GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Rescue rangers going over the rim of the collapsed volcano that forms Crater Lake weren't sure whether the man crumpled against a tree 300 feet below was alive or dead.
They had rappelled 100 feet down a near-vertical ravine covered with snow and loose rock and were rigging a new set of ropes to a tree to go the rest of the way when the cries from above reached them.
Someone had seen the man move, and was telling him to stay still, rescuers were on the way, said Jason Ramsdell, ranger operations supervisor at Crater Lake National Park.
"Two things happen," when visitors ignore the signs and get too close to the edge of the caldera wall, said Ramsdell. "Either they don't fall that far and have minor injuries, or they fall very far and are dead.
"It was surprising he was moving and alive," said Ramsdell.
Crater Lake is Oregon's only national park and draws about 500,000 visitors a year. Most of them drive up to Rim Village, look out over the spectacular expanse of blue circled by sheer rock, and go on their way. Many others ignore the warning signs and venture past the rock wall intended to keep them safe.
People and things going over the edge are nothing new. Last September, an Ashland couple forgot to set the parking brake on their car and the vehicle rolled over the rim into the caldera with their dog inside. The dog escaped through the sun roof, before the car fell some 1,000 feet.
In February 2009, rescuers hauled up a Klamath Falls man who suffered only scrapes after sliding about 200 feet over the edge while trying to retrieve a friend's cellphone.
On Tuesday, park spokeswoman Marsha McCabe said 27-year-old Eric Brimlow of Syracuse, N.Y., was visiting the area with friends Monday morning, when he left the path and stairs leading down to the Sinnott Memorial Overlook, a spectacular rock balcony built into the side of the rock wall left after the volcano erupted and collapsed upon itself more than 7,000 years ago to form the lake.
Witnesses told rangers that Brimlow stepped off the path about halfway down, stepped on a rock wall and leaped across a 5-foot wide chasm where the snow had melted away. When he landed, the man apparently slipped and slid headfirst down the steep snow-covered slope.
As he slid, the snow turned to loose rock, he tumbled and rolled, went over a 50-foot cliff, and was saved from sure death by coming to rest against a tree, about 700 feet above the lake, said Ramsdell.
"For whatever reason that day, he was saved by landing where he did — landing against that tree," Ramsdell said.
Some five hours later, a total of 49 park personnel joined in getting him to the top. Seriously injured and unconscious, the man was flown by Mercy Flights helicopter to Rogue Medical Center in Medford, where the hospital reported Tuesday he was in critical condition.
Nick Atkins, dining room manager at Crater Lake Lodge, was coming to work when he was passed by ambulances, and then saw about 50 onlookers watching park rangers setting up their ropes for the rescue.
"I just don't understand how anybody could lean far enough forward they could slip. But things happen," said Atkins.
A ranger from the overlook spotted the man against a tree, and Chief Ranger Pete Reinhardt tied off from a tree and rappelled 100 feet down a ravine. Ramsdell joined him and they rigged more ropes to another tree to move down and across the loose rock slope.
Reinhardt found the man unconscious but breathing, pinned against a tree at the base of a five-foot cliff. Reinhardt tied the man in and with ranger Christina Sheppard tried to hoist him to the top of the 5-foot cliff, where the ground was flat. But they needed help.
Biologist Mark Buktenica took over managing the ropes at the midpoint belay. Ramsdell and ranger Paul Schauer rappelled down where they rigged pulleys to a tree 20 feet above the man, and the four rangers pushed and pulled him up.
On flat ground, they bundled the man in the litter. Ramsdell and the rest scrambled back up the wall and Reinhardt went with the litter while others hauled on pulleys for the long climb to the top.
Coming out the way the man went in, the team put extension ladders across the snow chasm and slid the litter to the path.
"I am a rock climber and I would not begin to think about doing what the rangers did," Atkins said.