INCIDENTS & ACCIDENTS

Every year, on average, 25 people who are injured while climbing, skiing and mountaineering on Mount Washington require some type of assistance from rescue groups such as the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and the US Forest Service. The incident summaries listed below are provided as an educational tool in order to help prevent future accidents. The accidents range  from sprained ankles to multi-systems trauma. The reports and analysis of these accidents have revealed some interesting insights into winter mountain safety

Accident reporting and investigation is a time consuming and often detailed process. Reports of major accidents from the US Forest Service Snow Rangers may take some time to appear on this page.

Unable to find the Winter Lion Head Route to descend

After climbing Odell Gully on Friday, February 5, 2016, a climbing team called 911 after being unable to find the Winter Lion Head Route to descend. The party of three topped out earlier in the day in low visibility due to blowing snow and fog. Temperatures at that time were -2F with winds gusting to 70mph.  The trio, who started the day with two headlamps between them, apparently lost the Alpine Garden trail and assumed that they had also missed intersecting the Lion Head trail.  Fearing that they may be descending into avalanche terrain in Tuckerman Ravine, the team turned around and headed back toward Huntington, only to descend further into Raymond’s Cataract.  Initial phone signal location software placed the party in Center Conway, then Raymond’s Cataract, with a third and fourth call indicating that the group was at the top of Pinnacle Buttress and on the Alpine Garden Trail, respectively.

Two teams comprised of a Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake caretaker each accompanied by volunteer paramedic climbers staying at the Harvard Cabin, were dispatched shortly after the 911 call was received. The team’s search assignment was to scan for a headlamp above the Huntington Ravine Fire Road between the Lion Head Winter Route and the ridge forming the southern end of Huntington Ravine. Around 11pm, the search parties made visual contact with the climbers who were in the steep area of short cliff bands in the woods to the north of the Raymond Cataract waterfall. One of the search parties reached the three climbers and led them back to the Harvard Cabin, reaching it at 1am.

Analysis: Many climbers with experience in the mountains have their own tale to tell of being benighted or disoriented. In retrospect, it’s easy to find errors but applying lessons learned makes us more resilient and lends perspective and maybe even less prone to repeat the same mistakes. We rely heavily on visual cues to navigate and maintain our balance. Remove or reduce that sense and anyone can easily become disoriented. The disorientation experienced while traveling “inside the ping pong ball” of a whiteout is something that can mislead even those with intimate knowledge of the terrain.

A travel plan for an outing should include contingencies for the preferred descent route, variations in weather and snowpack conditions, injuries in the party, or forgotten gear. Having a plan in place to handle adverse weather, low visibility, or unforeseen incidents is a good idea on any longer climb in the mountains. The ability to navigate in adverse conditions should be in the skill set of anyone venturing into Huntington Ravine, particularly when climbing a long technical route. This includes having GPS coordinates of critical locations*, as well as having a map, compass, and knowing how to use them appropriately.

Having the right equipment can buy time when caught out above treeline and the increased comfort can lower stress levels and lead to better decision making. If you are going above treeline, clear or yellow googles, facemasks, a light for everyone in the party are vital. This party was no doubt slowed down by having only one light between them and was fortunate that this light functioned throughout their descent. A small back-up headlamp that lives in your climbing pack can serve as backup to failed batteries, faulty wiring or a simple oversight.

It is important to understand that a phone is a last resort for emergency communication and not an alternative to complete self-sufficiency. They simply are not as reliable in the mountains. With phone calls to this party, we confirmed their position and helped them navigate back to the trail. Phones can be great tools, but you can reduce the chances of needing to use it by being fully prepared with the right equipment, knowledge, and skills.

January 17, 2016, Human-triggered avalanche incidents

Synopsis: On Sunday, January 17, a wind slab avalanche cycle on the east side of Mount Washington occurred following a period of moderate snowfall and wind. Two human-triggered avalanches occurred, one of which was widely publicized on social media and in the news. A number of factors led to the incidents which are worth looking into in order to shed light on some of the issues around the events. As is the case with many accidents, it is easy to pick out poor decisions in hindsight. In reviewing incidents, it is also rarely productive assigning blame to individuals compared to what lesson can be drawn. This incident presents an opportunity to highlight what appear to be trends in travel practices and decision making on Mt. Washington.

