Skier fall in Huntington

A skier became caught in his sluff* while skiing Diagonal Gully in Huntington Ravine, causing him to fall approximately 50′ over the Harvard Bulge. He came to rest about 150′ below the ice. His partner knew something had happened, but could not see the fall and did not know exactly what happened. He then skied down, but did not locate his injured partner until he had reached the bottom of the fan. At the same time a solo ice climber had recognized what had taken place and was working his way to the injured skier. The climber and uninjured skier were able to contact 911 to summon assistance while they began to treat the injured skier, who was suffering from a very painful back injury.

Snow Rangers, Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol members, and two AMC caretakers responded on foot from Hermit Lake. The rescue effort was fairly straightforward. A backboard, litter, and technical rescue gear were brought up to patient’s location. He was stabilized and packaged in the litter. Due to the steepness of the snow slope, the litter was belayed down to the bottom of the fan. From here, additional rescuers from AMC, AVSAR, and MRS joined the effort to slide and carry the skier down to the ambulance at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

In total, this rescue effort was comprised of 20 people. All but the one Snow Ranger on scene were helping as volunteers. The groups that help make rescues possible in the White Mountains are a dedicated bunch. We sincerely appreciate all that they do. If you are interested in learning more, the New Hampshire Outdoor Council and Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol are good places to start.

*There is a fine line between a wet loose snow avalanche and the normal sluffing produced by skiers in steep terrain. Whether this incident should be classified as an avalanche incident or more simply caused by heavy sluffing may be debatable, but we are considering this to be an accident caused by a loose wet avalanche. In this gully, there are not many options for a skier to get away from his or her sluff, which is a common course of action. The skier described the sluff that caught and carried him over the ice cliff as being up to 3′ deep, wet, and heavy. He described trying to fight it momentarily before realizing that it was too big to fight. When we arrived on scene, there was a sluff debris pile in the immediate vicinity, but it was not deep enough to have buried a person. The primary hazard associated with the loose snow avalanche in this case is the cliff that sits at the base of the route.

It is also worth mentioning that the pair of skiers are “regulars” on Mt. Washington. They understand the risk involved in the sport and willingly engage with it. The two skiers were equipped with technical climbing gear (rope, harnesses, proper ice tools, etc.) as well as avalanche rescue gear. We understand that accidents can happen to anyone on any given day, no matter how experienced, skilled, or gear-laden one is. This fundamental and unchangeable rule is set by the mountains that we choose to recreate in. This is why we always encourage visitors to bring the right gear to not only help prevent an accident, but to help get through unexpected or unfortunate events.

Hikers stuck on Lion Head

After climbing through Tuckerman Ravine earlier in the day, a pair of hikers descending Lion Head Winter Route each slipped and fell in the steep section of the route (independent of each other). Neither person was injured in the fall. However, having not hiked this trail before, they did not know how much farther down they would need to descend before the trail became less steep. They had appropriate clothing for the winter, but they fell short of being fully prepared. They had no ice axe or crampons, and they were wearing lightweight sneakers with microspikes and a different brand of slip on traction. They were able to make a call to 911 to ask for help with the descent.A Snow Ranger and four volunteer Ski Patrol members responded from Hermit Lake. At the scene, they encountered the hikers near the bottom of the steep section. One hiker was at the top of the rock step and the other was approximately 75′ uphill. The lower of the two was able to descend with some coaching and a hand line. The upper hiker was given an ice axe and downclimbed while on belay through the steep section. They were both transferred to Pinkham by USFS snowmobile.This is a common scenario that plays out every spring. Thankfully, this event ended without injury. The pair did need to endure several hours with cold wet feet due to wearing mesh sneakers- but thankfully again, they had spare socks and shoes in their vehicle. A couple of the points we discussed with them after the fact included:

  • Winter/Spring conditions take longer than summer hiking times. Leaving Pinkham at 1:15 put them at a disadvantage early on.
  • Making the mistake of thinking lightweight traction devices are the same thing as crampons. They also did not carry ice axes, although one did make a comment along the lines of “I’m glad I had my knife. It was the only thing that stopped my fall.” Similar to microspikes vs. crampons, a pocket knife does not offer security in steep terrain as an ice axe does.
  • Not carrying or using a map. When asked from a distance, the pair responded that they did not know if they were on the trail or not (they were). They apparently hiked up through Tuckerman, presumably in the Lip bootpack, then at the summit asked other hikers which was the fastest way down. They chose Lion Head over the Auto Road since it was the shortest distance, but despite following blue plastic blazes, they had thought they may have lost the trail after descending below treeline.

April 12th was the date of the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine race, the Son of the Inferno. This annual event draws a large crowd. We counted about 1850 people entering the Hermit Lake courtyard from the Tuckerman Ravine trail from around 8am to 3pm (thanks, Alec!) Also, this number does not count the hundreds that hiked up Lion Head or went into Huntington Ravine. For this many people to have spent the day on Mt. Washington and only have had four incidents is remarkable. Surely a lot has to do with luck, but we want to take a moment to thank the hundreds or thousands of you who did your homework, came prepared, were self-reliant, and went home with all your bones and soft tissues intact. We also want to thank the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol for all their help, not only on Inferno day, but each and every weekend from March through May. This is an incredible group of people who give a remarkable amount of time so that we all can better enjoy our days in the Ravine. Be sure to thank them when you get the opportunity!

Group of four hikers stranded above Tuckerman Ravine

A large group of 15 hikers from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania set off for Mt. Washington before 5 a.m. Five members of the group turned back before the summit. The other ten continued onward, reaching the summit at approximately 12:30. On the descent, one hiker was moving slowly, so the group split again. Six continued down the Lion Head Trail and made it to Pinkham without incident. In rapidly deteriorating weather, the last four missed the junction of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and Lion Head Trail into Tuckerman Ravine. They continued down to Tuckerman Junction, above Tuckerman Ravine. At approximately 3:30-4:00p.m., they reached the trail sign at this junction. At least one member of the group had been here on a previous trip and knew that they should not continue down the Tuckerman Trail. They decided to stop descending, but due to weather and the slower hiker’s physical condition they were unable to ascend back in the direction they came from. They did what they could to create a sheltered spot, called 911 and triggered the emergency function of their personal locator beacon.

