Avalanche Huntington Ravine – Under O’Dells

Early on January 7, 2005 A and R planned on climbing North Gully in Huntington Ravine after spending the night at the Harvard Cabin. The previous day they had climbed O’Dell’s Gully, which had gone very well. Brian Johnston, USFS Snow Ranger, passed the Harvard Cabin at around 6:50 on the way into Huntington. Upon returning back to the cabin Brian spoke with A and R about their day. Brian asked if they planned on heading into the Ravine and they hoped to climb North Gully and wondered what he thought about their plan. Brian replied “I can’t recommend any climbing in the Ravine today” and went into why. Brian discussed the weather over the past 24 hours and why the 8.5cm of snow with more coming was enough precipitation for both Considerable and High avalanche danger in the Ravine. They looked at a map of the area to discuss loading and aspects. They discussed how they could approach their intended route with out being in the runout of any forecasted avalanche paths. Due to their approach the day before, they knew the exact overhanging tree Brian referred to as a reference. At this location he advised the safest route would be to take a hard right up into the talus. He once again mentioned he could not recommend climbing in the Ravine, but that was the safest way to the bottom of their intended climb. Brian went to the nearby Harvard manual snow plot to gather data and told them he would be back shortly if they had any more questions. 10 minutes later snow accumulations and their densities were passed along to the pair upon which they asked a few questions. They had no avalanche gear and told me later that they typically rented a probe, shovel, and beacon in Montreal when the avalanche danger was Considerable or High. Brian respectfully attempted to dissuade them from their goal while allowing them to make their own decision. Although North was at Considerable it was the gully of lowest concern compared to the other forecast areas so this was their intended goal. They determined they would like to at least go up and take a look. The advisory was posted at the cabin at 745 and Brian headed over to Hermit Lake.

A and R Left the Harvard cabin at 815 and spent a bit over an hour getting into the base of the fan in Huntington. They went far beyond the downed tree they acknowledged in their discussion earlier and started moving straight up the center of the Fan. They could not see the gullies due to blowing snow and estimated there was 30-45m (100-150 ft) visibility. They went up hill an estimated 30m (100 ft) when they stopped to adjust their clothing. ‘A’ was in front bent over and took off his gloves to adjust his balaclava. As he bent over he thought to himself, ‘boy this isn’t a good place to be stopping’. Just as he concluded his thought an avalanche hit him at approximately 930. ‘A’ estimated he was only brought about 12m (40ft), but was completely buried. As the debris slowed to a stop his head and feet were between 30-45cm deep faced up with his feet pointing downhill. He frantically punched his arms up in front of his face and thrashed to free himself. He could feel the snow quickly setting up around him. Within 15 seconds he was fairly free. ‘R’ had been brought about 17m (55ft), was 5m (15ft) directly below ‘A’, and was buried to his waist. The air was so obscured he could not see ’A’ above him. ‘R’ felt he was at the terminal toe of the debris and averaged 1.25-1.5m (4-5ft) deep. They had lost ‘A’s gloves and 2 mountaineering axes, but spent no time looking for them. They moved as quick as they could to get out of the Ravine. The only injury was a scrap and bruising on ‘A’s right shin.

Both ‘A’ and ‘R’ were interviewed later at Pinkham Notch on Rt. 16 to acquire most of the above information. Following the interview I headed into Huntington to see if I could ascertain any information corroborating their story. I was most interested in finding out exactly where they were when they were avalanched. Based on my experience, being hit by an avalanche down low to the east of North gully is very unusual. At 1:30 Huntington cleared enough to see the fan and most of the gullies. The only debris I could see was a 100m (330ft) straight up from the floor flats under the entrance to Pinnacle gully. Clues and higher debris pointed to O’Dells as the avalanche source. I spent a long time looking for any debris on the north side of the Ravine, but could find none. I could only conclude they were much more south than they thought due to limited visibility. Upon re-entry on 1/8/05 for a closer look a small crown line was visible high near the horizon on the southern end of the entire gully. This likely triggered the snowfield lower at the base of the first pitch of O’Dells proper. This was confirmed as one of ‘A’s gloves was found near the toe of the debris pile.

Lessons Learned:

Looking at this incident with 20/20 hindsight a number of mistakes stand out that were made by the party. Avalanche danger being High and Considerable, having all the necessary weather information, and spending substantial time discussing plans with a Snow Ranger should of given them all the information that this was a “no go” situation. To go into avalanche terrain anyway is a clear case of the “human factor” taking over the decision making process. Entering High avalanche danger terrain, in very low visibility, with all the bull’s-eye information, without avalanche safety equipment is an obvious situation of not playing by the mountains terms. It is imperative to always remember that the mountain will be there tomorrow and everyday until we die. You can always come back another day when conditions are more suitable for your intentions. When we leave our homes to recreate in the mountains we already have a bias that we are going to ski or climb that route. We need to constantly re-evaluate the data the mountain is giving us and be able to say, “STOP” and break the chain of poor decisions leading to a potential accident. Accidents like this one stand out because for those involved it was all about climbing their intended route, the “nothing will stop us” mentality. Even inexperienced climbers can make the right choices with the facts in this event. We must play by the mountain’s terms. /s/ Chris Joosen, Lead Snow Ranger