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.

Two human-triggered avalanches

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.

Leg Injury Tuckerman Ravine Trail

A woman was hiking down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from Hermit Lake, when the snow and ice bridge she was walking on collapsed, causing a leg injury. She was transported in a litter to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center by members of her party, bystanders, MWVSP members, and USFS personnel.

Water Immersion Little Headwall

A group of three was descending the streambed between the bowl and the Little Headwall. One snowboarder was unable to avoid an open hole in the snowpack. He fell into the water with his snowboard still attached to his feet. His friends were able to quickly extend a ski pole to him. Despite being pulled by the force of rushing icy water, he was able to hold his position for several minutes. Eventually, he was unable to either be pulled up or hold on, and he was dragged underneath a snow bridge. Meanwhile, other bystanders had come along. One had entered the water on the downhill side and worked at freeing the snowboarder from that end. After a couple minutes, the snowboarder was pulled free from under the snow bridge.

He was hypothermic when extricated, with a diminished level of consciousness. His friends and bystanders worked to remove him from his soaked clothes and begin the rewarming process. AMC employees arrived on scene after he had been pulled from the water. By the time Snow Rangers arrived, his level of consciousness had improved and he was able to stand up under his own power. The snowboarder was able to walk himself down to the parking lot (with borrowed dry clothes.)

Each season, we try our best to inform skiers and snowboarders of the hazards related to riding the streambed. In this case, we had stopped recommending this as a descent route three days prior. The victim and his group stated that they were aware of the hazard presented by undermined snow. In this case, the group was very unlucky in that one fell into the water, but they were also very lucky that he came out of the situation alive. Many others had skied or ridden the slope in the days before this incident, long after the conditions had deteriorated beyond a safe level. Most of these people are unaware of how close they might have been to a similar incident, so in that respect, we see a big difference between this group and all the groups that do the same thing without consequence – at least this group now fully understands the risk involved.

Injured Skier Lunch Rocks

USFS and MWVSP responded to an injured skier being transported from the base of Lunch Rocks sitting on a snowboard provided by volunteers who were sitting at Lunch Rocks. Bystanders were directed to continue to transport the subject to a location away from ice fall hazard. Patient had fallen without binding release and sustained a lower leg injury. USFS and an AMC Caretaker assisted the patient to Hermit Lake where he was transferred to a litter and snowmobile drawn sled. Patient was driven to the Tuck trail/Fire Road junction where transport to PNVC continued with the assistance of two climbers descending from Pinnacle Gully.

Shortness of Breath, Tuckerman Ravine Trail

At approximately 0930 on a day which would see nearly 3000 visitors on the mountain, Snow Rangers received a relayed radio call from Gorham Dispatch via Mount Washington State Park staff of a hiker experiencing shortness of breath on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. One Snow Ranger and a MWVS Patroller descending to crossover #7, assessed the patient and transferred care from a nurse who had happened upon the gentlemen and rendered assistance. Personnel  transported the patient via snowmobile and transferred him to Gorham Ambulance. The patient was transported to Memorial Hospital and flown by helicopter to the cardiac care unit at Maine Medical Center.

The laws of probability would dictate that some percentage of visitors will experience a form of trauma while engaging in a high risk activity like steep skiing or climbing in our terrain. Those same laws also support the reality that medical emergencies in otherwise healthy people also emerge. It is great to have the assistance of bystanders when situations arise since a busy day increases the chance that our personnel and equipment may be stretched thin by emerging incidents. Kudos to this nurse who stepped up to help a stranger in need.

Knee Pain, Tuckerman Ravine Trail

Snow Rangers and MWVSP members treated a woman who fell into the soft snow alongside the Tuckerman Ravine trail. Patient complained of knee pain, was treated and later transported via snow cat to PNVC at 1700.

Long Sliding Fall – Chute

At approximately 1600, a skier took a long sliding fall down the Chute and suffered a lower leg injury. Patient was treated and assisted down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Hermit Lake and then transported via snow cat to PNVC at 1700.

