The current snowpack at mid and upper elevations in the Presidential Range presents widespread hazards of long sliding falls. These hazards are a result of warm weather and rain followed by a refreeze.
Looking at the MWOBS F6 for March reveals nearly a week (03/21 to 03/26) of average daily temperatures that were 15-20F above average. On March 31, the summit stayed above the freezing mark overnight before temperature dropped rapidly on Thursday, April 1. Rain was observed at the summit for 12 hours before turning to freezing rain, sleet, and then snow. Summit temperature dropped below zero Thursday night and remained in the single digits above zero on Friday. The Hermit Lake snow plot, just below Tuckerman Ravine, reached a high of 18F. Accordingly, Friday’s forecast warned of long sliding fall hazards: “the risks associated with taking a long sliding fall are the greatest concern, by far, for safe travel in steep terrain today.”
On Friday, a group of skiers climbed into South Gully in Huntington Ravine. They assessed conditions as they ascended, finding a variable mix of edgeable snow and ice patches. When the snow became too firm for easy booting in crampons, they stopped climbing and transitioned to skis. The first skier made a few turns before losing an edge, resulting in a tumbling slide over a buttress. He collided with a tree below with enough speed to cause a femur fracture. His party and nearby skiers and climbers responded quickly and prepared for a litter evacuation. Snow rangers arrived on scene with the litter, which was belayed down to low angle terrain and transported by snowmobile to an ambulance.
Saturday brought clear skies and sunshine. This resulted in some softening of surface snow, but the long sliding fall hazard persisted beneath. Early in the afternoon, a skier lost control near the Lip in Tuckerman Ravine and took a long sliding fall down to the ravine floor. He sustained injuries to the knee and shoulder. A suspected shoulder dislocation was unable to be reduced in the field. He was unable to walk due to the knee injury, necessitating a litter evacuation down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrollers, the Hermit Lake Caretaker, bystanders, and a belay rope were all necessary to transport him down to Hermit Lake safely. A snowmobile then transported the skier to the parking lot.
Shortly thereafter, a second skier was injured in a long sliding fall in Tuckerman Ravine. A bystander assisted in treating the resulting shoulder injury and the skier was able to hike out after being loaned a pair of crampons.
Later that afternoon, a skier was seen falling the entire length of Main Gully in Gulf of Slides, around 800 vertical feet. The skier was reported to be sliding very fast, and tumbled airborne multiple times on the way down. The severity of initial reports necessitated immediate response. Two MWAC snow rangers began traveling to Gulf of Slides from Hermit Lake while other MWAC staff contacted Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team to request helicopter assistance. Unfortunately, when the DHART helicopter arrived to assess the area, all landing zone options were deemed unsuitable. Snow rangers made contact with the skier, who was being transported down the trail in a litter, and assessed his injuries. Finding the skier stable, the decision was made to continue with the litter transport. About 15 people assisted with this process, including nearby skiers, snow rangers, and NH Fish and Game officers. The rescue party reached the parking lot well after dark and the skier was cared for and transported to the hospital by Gorham EMS.
Remember that there can be a fine line between being in control and being totally at the mercy of the mountains. As such, be prepared for the conditions and consequences of the day. Start by tracking weather and snow conditions. Bring your beacon, shovel, and probe when traveling in avalanche terrain. Equip yourself with crampons and an ice axe to navigate steep slopes. Know how to use your equipment and practice regularly. Assess risks and consequences constantly. Temporal and spatial variability can provide avenues to improve your safety margins, but could also result in the opposite – whether you recognize it or not. Stay alert as you travel so you can recognize no-fall zones and choose terrain carefully. Know your abilities and limits. In case things still go wrong, be prepared to stay warm and self evacuate.
Thanks to all responding parties, AMC Caretakers, MWVSP, NH Fish and Game, Gorham EMS and DHART. Events such as these often require a community effort. We are fortunate to be surrounded by a community that is always willing to help.
On the morning of Tuesday, March 23, an individual was descending Right Gully in Tuckerman Ravine. The man, 70 years old and traveling alone, was equipped with extra layers, crampons, and an ice axe. He described following the obvious deep footsteps in the snow that had been well-established by skier traffic. While descending, he lost his balance and was unable to arrest his fall. The man came to a stop near the top of Lunch Rocks after sliding around 300 feet. It was sunny with light wind in the ravine, and the temperature was in the 40s F.
