Lost Climbers

After spending the night at the Harvard Cabin, DM and SS planned to climb Damnation Gully. DM had climbed the route previously but it was to be SS’s first ice climb. They left the cabin shortly before 11:00am and started their climb sometime around noon. According to DM they encountered a lot of wet ice, poor belay stations and poor quality ice. These, in addition to underestimating the length of the gully, led to a slow ascent. They decided not to rappel as SS had never done so before and the pair reached the top of the gully near dusk. When they did top out they encountered high winds from the WNW which prevented them from making their way around to the Escape Hatch. They tried to find a descent route towards Nelson Crag but due to the winds and poor visibility the two turned back towards Huntington and found a sheltered spot to hunker down for the evening. The Forest Service was contacted by the Harvard Mountaineering Club (HMC) caretaker at 10:00pm informing them the pair was overdue from their climb. Winds at that time were reported to be gusting to 70 mph and the temperature was -6F. The HMC and AMC caretakers went into Huntington between 1:00-2:00 am, yelling into the darkness and looking for any sign of lights. When they did not find anything, rescue teams from Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR) were contacted to be ready at first light to search for the pair. One team of rescuers was transported up the Auto Road in the Mt Washington State Park snowcat to begin looking above Huntington Ravine from the Alpine Garden and Huntington Ravine Trails. Other teams were transported up to the Lion Head Trail and into Huntington Ravine. At dawn the pair once again tried to make their way to the Escape Hatch. By morning temperatures had dropped to -17F and winds were about 80 mph with higher gusts. At times rescuers were on their hands and knees hunkering down from the wind. Fog and blowing snow made visibility difficult. As the fog lifted DM & SS were spotted near the top of Central Gully. Rescuers reached them around 8:30am, gave them food and water and assisted them to the Auto Road and the waiting snowcat. They were suffering from frostbite and hypothermia. At the base of the Auto Road the pair were transferred to a waiting ambulance and taken to Androscoggin Valley Hospital.

This rescue was an outstanding example of team work. If not for the skill and organization of the local search and rescue community as well as the clearing visibility, the result of the search could very well have been different. Knowing the weather forecast; providing adequate time to complete your objective; having appropriate gear for emergency situations; and having the ability to change plans when the weather or situation dictates are crucial components to safe mountain travel in any season. This rescue took 32 people and 10 hours to complete.

The U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers would like to thank the Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, Mount Washington State Park, the Harvard Mountaineering Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Mount Washington Observatory for all their help in making this a successful rescue.

Long Sliding Fall – Central Gully

At around 1200 hours, the victim was attempting to ski in Central Gully in Huntington Ravine below the “ice bulge” when he fell. He slid on hard neve snow for 200 ft before hitting the rocks face first at the top of the fan. He had severe pain on his left side from his shoulder down to his leg. After assessing the victim, his partner went for help. Forest Service Snow Rangers were contacted and reached the victim at approximately 1335. The victim was put in a litter and lowered about 1200’ to the floor of the ravine. From there numerous climbers helped carry the litter to the Forest Service snowcat. He was then transported via snowcat to an ambulance at Pinkham, arriving at 1730. The victim suffered a dislocated and fractured shoulder, fracture humerus/elbow and muscular injuries of the right leg. This rescue took 19 people and up to 4 hours to complete.

Avalanche Huntington Ravine – Under O’Dells

Early on January 7, 2005 A and R planned on climbing North Gully in Huntington Ravine after spending the night at the Harvard Cabin. The previous day they had climbed O’Dell’s Gully, which had gone very well. Brian Johnston, USFS Snow Ranger, passed the Harvard Cabin at around 6:50 on the way into Huntington. Upon returning back to the cabin Brian spoke with A and R about their day. Brian asked if they planned on heading into the Ravine and they hoped to climb North Gully and wondered what he thought about their plan. Brian replied “I can’t recommend any climbing in the Ravine today” and went into why. Brian discussed the weather over the past 24 hours and why the 8.5cm of snow with more coming was enough precipitation for both Considerable and High avalanche danger in the Ravine. They looked at a map of the area to discuss loading and aspects. They discussed how they could approach their intended route with out being in the runout of any forecasted avalanche paths. Due to their approach the day before, they knew the exact overhanging tree Brian referred to as a reference. At this location he advised the safest route would be to take a hard right up into the talus. He once again mentioned he could not recommend climbing in the Ravine, but that was the safest way to the bottom of their intended climb. Brian went to the nearby Harvard manual snow plot to gather data and told them he would be back shortly if they had any more questions. 10 minutes later snow accumulations and their densities were passed along to the pair upon which they asked a few questions. They had no avalanche gear and told me later that they typically rented a probe, shovel, and beacon in Montreal when the avalanche danger was Considerable or High. Brian respectfully attempted to dissuade them from their goal while allowing them to make their own decision. Although North was at Considerable it was the gully of lowest concern compared to the other forecast areas so this was their intended goal. They determined they would like to at least go up and take a look. The advisory was posted at the cabin at 745 and Brian headed over to Hermit Lake.

