Human Triggered Avalanches on April 7, 2018

On April 7, 2018, seven avalanches occured in Tuckerman Ravine. All were human triggered. This write-up discusses the weather and snowpack that lead up to these events, an objective summary of the events, and an analysis of factors that lead to at least five people being caught in one of the avalanches.

Weather

In the week leading up to April 7, 2018, our snowpack saw two rain events. The first was March 29 and 30 which delivered 0.75” of rain followed by 0.32” of rain on April 4. Both of these rain events were followed by hard freezes. On Friday, April 6, light snow showers began just after noon and continued through sunrise the following day. By the time snowfall stopped, the snowplot at Hermit Lake recorded 16cm (6.3”) of 9% snow while the summit recorded between 7 and 8” (this is an estimate based on hourly observations as the total snowfall was recorded as less due to excessive blowing snow) of snow. When snowfall began on Friday, wind at the summit was around 30mph from the south. Overnight, wind direction shifted to the west and speeds increased to 60-70mph. Weather on Saturday April 7 was clearing skies, winds diminishing to around 40mph from the west, and temperatures in the single digits on the summit and reaching into the 20sF at Hermit Lake. This weather pattern built a robust melt-freeze crust over which wind slab was built from new snow and wind April 6-7. This touchy wind slab was the avalanche problem involved in all known avalanches on April 7.

Summary of Events

During the morning of April 7, three avalanches were intentionally triggered by skiers. All three were ski cuts, two occurring in Lobster Claw (both SS-ASc-R1-D1.5-I) and one occurring on the rollover of the Little Headwall (SS-ASc-R1-D1-I). Slab depths were up to 14” and all occured on a layer of softer snow immediately above the melt-freeze crust. Of note in the Little Headwall was that the second skier through was able to trigger the “hangfire”, or slab remaining above the crown of the initial avalanche.

Examining the crown in Little Headwall. MWAC photo.

We have less definitive information on the Left Gully and Chute avalanches, which occurred shortly before and after the Hillman’s Highway avalanches, respectively. We believe that no one was caught or carried by either avalanche, both of which were triggered unintentionally. Left Gully, which was rated Moderate, produced an avalanche from a relatively thick though isolated pocket, while Chute, which was rated Considerable, produced a larger in area avalanche from a thinner slab. Both are estimated SS-ASu-R2-D1.

Unlike the other avalanches this day, the avalanches in Hillman’s Highway did involve a number of people being caught and carried. At approximately 2:00 pm, at least 40 people were climbing and skiing in Hillman’s. An individual climbing uphill from the looker’s right fork to the looker’s left fork triggered the initial avalanche as they entered the looker’s left fork. This person was not carried in the slide. The crown of this avalanche was approximately 300’ below the top of Hillman’s and ran ⅔ of the way down (SS-AFu-R2-D2-I). Of the many people in the avalanche path, at least 5 were caught and carried. USFS Snow Rangers responded to the incident and identified one injured skier who was ultimately transported to Pinkham Notch with a back injury that was not life threatening. Another individual who was also caught and carried sustained a minor injury to their hand.

Looking at the crown of the first avalanche in Hillman’s Highway. Photo by Kurt Schleicher.

The second avalanche was triggered around 2:30pm, within minutes of the initial Snow Ranger team arriving on scene. The trigger was unknown at the time, but consensus of bystanders is that this second avalanche was triggered by the same individual who triggered the first, having topped out on the ridge and beginning to ski the hang fire slab above the initial crown. This second avalanche was smaller (SS-ASu-R2-D1-I) and luckily did not capture any people or result in injuries.

Analysis

Many opportunities for learning are presented by this day which which fortunately did not involve more serious injuries. First, it’s an excellent reminder that avalanche conditions can develop during the spring months which bring crowds of backcountry skiers to Tuckerman Ravine. As with any time of year, these avalanches can widely vary in size and character. Avalanches can be of minimal concern on certain spring days, but April 7 was a day with avalanches as the primary concern for alpine travelers. On any such day, anyone venturing into avalanche terrain should bring a beacon, shovel, probe, and knowledge to use them effectively.

Carrying avalanche rescue gear is a cardinal rule for travelling in avalanche terrain. Another is travelling one at a time through areas exposed to avalanche danger. This requires recognizing avalanche terrain, which includes both terrain capable of producing an avalanche and terrain threatened by avalanches. A phrase often heard in the courtyard is, “It’s just Hillman’s”. All of Hillman’s Highway is avalanche terrain. On top of that, it’s easily the biggest gully in Tuckerman Ravine and is particularly confined. Exposing one person at a time to avalanche danger is crucial, particularly on a day like April 7. It’s likely that nobody would have been injured had this been the case.

Avalanche danger was Moderate in Hillman’s Highway on this day, which forecasts natural avalanches as unlikely and human triggered avalanches as possible. These possible human triggered avalanches can be either small and in many areas or large and in specific areas. With a number of similar avalanches in other Moderate rated areas, we consider April 7 as a small avalanches in many areas kind of day. It’s worth noting that a Moderate rated day for large avalanches in specific areas is sometimes referred to as “scary moderate”, in which you’re less likely to find signs of instability but potentially able to trigger a large avalanche. Further, remember that even small avalanches can ultimately be fatal.

The Chute was rated Considerable and produced a slightly larger in area avalanche from a thinner slab. The primary distinction between Moderate and Considerable is increased likelihood of both natural and human triggered avalanches with greater chance for larger avalanches. Other Considerable areas received little if any traffic, which we suspect is a reason that more did not produce avalanches.

All avalanche problems exhibit some degree of spatial variability. This means that the snowpack is not uniform across the terrain and avalanches can often only be triggered from specific locations. A number of people can travel on a slope, particularly one as large as Hillman’s, before someone finds this specific location and triggers an avalanche. Tracks on a slope do not mean it’s safe to ski or climb.

The Little Headwall was not rated on April 7 for lack of snow, but did have enough snow in one isolated pocket to produce an avalanche. Unrated terrain, which encompasses all of our terrain early and late in the season, can produce avalanches. The human triggered avalanche in Central Gully on Dec 1 of this season is another example. We do issue danger ratings for areas of most concern during the bulk of the season in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines, but avalanche activity is not confined to areas forecast on a particular day.

Finally, we should touch on ski cutting. The avalanches in the Little Headwall and Lobster Claw were intentionally triggered in a controlled manner through ski cutting. This process of intentionally skiing a specific part of a slope likely to trigger an avalanche, with speed and from one safe zone to another, is an advanced practice and is only appropriate under certain conditions. A book could easily be written about the practice of ski cutting, but a simple explanation is that it is only wise when you possess a high degree of certainty about what the the ski cut will produce AND the consequences if you’re wrong. In particular, ski cutting is inappropriate when an avalanche may initiate above you. On April 7, we had the rare conditions for our terrain in which instability was limited to surface slabs and individuals were able to ski potential start zones for isolated and small pockets of wind slab. Certainty was high both in terms of anticipated result and consequences for being wrong, and avalanches above the individuals ski cutting were nearly impossible. Further, other people were not in the potential avalanche runout zones.

