Avalanche – Damnation Gully

DB and CL were climbing Damnation Gully, a 1600 foot, grade 3 snow and ice route on the north side of Huntington Ravine. Weather conditions on the mountain were moderate with light winds. Approximately 2 inches of new snow was reported in the previous 24 hours from the summit of Mount Washington. Both climbers are experienced winter mountaineers and experienced climbing Mount Washington in winter. Damnation gully was the last remaining gully climb in Huntington Ravine for DB.

The pair had successfully climbed most of the gully. About thirty feet remained of the pitch when disaster struck. DB was near the end of the pitch, looking for an anchor when he triggered a small avalanche. He had recognized the instability and was moving off the slope when it failed. Nearly a full rope length out from the belay, DB was swept off his feet and began sliding down the gully. No intermediate climbing protection had been placed. Unable to self-arrest, the fall was taken directly on to the belayer and belay anchor, which subsequently failed. Still roped together, DB and CL fell 1000 feet down Damnation Gully.

Other climbers responded to DB’s cries for help. They hurried to the accident scene and began assisting the fallen climbers. One of these climbers was equipped with a portable handheld radio. He transmitted an emergency message which was received by another Forest visitor 3 miles away at the trailhead. The accident was then reported at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and turned over to the US Forest Service. The initial report was of a broken leg in Huntington Ravine. USFS Snow Ranger Brad Ray and John Knieriem, patrol leader of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol responded to the accident in the USFS Thiokol snow vehicle. They were met on the trail by witnesses who reported a much more serious accident than had been initially thought. Additional resources were mobilized from the USFS, AMC, and HMC to assist in the care and evacuation of the victims. Trauma equipment and technical climbing gear was dispatched to the scene.

Upon arrival of rescuers, CL had been evacuated from the lower slopes of the gully by volunteers using equipment from a nearby rescue cache. DB was still on the slope below the gully and required further evacuation using ropes and a belay. CL’s injuries and vital signs were quickly assessed. Oxygen was administered and he was transported in the Thiokol snow vehicle under the care of an ER doctor, and ER nurse, and 2 USFS EMT’s. A second trip up the mountain by the Thiokol was required to evacuate DB to Pinkham Notch.

CL suffered an L1 spinal compression fracture, numerous broken ribs, a fractured right femur, hemothorax of the right lung, and severe head trauma. He was immediately flown by helicopter to the regional trauma center. DB sustained serious injury to the sacral/pelvic region, including a displaced sacroilliac joint. DB also required surgery for his injuries.

Comments

Snow conditions in the gully during the climb were generally firm, making self arrest difficult if not impossible. An unarrested climber falling over 40 degree snow slopes quickly gains a great deal of speed. On low angle, less technical snow climbs, rope teams often proceed without placing intermediate climbing protection. While this type of terrain rarely exceeds the abilities of skilled and experienced climbers, the consequences of a fall could be disastrous. Without the placement of intermediate protection, any unarrested fall will translate directly to the belay/anchor system. A fall of this type puts the greatest possible stress on the belay system, a theoretical factor 2 fall. In this case, the belay anchor consisted of a block slung with 1″ tubular webbing backed up by a # 6 Stopper. Leaders must take care to place protection as soon as possible after leaving the belay, thus reducing the fall factor in the event of an accident.

Climbers should make the commitment to place protection. Otherwise, the party should dispense with the rope altogether and the climbers proceed solo. The decision to climb roped with belay, with running belays, or solo is a complicated one which must take many factors and conditions into account. Some of these considerations include weather, snow surface conditions, party experience, avalanche danger, terrain, and availability of good protection and belays. If possible, climbers in avalanche terrain must take care to place adequate protection and utilize ‘bombproof’ belays.

Climbers should never let their guard down. Even on seemingly easy climbing terrain, the unexpected can happen. All too often, climbers rely on luck or ability as opposed to skilled ropework for safety over such terrain.

The pair were climbing with short ice axes, better suited for steep ice climbs. A good combination of tools for moderate snow and ice terrain like that found in Huntington Ravine consists of a longer mountaineering axe in addition to one or two short technical type axes. A mountaineering axe is more effective for self-arrest and self-belay while climbing steep snow.

Both climbers were wearing helmets. The helmet worn by CL was destroyed in the fall. There is no doubt it saved his life.

Avalanche Information

The Mount Washington Observatory reported 1.3 inches of new snow in the previous 24 hours with light winds fron the West which shifted into the Southwest. The slope aspect of Damnation gully is generally S-SE. The gully is commonly cross-loaded with W winds. Another precipitation event earlier in the week which deposited 3.9 inches of snow on the summit of Mount Washington with NW winds from 70-90 m.p.h. may have contributed to the instability. Total snowfall from the summit in the 7 days preceding the accident was 5.6 inches, interspersed with fair skies.

The avalanche danger for Huntington Ravine was Low. Low avalanche danger refers to generally stable snow with isolated pockets of instability. The normal caution is advised when travelling in avalanche terrain. The avalanche triggered by DB is considered an isolated pocket of unstable snow. The fracture line of the avalanche was estimated at 40 feet wide and 10 inches deep. The victims were not buried in the avalanche debris, which was deposited 3 to 5 inches deep and covered an area 40 by 60 feet. Little additional snow was entrained in the slide as it moved down the track. Temperatures during the morning showed an increasing trend, and the avalanche debris was dense and wet. It is possible that increasing temperatures around freezing contributed to snowpack instability.

For those who choose to venture into avalanche terrain, a word of caution is advised. Even when the avalanche danger is posted as Low, the normal caution must be observed. On commiting mountainous terrain like that found in the easterly ravines of Mount Washington, even the smallest avalanches can be very dangerous.