Glissading With Crampons

At approximately 1430, a pair of climbers made the all too common mistake of glissading without first removing their crampons.  The resulting trauma to the lower leg of the less experienced member of the party resulted in a minor sprain. The patient was transported via Pisten Bully to Pinkham Notch.

Wounded Skier Sherburne Ski Trail

At approximately 1600, Snow Rangers received word via radio that a skier with a laceration was being treated on the Sherburne Ski Trail. Snow Rangers and MWVSP members responded to find that the patient had been treated and the wound properly dressed by a recreating ski patroller and was being transported down the trail in a sled or on a snowboard. Interviews revealed that the subject had received a full depth laceration around 8” long just above the knee after falling in the wet, slushy snow.  The person skiing behind her was following too closely and no doubt learned a harsh but important lesson about the need for safe following distances and controlled skiing in a backcountry environment.

Lower Leg Injury, Lion Head Route

At approximately 1500, two hikers flagged down passing Snow Rangers who were heading down for the day.  The party had loaned their plastic sled to help a group transport a person with lower leg injury from the Lion Head Winter Route. We encountered a large family group about 100 yards up the trail from the Fire Road sliding a person down and making good time. The injured subject was well splinted with trekking poles and duct tape with continuous circulation, sensation and movement in the foot so we transferred her to the snowmobile and transported here to Pinkham Notch. Upon further assessment, it was evident that the injury was a fracture.

Though this group did a good job caring for the injury and would have made it down in good time, they were very poorly equipped for the Winter Route. The subject was wearing low, zippered “snow sneakers”, and while warm enough for the day’s weather conditions, this type of boot does not have a stiff enough sole for edging in firm snow nor the ankle support of a mountaineering boot. The victim lost their footing somewhere below the rock step, began sliding and sustained the injury when she arrested her fall with her foot against a tree trunk.  There seemed to be a wide range of experience level among the group with only a few ice axes and pairs of crampons among them.  It is important to remember the limitations of your group in terms of ability and experience when doing winter hikes in our unforgiving mountain range.

Fall, Leg Injury – Lion Head Winter Route

We received a call for help for an individual who had sustained injuries while descending the Lion Head Winter Route. The patient had fallen in the steep section of trail, sustaining non-life threatening injuries in the fall. He was extricated from the mountain by Forest Service Snow Rangers, AMC and HMC caretakers, MWVSP patrollers, and bystanders.

This is a very steep section of hiking. Appropriate equipment for the route includes an ice axe, crampons, and good quality winter mountaineering boots. In some conditions, more technical gear might be desirable. This individual was wearing boots more appropriate for summer hiking, along with lightweight traction devices. We cannot confirm that this was the cause of the fall or even played a supporting role. But it is something we observe regularly on this route.

Lost Hiker Boott Spur Ridge

A party lost the trail while descending the Boott Spur ridge. They called the AMC visitor center for assistance, who directed them to call 911. The party spoke with the 911 dispatchers and expressed having lost the trail, having run out of food and water, and requested assistance. SAR groups responded to begin looking for them. During the mobilization of forces, the group was able to find the trail. They then descended to Pinkham and departed without checking out with the visitor center staff.

When the group got into cell phone service in Jackson, they received their phone messages that informed them that rescuers were on the mountain looking for them. They stated that they would have checked out if they had known that rescuers were searching. It’s hard to not be cynical about this statement. If you call 911 for any reason, rescuers will be actively working to assist you until they can verify there is no problem. If you call 911 for a backcountry accident, we still encourage you to try to help yourselves as much as possible. If you manage to fully self-rescue, please give the rescuers the courtesy of letting them know you no longer need assistance.