Brody Leven ski cutting in Lobster Claw. Photo by Lincoln Benedict.

The human-triggered avalanches on April 7 did result in injury, but everyone on the mountain lived to ski and climb another day. Luck certainly contributed to this relatively positive outcome, as did the relatively small but widespread type of Considerable and Moderate avalanche danger that day. We who like to travel in avalanche terrain rarely get such valuable lessons without more serious outcomes. Great turns can be had with minimal risk on such days, but only by choosing terrain that matches your preparedness, knowledge, certainty, and skill level.

Human-triggered avalanches, Hillman’s Highway & Gulf of Slides, 2018-3-10

On Saturday, March 10, 2018, two separate avalanche incidents were reported. During the previous 2 days, 14.5″ of snow was deposited at Hermit Lake from a nor’easter and the upslope snowfall that followed. This storm was accompanied by moderate winds that rose to the 60’s mph the afternoon before. Saturday’s advisory called for 4.5″ more snow with increasing wind shifting slightly to the NW. Avalanche danger was rated Considerable in Hillman’s Highway, along with Left Gully and the Headwall forecast zones.

Around mid-day, a party of three talked with a snow ranger on duty who advised that low visibility and continued wind loading made their plan to travel into Hillman’s Highway unwise. The party hiked to Hillman’s and entered the 75′ wide couloir onto a 15-20 degree section of the otherwise steeper runout. Soon after the party returned to the courtyard and reported that everything the snow ranger had cautioned against had played out. Two were struck by debris, knocked down, and carried downslope. Fortunately, much of the energy of the debris flow was absorbed by boulders and holes from a warm spell which reduced our snowpack substantially. When the threat of natural avalanches occurring is elevated, the risks are as well. The natural avalanche that occurred in Hillman’s Highway was much larger and would likely have been unsurvivable.

The same day a party of two skiers set a skin track near the middle gully in the Fingers area of Gulf of Slides, in sparse trees. As the terrain steepened, they began to boot along the left edge of the gully next to the trees. The snow was loose and dry with “no shearing and bonding felt okay”. The first skier had been to this area many times and stayed out of the gully as they made their way towards the rollover near the top. They had spread themselves out as they moved up the slope but paused as they reached the rollover because “something felt wrong”. In moments, the slab failed a “couple hundred feet above” the party and hit both skiers. The first skier was carried but, being on the edge of the gully, he escaped the main flow of debris while the other skier clung to a nearby bush. The skier that was carried turned his beacon to search and could not locate a signal of his partner, who was still above him. Shortly after the caught and carried skier texted for help on his cell phone, the pair made contact and eventually were able to call off the rescue response. The skier who held onto the bush lost his poles while the skier who was carried lost all his equipment though eventually recovered one ski.

Later conversations with the skiers in Gulf of Slides revealed a debate as to whether or not they triggered the slope. They considered it likely that they did not trigger the slope, but rather that it had avalanched naturally. From our perspective, the trigger is relatively unimportant in this instance. If the avalanche had not released while ascending, it is possible that they could have made it to the top and triggered the slope on the way down. In that case, much more of the slab could have been above them with more serious consequences likely. After some reflection, looking at weather data and reading the avalanche advisory, the triggering skier admitted that “overconfidence due to personal experience” in that particular area led him to ignore the obvious red flags that existed due to the snow and weather conditions that day. After the period of warm weather and ice crust which had dominated recent ski conditions, it seems likely that the scarcity heuristic was in play as well. The call of fresh powder is hard to ignore sometimes but it is important to remember that good luck can play a role in good outcomes like this one and luck is one thing no one can count on.

2018-02-25 Sliding fall in Hillman’s Highway

Icy conditions will always be a challenge despite the use of self-arrest poles. Once momentum is gained from a skiing fall or unchecked fall while climbing, it is doubtful that even a a well deployed ice axe would work on a knife hardness, icy and steep surface such as the conditions encountered in the report that we received. Here is the submission:

“sliding fall. after climbing 2/3 of the way up hillmans and not finding a ton of good snow we transitioned for our Icy decent. I was the the third and final member of my group to descend. There was a small ribbon of wind slab on the skis right side of the Slide, hand shears had shown positive results. My two partners side slipped the ice to a good point of safety. I tried the wind slab but after a few untrustworthy turns in it I bailed for the more predictable surface of ice. After coming to a stop I started skiing once more and on my second turn I went down. I have practice self arresting on snow with a whippet and skis on but not on ice. I tried twice to self arrest with no luck. I slid for about 200ft before managing to slow myself down in some soft snow that was piled on top of a rock. Unfortunately as i came to a stop my body turned and I fell of the side of the rock landing on my shoulder and dislocating it. My partners and I were able to get in to the pine tree area where we tired to reset the joint with no luck. We slung and secured my arm. I transitioned to crampons and self rescued with a fast stop at hojo to get an ice pack. I then boot packed pinkham then the hospital. A few things I noticed: even with practice my whippet was not an adequate self arresting device in the ice conditions and also my skis made it impossible to roll on to my stomach and execute a proper self arrest.”

 

Long Sliding Fall, February 24, 2018

At about 1:00 PM, a climber took a long sliding fall while ascending Right Gully in Tuckerman Ravine. The subject lost their footing on very hard, icy snow and was unable to self-arrest with an ice axe. The fall occurred near the top of Right Gully and the resulting high speed slide was halted below the gully by exposed bushes and rocks. The fall totaled approximately 300 vertical feet. The subject was able to walk away from the accident, traveling on foot with help of their climbing partner down to Hermit Lake. The primary injury was presumed to be bruised or fractured ribs from impact with the bushes and rocks that stopped the fall. U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers transported the subject via snowmobile from Hermit Lake to Pinkham Notch.

The subject and witnesses of this accident unanimously described the event as a close call, all surprised that the outcome was not more serious. The subject was indeed lucky to eventually slide into a generally bushy area as opposed to the many nearby rocks that would have likely resulted in greater injuries. Further, the subject was not wearing a helmet and was very fortunate to avoid hitting their head. The party had climbed Right Gully several times in past seasons and stated that they normally did wear helmets while travelling in steep alpine terrain. Further, they did have experience climbing steep snow and were otherwise properly equipped with mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes.

This accident highlights the risk of climbing on steep snow slopes when conditions are hard and icy, making self-arrest all but impossible. Such snow conditions can develop when steep slopes in Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines are snow covered. While firm conditions can inspire confidence for climbers travelling uphill with crampons, it can be incredible difficult to arrest a fall once sliding with any amount of speed. While strong self-arrest skills are crucial for travelers on steep snow slopes, it’s just as important to remember that you may not be able to self-arrest in hard snow. Close calls like this one should remind us to always consider the likelihood and consequences of a long sliding fall when travelling on steep snow. These incidents are common and can easily have more serious outcomes.