While rescue teams mobilized, the group waited. Although early in the day conditions above treeline were relatively straightforward, later in the afternoon and evening they took a turn for the worse. Temperatures dropped below zero F, winds reached gusts of 95mph, and several inches of recent snow were being blown across the mountain. In these conditions and without shelter and proper equipment, it is extremely difficult to spend a night above treeline without incurring significant cold-related injuries.

A total of approximately 25 people responded to the callout, including USFS Snow Rangers, Mountain Rescue Service, and New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. In the face of deteriorating conditions, a decision was made to attempt to locate and evacuate the party that evening. One team ascended the Lion Head Winter Route, while two others ascended the Auto Road in a Mount Washington State Park snow tractor. Teams had a GPS location from the PLB showing the group was in the vicinity of Tuckerman Junction. In favorable weather, this would make it easy enough to locate a group. However, blizzard conditions made the entire rescue effort more challenging. At times it was difficult to simply keep a team together without losing the hiking trail. Visibility was less than needed to move from one cairn to the next. Radio communications between teams were also challenging.

At 10:19pm, rescuers located the group near the junction of the Alpine Garden Trail and Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Fortunately, assessments of their conditions indicated they could possibly hike out under their own power. All three rescue teams regrouped and hiked out with the four hikers via the Alpine Garden Trail and Huntington Ravine Trail to the “Cow Pasture” on the Auto Road. An additional snow tractor from the State Park was brought down from the summit to assist with the evacuation. Injuries to the party were limited to relatively minor cold related injuries.

Snow Ranger Commentary

This incident turned out quite well, all things considered. There are many lessons that can be drawn from this event, some of which are commendable and others we believe could have been done differently:

  • Navigation: This was the second incident this season when hikers missed the turn onto Lion Head. The first resulted in an avalanche (see 12-28-2013 summary). In low visibility conditions, it is imperative that a party stays on the intended route. Maps, compasses, and GPS units are all useful for this, but they can be very difficult to use when conditions are tough.
  • Timing: The group started their hike before 5a.m., with a turn-around time of 12:45. While they did reach the summit before this time, the plan did not leave sufficient time for descent. Mt. Washington often requires as much time to descend as it does to ascend. If it takes 8 hours to reach the summit, plus 8 hours to descend, that makes for a 16 hour day on the mountain. This is a long time to be hiking, even for physically fit and experienced hikers.
  • Experience: In our interviews with the victims, it came to light that the slow hiker who caused the group to move slowly had very little hiking experience. In our experience, Mt. Washington in winter usually is not the best place to learn how to hike. With groups of varying experience levels, it’s best to be conservative in your route planning. To his credit, the hiker rallied for the hike out, working hard and complaining little.
  • Planning ahead: The group had left early enough in the morning that the Observatory weather forecast was not yet published. Regardless, Sunday’s forecast that was published on Saturday should have been taken into account in the trip plans. The forecast called for a relatively calm start to the day, with a rapid increase in winds in the afternoon. This is precisely what happened, causing visibility to drop and eventually leading to the missed trail junction.
  • Use of the PLB device: Increasingly, technology is finding its way into the mountains. In this incident, the GPS location provided by the PLB system proved invaluable for helping rescuers locate the group, and likely saved them from more serious injuries or death. These devices, effective as they are, should not be viewed as a replacement for equipment, experience, and judgment. As this case illustrates, rescue is neither a quick process nor an easy one to execute. Had conditions deteriorated much further, rescue that night may not have been possible. If you carry of these devices, please know that the efforts made to track down your party will not be insignificant. Use them when necessary, but think twice before pressing the button. We have no way to know whether your situation is life-threatening or something far more benign that might not require full scale rescue assistance.
  • Deciding to stay put: As much as we like to see groups self-rescue, at times that is not the best option. When this group made it to Tuckerman Junction, the hiker who had been there before knew that continuing to descend would be a dangerous decision. Given the increasing avalanche danger that evening, we think avoiding Tuckerman was a very intelligent decision. Further, staying in one location allowed rescuers to go to a single GPS location, rather than trying to chase down a moving target. It also gave them an opportunity to attempt to find some shelter (which they did not have much luck doing.) They would have had a much better chance of successfully hunkering down if they had brought equipment intended for this possibility. When traveling in a large group, the extra load can be shared so that no one needs to feel overly burdened.

Overall, we are very thankful that this incident ended as well as it had. It could have very easily taken a turn for the worse in a number of different ways.

Avalanche Accident in Tuckerman Ravine

Two hikers descending from the summit triggered an avalanche that carried them down the Lip of Tuckerman Ravine.  In this incident, a group of four hikers started up from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Along the ascent, the group separated into two teams of two. Descending in poor visibility and fading daylight, the faster team lost the trail and inadvertently began descending the Lip. This forecast area had been rated Considerable avalanche danger due to expected wind loading late in the day. The slower team, realizing the other party had gone off trail, followed their tracks to the crown line of the avalanche. From there they were able to verbally communicate with their friends and learn the extent of the injuries. They decided it would be safer to descend the Lion Head Summer Trail to summon assistance.

As an avalanche forecasting center, we were not surprised that the party triggered an avalanche in the location they did. Considerable danger includes “human triggered avalanches are likely” in its definition. Weather conditions in the days prior to the accident created conditions ripe for avalanche activity. About a week before the accident, Mt. Washington was subjected to a warm rain event. This created slick crusty snow surface conditions for future snow and wind-loading land on and create new stability problems. In the 48 hours prior to the event, about 10.5” of new snow had fallen, with 1-3” having been forecasted for the 28th. During this time, west and northwest winds also increased in speed from 30-40mph to 60-80mph. This created a situation with increasingly dense slab building on top of weaker layers, all of which sat on the pre-existing crust.  This is a typical scenario for Mt. Washington; one in which we regularly see human triggered or naturally triggered avalanches.