In addition to mild weather conditions, good fortune came in the form of a quick response. The Hermit Lake Caretaker was nearby and established that an unstable knee injury was the chief complaint. He notified MWAC snow rangers by radio, two of whom happened to be at Connection Cache, near the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. Two snow rangers hauled a litter and rope up to the patient, arriving at the same time as an off-duty member of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. The Harvard Cabin Caretaker arrived shortly after.
The patient’s left knee was splinted, and a sling was applied to his right shoulder to relieve discomfort. Rescuers loaded the patient into the litter and lowered him down to the ravine floor. The patient was then slid down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, with the assistance of a belay rope for the steepest sections. Along the way, one rescuer sustained a puncture wound from a crampon point while postholing on the edge of the trail. After a brief transition at the snow ranger cabin, the patient was transported downhill by snowmobile and received care at Memorial Hospital.
The change of seasons brings longer daylight hours and generally more pleasant conditions for recreation. However, the arrival of spring is also marked by an uptick in other objective mountain hazards. Snow conditions can vary widely from one aspect to another, and from one hour to another. A frozen sliding surface can turn to mashed potatoes and back as sunlight moves around a rock buttress. A trail treadway can be solidly compacted, while stepping inches off to the side results in a thigh-deep posthole. Open water can appear overnight, or snow undermined by running water can collapse suddenly under foot or under ski. Glide cracks (crevasses) large enough to ensnare a ski can be thinly covered by snow, or be imperceptible from above. Ice fall can occur due to solar gain and warming ambient temperatures. Keep your head on a swivel for these potential hazards as well as people moving around you, uphill and downhill.
Note: The Lunch Rocks area continues to be referred to using the name derived from its historical use. It should be noted that Lunch Rocks is actually a hazardous place to have lunch due to the threat of icefall from above. Think of Lunch Rocks as a large bullseye and choose a different location to enjoy the spring skiing atmosphere.
On Sunday, March 21, multiple skier falls occurred in Tuckerman Ravine as skiers tested themselves in this extremely steep terrain. Snow conditions varied that day between boot-top deep soft, wet corn snow with firm crust in the shade or where swept off by skiers and riders. While on patrol, a snow ranger offered some advice to one in a party of three climbers attempting to descend the Lip. The group was properly equipped with ice axes, mountain boots, harnesses and helmets but at least one climber was descending the main ski line wearing micro-spikes. According the the climber, he had switched from crampons due to the “snowballing” that was occurring that day. (Snow can stick between crampon points in sunny, cool conditions). Two others in the party were preparing to use a rope to descend the steep sidehill which represents the now deeply buried Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Later, while descending Sluice, the snow ranger watched as a climber rolled down the 45-50 degree slope, winding up a length of rope in the process. An ice axe fastened to the end of the rope bounced around while coming closer and closer to the falling climber as the rope wound around them. Fortunately, the slope in the Lip is relatively short, or short enough in this case, considering the rope length in this case. No impalement occurred.
The three climbers were receptive to a short demo of the principles and construction of T-axe anchors versus plunged axe or stake anchors just after this near-miss. Training in various snow anchoring and belay methods and the experience and judgement to employ them in the right way in the appropriate terrain can reduce the risk and consequences of falls in our terrain. Consider taking a course in mountaineering skills and be sure sure to carefully match techniques to the terrain and conditions. An inadequate anchor can lead to significant problems.
On Sunday March 14th, at approximately 5:15pm, a hiker took a long sliding fall while descending a steep section of the Lion Head Winter Route. The group of three were wearing lightweight hiking boots with microspikes and carried ice axes. A local guide and paramedic/ER nurse was descending with clients, using a handline placed in steep sections to increase security. The guide witnessed the movements of the team of three and noted that they were attempting to glissade in some places and scooting down on their butts in others. Shortly before the long fall, one of the 3 in the party with the injury, slid some distance, losing their ice axe in the process, which the guide returned to them. Above the rock step, another of the party slid the length of that steep section, struck his head on a tree, was knocked unconscious and sustained a 6″ laceration to the forehead, coming to rest in the patch of trees in the fall line below. The guide then assisted his clients to safety, treated the patient and short roped the injured hiker to the Fire Road. He accompanied the patient and the party to Pinkham, arriving at 9:30pm by headlamp.
The team of three was using the wrong equipment for a trip above treeline. Strap crampons offer much better security. Many brands of them work reasonably well, even when attached to inappropriately soft and uninsulated boots. Microspikes are great for low angled trails under 15-20 degrees in steepness but the rubber straps stretch and come loose on steeper terrain. Additionally, the short points on the bottom of microspike type devices do not penetrate snow to grip the firm surface beneath. Long sliding falls kill more people in the Presidential range than hypothermia or avalanches. Invest in stiff soled mountaineering boots and crampons. Proper ice axe use requires training.