Sick Hiker, 5/11/17

A pair of hikers departed Pinkham Notch headed for the Mount Washington Summit at 9:00 AM. At 3:00 PM, USFS Snow Rangers were notified that the hikers had called 911 via their cell phone. One of the pair was reported to be vomiting and unable to hike, while the other had no reported issues. The pair accurately relayed their location, the Lion Head trail several hundred feet below its junction with the Tuckerman Ravine trail, at 5,600 feet in elevation. One Snow Ranger responded to the incident from the Summit, via auto road vehicle transport by Mount Washington State Park staff. One AMC Hermit Lake caretaker proceeded to the scene on foot from Hermit Lake. Both arrived at 5:00 PM, by which time the subject had ceased vomiting and presented fatigue as a chief complaint. Following the provision of food and water, the subject felt strong enough to proceed on foot to the Mountain Washington Summit for vehicle transport down the auto road.

Analysis: The party stated that they had received information on potential trails to the Mount Washington Summit from the AMC Pinkham Notch front desk staff. Through this information and their own judgment, they concluded that the Winter Lion Head route would be a reasonable ascent and descent option. The hikers did not have crampons, an ice axe, and mountaineering boots as we recommend for this route, but were able to ascend the steep mixed conditions of snow, ice, mud, and wet rock on the Winter Lion Head route. Given the timeline of their day, we can assume this was quite a challenging experience for the pair.

For the relatively warm conditions of the day, the party had sufficient clothing to keep warm. Their sneakers, cotton, and lack of an insulated puffy jacket would have greatly increased the potential consequences of the incident had the weather been more in keeping with the harsh conditions the mountain is famous for.

They brought relatively small amounts of food and water, though, and continued uphill until almost out of both. The subject of the incident appears to have been primarily a victim of the “bonk”, which is to simply deplete the body’s stored sugars faster than they are being replenished by eating. Further, the party left themselves with little food to fuel their descent. Inexperienced hikers are quite prone to this issue, overlooking the massive caloric demands of ascending and descending 4,000 feet on foot in challenging wintry conditions. The amount of food one eats in a relatively sedentary day can easily be half or less than the food needed when strenuously hiking for long durations. It’s important to remember that frequent food and water intake is equally crucial to maintaining physical strength though a full day. Think eating every hour rather than every few hours.

Maintaining the strength to move yourself through the mountains, and all the way back to the car, is absolutely crucial to avoiding incidents like this one. While the subject suffered no injuries, inclement weather combined with the not uncommon delay or lack of rescue response could have created a dire situation. While we’re always happy to help you to safety, never count on a rescue. Your body is the best means of transportation in remote environments, and proper fueling is crucial to maintaining this ability.

Stranded climbers, March 18, 2017

At around 11:30a.m., a pair of hikers set out from Pinkham Notch to summit via Huntington Ravine. At approximately 4:45p.m., snow ranger staff were contacted by AMC front desk staff that there were 2 hikers stranded near Central Gully in Huntington Ravine. Scouting in the Ravine revealed that the pair of climbers were actually located approximately 500′ below the top of the rim of Huntington between Damnation Buttress (5.6 WI3- M2-3; 700′) and Damnation Gully (WI3, 1,000′).  Two snow rangers climbed to the pair while one spotted from below. Two snow rangers and a Mount Washington Volunteer ski patroller approached the top via snow tractor on the Auto Road while 2 more ski patrollers served in dispatch and radio communications roles. The pair was reached at approximately 7pm by the climbing team and led to the top with assistance from the other two snow rangers from above. Rescuers and the pair reached the waiting Mount Washington Observatory snowcat at 10:02pm and returned to Pinkham Notch by midnight.

Analysis: The party reported that they had inquired at the AMC Front Desk about whether they could make it through Huntington Ravine to the summit without ropes and indicated that they were told that they could. The pair had limited climbing experience but managed to climb through 4th and low 5th class terrain unroped, with crampons and walking axes but without harnesses or other technical gear. Regardless of the source of the miscommunication with the front desk staff, it is important to thoroughly research an intended route, to re-evaluate plans based on time of day, climbing difficulty, along with prevailing weather conditions and experience level of the party. Fortunately, the pair were properly equipped with enough clothing, food and fluids. Though the summit temperature was around 10F that evening, relatively calm SE winds in 20 mph range made for a merely uncomfortable wait rather than a more serious outcome. It is interesting to note that a party of three found themselves stranded in the same position in similar conditions several years ago. It seems that the same line-of-least-resistance appears attractive to summit bound hikers confronted with the illusion that the Huntington Ravine trail or Central Gully are more difficult. While both of those routes are comparable in difficulty and have equally serious consequences in the event of a fall, the hardest climbing appears near the start of those two routes where a hiker could receive more immediate feedback on their route selection.

Various incidents, December, 2016 – March, 2017

Six calls for minor injuries or missing climbers or hikers were received during this time period. Two of the incidents were injuries that required transport via USFS staff and equipment while the other four were worked out the parties themselves or cooperators.

Accident Summary: March 13, 2016

On Sunday afternoon, March 13, two separate accidents occurred on the east side of Mount Washington. Both accidents involved long sliding falls and resulted in life-threatening injuries. Luckily, the skies were clear and the wind was calm, allowing both patients to be evacuated via helicopter.  There are several lessons to take away from these incidents, all coming back to the basics of being prepared and making safe travel decisions.

The first accident occurred when a skier slipped and fell in Hillman’s Highway.  Hitting several rocks on the way down, he sustained serious injuries requiring immediate evacuation.  Just as the helicopter departed Hermit Lake, the second call came in of an injured hiker on the summit cone.  Again, due to a serious injury and a lengthy carry-out, USFS Snow Rangers decided to use a helicopter for transport.  A large thank you must be given to all rescuers involved including the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, AMC, Mount Rescue Service, AVSAR, NH Fish and Game, and several volunteers as the evacuations went smoothly and patients arrived at advanced care in a timely manner.

Weather and Snowpack Analysis

The week leading up to these two incidents coincided with the transition from winter to spring in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. On Tuesday, March 8 at 10pm, the temperature on the summit rose and remained above freezing for 48 hours.  During this time period, the summit recorded over 1.25” of rain.  After the warm up, temperatures dropped over 24 hours to the low teens, allowing the water-saturated snowpack to freeze solid.  On Saturday, temperatures warmed along with clear skies, allowing the snow to soften and turn to corn in many areas.  Skiers reported excellent spring conditions in The Lip, Right Gully, and the East Snowfields on the summit.  Left Gully and Hillman’s Highway had parts that softened, while parts remained frozen solid.  Saturday was followed by a blustery, clear day on Sunday.  Skiers reported certain areas softening up, however not to the degree as the day before.  Sunday was the type of day where as soon as snow had shadows cast upon it, the surface froze instantly into firm concrete.