The hikers rode the avalanche to the base of the Open Book, adjacent to Lunch Rocks. Along the way they sustained non-lifethreatening injuries. In the debris, they ended up only partially buried or on top of the snow, one was at the toe of the debris and the other at the top of the debris. They reported taking about a half hour to collect themselves and figure out what happened. They also did not understand where exactly they were, or that the Tuckerman Ravine Trail could be followed downhill from their location. They knew they had fallen a long way below the trail they intended to descend, so they began to climb back up, which is when they began communicating with their friends above.

The uninjured hikers arrived at the AMC Caretaker’s quarters to tell her of the accident. She quickly notified USFS Snow Rangers, who began mobilizing rescue teams. Rescuers included USFS Snow Rangers, members of Mountain Rescue Service and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, caretakers from the AMC and HMC cabin, and a handful of helpful bystanders who were staying overnight at the Harvard Cabin. The rescue itself was not particularly noteworthy. A rescue team climbed to the injured hikers, assessed and treated their injuries, and short-roped them down to the floor of Tuckerman. From there the hikers walked down under their own power to Hermit Lake to a waiting snow tractor. They were then transferred to an ambulance at the bottom of the Sherburne Ski Trail.

Analysis:

This is an accident that could have been avoided if just a couple small factors played out differently. Most obviously, if the group had stayed together and stayed on the Lion Head Trail, they would never have entered avalanche terrain.  The two more experienced hikers had been planning to do an overnight at Hermit Lake, while the two with less experience were only doing a day trip. Hence, the two with lightweight daypacks were able to move more quickly than the heavily-laden duo. This was the primary reason for one group going faster than the other, as we understand. The plan had been for the hikers to all regroup at the summit, but the faster group went down ahead. Often in incidents involving missing or overdue hikers, splitting the group is a contributing factor. Many times there is no contingency plan made, or if there is one it is not followed. In this event we don’t know exactly what their meeting plan was. However, if they had either kept the group together for the duration, or stuck with the plan to regroup,  the chances for staying on the trail and avoiding the incident would have been better.

Lost hiker on Lion Head

A hiker descending off the summit of Mt. Washington became lost after dark without a headlamp. He sent numerous texts to his friend who, having turned back earlier, was waiting at Pinkham Notch. The last of these messages indicated he needed rescue assistance immediately. These messages were not received until the friend had traveled back to town where cell service is more reliable. It was this string of messages that instigated the rescue effort. Teams from the USFS and Mountain Rescue Service located the hiker near treeline on the Lion Head Trail. He was uninjured and was able to walk down to Hermit Lake; from here he was transported by snowmobile to Pinkham Notch.

Four incidents in Tuckerman

This was a very busy day in the ravine, in part because it was the first Saturday this season with really nice spring weather. The first incident was a dislocated shoulder resulting from a fall in Left Gully. After an unsuccessful attempted to reduce the dislocation, the patient and his party were able to walk themselves out from the ravine.

Shortly after the first, a skier fell in the Sluice area, resulting in a lower leg injury. Within minutes of this fall, another skier fell in the Lip, suffering a significant head laceration. Both patients were evacuated by Snow Rangers, the MWVSP, the AMC caretaker, and a large number of volunteers.

The fourth incident was sustained on the lower part of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. A hiker punctured his lower leg on a broken branch when stepping off the trail. He was able to continue hiking.

“Moderate” danger and avalanche accidents
-respect and awe.

Over the last several years we have seen an increasing number of avalanche related close calls involving skiers and climbers.  Between better equipment and getting out more during the midwinter avalanche season, incidents have been increasing.  Of the different accidents that we routinely deal with, I believe avalanche accidents will slowly increase as part of our overall percentage of accidents on Mount Washington and may become the dominate player over time.  As I started to put together a post describing Thursday’s avalanche incident in the Lower Snowfields it occurred to me it would be better to look at the big picture.  (However all the photos are from this most recent incident.) I felt the need to do a Pit post to highlight the avalanche potential that you may encounter when climbing or skiing on Mount Washington under avalanche ratings in the middle of the danger scale, namely Moderate and Considerable.  When snow stability falls into Low, High or Extreme it is generally pretty obvious, giving us either the green or red light for steep terrain travel.  In between these more clear conditions is the middle ground, which of course is the most challenging for you, and us, to analyze.  Stability tests with false stables, a little less or more new snow than forecasted, hidden sweet spots, and  thin slabs leading into thicker slabs are just a few example that we need to pay attention to as we negotiate the terrain.

A brief and clearly understood rating system to predict a natural phenomenon is not easy and can’t convey all the nuances for all situations.  The avalanche danger rating system blends the likelihood of occurrence (from unlikely to certain), with the consequences (relatively low to high), and travel advice to mitigate the potential hazard.  Because one word can’t describe the entire situation it is always important to both read the entire text explaining the details of any advisory and look for signs of unstable snow in the field.  There is no way around the fact that if you play in avalanche terrain you need avalanche education and mentored experience to be there safely.

Of the 9 avalanche fatalities I have dealt with since 1991, 6 climbers died primarily due to trauma while the 3 skiers died due to a combination of asphyxiation and trauma.  New Hampshire, and more broadly northern New England, leads our nation in the percentage of avalanche deaths that result from trauma.  Our terrain and generally low snowfall create scenarios that bring us into rocks, over cliffs, into the trees more often as we hunt for areas to pursue our sports.  Our ability to ski tour in open terrain or stick to low angle slopes in avalanche terrain is near impossible in most cases.   Of the nine aforementioned avalanche deaths on Mount Washington, four occurred under a Moderate or Moderate moving towards Considerable rating and two under a High rating in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines.  The remaining three fatalities occurred in the Gulf of Slides where avalanche advisories are not issued. In the two incidents leading to these three deaths the avalanche danger in Tuckerman and Huntington was posted at High.