Wednesday, February 3, 2021, a NH Fish and Game officer contacted the lead snow ranger at the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center to ask for assistance in locating the vehicle of an individual who was reported missing on Tuesday night, Ian Forgays, a 54 year old male from Vermont. Recent communications between Ian and his friends suggested that he had been planning a day of backcountry skiing, either in Ammonoosuc Ravine or Monroe Brook on the west side of Mount Washington, on Monday, Feb. 1, prior to the start of a significant winter storm arriving Monday night and continuing Tuesday.
On January 25, a group of skiers was descending the John Sherburne Ski Trail. Around 2:40 pm, just above crossover #7, one skier lost control due to a waterbar and dislocated their left shoulder during the fall. The individual had reportedly dislocated the same shoulder multiple times before and had a prior surgery as a result.
Fortunately, the individual was skiing with a well-prepared group. The group sat the skier down on a foam pad and provided extra puffy jackets and pants to retain warmth. Unable to reduce the shoulder in the field, the group tracked details of patient history and vitals while calling for help. The temperature hovered between 15-20F at their location and the trees provided the party with shelter from wind.
Snow rangers arrived on scene at 3:30 pm, finding the individual shivering but in good spirits surrounded by their group. The individual was helped onto a snowmobile and the injured arm was slung. The individual was then transported down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and reconvened with their group in the parking lot at 4 pm.
A normal or even mild day in the Presidential Range is still a bitterly cold day, particularly in the afternoon when the sun disappears behind the ridge. Perceived warmth while climbing and making turns in the sunshine becomes a distant memory when sitting in the snow and the shade, in discomfort or pain. If this incident had occurred in a more remote area or if snow rangers had not been standing next to snowmobiles upon receiving word of the incident, this relatively brief waiting game easily could have turned into a more serious situation.
Stack the odds in your favor. Recreate with extra gear for a worst-case scenario, and choose friends that do the same. Stay within view of one another, particularly in steep terrain. Remember that backcountry conditions are highly variable and a powdery waterbar can easily be followed by a rock-solid, wind-scoured waterbar. Keep your tips down and your head up.
On January 22 at 3:20 pm, a skier was caught by an avalanche triggered by his party and carried from near the top of Left Gully almost to the floor of the ravine. A ~six inch slab of new and wind deposited snow released from the uppermost start zone from skier 2’s feet as skier 1 made their first turn. Skier 1 was quickly swept into and under the moving debris and lost their skis and poles. When the flow stopped, they found themselves buried face down, fortunately with their head very near the surface, but the rest of their body buried by two feet or more of debris. They were unable to move but could raise their head for a breath.
Skier 2 did not see their friend and skied away. (Edit: Skier 2 found their friend but, without a shovel, was unable to dig them out.) Ultimately, skier 2 alerted others down by the Connection rescue cache. Bystanders closer to the scene began to dig out skier 1. Others arrived, including Hermit Lake and Harvard Cabin caretakers and later, snow rangers, to assist.
Just prior to the avalanche, a snow ranger suggested to the two skiers, who did not have beacons, shovels or probes, that they ski the lower angled slope between Right Gully and LC or the lower section of Left, if they skied anything at all. They later told snow rangers that the excitement of new snow drove them to the top and into the upper start zone where the incident then unfolded. These two were very helpful to the community by honestly sharing their story with snow rangers.
There were no natural avalanches reported that day which carried a Moderate danger rating, though the forecast included possible human triggering of D1-2 wind slabs. This pair was among many poorly equipped skiers or skiers traveling alone. Low visibility marked conditions for the day with periods of moderate snow squalls and minor wind loading at the tops of gullies.
Reading the forecast carefully, applying safe travel techniques, and carrying the proper equipment are fundamental to recreating in avalanche terrain. It is critical to acknowledge that the majority if avalanche incidents and fatalities occur in Moderate danger rating days where the avalanche hazard may include the potential for isolated, stubborn but large avalanches OR widespread, smaller avalanches, such as this day. Both can carry real consequences.
Editors note: Skier one’s skis were found later and returned by a good samaritan. Also, Skier One reported that his GPS watch recorded a total vertical drop during the avalanche of 850′ and a max speed of 53 mph.