Weather: The snowfall leading up to the avalanche cycle was a typical upslope snow event which often follows more robust synoptic systems passing through our region. As an air mass is forced up and over the windward side of the range, the cooling process turns lingering atmospheric moisture into snow. In the case of the Sunday, January 17 avalanche cycle, the synoptic storm system had deposited 8” on the mountain on the prior Tuesday and Wednesday. A period of unsettled weather followed with 2” falling Thursday and Friday accompanied by periods of high winds and prolonged low visibility. A natural avalanche cycle occurred sometime during this loading event with the areas beneath Center Bowl and Chute later showing debris piles. By the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, as a Nor’easter passed offshore to the east, snow began to fall again during a 4 hour period of light SE and SSE winds. This snowfall became the weak layer when the wind shifted to the west and increased to the 50 mph range. By Sunday morning, sky conditions were clearing with W wind speeds in the 50’s mph lifting snow plumes with the previous days 5.5” snow (.55” SWE) from the alpine elevations. These plumes were visible from the parking lot at Pinkham Notch in the early morning hours. By 10am cold temperatures and blowing snow had begun to give way to clear skies, sunshine, and light wind.

Avalanche activity: By late morning, skiers and climbers began to test the slopes in both Ravines.  Two skiers reported triggering a small slab (R1, D1) near Lunch Rocks beneath the Lip around 11am. One skier was carried about 20’ before arresting his slide. A little later, a guide entered South Gully in Huntington Ravine causing a slab to collapse and settle in place with no avalanche. At 12:50pm, an avalanche from the mid-section of Chute in Tuckerman Ravine caught and carried the two climbers who triggered the slide. Also caught were a solo skier crossing the runout on his way to Left Gully and two from a group of three skiers climbing up the track below the climbers. Of these five people caught and carried, two received minor injuries, with only one transported to a hospital. An avalanche course and a number of students were approximately 15’ from the moving debris on a 40 degree slope which had avalanched earlier in the avalanche cycle.

Chicken Rock Gully: SS-ASu-R1-D1, reported as 10-15cm deep, 15m wide, ran to elevation of the base of Lunch Rocks

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully.

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully. (image: MWAC, taken morning of Jan 17, 2016)

Chute: SS-AFu-R2-D1.5, estimated to be 10-50cm x 30m wide crown, 115m track of 400m path

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image from Facebook)

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image: from Facebook)

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

Analysis: We have been seeing both positive trends in avalanche terrain travel choices and decision making as well as trends leaving room for improvement. Unfortunately, the trends needing improvement are all too common.

First, for the positives:

  • Everyone involved was geared up appropriately for winter conditions with the right warm clothing, boots, etc. Despite the reputation Mount Washington has for “the world’s worst weather,” the number of travelers who come unprepared for the cold and wind is astounding.
  • Some of the individuals involved were equipped and trained to apply first aid skills to the injured. Similar to the increasing trend in avalanche education we are seeing, there appears to be an increased interest in becoming more self-sufficient in the mountains. While at times Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines seem like frontcountry recreation areas with Snow Rangers and caretakers at both Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake, it is important to remember that these locales are indeed backcountry settings and help can often be a long way away.
  • Many of the individuals nearby, and one of the skiers who was in the path, were carrying avalanche rescue gear including beacons, probes, and shovels.
  • Several Level 1 avalanche classes were in progress in Tuckerman Ravine. More and more people each year are seeking out professionally-taught avalanche courses which is a very good thing.
  • At least some of the parties read the General Avalanche Bulletin issued on Saturday morning. This type of Bulletin is valid for up to three days, and was both in effect and posted Sunday morning. The Bulletin accurately described recent and upcoming snowfall and wind loading as well as the developed slopes which would become bed surfaces in this avalanche cycle.

Areas for improvement and lessons to take away:

  • Of the five people caught in the avalanche, none were wearing beacons or carrying avalanche rescue gear. Sadly, this is not that unusual in our terrain. The avalanche class was wearing beacons and carrying rescue gear, as was one skier who was able to get out of the path as well as the two skiers who triggered Chicken Rock Gully. Frequently, climbers leave behind avalanche rescue gear to save weight, leaving no quick course of action should burial occur. Hats off to all who recognize the value of carrying avalanche rescue gear to be searchable and have the committed discipline to carrying it. The gear may or may not save your life should you get caught, but it certainly won’t help you if it is in your closet. Situations change, plans change, and mistakes happen—always carry the gear.
  • Given the clustering of users near the Chute, it seems safe to assume that the Social Proof heuristic was at play. Following some discussion, the avalanche class chose to travel in steep terrain beneath a recently loaded slope. They were followed by the party of two climbers and the three skiers. Whether due to the easier travel following in someone else’s boot track, the erroneous assumption that a slope is safe because someone else already traveled on it, or the belief that other travelers know more than you, this behavior is all too common in Tuckerman Ravine. The two climbers then passed the avalanche class and ventured onto the unstable slope.  This bunching in avalanche terrain forces constant re-evaluation of hazard. Additional challenges exist when trying to rebalance risk on a continual basis based on actions of others outside your control.  This issue has been a factor in many avalanche accidents and fatalities locally, as well as around the world.  Mount Washington has very concentrated avalanche terrain and has a high amount of visitation.  We have seen on many occasions a group descend a route while others are unwittingly climbing up in the same avalanche path. This makes safe travel difficult when instabilities exist on a weekend on Mount Washington. Your party’s movements may be under tight control and stay within your chosen level of accepted risk, but only in the absence of other more unpredictable people.   Take the same scenario, with other people as an uncontrollable variable, and you may increase your risk rapidly.  This issue was demonstrated by this incident.  We often see a compounding effect of visitors concentrating together in unstable conditions when they should be considering staying clear of one another by using fracture limiting terrain features and avoiding runout paths.  This is certainly a major challenge for guided parties, courses and organized parties.  Managing objective mountain hazards like icefall, avalanches, crevasses, etc. is hard enough, but adding subjective hazards due to other parties may be untenable. Every leader must balance the group’s level of skill with their agreed upon risk tolerance on a constant basis
  • An associated concern to the above is the challenges of spreading out to reduce overall risk. While spreading out is a good, basic technique for traveling in or below avalanche terrain it may not be as effective as it is often assumed without a quality pre-plan to reduce risk. This pre-plan would review the actual benefits compared to truly going one at time, how you will communicate when spread out if new observations or decisions need to be made, and is this the best route.  A best route option should always be a constant question.  This can be a difficult decision because the safest route is often less convenient. Again, the effectiveness of spreading out as a team of 2 climbers, 3 skiers, or a large avalanche class are complicated when they are all interacting in the same terrain exposed to the hazards.
  • The two climbers overlooked a red flag when they climbed over a recently reloaded crown line and onto a slope that rises from 40 to 45 degrees or more. Moreover, all parties involved in the Chute incident crossed beneath this slope within 4 hours of a period of active loading. While everyone chooses their own level of acceptable risk, it is unclear whether all parties involved sought out the information needed to make an informed decision by reading the posted General Avalanche Bulletin or seeking the right weather data. Hourly precipitation and weather data can be found here and is included among the list of other useful weather related websites on our site. These sites can be incredibly useful tools in the planning stages of your trip or even in the field when cell access is available (don’t forget a pocket charger or spare battery).

Lastly, a short discussion of MWAC’s published products, and any avalanche advisory for that matter, is worthwhile. It is a valuable topic to expand upon specifically. See “Avalanche Products” in our website Blog, ‘The Pit’ this weekend for a more in depth discussion.

  • A General Avalanche Bulletin, which was published the day before these avalanche incidents, is used to convey hazards that are most typically a problem during the early and late season. This document is a one page narrative describing the hazards, but does not assign a danger rating. It is a broad discussion to highlight that instabilities and avalanche potential may currently exist, although not across the entire forecasting area in each Ravine.
  • It is a common occurrence across the United States to see active visitor use in avalanche terrain and have avalanche accidents before a 5-Scale Avalanche Danger Rating Advisory is utilized. These occur under either Informational Bulletins or no products. These isolated instabilities are acceptable and tolerated without postings due to the limited nature of the issues.  Incidents, although unfortunate, are a national actuality based on statistical probabilities and ever increasing backcountry use numbers. This fact clearly focuses to the importance of possessing avalanche knowledge and field skills.  This is an important reality to note when entering any avalanche terrain whether in the Eastern or Western United States.
  • Gaining and maintaining good avalanche assessment skills, training and experience is critical. If you don’t have this knowledge we would highly encourage you to get it through controlled learning environments versus relying solely on posted advisories.  As stated in our Bulletins and Advisories, it is merely one tool to make field decisions. This is not a disclaimer; it addresses the complexity and nature of avalanches and the inevitable spatial variability we often see.  If the Advisory states one thing and our dynamic weather creates another reality with increasing hazard, certainly go with your observations and neck hackles and not the advisory.  Your future well-being makes it essential that avalanche skills match your desire for playing in the mountains.  It will also help you draw as much as possible from the Advisory tool because we’ll be speaking the same language.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact us at mwactucks@gmail.com  We’ll do our best to respond in a timely manner.

