During the afternoon of Sunday, March 30, Forest Service Snow Rangers at Hermit Lake were alerted to an avalanche incident in North Gully in Huntington Ravine. A climber elsewhere in the ravine witnessed the slide and was able to connect with 911 via a cell phone. Two Snow Rangers responded with snowmobiles and were on the scene 18-20 minutes after the incident took place. The details that follow were gathered from the climbers involved.
Two climbers were emerging from North Gully onto the more open slopes above the gully. After simul-climbing the gully’s midsection, they unroped and began to climb the snow up toward Ball Crag. They identified an area of potentially unstable snow and decided to move off to the side of the slope and travel one at a time. One of the climbers triggered an avalanche but neither were caught or carried in the slide. Unsure of the outcome below, they quickly worked their way around the ravine and descended the Escape Hatch to see if anyone needed help.
A second party of two believed the first party had already finished the climb, and began the first ice pitch. The leader arrived at a fixed belay above the first pitch of ice and clipped his rope to the anchor with a carabiner. He was in the process of backing up the anchor when the avalanche came from above. At this point the anchor was serving as a piece of protection and he was essentially still on lead.
The avalanche carried the leader downslope over the top of the first pitch of ice. The belayer was unanchored at the bottom and was lifted upslope and into the ice. He was able to maintain control of the belay and the fixed anchor held, resulting in approximately a 50 foot fall for the leader. Both climbers were shaken up, sore, and had damaged their helmets in the fall. Examinations by Snow Rangers at the scene found no serious injuries. The climbers stayed overnight at the Harvard Cabin, where the following morning they reported general soreness but no other injuries.
The weather leading up this incident is an example of a classic setup for an avalanche cycle. On Friday, March 28, Mt. Washington received 6.4” of 7.8% density snow. Hermit Lake recorded almost 8” from the same weather system. Friday night and Saturday the winds wrapped from the W to the NNW and increased in velocity before falling again on Sunday (from 1mph Friday afternoon to a peak of 99mph Saturday then back down to single digit speeds Sunday). Evidence of natural avalanche activity was visible Sunday morning in several locations, including Hillman’s Highway, South Gully, Raymond’s Cataract, the Lion Head Summer Trail, the East Snowfields of the summit cone, and in small snowfields that descend from Lion Head toward the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Avalanche danger for North Gully on Sunday was rated Moderate.
Fortunately this incident turned out well for all parties involved. It very easily could have been worse. Several lessons can be gleaned from this incident:
· Choice of route. Five of eight gullies in Huntington had Low avalanche danger while three (North, Damnation, and Central) had Moderate. In regards to snow stability, choosing anther gully would have been a safer option.
· Climbing below another party. Ice climbing below others always carries additional risk, whether it’s from falling ice and rocks or avalanches. The party that was hit by the avalanche understood that climbing under another party was a bad choice. They thought that the gully was clear and that it was safe to start up. It is difficult to see the entire gully from the base of the ice, but a short walk to a better vantage point is all that is required for a view of the entire gully.
· Ongoing stability assessments: The top party did a good job of recognizing the unstable snow at the top of the climb. Traveling one at a time off to the side of the area in question helped prevent them from being caught in the avalanche. Had they wanted to protect themselves further, they could have roped up again and climbed to the top using belays and protection.