Avalanche Right Gully

An avalanche accident occurred in the Right Gully of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. Right Gully is a 1000 foot snow gully with a slope angle ranging from 35 to 40 degrees. The climbers destination was the summit of Mount Washington. At approximately 1130, an avalanche was triggered by 2 climbers near the top of the gully. Four other climbers were also in the gully at the time the avalanche swept down. The four climbers had no warning and were unable to take evasive action to avoid the slide. PB was carried approximately 600 feet down to the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. WL and DC were carried approximately 300 feet. None of them were buried by the avalanche debris. PB suffered a fractured right tibia, WL a sprained left ankle, and DC a sprained right ankle. JE was not caught in the avalanche and escaped without injury.

The avalanche danger in Tuckerman Ravine was posted as Moderate. The avalanche was a pocket of windslab, which had been deposited on a combination of old, wind-packed snow and a rain crust. It appears to have been the only deposit of unstable snow in the gully, as no other snow was entrained by the slide. Crampons and ice axes were needed to safely ascend the gully.

Bystanders at the scene immediately began to assist the injured climbers. By the time the USFS snow ranger and search and rescue personnel arrived, the victims had been put into Cascade toboggans gathered from the nearby rescue cache. Rescue personnel and volunteers evacuated the injured to Hermit Lake, where the US Forest Service Thiokol was used to continue the transport to Pinkham Notch and the awaiting ambulance.

The debris from the avalanche was 180 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 2.5 feet deep. The maximum depth of the fracture was 18 inches. The fracture was approximately 175 feet wide. The track of the avalanche was 800 vertical feet.

Comments

The avalanche danger was posted at Moderate in Right Gully. The area that avalanched was an isolated pocket of unstable snow. Only this pocket was released, and very little other snow was entrained in the track of the avalanche. The area received 4.3 inches of snow in the previous 48 hours, with north winds gusting up to 60 m.p.h.. Right gully has a mostly south and southeast aspect.

Safe travel skills must be observed at all times in avalanche terrain when there is a danger of avalanches. The climbers caught in this slide were not practicing safe travel technique. They were traveling together up the gully, with another party above them.

Snow conditions were indeed stable where the victims were climbing, they were probably unaware of the unstable snow higher in the gully. Travelers in avalanche terrain should always be aware of what is above them and to have an escape route planned. These climbers were very lucky. They were not buried by the avalanche. They were not equipped with avalanche transceivers or shovels for self rescue. It was a small avalanche with a relatively benign run-out zone. Had the avalanche dragged them through an area known as Lunch Rocks located 150 feet west of the path of the avalanche, the outcome may not have been so fortunate.

The avalanche was triggered by 2 climbers also ascending to the summit of Mount Washington. They were aware that there were other climbers in the gully below them at the time of the avalanche. They declined to descend to the accident scene, choosing rather to continue on to the summit.

Climbing Accident Huntington Ravine

On March 5, 1999 a serious climbing accident occurred in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington.

The Mount Washington Observatory reported very strong winds and cold temperatures for the day. West winds at 70-85 m.p.h. and temperatures ranging from -5 to -8 degrees F. made travel above treeline extremely difficult and dangerously cold. Snow conditions were very firm, the result of a mid-winter rain event.

QL and his partner AB completed a successful ascent of Odell’s gully, a moderate snow and ice climb on the south side of Huntington Ravine. Upon reaching the top, they encountered extremely high winds. They decided to descend via the Escape Hatch, a low angle snow gully which is the standard descent from climbs in Huntington Ravine. Battling the strong winds, the pair made their way east along the rim on Huntington Ravine. At times, the wind forced them to crawl on hands and knees. The winds had the effect of gradually pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the Ravine. At approximately 11:00 AM, a gust of wind blew QL off his feet. He was literally blown off the mountain. QL began sliding down the top of South gully. He attempted to self-arrest, but was unable to do so. He slid and tumbled down the entire length of South Gully, a fall of approximately 1200 feet.

AB suddenly noticed that QL was no longer with him. AB continued to make his way toward the Escape Hatch. Successfully descending the gully, he found QL at the bottom of South Gully, where he began to attend his injuries and initiate a rescue. Fortunately, another climbing party had arrived on the floor of Huntington Ravine. Another stroke of fortune for QL, as the party consisted of an orthopedic surgeon, an EMT and a registered nurse. They provided emergency medical care, and evacuated QL to the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine. QL was transported to an awaiting ambulance via the US Forest Service Thiokol snow machine to Pinkham Notch.

QL suffered multiple lacerations and abrasions, a dislocated right elbow, and other internal injuries,

Comments

Climbing Mount Washington in winter can be a very serious undertaking. In addition to cold temperatures, hurricane force winds are measured on a regular basis. The climbing gullies of Huntington Ravine are somewhat sheltered from the full force of strong winds so common to the mountain. Climbers may be unaware or unprepared for what awaits them as they top out, where full exposure to the winds are experienced. Several climbing accidents have occurred in the past when climbers, upon reaching the top of the route, have been blown back down the gully. After a climb under high wind conditions, seasoned Mount Washington climbers will take care not to stand up until safe terrain is reached.

Conditions were quite severe above tree-line when the pair left to make their climb. winds were ranging from 70 to 80 m.p.h. on the summit of Mount Washington. The safety of an ascent should have been re-evaluated.

Several alternative options for descent should be considered under such difficult conditions. One option is to descend/rappel the gully to the base, rather than risking an above treeline traverse to the Escape Hatch. Climbers of Odell’s or Pinnacle gullies can also traverse east below the rim of the ravine to South Gully, providing a more sheltered descent option under high wind conditions.

QL was literally blown off the mountain attempting to descend. Climbing and traveling under such extreme conditions can be very difficult, and climbers have a narrow margin of safety in the event of an accident.

A word must be said about the tremendous fortune of having an orthopedic surgeon, EMT and RN on the scene in such a short time. A better scenario for care and evacuation under such conditions from this location is difficult to imagine.
The rescue required 6 persons and 13 person hours.