Avalanche Accident – January 17, 2016

The following news release was issued by the White Mountain National Forest Sunday evening, January 17th. A more comprehensive accident summary and lessons learned will be posted later.

Two Climbers Trigger Tuckerman Avalanche

Early on Sunday afternoon, January 17, 2016, two climbers from Canada triggered and were caught by an avalanche in “The Chute” located in Tuckerman Ravine.

Just before 1 pm, the climbers ascended the couloir on the left side of the Ravine. Four other skiers and an avalanche class were nearby at the time. The pair of climbers reached the narrow point of the slope after climbing several hundred vertical feet from the floor of the ravine on a steepening slope. They climbed over an old fracture line a foot to a foot and a half high and continued into softer snow. After ascending approximately 30 more feet through deeper snow, the climber in front felt that the slope may be unstable and decided to turn around. As they turned to descend, the slope fractured about 75-100’ above them and approximately 75-100’ wide. The two climbers were carried most of the distance to the Ravine floor.  Two of the three nearby skiers were also caught and carried varying distances by the debris as well, while another skier below was able to dodge the debris. (see correction below)

One of the two climbers, Michel Houde from Lorraine, Quebec, sustained non-life threatening injuries and was treated and released by Snow Ranger staff and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. One of the skiers, Kaj Huld from Brunswick Maine, also received non-life threatening injuries. Members of several nearby avalanche classes assisted in transporting the second climber by litter to Hermit Lake where he was transported by snowmobile to Gorham EMS waiting in Pinkham Notch.

The Mount Washington Observatory reported 5.5” of snow on the summit during the previous day, with around 4” falling at Hermit Lake. Summit winds blew between 40 mph and 60 mph overnight from the west. Plumes of wind transported snow were visible in the morning as Snow Rangers made snowpack assessments. The wind shifted to the NW and diminished to 20 mph when visitors began to enter Tuckerman.

Each year from December 1st through May 31st, the US Forest Service is the lead agency coordinating SAR missions on the eastern side of Mount Washington which includes Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines.  The White Mountain National Forest operates the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to provide safety information and SAR services to the public.   The Avalanche Center had posted a General Bulletin Saturday Morning, January 16th ,on www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org for the holiday weekend. A brief follow up analysis of the incident will be post on the website this week.

#######end#####

Correction: the solo skier who is described as having “dodged the debris” was indeed hit and injured by the avalanche. In total, six people were in the path when it released. Only one was able to avoid being caught. Two of the five caught were injured. Broken down by group: of the two climbers who triggered the slide had one was injured; of the group of three, one escaped while the other two were caught, carried, and thankfully uninjured; there was also the aforementioned solo skier traversing his way low in the track toward Left Gully.

Two human-triggered avalanches

Synopsis: On Sunday, January 17, a wind slab avalanche cycle on the east side of Mount Washington occurred following a period of moderate snowfall and wind. Two human-triggered avalanches occurred, one of which was widely publicized on social media and in the news. A number of factors led to the incidents which are worth looking into in order to shed light on some of the issues around the events. As is the case with many accidents, it is easy to pick out poor decisions in hindsight. In reviewing incidents, it is also rarely productive assigning blame to individuals compared to what lesson can be drawn. This incident presents an opportunity to highlight what appear to be trends in travel practices and decision making on Mt. Washington.

Weather: The snowfall leading up to the avalanche cycle was a typical upslope snow event which often follows more robust synoptic systems passing through our region. As an air mass is forced up and over the windward side of the range, the cooling process turns lingering atmospheric moisture into snow. In the case of the Sunday, January 17 avalanche cycle, the synoptic storm system had deposited 8” on the mountain on the prior Tuesday and Wednesday. A period of unsettled weather followed with 2” falling Thursday and Friday accompanied by periods of high winds and prolonged low visibility. A natural avalanche cycle occurred sometime during this loading event with the areas beneath Center Bowl and Chute later showing debris piles. By the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, as a Nor’easter passed offshore to the east, snow began to fall again during a 4 hour period of light SE and SSE winds. This snowfall became the weak layer when the wind shifted to the west and increased to the 50 mph range. By Sunday morning, sky conditions were clearing with W wind speeds in the 50’s mph lifting snow plumes with the previous days 5.5” snow (.55” SWE) from the alpine elevations. These plumes were visible from the parking lot at Pinkham Notch in the early morning hours. By 10am cold temperatures and blowing snow had begun to give way to clear skies, sunshine, and light wind.

