Disoriented in whiteout conditions – Lion Head and Alpine Garden trails

Events: At 11:50 am on Saturday, January 16, a 911 call was relayed to snow rangers at Hermit Lake by the AMC Front Desk that 3 climbers had lost their way while descending from a climb in Huntington Ravine. Coordinates provided by location services from the caller’s phone placed the caller 1/10 mile north of the junction of the Lion Head Trail and Alpine Garden Trail. The user was calm but concerned that the situation would take a turn for the worse if they couldn’t find the trail. Wind recorded on the summit at the time was near 80mph from the ESE with gusts in the 100-110 mph range. They did not need a rescue at the time but wanted to share location information to be safe.

At 12:45 pm, another call from 911 dispatch came in sharing the phone number of a person who lost the trail near the previous caller’s location. Joining the call with the dispatcher revealed a much higher level of distress. Winds from the ESE were now steady in the 85 mph range and gusting near 110 and likely higher. Snow was falling at a rate of an inch and hour or more and blowing snow and fog severely limited visibility. A hasty team of three snow rangers were dispatched to the location carrying warming rescue gear. The caller was a mile from the cabin but 1400’ vertical above. The lead snow ranger and dispatcher convinced the individual to stand and walk into the wind to find the trail and head back down the Lion Head Trail. The hasty rescue team of 3 made contact with the subject not far above Hermit Lake in the switchbacks.

Analysis: Typical ground conditions in events like these make it hard or impossible to see from one trail marking cairn to the next. Combined with drifting snow on the ground, normal navigational cues such as rock cairns, turnpiking, and crampon scratched ice and rock are lost. Veteran guides and rescuers, including this writer, with scores of Mount Washington ascents and decades of experience have lost their way in even milder conditions. It is important to note that wind direction in the alpine zone is a critical data point. East winds are unusual and generally limited to passing strong low pressure systems and the associated wrap around winds. Hikers on the Lion Head Trail are shielded by the summit “cone” along much of that trail above treeline but only from west and northwest wind. An east wind strikes this area unmitigated by any terrain features. When wind approaches 50 mph on the ground, walking is exceedingly difficult and being knocked down is a regular occurrence. Snow on the ground is whipped into the air and stinging needles of snow make functional goggles a requirement.

On this day, the first party struggled through these conditions but were relatively well equipped. The second caller, travelling solo, has a depth of experience and was extremely fit with car to car trips to the summit of Washington taking 4 hours in better conditions. Dressed in clothing appropriate for a September hike in settled weather, this avid trail runner found themselves in conditions that led them to believe that they would die of exposure. The panic that accompanied losing the way, combined with reduced visibility, disoriented the runner in the flat area of the alpine plateau. They wallowed off trail in the krumholz (wind shaped, stunted fir trees) in chest deep snow and brush but found some shelter from the wind deep in the snow and bushes. Had they not been able to find the trail, it seems likely they soon would have been immobilized by moderate to severe hypothermia and may even have perished due to low visibility hampering a rescue. The decision to leave the safety of the deep snow in which they were apparently captive most likely saved their life. The running shoes, tights and lightweight insulating jacket and waterproof shell were not enough to allow this person to remain in place until help arrived. Once in the snow ranger cabin, several hours on the floor heater with dry clothes and the Norwegian heater were required to start the needed shivering again and to raise core temperature from the low 90’s Fahrenheit back to normal. After being fed and rehydrated, the person was transported and released at Pinkham Notch several hours later.

Forecast for the day from the avalanche center included the following:

2” of liquid precipitation in the form of mostly snow with possibly a wintry mix is forecast today. For the first half of the day, snow showers become steady and intense snowfall as temperatures will warm and winds increase. Winds from the SE will increase from 45-60 mph to 50-70 mph with gusts up to 90 mph. Summit temperatures increase from the high teens F to lower 20’s F. Up to 7” of snow is possible by 1pm. At around mid-day, winds decrease from 25 to 45 mph as snowfall continues and temperatures creep higher, possibly reaching the upper 20’s on the summit before falling again after dark. Snow accumulations of 6 to 10” are possible today.

Long Sliding Fall – Tuckerman Ravine Trail

Events:

On the morning of Saturday, January 9, 2021, two 20 year old males were ascending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Around 11 am, witnesses noted these two individuals on foot, falling near the rollover at the top of the ravine. Both individuals fell around 500 vertical feet, impacting exposed boulders and ice along the way. One came to a stop on a ledge above the final ice cliff while the other fell past this point and was described as being airborne until he landed on his upper back in the snow below the ice cliff.

The incident was reported to snow rangers shortly after noon. Both patients were reportedly conscious, though one potentially had an altered level of consciousness. A hasty team departed Hermit Lake with an EMT medical pack and AED. Additional personnel followed close behind with technical rescue gear.

