pendleton and Fritz flew toward the site. Unable to clear a high ridge, they had to return to the helipad so crews there could quickly disassemble the bridge.

The final two trips delivered the two sections of a 19,700-pound bridge at Martha Falls in Stevens Canyon.

All three bridges were hauled in by 4:30 p.m. That meant Pendleton and Fritz could head to their next job - hauling gear and materials to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

For park crews, the North Puyallup bridge is the priority. They were to put it back together and position it Tuesday. Installing the deck and other work should be done within a week, said Rich Lechleitner, who headed the helicopter operations for the park.

Once the bridge is ready, it will allow the park to reopen the west side of the Wonderland Trail.

Work to be done

But don't make plans to circle the mountain along the 93-mile trail yet. The stretch of trail between the two bridges lifted into Stevens Canyon is still impassable.

Lechleitner said trail work has begun on that stretch, but there is no date for its completion.

While the crews were waiting for the weather to cooperate, Uberuaga was meeting with other park supervisors. They gather each Monday to update flood recovery efforts.

So far the news has mostly been good. Among the reports was the news that:

n Work to repair large slides on Highway 123 on the east side is about three weeks ahead of schedule.

n Repair of the road into the White River Campground is complete.

n Crews have been repairing the Mount Freemont Lookout, which had its roof torn off by 121 mph winds in December.

Still, there are major issues to contend with.

The park must prepare an environmental assessment before determining how to fix the 1 1/2 miles of trail leading into Glacier Basin. A temporary route exists for climbers going through Camp Schurman, but park officials want a new trail that is out of the flood plain of the Inter Fork of the White River. It will take at least four months to complete that process.

Uberuaga is pleased with the park's recovery after being closed 180 days by the flooding. Credit for the recovery goes to park employees, the hundreds of volunteers who have given their time, energy and sweat, and the money to make the repairs happen, he said.

"Having the money to do (the work) has been critical," Uberuaga said. "If we didn't have the money, we'd just be sitting here talking about it.

"Looking back over the last eight months, I didn't think we would be where we are at right now."