Avalanche activity: By late morning, skiers and climbers began to test the slopes in both Ravines.  Two skiers reported triggering a small slab (R1, D1) near Lunch Rocks beneath the Lip around 11am. One skier was carried about 20’ before arresting his slide. A little later, a guide entered South Gully in Huntington Ravine causing a slab to collapse and settle in place with no avalanche. At 12:50pm, an avalanche from the mid-section of Chute in Tuckerman Ravine caught and carried the two climbers who triggered the slide. Also caught were a solo skier crossing the runout on his way to Left Gully and two from a group of three skiers climbing up the track below the climbers. Of these five people caught and carried, two received minor injuries, with only one transported to a hospital. An avalanche course and a number of students were approximately 15’ from the moving debris on a 40 degree slope which had avalanched earlier in the avalanche cycle.

Chicken Rock Gully: SS-ASu-R1-D1, reported as 10-15cm deep, 15m wide, ran to elevation of the base of Lunch Rocks

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully.

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully. (image: MWAC, taken morning of Jan 17, 2016)

Chute: SS-AFu-R2-D1.5, estimated to be 10-50cm x 30m wide crown, 115m track of 400m path

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image from Facebook)

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image: from Facebook)

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

Analysis: We have been seeing both positive trends in avalanche terrain travel choices and decision making as well as trends leaving room for improvement. Unfortunately, the trends needing improvement are all too common.

First, for the positives:

  • Everyone involved was geared up appropriately for winter conditions with the right warm clothing, boots, etc. Despite the reputation Mount Washington has for “the world’s worst weather,” the number of travelers who come unprepared for the cold and wind is astounding.
  • Some of the individuals involved were equipped and trained to apply first aid skills to the injured. Similar to the increasing trend in avalanche education we are seeing, there appears to be an increased interest in becoming more self-sufficient in the mountains. While at times Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines seem like frontcountry recreation areas with Snow Rangers and caretakers at both Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake, it is important to remember that these locales are indeed backcountry settings and help can often be a long way away.
  • Many of the individuals nearby, and one of the skiers who was in the path, were carrying avalanche rescue gear including beacons, probes, and shovels.
  • Several Level 1 avalanche classes were in progress in Tuckerman Ravine. More and more people each year are seeking out professionally-taught avalanche courses which is a very good thing.
  • At least some of the parties read the General Avalanche Bulletin issued on Saturday morning. This type of Bulletin is valid for up to three days, and was both in effect and posted Sunday morning. The Bulletin accurately described recent and upcoming snowfall and wind loading as well as the developed slopes which would become bed surfaces in this avalanche cycle.

Areas for improvement and lessons to take away:

  • Of the five people caught in the avalanche, none were wearing beacons or carrying avalanche rescue gear. Sadly, this is not that unusual in our terrain. The avalanche class was wearing beacons and carrying rescue gear, as was one skier who was able to get out of the path as well as the two skiers who triggered Chicken Rock Gully. Frequently, climbers leave behind avalanche rescue gear to save weight, leaving no quick course of action should burial occur. Hats off to all who recognize the value of carrying avalanche rescue gear to be searchable and have the committed discipline to carrying it. The gear may or may not save your life should you get caught, but it certainly won’t help you if it is in your closet. Situations change, plans change, and mistakes happen—always carry the gear.
  • Given the clustering of users near the Chute, it seems safe to assume that the Social Proof heuristic was at play. Following some discussion, the avalanche class chose to travel in steep terrain beneath a recently loaded slope. They were followed by the party of two climbers and the three skiers. Whether due to the easier travel following in someone else’s boot track, the erroneous assumption that a slope is safe because someone else already traveled on it, or the belief that other travelers know more than you, this behavior is all too common in Tuckerman Ravine. The two climbers then passed the avalanche class and ventured onto the unstable slope.  This bunching in avalanche terrain forces constant re-evaluation of hazard. Additional challenges exist when trying to rebalance risk on a continual basis based on actions of others outside your control.  This issue has been a factor in many avalanche accidents and fatalities locally, as well as around the world.  Mount Washington has very concentrated avalanche terrain and has a high amount of visitation.  We have seen on many occasions a group descend a route while others are unwittingly climbing up in the same avalanche path. This makes safe travel difficult when instabilities exist on a weekend on Mount Washington. Your party’s movements may be under tight control and stay within your chosen level of accepted risk, but only in the absence of other more unpredictable people.   Take the same scenario, with other people as an uncontrollable variable, and you may increase your risk rapidly.  This issue was demonstrated by this incident.  We often see a compounding effect of visitors concentrating together in unstable conditions when they should be considering staying clear of one another by using fracture limiting terrain features and avoiding runout paths.  This is certainly a major challenge for guided parties, courses and organized parties.  Managing objective mountain hazards like icefall, avalanches, crevasses, etc. is hard enough, but adding subjective hazards due to other parties may be untenable. Every leader must balance the group’s level of skill with their agreed upon risk tolerance on a constant basis
  • An associated concern to the above is the challenges of spreading out to reduce overall risk. While spreading out is a good, basic technique for traveling in or below avalanche terrain it may not be as effective as it is often assumed without a quality pre-plan to reduce risk. This pre-plan would review the actual benefits compared to truly going one at time, how you will communicate when spread out if new observations or decisions need to be made, and is this the best route.  A best route option should always be a constant question.  This can be a difficult decision because the safest route is often less convenient. Again, the effectiveness of spreading out as a team of 2 climbers, 3 skiers, or a large avalanche class are complicated when they are all interacting in the same terrain exposed to the hazards.
  • The two climbers overlooked a red flag when they climbed over a recently reloaded crown line and onto a slope that rises from 40 to 45 degrees or more. Moreover, all parties involved in the Chute incident crossed beneath this slope within 4 hours of a period of active loading. While everyone chooses their own level of acceptable risk, it is unclear whether all parties involved sought out the information needed to make an informed decision by reading the posted General Avalanche Bulletin or seeking the right weather data. Hourly precipitation and weather data can be found here and is included among the list of other useful weather related websites on our site. These sites can be incredibly useful tools in the planning stages of your trip or even in the field when cell access is available (don’t forget a pocket charger or spare battery).

