The paragraphs below highlight some factors which we believe contributed to this particular incident. The risks involved, however, are not unique to this incident, but are risks which every experienced mountaineer or skier, upon honest reflection, has grappled with at some point, if not numerous points, in their tenure.
According to information provided by his hiking partner, Jeremy had been eager to do an alpine ice climb in Huntington Ravine for quite some time. His partner, having hiked Mount Washington in winter numerous times had expressed concern to Jeremy that conditions were not favorable. Both had read the avalanche forecast which had highlighted long sliding falls as the predominant hazard for several days. Icy surface conditions had developed following several days of warm temperatures and rain the previous week. The wet snow then froze which created very slick, hard and icy snowpack. Weather conditions on the day of the climb were seasonably cold, -11F on the summit rising to -4F with strong winds (50-60 mph) in exposed areas and likely around 30-40 mph in the more wind sheltered Ravine. These weather conditions are challenging but ascents of both technical and non-technical routes are not unusual in those conditions.
Based on typical hiking times, it is likely that sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. the victim fell on the steep, icy snow surface on the approach to Central Gully and slid approximately 300 feet on the slope into the boulder field known as the Fan. A slope clinometer confirmed that the slope angle where the stumble and ensuing fall occurred were 35 degrees, or about the angle of an advanced ski run at a resort. Gouges in the snow indicate a strong effort to arrest the fall with an ice axe were made, though the very hard and icy surface snow provided such resistance to this effort, as well as a low friction sliding surface, that this attempt ultimately failed.
Jeremy was not wearing his helmet at the time of the fall. Due to the relatively low angle slope, the fact that he had not yet donned the helmet is an easy error to make. Helmets can complicate layering of hats, balaclavas and hoods and may have interfered with the goggles which Jeremy was wearing at the time of the fall. While helmet use is recommended in any climbing or skiing situation, it is also known that helmets offer limited protection from large falling objects or from impacts associated with high speed collisions. In this case, the injuries sustained may have been reduced but would have likely remained lethal given their extent and location.
As to what actually caused the fall, no one can ever know with certainty. Jeremy was very fit and in excellent health overall. He was not overdressed, and he had a mostly empty water bottle and some energy bar wrappers, from which you could surmise that he wasn’t dehydrated or lacking fuel. Anyone who has climbed a moderately steep (35-45 degree), hard snow or ice climb in crampons can attest to the challenge of maintaining the proper foot position for keeping crampons engaged while at the same time keeping feet and calves from fatiguing. Skill using an ice axe and crampons in soft snow is forgiving and as simple as climbing a staircase kicked into the snow. When surface conditions are more like boilerplate steel, a combination of flat footing and front-pointing is often used to maintain security on the slope as well as efficiency in upward progress. Experienced snow and ice climbers also can attest to the fact that crampons points catch a pant leg, a gaiter or loose strap with some regularity and may occasionally even pop off unexpectedly if not perfectly fit to the boot. In this instance, Jeremy’s crampons were securely on his feet but the crampon strap and buckle used to secure the heel bail were on the instep of the foot. While easier and more intuitive to put on, this configuration creates one more item on the long list of potential trip hazards.
The icy conditions that day made for relatively secure climbing since the hard snow surface yielded to sharp points to provide secure purchase. These hard and cold conditions may have also warranted the use of technical ice tools to increase security, especially when forgoing the safety of a rope and belay. It seems clear that Jeremy hadn’t reached the bulge of ice that is the steepest crux section of the route but if he had, the two mountaineering axes, one of which was a superlight aluminum mountaineering axe, would not have provided much security. Mountaineering axes, with their drooping curved pick, do not allow for a hard swing like a hammer and secure pick placement into the ice. A mountaineering axe is generally sized and designed to plunge the shaft into snow while grasping the head of the axe like a cane. The snow this day was too hard to plunge the shaft securely into the snow and the wrist leashes tied to both axes indicate that Jeremy may have expected to use them in the manner used to climb more vertical ice. While this is speculative, it was reported that Jeremy had not climbed ice. Lacking that experience or training, he may not have understood the critical difference in design and function between technical and mountaineering axes.