Turning to this winter, let’s take a look at the avalanche incidents to date.  Of our 6 climber/skier related incidents/accidents summing up to 28 people in the Ravines, 23 were involved in avalanche instigated incidents.  The following bullets are a quick recap of the 5 avalanches involving humans:

  1.  Very early this season, 2 climbers were avalanched in a pocket approaching the base of the first pitch of Pinnacle Gully.  They were able to walk out with no injuries.
  2. In January, 12 climbers were avalanched out of Central Gully. The group was roped up in 4 teams of three climbers. This resulted in three injured climbers, but it certainly could have been much worse.   As an example of what we discussed above, the following is a portion of the advisory that day demonstrating how the text conveys so much more than the one word.

    ….Expect all snow that is not the old concrete from the recent warm up to be harboring weak layers and varying degrees of instability.  Also anticipate bonding at the interface between the icy surfaces and the new low density slabs to be poor.  With increasing winds and more snow today I would also be ready for new crystals to become beat up and fragmented packing into denser slabs over pockets of unconsolidated snow that were deposited yesterday. Due to the slick nature of the old bed surfaces you can expect frequent spindrift sluffing again today perhaps build into slabs on mid-slope benches such as in Odell, Pinnacle and Central.   Because of all this you will probably find some slopes on the upper end of the Moderate rating in several locales in the Huntington gullies. …

    The avalanche rated danger was posted at Moderate

  3. On March 1st, 2 skiers entered the top of the Lobster Claw.  The first entered familiar terrain on relatively firm hard slab.  The second skier entered making more impact on the slope, due to technique, triggering the slab.  The first skier was carried a short distance from his stationary position.  The avalanche entrained more snow as it descended running full path.  The avalanche danger was posted as Moderate.
  4. On March 1st, a solo climber that had climbed all week in Huntington was on a multi-gully day.  He mentioned that he wanted to climb Odell and other gullies.  The only tracks going into the Ravine went up Odell, down South and up Pinnacle.  New snow made this observation obvious and all but assures this was his route.  He was found by the second person in the Ravine that day at 3pm.  The following day one of his axes was found with the pick deeply planted in the hard old bed surface 20-30 feet below the fracture line.  The avalanche danger was posted at Moderate.
  5. On April 4th, 6 skiers went up Hillman’s Highway with the intent of skiing the Lower Snowfields.  The exact details of how the avalanche was triggered, and by who, is difficult to ascertain. However, whether it was the group of 5 above, or the skier below, both triggers were about 12 to 13 meters away from the fracture/crown line.  This is fairly consistent with what pencil hard slabs have the capability of doing, having the propensity to propagate long fractures.  Sometimes this initial fracture leads to: 1. a long shooting crack with no failure, 2. immediate failure under foot causing an avalanche, or 3. propagating until it finds enough stress and weakness to cause failure remotely leading to an avalanche.  It appears this last example is what caused the avalanche in this case.   From the apex, or center highest point, a 13meter long /2cm wide crack runs up to where the group had been standing.

It is plausible that as the second skier started to move the initial fracture occurred in the hard slab and propagated to the area of utmost convexity and highest stress causing the avalanche.   The slope faces close to due East at 80 degrees and has a 40 degree slope angle at its apex.

The crown was 150m long and had an average crown depth of 80 cm.  The upper surface 20cm had Pencil+ hardness while the next 60cm’s down to 80cm layer was softer at Pencil-.  The bed surface was a melt freeze crust <1cm thick from the previous weekend before the Monday-Tuesday storm.

The debris was probed down to between 4’-9’ deep.   The avalanche danger was posted at Moderate.

In recent years there has been an increase in the backcountry use in avalanche terrain in winter, particularly in March. That fact, coupled with an increase in avalanche class participation, and visitors equipped with avalanche safety gear more individuals are getting into avalanche prone conditions.  It really is critical to understand that Moderate is not the new Low as I’ve heard it refered to as, and it’s not only at the 20% mark as the 2nd in a scale consisting of 5 ratings.  It is second on a scale that attempts to predict a natural occurrance that will always have an associated degree a uncertainity.  As we have seen worldwide so many times before, a human triggered avalanche under Moderate or High can very often have the same results……. not good.  Certainly I am not saying Moderate and High are the same, but what I am saying is human triggered avalanches happen under a Moderate rating…period.  This reality plays out every day, all winter, across the slopes of North America.  Understanding this well I therefore have a respect for the “Moderate” snowpack, as on a given day it can be a wolf in sheeps clothing.  I comprehend that to live a long life working in avalanche terrain I must never believe I know exactly what’s going on all the time, so I follow protocols to mitigate risk.  We travel one at a time to islands of safety, we don’t travel over or under our partners without their ok, and always think through the consequences of our intended routes.   So…take the Moderate rating seriously, respect it, and realize there can still be plenty of fun to be had in our snow for the skilled and experienced user by knowing what to look for as you plan your route or travel through it.  As a natural force there will always be a degree of uncertainty in regards to avalanches and because the consequences are so high, namely our lives, respect and awe must be our starting point.    See you in the hills.  Chris

Skier Triggered Avalanche Lower Snowfields

On April 4th, 6 skiers went up Hillman’s Highway with the intent of skiing the Lower Snowfields.  The exact details of how the avalanche was triggered, and by who, is difficult to ascertain. However, whether it was the group of 5 above, or the skier below, both triggers were about 12 to 13 meters away from the fracture/crown line.  This is fairly consistent with what pencil hard slabs have the capability of doing, having the propensity to propagate long fractures.  Sometimes this initial fracture leads to: 1. a long shooting crack with no failure, 2. immediate failure under foot causing an avalanche, or 3. propagating until it finds enough stress and weakness to cause failure remotely leading to an avalanche.  It appears this last example is what caused the avalanche in this case.   From the apex, or center highest point, a 13meter long /2cm wide crack runs up to where the group had been standing.