Lastly, a short discussion of MWAC’s published products, and any avalanche advisory for that matter, is worthwhile. It is a valuable topic to expand upon specifically. See “Avalanche Products” in our website Blog, ‘The Pit’ this weekend for a more in depth discussion.

  • A General Avalanche Bulletin, which was published the day before these avalanche incidents, is used to convey hazards that are most typically a problem during the early and late season. This document is a one page narrative describing the hazards, but does not assign a danger rating. It is a broad discussion to highlight that instabilities and avalanche potential may currently exist, although not across the entire forecasting area in each Ravine.
  • It is a common occurrence across the United States to see active visitor use in avalanche terrain and have avalanche accidents before a 5-Scale Avalanche Danger Rating Advisory is utilized. These occur under either Informational Bulletins or no products. These isolated instabilities are acceptable and tolerated without postings due to the limited nature of the issues.  Incidents, although unfortunate, are a national actuality based on statistical probabilities and ever increasing backcountry use numbers. This fact clearly focuses to the importance of possessing avalanche knowledge and field skills.  This is an important reality to note when entering any avalanche terrain whether in the Eastern or Western United States.
  • Gaining and maintaining good avalanche assessment skills, training and experience is critical. If you don’t have this knowledge we would highly encourage you to get it through controlled learning environments versus relying solely on posted advisories.  As stated in our Bulletins and Advisories, it is merely one tool to make field decisions. This is not a disclaimer; it addresses the complexity and nature of avalanches and the inevitable spatial variability we often see.  If the Advisory states one thing and our dynamic weather creates another reality with increasing hazard, certainly go with your observations and neck hackles and not the advisory.  Your future well-being makes it essential that avalanche skills match your desire for playing in the mountains.  It will also help you draw as much as possible from the Advisory tool because we’ll be speaking the same language.

Sliding Falls

2016-03-13 On Sunday afternoon, March 13, two separate accidents occurred on the east side of Mount Washington. Both accidents involved long sliding falls and resulted in life-threatening injuries. Luckily, the skies were clear and the wind was calm, allowing both patients to be evacuated via helicopter.  There are several lessons to take away from these incidents, all coming back to the basics of being prepared and making safe travel decisions.

The first accident occurred when a skier slipped and fell in Hillman’s Highway.  Hitting several rocks on the way down, he sustained serious injuries requiring immediate evacuation.  Just as the helicopter departed Hermit Lake, the second call came in of an injured hiker on the summit cone.  Again, due to a serious injury and a lengthy carry-out, USFS Snow Rangers decided to use a helicopter for transport.  A large thank you must be given to all rescuers involved including the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, AMC, Mount Rescue Service, AVSAR, NH Fish and Game, and several volunteers as the evacuations went smoothly and patients arrived at advanced care in a timely manner.