Incident #1: Skier Fall in Hillman’s Highway

Around 3:20pm, six experienced skiers began to descend Hillman’s Highway. One of the skiers slipped and fell approximately 1,000 feet.  Upon arrival at the scene, USFS Snow Rangers and members of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol determined the patient had sustained multiple life-threatening injuries.  After a lower down the remainder of Hillman’s Highway and transport to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake, the patient was in the air and on his way to advanced medical care at 5:14pm.

Hillman's Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

Hillman’s Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

The party of six initially started as multiple parties. The group that the patient was a part of toured into the Gulf of Slides and experienced decent corn conditions in Gully #1.  After the descent, the group decided to climb up and over Boott Spur and ski the looker’s right fork of Hillman’s Highway.  Standing at the top of Hillman’s Highway, the group, now joined by three other skiers, recognized the snow had changed dramatically from their previous run.  Two skiers, including the soon to be patient, donned crampons and an ice axe and climbed down about 200 feet to better assess and avoid the ice at the rollover.  Recognizing the hazard, members of the group collectively decided the risk was manageable with conservative skiing techniques.  The first skier made his way to the bottom of the choke and pulled aside to allow the second skier to go.  This second skier lost his edge on a patch of ice in the narrows.  As the snow had gone into the shade and turned to concrete, the skier had no chance to self-arrest and began an out-of-control slide down Hillman’s Highway.  Due to the low snowpack this winter, Hillman’s Highway, normally a good choice for novice Tuckerman skiers, was full of ice bulges and rock outcroppings.

Falling about 1,000 feet, he came to rest just above the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s Highway. The rest of the group made their way to him as quick as the conditions would allow.  Upon arrival, they prevented him from sliding further down the slope and immediately for help.  Snow Rangers, along with Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol members arrived at the patient about 30 minutes after his fall.  The initial assessment indicated life threatening injuries.  Oxygen was administered, the decision to transport via helicopter was made, and the patient was strapped into a litter for travel to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake.

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo by Sam Bendroth

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo: S. Bendroth

Incident #2: Hiker Fall near South East Snowfields

At 5:16pm on Sunday evening, the Gorham Police Department received a call from hikers in distress on the summit cone of Mount Washington. There was confusion as to the exact location of the hikers, but they told Snow Rangers via cell phone that one member of their group of three had broken his femur during a glissade that turned into an out-of-control slide, and was now getting very cold.  A hasty team of one Snow Ranger and the AMC caretaker departed Hermit Lake at 5:45pm, ascending the Lion Head summer trail.  With weather still clear and calm, and dealing again with a possible life-threatening injury, Snow Rangers again decided the best evacuation option was with a helicopter.  The hasty team made visual contact with the hikers just before reaching the Alpine Garden/ Lion Head Junction.  At 7:07pm, the helicopter landed .25 miles away from the patient.  Snow Rangers quickly realized that due to difficult terrain, it was unfeasible to drag the patient to the LZ without a litter.  As the helicopter had to return to base at 8pm due to flight regulations, it left the scene at 7:40pm without the patient.

The east side of the summit cone in summer. The incident site is .25 miles from the LZ.

Over the next hour, more rescuers and a litter arrived. Upon further discussion with dispatch, a new crew boarded the helicopter and took flight, aiming for the landing zone established east of the Alpine Garden Trail.  This helicopter landed at 9:14pm, 10 minutes after the rescuers and patient arrived.  The helicopter departed with the patient at 9:26pm and rescuers made their way to the snowcat at the Cow Pasture and descended the auto road.

Analysis

Both of these accidents have the same mechanism of injury: long sliding falls on a frozen spring snowpack. However, in each case, the events that led up to the accident are different and worth investigating.  Finally, the treatment provided to each patient before rescuers arrived should be examined.

Spring skiing is all about timing. Start your day too early and the snow will still be frozen; end your day too late and your slope might turn to cement as you watch.  A knowledgeable Tuckerman spring skier will follow the sun, often starting the day on east or north-east facing slopes and slowly work their way across the Bowl and end the day on south facing slopes that are catching the last of the sun’s rays before the sun disappears over the Bigelow Lawn.  Catch a slope at its softest and there are times when if you fall, you won’t go anywhere as you sink into the corn or mushy mashed potatoes.  Once that slope goes into the shade, it can freeze almost instantly, necessitating the use of crampons on the way up and creating no-fall territory on the way down.

Looking down Hillman's Highway around 3:20pm.

Looking down Hillman’s Highway around 3:20pm. Photo: L. Benedict.

When the group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s Highway, they discussed what conditions they would encounter. They realized the snow would be firm and very challenging to ski down.  Committing to the descent is understandable and I would hazard a guess that many others would have done the same despite the high consequences of a fall in these conditions.  Having toured from the Gulf of Slides, they had no mental map of where the ice bulges were and which way around the rocks were the best.  Skiing a run while it is frozen solid can be extremely challenging.  It is best to stack the odds in your favor and perhaps realize that there are one or two spots, while skiable earlier in the day when it was soft, that may require switching from skis to crampons for a few feet on the way down.

It is interesting to note that as this group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s, a group of three topped out at the same spot after having climbed the gully. This group of climbers consisted of one person wearing crampons and carrying a mountaineering axe and two wearing snowshoes and carrying one technical ice climbing tool.  Seeing that two people had just snowshoed up Hillman’s further convinced the skiers the risk was manageable.  At least one skier later admitted the snowshoers looked terrified at what they had just done and perhaps this should have given the skiers pause for concern.

Snowshoers topping out Hillman's Highway

Snowshoers topping out Hillman’s Highway. Photo: L. Benedict

These three climbers continued to the summit of Mount Washington and eventually became the group of hikers who required the second rescue. This group pushed themselves hard and put in a long day, eventually making the decision to glissade down unfamiliar terrain rather than sty on the trail.  Had they reevaluated their plan of summiting as the day progressed and became late, they may have turned around and descended while still having energy.  It also must be taken into account that this group used inappropriate gear for the terrain.  Even with the traction provided by modern snowshoes, it is a miracle they were able to ascend Hillman’s Highway in the condition they found it.  Getting down any trail or terrain feature on the mountain that day with snowshoes would have been an extreme affair.

The final point worth discussing is the level of care provided by members of both groups to the patients before rescuers arrived. Of the six skiers in Hillman’s, only one of this group had training in first aid that he had taken several years ago.  When Snow Rangers arrived at the scene, 30 minutes after the fall, no care had been provided besides preventing the patient from sliding further down the slope.  If this accident had taken place outside of Tuckerman Ravine and help had not been .25 miles away, the result would have been drastically different.  On the summit cone, the first rescuers reached the scene over two hours after the incident occurred and the broken leg was still not stabilized.  The patient was half on the snow and the two uninjured were becoming cold from standing still and waiting for help.

