Note: This observation is meant to provide additional perspective on the reports Conor’s group, and MWAC forecasters, have already submitted (thank you to both teams). Given the thoroughness of said observations this will be written in narrative form and you can find precise details by reading through the other reflections.
On Sunday (2/22/21) morning my group of AIARE L1 students met in the Pinkham Notch parking lot to discuss our plans, goals, and the routes that would be a good match for the day’s learning objectives. After reviewing the weather forecast, and avalanche hazard, for the the day, we discussed a number of travel options, but ultimately decided to skin into GOS. One of the important variables influencing our decision to travel into GOS was the lengthy discussion we had about the accident (and subsequent rescue) the night before resulting from a long sliding fall. This information, plus numerous observations from trusted sources reporting icy conditions, even in moderate terrain (by Mt. Washington standards), resulted in a group consensus that we would keep our slope angles low. It should also be acknowledged that one group member spoke up at the end of our meeting and said “let’s keep it simple today.” This statement would be repeated a number of times at various decision making points.
We arrived at the base of gully #1 (aka main gully) in GOS at 11:15 and stopped to eat food, hydrate, and enjoy the beautiful weather. During our break we discussed three potential plans for the remainder of the day. Option a) move into the base of either gully #2 or #3, b) remain in the wooded flats below the first aid cache, or c) ascend the broad ridge dividing gully #1 and the south snowfields. Because there were already groups at the base of gullies #2 and #3, and we still had time and energy to move higher into the terrain, we chose to ascend the heavily treed ridge until we reached a predetermined flat spot/bench in the terrain that is out of the way of known avalanche paths. While gearing up to climb higher we noticed a party of five skiers/riders cutting across the same terrain we were headed towards. They were using this particular terrain feature to gain access to the lower part of gully #1. Not wanting to be underneath them while they descended, we decided to remain where we were and watched them descend until the entire party above us was off of the slope.
We ascended through the trees and onto the open small ridges below the south snowfields at roughly 11:45. Before climbing the generally well placed skin track the other two groups (note: this was the first time we saw the group that would ultimately trigger the avalanche) had established, we stopped and had a quick discussion about where we intended to go and how we wanted to get there. Our aim was to a) avoid ascending via gullies (terrain traps), and b) cut back into the woods before the slope angle increased. Again, the previously established skin track met these goals. At 12:15 I climbed over a small terrain feature and observed the recent avalanche and the party of four adjacent to the slide. I tried shouting and whistling once but did not receive a response. I paused to observe their movement and behavior and it quickly became apparent that they were trying to get off of the slope and weren’t conducting a rescue. Once our group reassembled we made note of the recent avalanche and I stated that we would skin up the small ridge as we had intended, however, at a specific point the class would move into a safe spot in the trees on the ridge while I traversed over to the group that had triggered the slide. It is important to note that we had the benefit of radio communication between myself and another member of the team should anything in our plans, or the environment, change.
Once I reached the toe of the slide I yelled back up to the group to see if they needed help. They replied that they did not. However, I stayed where I was to a) gather observations and b) have a more formal and thoughtful discussion with the skiers. The first skier reached me and reaffirmed that everyone was ok, and shared honestly about the events and decisions leading up to the avalanche. After our conversation I rejoined my class and the party of four skied down. We debriefed the incident, reviewed pit digging guidelines as well as strengths and limitations, practiced conducting and interpreting extended column tests, and then descended the low angle terrain back to the GOS trail. It is important to note that in our tests, just like the one conducted by the group that triggered the avalanche, we observed a variety of results. Similarly, I personally conducted a number of hand shears on different aspects that yielded similarly varied results. Thus, as is common in our terrain, what one finds at the top of a line is often very different than what exists in the middle of the line, or at the bottom. From an interpersonal perspective, this means that we must respect the inherent unknowns of sharp end decision making. We are complex organisms, moving through complex terrain, and across/through a medium that is constantly changing. This isn’t easy and often the best risk mitigation tool is to “keep it simple.”
After descending through the trees and back to the rescue cache below gully number one, we quickly regrouped and enjoyed a fun ski back to Pinkham Notch where we debriefed the course.