It is plausible that as the second skier started to move the initial fracture occurred in the hard slab and propagated to the area of utmost convexity and highest stress causing the avalanche.   The slope faces close to due East at 80 degrees and has a 40 degree slope angle at its apex.

The crown was 150m long and had an average crown depth of 80 cm.  The upper surface 20cm had Pencil+ hardness while the next 60cm’s down to 80cm layer was softer at Pencil-.  The bed surface was a melt freeze crust <1cm thick from the previous weekend before the Monday-Tuesday storm.

The debris was probed down to between 4’-9’ deep.   The avalanche danger was posted at Moderate.

Sliding Falls

2016-03-13 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.

Skier injured on Tuckerman Ravine Trail

A skier suffered a lower leg injury while descending the Tuckerman Ravine trail on skis. He and his partner had been skiing the Cutler River streambed, and had bushwacked back to the hiking trail due to thick vegetation. They were working toward a crossover to the Sherburne Ski Trail when he caught his ski tip on the edge of the trail. Snow Rangers were in the vicinity at the time of the accident, and found the skier on the side of the trail. They transported him to the base, from here he was transported to the hospital in his partner’s vehicle.

Avalanche fatality in Pinnacle Gully

A solo ice climber died as a result of injuries sustained in an avalanche in Pinnacle Gully. On Friday, March 1, the climber left the HMC cabin near the base of Huntington Ravine intending to climb multiple gullies. Based on earlier conversations and tracking his foot prints in new snow, we believe he had climbed the ice pitches in Odell Gully, then descended a snow ramp into the bottom of South Gully before heading up into Pinnacle. While climbing what would be the 2nd pitch for a roped party, approximately 2/3 of the way up the route, the climber triggered a slab avalanche which carried him downslope. He was found by a hiker half way down the Fan, (the talus slope in the lower portion of the ravine) at approximately 3pm. The hiker, who is a physician, called 911 to report the accident. He reported that the victim had no vital signs and was deceased. USFS Snow Rangers responded from Hermit Lake to the scene. They located the victim, confirmed his status, and prepared him for transport to Pinkham Notch.

These details that follow are conclusions based on our investigation and information supplied by parties that climbed the route the following day. The avalanche released in the upper portion of the second pitch of the ice climb, just below a narrowing formed by exposed rock in the gully. The crown line was located about 20-30 feet uphill of where we believe the climber was when the avalanche released. It was 2’ deep, 20’ wide, and slid on a bed surface of water ice.  Avalanche danger on the day of the incident was rated Moderate.

Crown line is visible in this photo just below the rock constriction

Fall on Lion Head Winter Route

On the descent from a summit hike, a hiker fell approximately 50′ down a steep section of the Lion Head route. He injured his lower leg in the fall. One member of the man’s party quickly hiked to Hermit Lake to notify USFS Snow Rangers. At the same time, a distress signal was sent using a SPOT  satellite device. Snow Rangers responded, found the man ambulatory, and transported him to Pinkham Notch via snow tractor.

Climbers stranded on Damnation Buttress

Three climbers became stranded on steep rocky terrain after they climbed off route. USFS Snow Rangers and Mountain Rescue Service volunteers , along with assistance from the Mt. Washington Observatory and AMC and HMC caretakers, located and rescued the climbers without injury. More details will be posted soon.

Avalanche in Central Gully

On Thursday, January 17, 2013 a party with a total group size of 12 was ascending Central Gully in Huntington Ravine when one rope team triggered a soft slab avalanche from the top of the route. The avalanche swept over the three other rope teams, carrying one team of three to the bottom of the gully. This team was not buried, but sustained injuries. The remaining three teams were able to rappel the route.

Weather Summary:

The weekend prior to the incident was incredibly warm. Mt. Washington set an all-time record high temperature for the month of January during this time, at 48 degrees Fahrenheit. On Monday, temperatures across the mountain began to fall back below freezing and by Tuesday morning, all snow surfaces in Huntington had frozen into a very firm crust. On Wednesday, snow began to fall with strong W and NW winds. The Mt. Washington Observatory reported 2.3” of light density snow from this weather system. On Thursday morning, the Observatory forecasted a trace to 2″ of new snow with isolated higher amounts possible, and W and WNW winds increasing from 60mph to 80+mph with higher gusts. Thursday’s wind and snow played out as forecasted. Most of the snow fell between 7am and 1pm; total snow accumulations of 3.6”  exceeded the forecasted amount.

Snowpack Summary:

The melt freeze crust that developed Monday and Tuesday created a slick bed surface for future avalanche activity. This was noted in avalanche advisories Wednesday and Thursday. On top of this icy layer, new soft slabs began to form on Wednesday while winds were blowing 30-40mph. As additional snow fell Thursday with increasing wind speeds, slightly denser slabs were deposited above the weaker slab and the crust. The climber who likely triggered the avalanche stated that, at the time of the avalanche, he was climbing through soft snow about thigh-deep or waist-deep. However, other reports were that the slab that released was only 8” deep and between 25-35ft across. We believe that failure occurred in a weak layer interface somewhere within the new snow, rather than at the crust.

Avalanche Summary:

The avalanche was a soft slab, artificially triggered by foot penetration, which in the professional avalanche lexicon means that it was triggered by a person climbing or hiking, not by a person traveling on skis, snowboard, etc. The slide is further classified as D1.5, R2 . This is a measure of the destructive force of the avalanche and the size of the avalanche relative to the specific avalanche path’s potential. Compared to the size of avalanches Central Gully can produce, this was on the smaller side. The debris was examined by a Snow Ranger, who estimated its size as 5-7 meters wide, 60 meters long, and 30-60cm deep.