A and R Left the Harvard cabin at 815 and spent a bit over an hour getting into the base of the fan in Huntington. They went far beyond the downed tree they acknowledged in their discussion earlier and started moving straight up the center of the Fan. They could not see the gullies due to blowing snow and estimated there was 30-45m (100-150 ft) visibility. They went up hill an estimated 30m (100 ft) when they stopped to adjust their clothing. ‘A’ was in front bent over and took off his gloves to adjust his balaclava. As he bent over he thought to himself, ‘boy this isn’t a good place to be stopping’. Just as he concluded his thought an avalanche hit him at approximately 930. ‘A’ estimated he was only brought about 12m (40ft), but was completely buried. As the debris slowed to a stop his head and feet were between 30-45cm deep faced up with his feet pointing downhill. He frantically punched his arms up in front of his face and thrashed to free himself. He could feel the snow quickly setting up around him. Within 15 seconds he was fairly free. ‘R’ had been brought about 17m (55ft), was 5m (15ft) directly below ‘A’, and was buried to his waist. The air was so obscured he could not see ’A’ above him. ‘R’ felt he was at the terminal toe of the debris and averaged 1.25-1.5m (4-5ft) deep. They had lost ‘A’s gloves and 2 mountaineering axes, but spent no time looking for them. They moved as quick as they could to get out of the Ravine. The only injury was a scrap and bruising on ‘A’s right shin.

Both ‘A’ and ‘R’ were interviewed later at Pinkham Notch on Rt. 16 to acquire most of the above information. Following the interview I headed into Huntington to see if I could ascertain any information corroborating their story. I was most interested in finding out exactly where they were when they were avalanched. Based on my experience, being hit by an avalanche down low to the east of North gully is very unusual. At 1:30 Huntington cleared enough to see the fan and most of the gullies. The only debris I could see was a 100m (330ft) straight up from the floor flats under the entrance to Pinnacle gully. Clues and higher debris pointed to O’Dells as the avalanche source. I spent a long time looking for any debris on the north side of the Ravine, but could find none. I could only conclude they were much more south than they thought due to limited visibility. Upon re-entry on 1/8/05 for a closer look a small crown line was visible high near the horizon on the southern end of the entire gully. This likely triggered the snowfield lower at the base of the first pitch of O’Dells proper. This was confirmed as one of ‘A’s gloves was found near the toe of the debris pile.

Lessons Learned:

Looking at this incident with 20/20 hindsight a number of mistakes stand out that were made by the party. Avalanche danger being High and Considerable, having all the necessary weather information, and spending substantial time discussing plans with a Snow Ranger should of given them all the information that this was a “no go” situation. To go into avalanche terrain anyway is a clear case of the “human factor” taking over the decision making process. Entering High avalanche danger terrain, in very low visibility, with all the bull’s-eye information, without avalanche safety equipment is an obvious situation of not playing by the mountains terms. It is imperative to always remember that the mountain will be there tomorrow and everyday until we die. You can always come back another day when conditions are more suitable for your intentions. When we leave our homes to recreate in the mountains we already have a bias that we are going to ski or climb that route. We need to constantly re-evaluate the data the mountain is giving us and be able to say, “STOP” and break the chain of poor decisions leading to a potential accident. Accidents like this one stand out because for those involved it was all about climbing their intended route, the “nothing will stop us” mentality. Even inexperienced climbers can make the right choices with the facts in this event. We must play by the mountain’s terms. /s/ Chris Joosen, Lead Snow Ranger