The trend in backcountry enthusiasts taking avalanche education classes is rising. This is great to see.  Realize that a lot can happen while recreating in the mountains and there are skills you and your partner should learn before taking avalanche classes.  Taking first aid skills into the woods with you is a valuable insurance policy, as is learning what you can do with the contents of your pack.  Many schools around the country offer classes in wilderness first aid skills.  It was lucky these two incidents occurred close to help as they may have had different outcomes had rescuers not been close by.

There are plenty of lessons to take away from these two events, most stemming from the basics: being prepared and making safe-travel decisions. Preparedness with the right gear is vitally important.  This can get you safely home and also saves much time and energy as it means more efficient travel.  Preparedness with the right skills is necessary.  Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the day’s adventure goes fine and everyone has fun.  However, that one time where something goes wrong, having the right knowledge available can mean a big difference to your partner or yourself.  History has proven that many accidents take place when people are tired and looking for a shortcut.  If it means getting home safe, taking the long way down may be the right choice.   Whether it’s following the lower-angled ridge that avoids the steep slope or shouldering your skis and climbing down a ski run, it may not be glorious at the moment, but your family and friends will praise you when you walk in the door at the end of the night.

Press release for incidents on Sunday, March 13, 2016

NEWS RELEASE

USDA Forest Service                  

 

White  Mountain

National  Forest

­­­

For Immediate Release

Contact: Tiffany Benna

tbenna@fs.fed.us or 603.348.0078

 

Icy Conditions in Tuckerman Ravine Lead to Two Evacuations

 

On Sunday, March 14, 2016, weather on Mount Washington was in the high 20’s (F) with bright sunshine and moderate northwest winds. Rain the previous week had saturated the snowpack which later refroze during the night when temperatures dropped to the mid-teens. By late morning, sun began to soften the snow, making for good skiing and snow climbing conditions in areas facing the sun. Unusually warm and dry conditions have predominated this winter, leaving many boulders and ice cliffs exposed which are usually buried by many feet of snow and avalanche debris at this time of year.

 

At approximately 3:00 p.m., a party of six skiers descended a 2,000-foot long 30-40 degree snow gully named Hillman’s Highway in Tuckerman Ravine. One of the six expert skiers slipped and fell part of the way down. Due to the icy nature of the slope, he was unable to arrest his fall which took him 700 -900’ down the slope over patches of ice, boulders, and at least one low angle ice and rock buttress. U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Center staff, Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrollers, an AMC Caretaker and several guides working in the area responded to render first aid and evacuate the patient. The crew performed a series of roped litter lowers to bring the man the remaining distance down the steep slope. Due the nature of the man’s injuries and calm weather conditions, a DHART helicopter was used to medivac the patient.

DHART in Courtyard

It is a rare day on Mount Washington when a helicopter can safely land for a rescue. -photo courtesy of Sam Bendroth

At approximately 5:30 p.m., Gorham Police Dispatch called U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers to report a request for help for an injured climber near the summit of Washington on the Tuckerman Ravine trail. A rescue team was again dispatched to locate the party. Simultaneously, a team of NH Fish and Game officers, Mountain Rescue Service members, and NH State Park personnel used the Mount Washington Auto Road to approach the east snowfields in attempt to locate and evacuate the patient before dark. Given the nature of the injuries and time of day, DHART was once again to fly out the patient.  The patient was located at about 6:45 p.m. Due to flight regulations, the first DHART flight crew returned to base before the small rescue team could move the patient through difficult terrain to the landing zone. A fresh DHART crew arrived at the landing zone and the patient was transferred to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital just before 10:00 p.m.

 

It is critical for people climbing and skiing on Mount Washington to understand the variability of surface conditions, particularly this time of year. This winter has brought several heavy rain events which have melted and saturated the meager snowpack. Due to this melting and refreezing action, many late spring hazards have already emerged, including undermined snow, deep holes in the snow from waterfalls, and as was the case on Sunday, an icy snowpack capable of creating long, sliding falls. These hazards add complexity to the already severe weather and associated avalanche dangers, which threaten the Ravines every winter.

Long sliding falls

Two people, from both ends of the spectrum of experience, in two separate locations sustained life threatening injuries due to long sliding falls late yesterday afternoon. Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, Mountain Rescue Service, NH Fish and Game, NH State Parks and AMC and HMC Caretakers all contributed to a complex rescue effort. Many thanks to all who helped and thanks to Friends of Mount Washington Avalanche Center, Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, Sterling Ropes and Petzl for equipping and supporting MWAC. Accident summaries will be made available as soon as possible.

Fall in Huntington Ravine – February 7, 2016

At approximately 12:10pm on Sunday, February 7, one member of a climbing party of three slipped while approaching a technical snow and ice climb in Huntington Ravine. The climber rapidly gained speed on the 35-40 degree snow slope beneath Central Gully and tumbled into the rocks below, sustaining non-life threatening injuries.  Two nearby parties of two including a guide and student went to the party’s aid and assisted the injured climber down to a rescue cache where she was loaded into a litter. Snow Rangers received initial notification of the incident via a satellite phone call to the Saco RD office. Snow Rangers reached the group and assisted the climbing party in transporting the patient to Pinkham Notch, arriving at approximately 4:00pm.

Four days prior to the incident, temperatures on the mountain soared into the mid-30s F for over 24 hours.  Following this, the temperature dropped to near 0F creating a thick, knife hard, melt-freeze crust.  While stabilizing the snowpack, these conditions create a very hard and icy snowpack. A meager snowpack from a dry and warm winter created lots of water ice in Huntington Ravine to climb, but with plenty of rocks to serve as obstacles to a falling climber.

As many parties do, the plan for this group was to rope-up at a terrain bench beneath the ice bulge marking the start of the steepest climbing in Central Gully. The most experienced climber went first and coached the two less experienced climbers to use both tools to climb the ten feet of exposed ice in order to reach the flat platform of snow beneath the ice bulge. The second, and least experienced of the three, slipped climbing this section. After losing both ice tools, the victim managed to orient her feet downhill but soon caught a crampon in the snow.  Starting to tumble, the victim came to a stop just above the Fan, falling a distance of approximately 200 feet.  A guide and client, who had just descended Pinnacle Gully were nearby and went to her aid.  After assessing the injuries and stabilizing the victim’s shoulder and ankle, the guide short-roped the victim with assistance down the snow slope. At this point, the remaining two climbers in the team retrieved a litter and splint from the Dow Cache and met the patient and guide as they descended.  Volunteers and Snow Rangers slid the litter down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Pinkham Notch where the party drove the patient to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment.