Events Leading to the Incident:

An organized group of twelve climbers planned a promotional climb to draw awareness to their organization’s mission. They had been training for the climb in the days preceding the event, which included ice climbing in Crawford Notch. The group was organized with a variety of experience and skills, from novice to experienced mountaineers. In addition, a film crew was included in the group.

The group of twelve arrived at the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin on Wednesday afternoon and spent the night in the cabin. Thursday morning, after receiving the weather forecast from the Mt. Washington Observatory they had decided they would climb Central Gully. Before departing, a USFS Snow Ranger arrived and talked with the group about weather and avalanche conditions. Despite this discussion and warnings about increasing avalanche danger through the day and that Moderate avalanche danger means that “human triggered avalanches are possible,” the group decided to stick with their plan. They departed from the cabin at 8:30am.

Approximate location of climbers at time of avalanche

Four hours after leaving the cabin, they arrived at the start of the climb. The group split into four rope teams of three people each. They ascended to the ice bulge in the gully, then one by one they climbed the bulge on belay. Above the ice bulge, the teams began simul-climbing. They reported that they had been skirting the newly deposited snow and trying to stay on the older crust. Just prior to the avalanche, the lead team allowed the second team to pass them, so that they could get better set up for filming. At the time of the avalanche, there was one team nearing the top of the gully, another was slightly below them and positioned in the center of the gully. The other two teams were lower, hugging the climbers left side of the rock wall. During the time the teams were in avalanche terrain, snow continued to load into many areas, including the top of Central Gully.

The Avalanche:

The details we received about who was where and what happened when the avalanche hit don’t give us a 100% clear view. The picture indicates our best estimates of where the rope teams were located at the time of the avalanche. It was approximately 4:30pm when the avalanche was triggered. The party at the top was not caught or carried, though they may have slid a short distance. The second-highest team was caught and carried over the ice bulge to the base of the gully. They came to rest in the debris, which terminated at roughly the elevation of the base of Pinnacle Gully. A third team, located to the side and away from the path of the greatest debris flow had started to be carried, but was able to avoid being carried downslope by the bottom climber arresting the fall with his ice axes. The fourth team was carried downslope, but they stopped moving when their rope was caught on an exposed rock.

After the accident happened, the three teams remaining on the route took a quick inventory of who was present. It quickly became apparent that one rope team, including the lead guide, had been swept down off the route below all the others. At this time, the remaining members of the group reorganized and began to descend on rappel. At all times, all members of the descending party were either clipped into a rock or ice anchor or were actively on rappel. They stated they were unable to make contact with the three people who were carried down with the avalanche, either by voice, visual, or their family-band radios. They attempted to call for help via cell phone, but were unable to do so because their batteries had died. They also had a satellite phone, but were unable to sufficiently connect with satellites.

The team that was caught and carried down to the base sustained some injuries. Of the three, two had lower leg injuries and the third initially complained of pain in his shoulder. They were carrying a radio that operates on the same frequency as the Mt. Washington Observatory, Appalachian Mountain Club, and HMC cabin. With this radio, the lead guide was able to contact Rich, the caretaker at the HMC cabin. While Rich worked with the AMC Hermit Lake caretaker to notify USFS Snow Rangers, the injured climbers began sliding along the snow, working their way down the fan to toward the base of Huntington Ravine.

The Rescue:

USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the incident at approximately 5:22. In addition to the USFS, AMC, and HMC, the volunteer Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) was called for assistance. They responded with 18 skilled mountaineers for a total rescue team of 25 people. The first two Rangers arrived at Pinkham Notch at 6:00pm. One immediately left on snowmobile for the ravine while the other stayed behind to organize other rescuers who began arriving shortly afterward.

The first Snow Ranger and HMC caretaker parked the snowmobile near the first aid cache at the base of Huntington. At 6:20pm, approximately 200 yards uphill from the cache, they encountered the injured climbers slowly working their way down the trail. They briefly questioned the group about what had happened and if they had any information about the rest of the team. Knowing there were more rescuers who would be arriving soon, they did not want first aid at this time. At the request of the lead guide, the hasty team continued up into Huntington where they could see headlamps slowly descending the gully. They climbed up the fan, careful to avoid the avalanche runout path from Odell, Pinnacle, or Central Gully, until they were able to make contact with the remaining climbers and determined that they were doing OK. The group continued to rappel out of technical terrain.

The second Snow Ranger on scene and one member from MRS arrived and began treating the team’s injuries. The two most seriously injured climbers were treated and packaged into rescue litters. As they did this, more MRS members arrived and began to transport them to the Harvard Cabin where the USFS snow tractor was waiting to transport them to ambulances while the third waited for rescuers to return and transport him in a litter. This group arrived at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at about 9:15pm. Meanwhile, the remaining MRS members and the hasty team assisted the group of 9 uninjured climbers’ rappel to the talus and then down from the top of the fan to the Harvard Cabin. Of this group, one sustained minor frostbite injuries to his toes. The entire group was transported from the Harvard Cabin 2 miles to Pinkham on the snow tractor, arriving at the base approximately 11:30pm.

Analysis:

The information and timeline described above are the facts as best as we have been able to gather them. The facts presented are as accurate and objective as possible. The discussion that follows below is our analysis and interpretation of the situation. It is a subjective analysis of what took place the day of the incident and represents the collective professional knowledge and experience of our team.

With the value of 20/20 hindsight, any accident can be picked apart by someone looking to place blame or find mistakes that may have been made. This is not our intent here. The purpose is to try to determine what lessons can be learned from the decisions that led to the accident so others can learn from these experiences and avoid making similar choices.

Every accident in the mountains is unique, so understanding the context surrounding decisions and actions is an important component. Doing this helps us understand the “decision crossroads” that led to this incident and other similar historical mountain mishaps. Whether as Snow Rangers or as recreational climbers, we have each faced decisions points where we need to assess the interaction between a wide variety of factors and choose a course of action. Things such as turnaround times, changing weather, changing avalanche hazard, group decision making dynamics, evaluation of the group’s skill and experience, etc. all provide context from which we can reflect and learn.

