The second avalanche on Tuesday following Monday’s fatal avalanche:
Monday’s forecast referenced what was coming on Tuesday:
“Much of the western aspect of the range has limited snow coverage but there are plenty of areas large enough to produce a large (D2) to very large (D3) avalanche with the incoming snow. Think Oakes Gulf and the Ammo as falling into the latter category.”
Until this event on February 2, the Ammonoosuc and West side of Mount Washington had minimal snow coverage, as it does most years. East winds and heavy snow are needed to really fill in the terrain in the Ammonoosuc Ravine. A Nor’easter on January 16th, with necessary east winds and heavy snow, improved the coverage, though many ice flows, boulders and patches of old crusts appear in the most recent photos. Unstable weather from the 23rd through the 29th brought 3.4” snow to the summit and 8” new snow to the Hermit Lake snowplot, on the east side of the range, resulting in some degree of forecast uncertainty along with the typical spatial variability of our typical wind slab avalanche problem. Scoured surfaces, firm and stubborn wind slabs, more reactive wind slabs and partially buried crusts peppered middle and upper elevations, especially on the windward east side. Despite, or perhaps because of, these technical skiing conditions, many folks are drawn to the West side of Mt. Washington, especially those travelling from Vermont and points West. Lower use in this area also promises more adventure, with fewer concerns due to crowding than the vastly more popular east side.
Accidents like this serve as a stark reminder to us all of the role that luck can play in successful outcomes in our backcountry endeavors. Ian Forgays had many years of experience in this terrain and, according to texts sent on Sunday, planned “to move slowly and intentionally” knowing that some lines there are “rowdier than others”. By all accounts, he was a very accomplished skier with many of the steepest lines in the Whites under his belt. Finding a triggerable slab in mostly safe avalanche conditions is rare but not unheard of, especially due to our spatially variable, wind slab avalanche problem. Accurately assessing snow and terrain and avoiding trouble throughout a lifetime of playing in the mountains is a tremendous challenge for anyone, even for the most experienced, like Forgays. Most of the time, we survive to ski another day. Other times, simple bad luck catches up to us when our margin for error disappears.
In this case, when Ian Forgays triggered a small wind slab, a partner may have saved his life…but given the terrible terrain trap below, maybe not. Forgays was found equipped with avalanche safety gear, including an avalanche transceiver, which helped rescuers and the family immensely. It appears evident from the totality of the circumstances that Forgays was prepared and knowledgeable about the mountain and its ski conditions. But, it is important to remember that even the most experienced skiers with all the correct preparations and equipment risk more when skiing alone. Even small avalanches can be deadly, especially over a terrain trap. If there are lessons to be learned from this accident, they aren’t new. Skiing technical lines, in a thin snowpack above a notorious terrain trap, with no partners, even on a Low danger day, raises the stakes tremendously.