Analysis:

Long, sliding falls are the leading cause of numerous injuries in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine.  Melt-freeze crusts can be rock hard and often make self-arresting impossible.  This was the case in this fall.  It is important to assess snow conditions and combine this with as honest assessment of the experience of members of a party. Depending on the competence and risk tolerance of party members, even low-angle snow slopes may need to be belayed in order to assure safe passage. In this case, the most experienced member had demonstrated self-arrest and offered to teach the other members of the party in the Fan on the approach. The fact that they declined to practice the technique turned out to be irrelevant since it is unlikely that anyone could arrest a fall in these hard snow conditions. Even in ideal snow conditions, steep, snow climbing requires flawless technique and more often resembles unroped, solo climbing with the requirement that “the climber must not fall”.  The conditions this day were far from ideal and required a greater measure of security for a team that included novice alpine climbers. This team carried a 33m rope which may have played a role in being frugal with its use. A climb like Central Gully, especially in hard snow conditions would be more efficiently climbed, and belayed with a 60m, or even 70m, rope with weight savings perhaps realized with a smaller diameter, rather than a shorter rope.

Though this party did not make it to the most technically difficult part of this climb, they did experience difficulty in the type of terrain in which many other parties struggle. The transitions found within alpine terrain with sections of 3rd, 4th and low 5th class, forces climbers to find a balance between speed and safety.  History has shown that it is not at all unusual for inexperienced alpine climbers to be challenged by building secure anchors when confronted with long and continuous pitches of snow with little, if any, options for more familiar ice screw or rock protection anchors.  This factor has led many parties down the risky path of unroped climbing, tenuous, seated belays or running belays with no protection at all in Central Gully. In many cases, climbers have the skills necessary to climb much steeper and harder rock or ice climbs but are lacking the experience in negotiating longer, lower angled terrain. The ability to construct secure T-slot anchors with pickets or axes, effectively manage rope for efficient belays and having the judgement to transition to the next higher level of security for the terrain before it is really needed  should be well developed before leading novice climbers into the more committing terrain of Huntington Ravine.  It would be a mistake to consider Huntington climbs merely longer ice climbs requiring steep ice skill sets.

This party was fortunate that a well-trained and experienced guide and client were nearby. The guide’s satellite phone call ultimately reached the Snow Ranger staff but it was the pair’s ability to render prompt assistance, organize a rescue effort and share knowledge of the nearby rescue cache which sped the rescue along and kept the incident from being drawn out into the night. Be sure to check out our Emergency Planning page in the Search and Rescue section of our website which contains more information to help you develop a solid contingency plan for your next climb.

 

Lost climbers – February 5, 2016

After climbing Odell Gully on Friday, February 5, 2016, a climbing team called 911 after being unable to find the Winter Lion Head Route to descend. The party of three topped out earlier in the day in low visibility due to blowing snow and fog. Temperatures at that time were -2F with winds gusting to 70mph.  The trio, who started the day with two headlamps between them, apparently lost the Alpine Garden trail and assumed that they had also missed intersecting the Lion Head trail.  Fearing that they may be descending into avalanche terrain in Tuckerman Ravine, the team turned around and headed back toward Huntington, only to descend further into Raymond’s Cataract.  Initial phone signal location software placed the party in Center Conway, then Raymond’s Cataract, with a third and fourth call indicating that the group was at the top of Pinnacle Buttress and on the Alpine Garden Trail, respectively.

Two teams comprised of a Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake caretaker each accompanied by volunteer paramedic climbers staying at the Harvard Cabin, were dispatched shortly after the 911 call was received. The team’s search assignment was to scan for a headlamp above the Huntington Ravine Fire Road between the Lion Head Winter Route and the ridge forming the southern end of Huntington Ravine. Around 11pm, the search parties made visual contact with the climbers who were in the steep area of short cliff bands in the woods to the north of the Raymond Cataract waterfall. One of the search parties reached the three climbers and led them back to the Harvard Cabin, reaching it at 1am.

Analysis: Many climbers with experience in the mountains have their own tale to tell of being benighted or disoriented. In retrospect, it’s easy to find errors but applying lessons learned makes us more resilient and lends perspective and maybe even less prone to repeat the same mistakes. We rely heavily on visual cues to navigate and maintain our balance. Remove or reduce that sense and anyone can easily become disoriented. The disorientation experienced while traveling “inside the ping pong ball” of a whiteout is something that can mislead even those with intimate knowledge of the terrain.

A travel plan for an outing should include contingencies for the preferred descent route, variations in weather and snowpack conditions, injuries in the party, or forgotten gear. Having a plan in place to handle adverse weather, low visibility, or unforeseen incidents is a good idea on any longer climb in the mountains. The ability to navigate in adverse conditions should be in the skill set of anyone venturing into Huntington Ravine, particularly when climbing a long technical route. This includes having GPS coordinates of critical locations*, as well as having a map, compass, and knowing how to use them appropriately.

Having the right equipment can buy time when caught out above treeline and the increased comfort can lower stress levels and lead to better decision making. If you are going above treeline, clear or yellow googles, facemasks, a light for everyone in the party are vital. This party was no doubt slowed down by having only one light between them and was fortunate that this light functioned throughout their descent. A small back-up headlamp that lives in your climbing pack can serve as backup to failed batteries, faulty wiring or a simple oversight.

It is important to understand that a phone is a last resort for emergency communication and not an alternative to complete self-sufficiency. They simply are not as reliable in the mountains. With phone calls to this party, we confirmed their position and helped them navigate back to the trail. Phones can be great tools, but you can reduce the chances of needing to use it by being fully prepared with the right equipment, knowledge, and skills.

*Note: You can find a spreadsheet of GPS points in and around the Cutler River Drainage on this page of our website.

Unable to find the Winter Lion Head Route to descend

After climbing Odell Gully on Friday, February 5, 2016, a climbing team called 911 after being unable to find the Winter Lion Head Route to descend. The party of three topped out earlier in the day in low visibility due to blowing snow and fog. Temperatures at that time were -2F with winds gusting to 70mph.  The trio, who started the day with two headlamps between them, apparently lost the Alpine Garden trail and assumed that they had also missed intersecting the Lion Head trail.  Fearing that they may be descending into avalanche terrain in Tuckerman Ravine, the team turned around and headed back toward Huntington, only to descend further into Raymond’s Cataract.  Initial phone signal location software placed the party in Center Conway, then Raymond’s Cataract, with a third and fourth call indicating that the group was at the top of Pinnacle Buttress and on the Alpine Garden Trail, respectively.

Two teams comprised of a Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake caretaker each accompanied by volunteer paramedic climbers staying at the Harvard Cabin, were dispatched shortly after the 911 call was received. The team’s search assignment was to scan for a headlamp above the Huntington Ravine Fire Road between the Lion Head Winter Route and the ridge forming the southern end of Huntington Ravine. Around 11pm, the search parties made visual contact with the climbers who were in the steep area of short cliff bands in the woods to the north of the Raymond Cataract waterfall. One of the search parties reached the three climbers and led them back to the Harvard Cabin, reaching it at 1am.

Analysis: Many climbers with experience in the mountains have their own tale to tell of being benighted or disoriented. In retrospect, it’s easy to find errors but applying lessons learned makes us more resilient and lends perspective and maybe even less prone to repeat the same mistakes. We rely heavily on visual cues to navigate and maintain our balance. Remove or reduce that sense and anyone can easily become disoriented. The disorientation experienced while traveling “inside the ping pong ball” of a whiteout is something that can mislead even those with intimate knowledge of the terrain.