In this incident, there were many factors involved that added risk to the overall situation. When considered individually, each one may not seem like a catastrophic error or miscalculation. However, we believe the accumulation of these overlapping factors led this group to being in a dangerous situation, and moreover, to continue moving forward with their plan when other groups may have chosen another course of action. We believe this incident was not a freak natural event completely outside of the control of the party. Avalanches are a common natural phenomenon in Huntington Ravine and this event became an incident because the group made decisions and took actions that placed them in a precarious position.

Motivation and Commitment:

A frequent contributor to avalanche incidents worldwide is the motivation and commitment level of a group. Once a group invests themselves into an objective, it becomes more difficult for the group to retreat from the objective or alter their plan. This is a heuristic trap that is commonly taught in basic avalanche classes. No person, from the novice to the avalanche professional, is immune from it entirely. The trick is to know how to recognize its influence on one’s decision making and try hard to minimize the effect.

This group was heavily invested in success in many ways. They were organized as a charity for a very worthwhile cause. The team members had all donated significant amounts of time. The climb was being filmed by a professional filmmaker for a documentary. There was a strong media campaign to draw attention to the climb…these all increase the level of commitment beyond what might be normal for a purely recreational climb. An increased acceptance of risk comes often comes with an increased level of commitment. There is no way for us to know how much of a role this factor played in the incident, if it played a role at all. It is our assumption that for at least some members of the team this was a contributing factor to their acceptance of the risks they faced.

They also had pre-arranged to spend the night at the Mt. Washington Observatory. Whereas for most climbers the summit is the halfway point for their entire climb, in this situation the group had extra incentive to push through to their final destination. When groups are planning to return to their starting point, they will often set a turnaround time. Regardless of where they are when the time comes, they will stop climbing and head back down. Establishing protocols such as these are a time-tested method for helping keep climbers out of trouble and mitigating risk. Staying flexible and watching for reason to turn around earlier, as an example, is an excellent decision, but sticking to predetermined protocols is essential. On a one-way trip, deciding to turn around and descend is a very difficult decision to make.

Avalanche hazard:

A fundamental challenge for avalanche forecasters is to convey the meaning of each different rating level. Understanding the rating scale is a critical first step in understanding how much risk you are accepting. Often people think that Moderate conditions equate to a risk level that they are comfortable with since moderate ranks second on a scale that goes from one to five. It’s easy enough to understand the degree of risk from Extreme or High avalanche danger. The risk of traveling in the lesser-rated terrain drops from there. Read the definitions carefully and you’ll see that even a Low rating indicates some risk of encountering pockets of unstable snow. A “moderate” rating means that “human triggered avalanches are possible.” Not only should people think about the probability of an avalanche, but the consequences of such an event must not be ignored. In Huntington, particularly in lean snow cover, avalanches run out into boulder fields. Within the United States, New Hampshire has the highest percentage of avalanche fatalities due to trauma as opposed to asphyxiation due to being buried.

In this incident, the group made the decision to climb Central Gully after receiving the weather report at the Harvard Cabin. When a Snow Ranger arrived at the Harvard Cabin shortly thereafter, the group had already decided they would climb Central. The Snow Ranger attempted to discuss snow stability with a gathering of several group members, but the group deferred judgment to the group leaders who were inside the cabin at the time. He then went inside and discussed the rating, the incoming snow, and the increasing danger with the leaders, who confirmed that they would move forward with their plan to climb Central. Later, when one of the injured climbers recognized the Snow Ranger rendering first aid as the one who had spoken with the group in the morning, he stated that this was the Snow Ranger “that thought we were idiots for climbing Central” that day. Of course these aren’t the words that were used, but the statement demonstrates that at least one member of the group understood the risks described by the Snow Ranger.

The avalanche hazard was known to be on the rise during the day. This was described in the morning avalanche advisory and as snow was forecasted to fall heavily at times. By early afternoon, hours before the avalanche occurred, snow accumulations had exceeded the weather forecasted totals by 1.6”. This snowfall event brought 0.4” of snow-water equivalent (SWE) to the summit, 90% of which was recorded between 6am and 12pm. In afternoon hours, snow continued to fall at a much lighter rate, but snow was being actively transported into Central Gully due to high winds and forming soft slabs. These slabs were recognized by the group leader, as he stated he had been trying to avoid them all afternoon. This evidence indicates increasing avalanche hazard, and is commonly considered to be “bulls-eye data” or a “red flag.”

Regardless of the forecasted rating, it is very important to be capable of assessing snow stability during a climb. In this case, the lead guide had been doing this. He stated he had been “skirting a slab all afternoon.” Indeed, avoiding areas of unstable snow and staying on hard old surfaces is a recommended way to avoid triggering an avalanche. However, it was not the lead guide’s rope team that triggered the avalanche. Another team had moved out above this team to get better set up for filming. This group had an experienced climber in the lead for most of the climb, but just before the final pitch they “swung leads,” so that the person who had been at the bottom of the rope was now leading. This person initially stated that the snow he was climbing through was thigh or waist-deep. The depth and softness of the snow would be another “red flag,” which should trigger another decision point where the climbing team can reassess the plan to move forward. Even at this point near the top of the gully, descending was still a viable option, albeit a challenging one.

We believe that the overall confidence in the leader’s ability and experience may have led to some group members withholding from the entire group avalanche concerns they may have had. This confidence was stated by one group member as a reason for not carrying avalanche rescue gear (i.e. beacons, shovels, and probes). While we don’t condone the practice, it is not uncommon for climbers in Huntington to travel without avalanche rescue gear. We understand that there are times when the risk of being buried in an avalanche in Huntington is much less than the risk of being severely injured or killed by the fall itself. However, leaving this equipment behind significantly reduces your safety margin should an avalanche occur. This life-saving equipment should be seen as an important part of an overall safety system. It’s the final defense, to be used only when objective hazards are not avoided through decision-making. Without it, the chances of rescuing a buried victim in time are reduced to unreasonable odds. We recommend carrying avalanche rescue gear when traveling in avalanche terrain, because we believe it is the right thing to do.