Weather and Snowpack Analysis

The week leading up to these two incidents coincided with the transition from winter to spring in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. On Tuesday, March 8 at 10pm, the temperature on the summit rose and remained above freezing for 48 hours.  During this time period, the summit recorded over 1.25” of rain.  After the warm up, temperatures dropped over 24 hours to the low teens, allowing the water-saturated snowpack to freeze solid.  On Saturday, temperatures warmed along with clear skies, allowing the snow to soften and turn to corn in many areas.  Skiers reported excellent spring conditions in The Lip, Right Gully, and the East Snowfields on the summit.  Left Gully and Hillman’s Highway had parts that softened, while parts remained frozen solid.  Saturday was followed by a blustery, clear day on Sunday.  Skiers reported certain areas softening up, however not to the degree as the day before.  Sunday was the type of day where as soon as snow had shadows cast upon it, the surface froze instantly into firm concrete.

Incident #1: Skier Fall in Hillman’s Highway

Around 3:20pm, six experienced skiers began to descend Hillman’s Highway. One of the skiers slipped and fell approximately 1,000 feet.  Upon arrival at the scene, USFS Snow Rangers and members of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol determined the patient had sustained multiple life-threatening injuries.  After a lower down the remainder of Hillman’s Highway and transport to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake, the patient was in the air and on his way to advanced medical care at 5:14pm.

Hillman's Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

Hillman’s Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

The party of six initially started as multiple parties. The group that the patient was a part of toured into the Gulf of Slides and experienced decent corn conditions in Gully #1.  After the descent, the group decided to climb up and over Boott Spur and ski the looker’s right fork of Hillman’s Highway.  Standing at the top of Hillman’s Highway, the group, now joined by three other skiers, recognized the snow had changed dramatically from their previous run.  Two skiers, including the soon to be patient, donned crampons and an ice axe and climbed down about 200 feet to better assess and avoid the ice at the rollover.  Recognizing the hazard, members of the group collectively decided the risk was manageable with conservative skiing techniques.  The first skier made his way to the bottom of the choke and pulled aside to allow the second skier to go.  This second skier lost his edge on a patch of ice in the narrows.  As the snow had gone into the shade and turned to concrete, the skier had no chance to self-arrest and began an out-of-control slide down Hillman’s Highway.  Due to the low snowpack this winter, Hillman’s Highway, normally a good choice for novice Tuckerman skiers, was full of ice bulges and rock outcroppings.

Falling about 1,000 feet, he came to rest just above the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s Highway. The rest of the group made their way to him as quick as the conditions would allow.  Upon arrival, they prevented him from sliding further down the slope and immediately for help.  Snow Rangers, along with Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol members arrived at the patient about 30 minutes after his fall.  The initial assessment indicated life threatening injuries.  Oxygen was administered, the decision to transport via helicopter was made, and the patient was strapped into a litter for travel to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake.

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo by Sam Bendroth

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo: S. Bendroth

Incident #2: Hiker Fall near South East Snowfields

At 5:16pm on Sunday evening, the Gorham Police Department received a call from hikers in distress on the summit cone of Mount Washington. There was confusion as to the exact location of the hikers, but they told Snow Rangers via cell phone that one member of their group of three had broken his femur during a glissade that turned into an out-of-control slide, and was now getting very cold.  A hasty team of one Snow Ranger and the AMC caretaker departed Hermit Lake at 5:45pm, ascending the Lion Head summer trail.  With weather still clear and calm, and dealing again with a possible life-threatening injury, Snow Rangers again decided the best evacuation option was with a helicopter.  The hasty team made visual contact with the hikers just before reaching the Alpine Garden/ Lion Head Junction.  At 7:07pm, the helicopter landed .25 miles away from the patient.  Snow Rangers quickly realized that due to difficult terrain, it was unfeasible to drag the patient to the LZ without a litter.  As the helicopter had to return to base at 8pm due to flight regulations, it left the scene at 7:40pm without the patient.

The east side of the summit cone in summer. The incident site is .25 miles from the LZ.

Over the next hour, more rescuers and a litter arrived. Upon further discussion with dispatch, a new crew boarded the helicopter and took flight, aiming for the landing zone established east of the Alpine Garden Trail.  This helicopter landed at 9:14pm, 10 minutes after the rescuers and patient arrived.  The helicopter departed with the patient at 9:26pm and rescuers made their way to the snowcat at the Cow Pasture and descended the auto road.