At 12:30 pm, en route to the ravine, the hasty team encountered one patient walking downhill with a bystander. This was the individual who had landed at the base of the ice cliff. His clothing was wet, so he had been stripped of the wet clothing and given a dry jacket, helmet, and trekking poles. After a patient assessment, it was determined that he should continue on foot, assisted, to the USFS cabin at Hermit Lake for further assessment and rewarming.

Upon arrival at Lunch Rocks, snow rangers determined that the safest and most expedient access to the 2nd patient was to ascend steep snow to the right of the patient, rather than directly up the ice cliff. Snow rangers reached this patient shortly after 1 pm. He was chilled, as he had been sitting on the snow for about 2 hours, so he was given an extra jacket and gloves. The patient was provided a harness and rope belay, and guided down steep snow to the ravine floor. A technical litter and anchor had been prepared, but was deemed unnecessary as his injuries were limited. He was also comfortable walking to the cabin for further assessment.

Rescuer and patient looking across the ravine at exposed hazards lower in the runouts of Chute and Center Headwall, which are not yet full-length ski runs.

Analysis:

Both individuals were equipped with leather hiking boots and microspikes. The pair had trekking poles in the mix, but no ice axes. They were navigating using the GPS in their phones. One individual had been on the same route 4-5 times before, while the other was there for the first time. Their objective was to ascend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, and presumably continue to the summit.

One patient reported reaching a point where his microspikes provided insufficient traction. He said he fell forward like a starfish, slid over an ice bulge, and continued falling. His partner saw this happen, lost his footing, and subsequently fell as well. Both individuals impacted multiple exposed boulders and ice bulges during their descent.

This season has seen slower snowpack development than recent years. December accumulation took a big hit from the Christmas rain event, and January has provided less than 6” of new snow so far. As such, exposed hazards abound and present a minefield of challenges and consequences.

Looking upslope from where patient #2 landed at the top of the ice cliff.

At the time, the aspect they were in was intermittently exposed to solar radiation through fog and scattered clouds. Perhaps more importantly, temperatures were relatively warm (25F at the summit), so the snow may have been more forgiving to soft boots than otherwise would have been the case. However, this very well could have provided a false sense of confidence that evaporated once they had to navigate bare ice with inadequate traction. The two hikers encountered difficulties near the top of the ravine, where wind often scours the soft snow and leaves a hard, icy surface.

In the winter, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail through the headwall becomes a true mountaineering objective, complete with steep sections of hard frozen snow, cliffs of ice, and snow slopes capable of producing an avalanche. Individuals choosing to climb this route should be prepared with proper mountaineering equipment and the skills to use them. Rigid boots, crampons, two ice axes, avalanche rescue gear (beacon, probe, and shovel), and a roped system to protect against a long dangerous fall are often required to climb through this steep section safely.

Ultimately, these individuals were incredibly lucky. Despite numerous bumps and bruises, neither experienced significant trauma. Despite inadequate gear for conditions in the ravine, multiple bystanders were willing to provide equipment, support, and reassurance, and to seek qualified help to extricate patients from steep terrain.

Mount Washington is relatively accessible, and oftentimes people manage to get away with an objective despite a lack of preparation and appropriate equipment. However, this accessibility means there are also plentiful resources available. Trip planning must consider weather and avalanche conditions, which are provided locally by the Mount Washington Observatory and Mount Washington Avalanche Center. Trip planning must consider trail conditions and suggested routes. Caretakers provide this readily at Hermit Lake and Harvard Cabin, as well as AMC staff at Pinkham Notch. Maps and appropriate equipment can be acquired from numerous retail locations and guide services in the area. Local guide services are also a great way to learn to use said equipment, and learn best practices for movement and decision making in the mountains.

While we all learn from mistakes, we can stack the cards in our favor to avoid mistakes such as these. Seek relevant information, don’t skimp on safety gear, and embrace continuous education in mountain sense.

Long Sliding Fall – Chute

March 9, 2020. AMC Hermit Lake Caretaker reported seeing a person falling end-over-end “tomahawking” the length of Chute in Tuckerman Ravine around noon. The Caretaker and Snow Ranger responding were pleased to find that the patient had no apparent injuries. The skier walked downhill to Hermit Lake and was assisted to the road by snow machine.

It was reported at the time of the fall, the skier was still climbing up somewhere near the top of Chute, wearing leather boots with micro-spikes and no ice tool. He had ski boots and skis on a back pack. The snow was still firm, barely softened by the sun.