A travel plan for an outing should include contingencies for the preferred descent route, variations in weather and snowpack conditions, injuries in the party, or forgotten gear. Having a plan in place to handle adverse weather, low visibility, or unforeseen incidents is a good idea on any longer climb in the mountains. The ability to navigate in adverse conditions should be in the skill set of anyone venturing into Huntington Ravine, particularly when climbing a long technical route. This includes having GPS coordinates of critical locations*, as well as having a map, compass, and knowing how to use them appropriately.

Having the right equipment can buy time when caught out above treeline and the increased comfort can lower stress levels and lead to better decision making. If you are going above treeline, clear or yellow googles, facemasks, a light for everyone in the party are vital. This party was no doubt slowed down by having only one light between them and was fortunate that this light functioned throughout their descent. A small back-up headlamp that lives in your climbing pack can serve as backup to failed batteries, faulty wiring or a simple oversight.

It is important to understand that a phone is a last resort for emergency communication and not an alternative to complete self-sufficiency. They simply are not as reliable in the mountains. With phone calls to this party, we confirmed their position and helped them navigate back to the trail. Phones can be great tools, but you can reduce the chances of needing to use it by being fully prepared with the right equipment, knowledge, and skills.

January 17, 2016, Human-triggered avalanche incidents

Synopsis: On Sunday, January 17, a wind slab avalanche cycle on the east side of Mount Washington occurred following a period of moderate snowfall and wind. Two human-triggered avalanches occurred, one of which was widely publicized on social media and in the news. A number of factors led to the incidents which are worth looking into in order to shed light on some of the issues around the events. As is the case with many accidents, it is easy to pick out poor decisions in hindsight. In reviewing incidents, it is also rarely productive assigning blame to individuals compared to what lesson can be drawn. This incident presents an opportunity to highlight what appear to be trends in travel practices and decision making on Mt. Washington.

Weather: The snowfall leading up to the avalanche cycle was a typical upslope snow event which often follows more robust synoptic systems passing through our region. As an air mass is forced up and over the windward side of the range, the cooling process turns lingering atmospheric moisture into snow. In the case of the Sunday, January 17 avalanche cycle, the synoptic storm system had deposited 8” on the mountain on the prior Tuesday and Wednesday. A period of unsettled weather followed with 2” falling Thursday and Friday accompanied by periods of high winds and prolonged low visibility. A natural avalanche cycle occurred sometime during this loading event with the areas beneath Center Bowl and Chute later showing debris piles. By the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, as a Nor’easter passed offshore to the east, snow began to fall again during a 4 hour period of light SE and SSE winds. This snowfall became the weak layer when the wind shifted to the west and increased to the 50 mph range. By Sunday morning, sky conditions were clearing with W wind speeds in the 50’s mph lifting snow plumes with the previous days 5.5” snow (.55” SWE) from the alpine elevations. These plumes were visible from the parking lot at Pinkham Notch in the early morning hours. By 10am cold temperatures and blowing snow had begun to give way to clear skies, sunshine, and light wind.

Avalanche activity: By late morning, skiers and climbers began to test the slopes in both Ravines.  Two skiers reported triggering a small slab (R1, D1) near Lunch Rocks beneath the Lip around 11am. One skier was carried about 20’ before arresting his slide. A little later, a guide entered South Gully in Huntington Ravine causing a slab to collapse and settle in place with no avalanche. At 12:50pm, an avalanche from the mid-section of Chute in Tuckerman Ravine caught and carried the two climbers who triggered the slide. Also caught were a solo skier crossing the runout on his way to Left Gully and two from a group of three skiers climbing up the track below the climbers. Of these five people caught and carried, two received minor injuries, with only one transported to a hospital. An avalanche course and a number of students were approximately 15’ from the moving debris on a 40 degree slope which had avalanched earlier in the avalanche cycle.

Chicken Rock Gully: SS-ASu-R1-D1, reported as 10-15cm deep, 15m wide, ran to elevation of the base of Lunch Rocks

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully.

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully. (image: MWAC, taken morning of Jan 17, 2016)

 

Chute: SS-AFu-R2-D1.5, estimated to be 10-50cm x 30m wide crown, 115m track of 400m path

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image from Facebook)

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image: from Facebook)

 

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

Analysis: We have been seeing both positive trends in avalanche terrain travel choices and decision making as well as trends leaving room for improvement. Unfortunately, the trends needing improvement are all too common.

First, for the positives:

  • Everyone involved was geared up appropriately for winter conditions with the right warm clothing, boots, etc. Despite the reputation Mount Washington has for “the world’s worst weather,” the number of travelers who come unprepared for the cold and wind is astounding.
  • Some of the individuals involved were equipped and trained to apply first aid skills to the injured. Similar to the increasing trend in avalanche education we are seeing, there appears to be an increased interest in becoming more self-sufficient in the mountains. While at times Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines seem like frontcountry recreation areas with Snow Rangers and caretakers at both Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake, it is important to remember that these locales are indeed backcountry settings and help can often be a long way away.
  • Many of the individuals nearby, and one of the skiers who was in the path, were carrying avalanche rescue gear including beacons, probes, and shovels.
  • Several Level 1 avalanche classes were in progress in Tuckerman Ravine. More and more people each year are seeking out professionally-taught avalanche courses which is a very good thing.
  • At least some of the parties read the General Avalanche Bulletin issued on Saturday morning. This type of Bulletin is valid for up to three days, and was both in effect and posted Sunday morning. The Bulletin accurately described recent and upcoming snowfall and wind loading as well as the developed slopes which would become bed surfaces in this avalanche cycle.

Areas for improvement and lessons to take away:

  • Of the five people caught in the avalanche, none were wearing beacons or carrying avalanche rescue gear. Sadly, this is not that unusual in our terrain. The avalanche class was wearing beacons and carrying rescue gear, as was one skier who was able to get out of the path as well as the two skiers who triggered Chicken Rock Gully. Frequently, climbers leave behind avalanche rescue gear to save weight, leaving no quick course of action should burial occur. Hats off to all who recognize the value of carrying avalanche rescue gear to be searchable and have the committed discipline to carrying it. The gear may or may not save your life should you get caught, but it certainly won’t help you if it is in your closet. Situations change, plans change, and mistakes happen—always carry the gear.
  • Given the clustering of users near the Chute, it seems safe to assume that the Social Proof heuristic was at play. Following some discussion, the avalanche class chose to travel in steep terrain beneath a recently loaded slope. They were followed by the party of two climbers and the three skiers. Whether due to the easier travel following in someone else’s boot track, the erroneous assumption that a slope is safe because someone else already traveled on it, or the belief that other travelers know more than you, this behavior is all too common in Tuckerman Ravine. The two climbers then passed the avalanche class and ventured onto the unstable slope.  This bunching in avalanche terrain forces constant re-evaluation of hazard. Additional challenges exist when trying to rebalance risk on a continual basis based on actions of others outside your control.  This issue has been a factor in many avalanche accidents and fatalities locally, as well as around the world.  Mount Washington has very concentrated avalanche terrain and has a high amount of visitation.  We have seen on many occasions a group descend a route while others are unwittingly climbing up in the same avalanche path. This makes safe travel difficult when instabilities exist on a weekend on Mount Washington. Your party’s movements may be under tight control and stay within your chosen level of accepted risk, but only in the absence of other more unpredictable people.   Take the same scenario, with other people as an uncontrollable variable, and you may increase your risk rapidly.  This issue was demonstrated by this incident.  We often see a compounding effect of visitors concentrating together in unstable conditions when they should be considering staying clear of one another by using fracture limiting terrain features and avoiding runout paths.  This is certainly a major challenge for guided parties, courses and organized parties.  Managing objective mountain hazards like icefall, avalanches, crevasses, etc. is hard enough, but adding subjective hazards due to other parties may be untenable. Every leader must balance the group’s level of skill with their agreed upon risk tolerance on a constant basis
  • An associated concern to the above is the challenges of spreading out to reduce overall risk. While spreading out is a good, basic technique for traveling in or below avalanche terrain it may not be as effective as it is often assumed without a quality pre-plan to reduce risk. This pre-plan would review the actual benefits compared to truly going one at time, how you will communicate when spread out if new observations or decisions need to be made, and is this the best route.  A best route option should always be a constant question.  This can be a difficult decision because the safest route is often less convenient. Again, the effectiveness of spreading out as a team of 2 climbers, 3 skiers, or a large avalanche class are complicated when they are all interacting in the same terrain exposed to the hazards.
  • The two climbers overlooked a red flag when they climbed over a recently reloaded crown line and onto a slope that rises from 40 to 45 degrees or more. Moreover, all parties involved in the Chute incident crossed beneath this slope within 4 hours of a period of active loading. While everyone chooses their own level of acceptable risk, it is unclear whether all parties involved sought out the information needed to make an informed decision by reading the posted General Avalanche Bulletin or seeking the right weather data. Hourly precipitation and weather data can be found here and is included among the list of other useful weather related websites on our site. These sites can be incredibly useful tools in the planning stages of your trip or even in the field when cell access is available (don’t forget a pocket charger or spare battery).

Lastly, a short discussion of MWAC’s published products, and any avalanche advisory for that matter, is worthwhile. It is a valuable topic to expand upon specifically. See “Avalanche Products” in our website Blog, ‘The Pit’ this weekend for a more in depth discussion.

  • A General Avalanche Bulletin, which was published the day before these avalanche incidents, is used to convey hazards that are most typically a problem during the early and late season. This document is a one page narrative describing the hazards, but does not assign a danger rating. It is a broad discussion to highlight that instabilities and avalanche potential may currently exist, although not across the entire forecasting area in each Ravine.
  • It is a common occurrence across the United States to see active visitor use in avalanche terrain and have avalanche accidents before a 5-Scale Avalanche Danger Rating Advisory is utilized. These occur under either Informational Bulletins or no products. These isolated instabilities are acceptable and tolerated without postings due to the limited nature of the issues.  Incidents, although unfortunate, are a national actuality based on statistical probabilities and ever increasing backcountry use numbers. This fact clearly focuses to the importance of possessing avalanche knowledge and field skills.  This is an important reality to note when entering any avalanche terrain whether in the Eastern or Western United States.
  • Gaining and maintaining good avalanche assessment skills, training and experience is critical. If you don’t have this knowledge we would highly encourage you to get it through controlled learning environments versus relying solely on posted advisories.  As stated in our Bulletins and Advisories, it is merely one tool to make field decisions. This is not a disclaimer; it addresses the complexity and nature of avalanches and the inevitable spatial variability we often see.  If the Advisory states one thing and our dynamic weather creates another reality with increasing hazard, certainly go with your observations and neck hackles and not the advisory.  Your future well-being makes it essential that avalanche skills match your desire for playing in the mountains.  It will also help you draw as much as possible from the Advisory tool because we’ll be speaking the same language.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact us at mwactucks@gmail.com  We’ll do our best to respond in a timely manner.

Avalanche Accident – January 17, 2016

The following news release was issued by the White Mountain National Forest Sunday evening, January 17th. A more comprehensive accident summary and lessons learned will be posted later.

Two Climbers Trigger Tuckerman Avalanche

Early on Sunday afternoon, January 17, 2016, two climbers from Canada triggered and were caught by an avalanche in “The Chute” located in Tuckerman Ravine.

Just before 1 pm, the climbers ascended the couloir on the left side of the Ravine. Four other skiers and an avalanche class were nearby at the time. The pair of climbers reached the narrow point of the slope after climbing several hundred vertical feet from the floor of the ravine on a steepening slope. They climbed over an old fracture line a foot to a foot and a half high and continued into softer snow. After ascending approximately 30 more feet through deeper snow, the climber in front felt that the slope may be unstable and decided to turn around. As they turned to descend, the slope fractured about 75-100’ above them and approximately 75-100’ wide. The two climbers were carried most of the distance to the Ravine floor.  Two of the three nearby skiers were also caught and carried varying distances by the debris as well, while another skier below was able to dodge the debris. (see correction below)

One of the two climbers, Michel Houde from Lorraine, Quebec, sustained non-life threatening injuries and was treated and released by Snow Ranger staff and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. One of the skiers, Kaj Huld from Brunswick Maine, also received non-life threatening injuries. Members of several nearby avalanche classes assisted in transporting the second climber by litter to Hermit Lake where he was transported by snowmobile to Gorham EMS waiting in Pinkham Notch.

The Mount Washington Observatory reported 5.5” of snow on the summit during the previous day, with around 4” falling at Hermit Lake. Summit winds blew between 40 mph and 60 mph overnight from the west. Plumes of wind transported snow were visible in the morning as Snow Rangers made snowpack assessments. The wind shifted to the NW and diminished to 20 mph when visitors began to enter Tuckerman.

Each year from December 1st through May 31st, the US Forest Service is the lead agency coordinating SAR missions on the eastern side of Mount Washington which includes Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines.  The White Mountain National Forest operates the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to provide safety information and SAR services to the public.   The Avalanche Center had posted a General Bulletin Saturday Morning, January 16th ,on www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org for the holiday weekend. A brief follow up analysis of the incident will be post on the website this week.

#######end#####

Correction: the solo skier who is described as having “dodged the debris” was indeed hit and injured by the avalanche. In total, six people were in the path when it released. Only one was able to avoid being caught. Two of the five caught were injured. Broken down by group: of the two climbers who triggered the slide had one was injured; of the group of three, one escaped while the other two were caught, carried, and thankfully uninjured; there was also the aforementioned solo skier traversing his way low in the track toward Left Gully.