Analysis

Both of these accidents have the same mechanism of injury: long sliding falls on a frozen spring snowpack. However, in each case, the events that led up to the accident are different and worth investigating.  Finally, the treatment provided to each patient before rescuers arrived should be examined.

Spring skiing is all about timing. Start your day too early and the snow will still be frozen; end your day too late and your slope might turn to cement as you watch.  A knowledgeable Tuckerman spring skier will follow the sun, often starting the day on east or north-east facing slopes and slowly work their way across the Bowl and end the day on south facing slopes that are catching the last of the sun’s rays before the sun disappears over the Bigelow Lawn.  Catch a slope at its softest and there are times when if you fall, you won’t go anywhere as you sink into the corn or mushy mashed potatoes.  Once that slope goes into the shade, it can freeze almost instantly, necessitating the use of crampons on the way up and creating no-fall territory on the way down.

Looking down Hillman's Highway around 3:20pm.

Looking down Hillman’s Highway around 3:20pm. Photo: L. Benedict.

When the group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s Highway, they discussed what conditions they would encounter. They realized the snow would be firm and very challenging to ski down.  Committing to the descent is understandable and I would hazard a guess that many others would have done the same despite the high consequences of a fall in these conditions.  Having toured from the Gulf of Slides, they had no mental map of where the ice bulges were and which way around the rocks were the best.  Skiing a run while it is frozen solid can be extremely challenging.  It is best to stack the odds in your favor and perhaps realize that there are one or two spots, while skiable earlier in the day when it was soft, that may require switching from skis to crampons for a few feet on the way down.

It is interesting to note that as this group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s, a group of three topped out at the same spot after having climbed the gully. This group of climbers consisted of one person wearing crampons and carrying a mountaineering axe and two wearing snowshoes and carrying one technical ice climbing tool.  Seeing that two people had just snowshoed up Hillman’s further convinced the skiers the risk was manageable.  At least one skier later admitted the snowshoers looked terrified at what they had just done and perhaps this should have given the skiers pause for concern.

Snowshoers topping out Hillman's Highway

Snowshoers topping out Hillman’s Highway. Photo: L. Benedict

These three climbers continued to the summit of Mount Washington and eventually became the group of hikers who required the second rescue. This group pushed themselves hard and put in a long day, eventually making the decision to glissade down unfamiliar terrain rather than sty on the trail.  Had they reevaluated their plan of summiting as the day progressed and became late, they may have turned around and descended while still having energy.  It also must be taken into account that this group used inappropriate gear for the terrain.  Even with the traction provided by modern snowshoes, it is a miracle they were able to ascend Hillman’s Highway in the condition they found it.  Getting down any trail or terrain feature on the mountain that day with snowshoes would have been an extreme affair.

The final point worth discussing is the level of care provided by members of both groups to the patients before rescuers arrived. Of the six skiers in Hillman’s, only one of this group had training in first aid that he had taken several years ago.  When Snow Rangers arrived at the scene, 30 minutes after the fall, no care had been provided besides preventing the patient from sliding further down the slope.  If this accident had taken place outside of Tuckerman Ravine and help had not been .25 miles away, the result would have been drastically different.  On the summit cone, the first rescuers reached the scene over two hours after the incident occurred and the broken leg was still not stabilized.  The patient was half on the snow and the two uninjured were becoming cold from standing still and waiting for help.

The trend in backcountry enthusiasts taking avalanche education classes is rising. This is great to see.  Realize that a lot can happen while recreating in the mountains and there are skills you and your partner should learn before taking avalanche classes.  Taking first aid skills into the woods with you is a valuable insurance policy, as is learning what you can do with the contents of your pack.  Many schools around the country offer classes in wilderness first aid skills.  It was lucky these two incidents occurred close to help as they may have had different outcomes had rescuers not been close by.

There are plenty of lessons to take away from these two events, most stemming from the basics: being prepared and making safe-travel decisions. Preparedness with the right gear is vitally important.  This can get you safely home and also saves much time and energy as it means more efficient travel.  Preparedness with the right skills is necessary.  Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the day’s adventure goes fine and everyone has fun.  However, that one time where something goes wrong, having the right knowledge available can mean a big difference to your partner or yourself.  History has proven that many accidents take place when people are tired and looking for a shortcut.  If it means getting home safe, taking the long way down may be the right choice.   Whether it’s following the lower-angled ridge that avoids the steep slope or shouldering your skis and climbing down a ski run, it may not be glorious at the moment, but your family and friends will praise you when you walk in the door at the end of the night.