Leg Injury – Post Hole

After arriving to Hermit Lake for the night, a group was practicing self arrest skills in the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine in the afternoon. While facing into the slope, the victim’s foot plunged into a posthole left behind from a previous ascent. He suffered a leg injury in the fall. USFS Snow Rangers were still in the parking lot at Pinkham when the call for help came. Snow Rangers responded with an MWVSP patroller, an MRS member, the AMC caretakers, the HMC caretakers, and bystanders. The victim was stabilized and transported to the USFS Pisten Bully waiting at the base of the Little Headwall.

This was not the typical sliding-with-crampons injury we frequently see. The actual mechanism of injury was unusual, but there is nothing about their story that puts doubt in our minds about what happened. One notable comment, however, is that avalanche danger that day was rated Moderate for the many slopes that converge on the area in which the group was located. No one in the group was carrying avalanche rescue equipment (i.e. transceivers, shovels, or probes.) Due to the snow loading taking place in the Headwall, rescue teams were limited in how many people ascending into avalanche terrain to assist, which ultimately extended the time necessary to bring the patient down off the mountain. Generally speaking, if you are leading a group into avalanche terrain, you should ensure that all members of the group are carrying appropriate rescue equipment and that you follow safe travel procedures to minimize your exposure to risk.

Stranded hiker on Tuckerman Ravine Trail in the Lip area

A party of three hikers attempted to make their way down the Tuckerman Ravine trail after summiting Mount Washington from Grey Knob camp during a northern Presidential Range traverse. Late in the afternoon on Thursday, May 15th, the trio descended the Tucks trail on snowshoes down a steepening snow slope, inadvertently traveling in the fall line above the main upper waterfall when one of the party slipped and “tumbled” approximately 50-60 feet on the snow. The party decided that descending further was not a good course of action considering trail conditions and the onset of darkness. They decided to dig into the snow above the Headwall and just above the brushy ledge left of the narrows of the Lip. The weather observatory recorded temperatures falling from 50F down to 36F by daybreak with intermittent rain showers for several periods during the night. Hourly weather observations also indicate that fog shrouded the summit.

The group spent Friday night sheltering under tent components atop foam pads and sleeping bags on a small snow ledge which they excavated with snowshoes. The next morning, the group packed up and began an attempt to traverse across the 40 – 45 degree snow slope at around 9:00am. The two boys went first, one at a time, and narrowly made the crossing but with another slip and recovery. The girl chose not to attempt to cross. One of the boys then accessed Lunch Rocks rescue cache and carried a rope ladder back up to the crossing. An attempt to throw a rope ladder across to the stranded hiker ended with the rope ladder irretrievably stuck in a moat. The other boy made his way to the Hermit Lake and alerted AMC and a USFS Snow Ranger at 10:45am, who then made their way to the Lip area, arriving at approximately 11:45am. Rescuers employed a rope and belay to access the stranded hiker and then received a belay from another Snow Ranger from above to exit the snowfield. Both Snow Rangers and the hiker made their way to the summit arriving at 2:23 pm and were assisted by NH Sate Park and Auto Road staff and drove down the Auto Road, arriving at the base at 4:00pm. AMC caretakers and Mount Washington Ski Patrollers hiked down to Hermit Lake with the other two before they continued down to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Analysis:  The main Headwall waterfall and the deep hole it creates in the snow below has claimed at least two lives in the past and is the scene of occasional near misses, including this one. This party had some hiking experience in the White Mountains but only in summer. Summit fog and 50 degree temperatures during this period hampered visibility and no doubt made navigation challenging but it is uncertain why, after the first fall above the waterfall, that the group chose to spend the night in such an exposed location rather than climbing back up several hundred feet to regain the Alpine Garden trail. The party carried a map though when asked why they didn’t consult it, I was told that it was too windy. No one in the party carried crampons or ice axe and though their gear, clothing and footwear were adequate for chilly nights in the range, their lightweight hiking boots were not adequate for kicking secure steps on the steep snow slopes above the Headwall. With no winter climbing training or experience, the party is very lucky that this incident did not turn out much worse. A sliding fall into the waterfall hole or one of the crevasses that were open on the slope below could have been fatal.