At approximately 12:10pm on Sunday, February 7, one member of a climbing party of three slipped while approaching a technical snow and ice climb in Huntington Ravine. The climber rapidly gained speed on the 35-40 degree snow slope beneath Central Gully and tumbled into the rocks below, sustaining non-life threatening injuries. Two nearby parties of two including a guide and student went to the party’s aid and assisted the injured climber down to a rescue cache where she was loaded into a litter. Snow Rangers received initial notification of the incident via a satellite phone call to the Saco RD office. Snow Rangers reached the group and assisted the climbing party in transporting the patient to Pinkham Notch, arriving at approximately 4:00pm.
Four days prior to the incident, temperatures on the mountain soared into the mid-30s F for over 24 hours. Following this, the temperature dropped to near 0F creating a thick, knife hard, melt-freeze crust. While stabilizing the snowpack, these conditions create a very hard and icy snowpack. A meager snowpack from a dry and warm winter created lots of water ice in Huntington Ravine to climb, but with plenty of rocks to serve as obstacles to a falling climber.
As many parties do, the plan for this group was to rope-up at a terrain bench beneath the ice bulge marking the start of the steepest climbing in Central Gully. The most experienced climber went first and coached the two less experienced climbers to use both tools to climb the ten feet of exposed ice in order to reach the flat platform of snow beneath the ice bulge. The second, and least experienced of the three, slipped climbing this section. After losing both ice tools, the victim managed to orient her feet downhill but soon caught a crampon in the snow. Starting to tumble, the victim came to a stop just above the Fan, falling a distance of approximately 200 feet. A guide and client, who had just descended Pinnacle Gully were nearby and went to her aid. After assessing the injuries and stabilizing the victim’s shoulder and ankle, the guide short-roped the victim with assistance down the snow slope. At this point, the remaining two climbers in the team retrieved a litter and splint from the Dow Cache and met the patient and guide as they descended. Volunteers and Snow Rangers slid the litter down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Pinkham Notch where the party drove the patient to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment.
Long, sliding falls are the leading cause of numerous injuries in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. Melt-freeze crusts can be rock hard and often make self-arresting impossible. This was the case in this fall. It is important to assess snow conditions and combine this with as honest assessment of the experience of members of a party. Depending on the competence and risk tolerance of party members, even low-angle snow slopes may need to be belayed in order to assure safe passage. In this case, the most experienced member had demonstrated self-arrest and offered to teach the other members of the party in the Fan on the approach. The fact that they declined to practice the technique turned out to be irrelevant since it is unlikely that anyone could arrest a fall in these hard snow conditions. Even in ideal snow conditions, steep, snow climbing requires flawless technique and more often resembles unroped, solo climbing with the requirement that “the climber must not fall”. The conditions this day were far from ideal and required a greater measure of security for a team that included novice alpine climbers. This team carried a 33m rope which may have played a role in being frugal with its use. A climb like Central Gully, especially in hard snow conditions would be more efficiently climbed, and belayed with a 60m, or even 70m, rope with weight savings perhaps realized with a smaller diameter, rather than a shorter rope.
Though this party did not make it to the most technically difficult part of this climb, they did experience difficulty in the type of terrain in which many other parties struggle. The transitions found within alpine terrain with sections of 3rd, 4th and low 5th class, forces climbers to find a balance between speed and safety. History has shown that it is not at all unusual for inexperienced alpine climbers to be challenged by building secure anchors when confronted with long and continuous pitches of snow with little, if any, options for more familiar ice screw or rock protection anchors. This factor has led many parties down the risky path of unroped climbing, tenuous, seated belays or running belays with no protection at all in Central Gully. In many cases, climbers have the skills necessary to climb much steeper and harder rock or ice climbs but are lacking the experience in negotiating longer, lower angled terrain. The ability to construct secure T-slot anchors with pickets or axes, effectively manage rope for efficient belays and having the judgement to transition to the next higher level of security for the terrain before it is really needed should be well developed before leading novice climbers into the more committing terrain of Huntington Ravine. It would be a mistake to consider Huntington climbs merely longer ice climbs requiring steep ice skill sets.
This party was fortunate that a well-trained and experienced guide and client were nearby. The guide’s satellite phone call ultimately reached the Snow Ranger staff but it was the pair’s ability to render prompt assistance, organize a rescue effort and share knowledge of the nearby rescue cache which sped the rescue along and kept the incident from being drawn out into the night. Be sure to check out our Emergency Planning page in the Search and Rescue section of our website which contains more information to help you develop a solid contingency plan for your next climb.