Safe climbing of steep snow, especially hard snow requires the skilled use of stiff boots, crampons and an ice axe or two to prevent a fall from occurring. When climbing without the protection of a rope belay, preventing a fall from happening is a climber’s/skier’s primary means of safety since arresting a fall with an ice axe is difficult with, and impossible without.

Video here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B9j0hA-HtDA/?igshid=15m8w2rcfwucf

 

 

 

Sliding fall, Chute, 2019-5-12

Sliding fall, exit of Right Gully

Close call: Fall into deep waterfall hole

As winter turns rapidly to spring, a number of hazards become prevalent in the steep terrain of the Presidential Range and particularly the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine. Waterfall holes, glide cracks or crevasses, moats around cliffs and rocks, and other deep holes open as the thick snowpack melts. A fall into these holes, which often also have significant amounts of cold flowing water which can quickly cause hypothermia, can be very difficult to escape or be rescued from. Such accidents have resulted in several fatalities in Tuckerman Ravine. A lucky skier had a very close call in this type of accident yesterday.

At 1:58 PM on Monday, April 22, a skier fell over the Tuckerman Ravine headwall and into one of several waterfall holes. Partners and bystanders quickly initiated rescue efforts and also called 911 for emergency response. Unsure of where under the snow the fallen skier was, a beacon search was initiated and could have been helpful, though this was a non-avalanche accident. At 2:18 pm, after 20 minutes out of view to the rescuers, the subject climbed out of a different hole in the snow and slid down to the rescue party below him in the slope. He had lost his skis, poles, and pack.

The subject was alert, oriented, and able to walk but in pain from several impacts during the fall. He was also cold and wet from spending most of the 20 minutes in very cold flowing water, though not submerged. The rescue party quickly changed his clothes to drier ones. They wrapped him in a sleeping bag and briefly transported him in a rescue litter obtained from the nearby Connection Cache of emergency supplies. In effort to warm the subject, the rescue party then helped the subject begin walking down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail towards Hermit Lake.

The fall line glissade track just right of center leads up to waterfall hole and accident site, with partners of the subject shown helping him walk downhill.

Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers were notified of the incident by emergency dispatchers. They travelled to Hermit Lake with urgency, aware than similar accidents have historically been fatal. Upon arriving at Hermit Lake, Snow Rangers were told by the AMC caretaker that the subject had extracted himself from the waterfall hole and was walking, with aid, down to Hermit Lake. They proceeded up the trail, meeting the rescue party at 3:20 PM. The subject, still alert and oriented but now warmer, was transported to Pinkham Notch via snowcat and released to the care of friends.

This positive outcome should be regarded as quite lucky and be taken as a warning for all who travel on steep snow slopes in spring conditions in our mountains. Had the subject, who was a strong athlete and also a climber, been unable to self-extricate himself from the waterfall hole the outcome could have been far worse. Many of these deep holes in the snow are impossible for even the strongest individual to climb out of. Extricating a person from these holes can be very dangerous for rescuers and is difficult to accomplish in a sufficiently timely manner to save a life. We know the subject would urge you to learn from this accident, giving potentially deep holes and glide cracks in the snow a wide berth and taking care to not fall above one.

The rescue initiated by partners and bystanders of the subject was a positive example we would also like you to learn from. Partners were paying attention to each other and able to quickly initiate a rescue. They had sufficient dry clothing and emergency supplies to provide proper care for the subject. Several emergency medical professionals observed the accident and immediately helped rescue efforts. Rescuers had knowledge that a litter and hypothermia wrap materials were available in nearby Connection Cache and used them. All individuals on the scene had avalanche rescue gear, as large wet slab avalanches were forecast as unlikely but not impossible that day. While a call was made for professional rescue, this group realized that they could provide timely aid to the subject and took appropriate action that could have resulted in an effective evacuation had professional rescue been delayed or unavailable. This self-reliant level of accident response is commendable. It is also the level of response that everyone travelling in the backcountry should be prepared for, every time you’re out.

Please learn from this accident to have a safer spring ski season, and see you on the hill!

April 11, 2019 Avalanche Fatality, Raymond Cataract

Around lunchtime on Thursday, April 11, 2019, two hikers took a break on the summit of Lion Head. This ridge separates Tuckerman Ravine from a stream drainage to the north known as Raymond Cataract. While on Lion Head, they noted a skier descending into Raymond Cataract, an ephemeral, but recently popular ski descent only possible during winters with a deep snowpack.

The hikers remarked on the solid and skillful turns the skier was making and watched him descend out of view. At the same time, two skiers skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail watched a solo skier make a couple of turns in upper Raymond Cataract and then returned their focus to skinning. Unknown to anyone, within a few turns of both sightings, Nicholas Benedix would ski over a convex 39 degree bulge and trigger a fatal avalanche.