With the benefit of hindsight, we do not think climbing Central Gully would have been a poor choice for every group on this day. Given the weather conditions and increasing avalanche hazard, an early-rising, fast-moving team of climbers comfortable with the terrain could have climbed through the gully before instabilities developed very far. If snow stability during the climb had deteriorated too much, they could have downclimbed, rappelled, or traversed out of the gully into the rocks on the right before they developed to the point where they might naturally release. This group’s pace certainly contributed to the accident, as they arrived in avalanche terrain four hours after leaving the Harvard Cabin. It was during these hours that most of the snow had fallen, and the group continued to climb into worsening avalanche conditions.

Group Size:

Twelve people on a climb such as Central is not completely unreasonable, but it does create some challenges and risks. Managing avalanche hazard, choosing appropriate technical climbing techniques and the pace of travel are all affected by the large group size.

One of the fundamental concepts of traveling with others in avalanche terrain is to minimize the exposure to avalanche hazard at any time. For skiers, this most often equates to skiing a slope one person at a time. For climbers in Huntington, the one-at-time maxim is very difficult since the gullies are fairly narrow slide paths without many “safe zones” between which a group can move. In such cases we often advise roped parties moving through potentially unstable snow to protect their route with rock and ice gear. With the exception of descent this is one of the only ways for climbers to mitigate avalanche risk when ascending narrow steep slopes. Three distinct ways the group size added to their exposure to the hazard are 1) the sheer number of people on the same slope at the same time, 2) it slows the pace and therefore lengthens the duration of exposure, which is particularly a problem during increasing instability, and 3) more people on a slope increases the likelihood that someone will climb over a weak point and trigger a slide.

The pace of climbing is also related to group size. Generally, larger groups move more slowly than smaller groups. Other factors can slow a group down. With this group, one climber was using a prosthetic device that had a smaller footprint than a standard boot. This slowed the climbing greatly, as he would break through the crust where others would not. There is no doubt about this climber’s physical fitness and endurance, it is simply more difficult for anyone to move fast when he or she is breaking through an established boot pack. The temperatures on Thursday dropped down to around 0F during the afternoon in the ravine and -10F on the summit. In temperatures such as these, speed and efficiency are important safety measures.

Related to the pace is the choice of how to travel as a group in steep terrain. There are many techniques available to climbing teams and no one way is right for every situation. In this situation, the group was divided into four separate teams, each tied together with 60 meter ropes with one climber tied to the middle. At times earlier in the climb, the teams had used protection and anchors to belay climbers over the ice bulge. Sometime after this, most teams had begun climbing without the benefit of snow, ice, or rock protection. They were belaying at times, using “snow thrones” backed up with ice axes planted in the snow as their anchors, but otherwise there was no protection between anchors. This technique exposes climbing teams to a significant amount of risk. If one climber falls, the other two climbers must arrest the fall to prevent the entire team from falling. In steeper terrain and on icy surfaces, arresting falls becomes increasingly difficult. If one team falls together or is caught in an avalanche, there is a chance that their rope will catch other climbing teams and cause them to fall as well. Here, the topmost rope team triggered the avalanche but fortunately did not get carried downslope. The team that was caught and fell +/-800ft was located farther out into the center of the gully than the others. The other two teams did get carried at least a short distance. One team was able to arrest their fall, but the fourth did indeed fall until their rope became hung up on an exposed rock just above the ice bulge. It could be argued that they would have fallen all the way if they weren’t tied to a rope, but the rock essentially served the same function as ice, snow, or rock protection would have in this instance. We believe using protection is a safer option when using roped techniques in this terrain. Of all the options available, the chosen method for this climb on this day would be among the least desirable techniques.

Lastly, related to the group’s pace, is the method of descent. Once the avalanche passed, the group was able to account for those still on the slope and knew that one team of three had been swept downslope. The team reorganized and made the decision to descend the route which we believe was the correct thing to do. However, when dealing with an avalanche accident you are in a race against time because statistics show you have 15-30 minutes before most incidents move from rescue to recovery in the case of full burial. The speed of the companion rescue is a key factor in preventing fatalities. Although no one was fully buried in this incident, the remaining teams in the gully were unaware of the fate of the others until rescuers arrived. With 9 people in the group, descending on rappel one at a time is a very slow process, though it is also a very safe method. Had the fallen team been buried, received more serious injuries, or not been intercepted by rescue teams, the delay in treatment would have been life-threatening. Because the terrain in Central is not overly technical it is commonly used as a descent route for parties who have climbed another route. In a group of 9 skilled and experienced climbers, it would be reasonable for some in the party to downclimb more quickly to initiate a rescue, while the others continue to rappel.

In conclusion, this is clearly a complex situation where a lot decisions needed to be made as the day unfolded. We believe that this was an avoidable accident that fortunately resulted in very minor injuries considering the magnitude of the incident. We have the benefit of hindsight and were not involved in the group’s decision making process, so it’s impossible to know all the factors and how they were considered. Again, the intent of this analysis is not to place blame, but to allow others to learn from the experiences of their fellow climbers. We wish group members the best in their admirable cause and in their future mountaineering endeavors. We look forward to seeing them again in the hills pursuing climbs with new lessons learned under their belt.

Call for Assistance

On Thursday January 10, 2012 two climbers on the floor of Huntington Ravine called 911, stating they were lost and had spent the night bivouaced under a large rock. The GPS coordinates provided by their cell phone placed the individuals near the Gulf of Slides Ski trail, the 911 caller stated and then reconfirmed that they were indeed in Huntington Ravine. Two Snow Rangers and the Harvard Cabin caretaker hiked into Huntington Ravine to locate the party. Within several hundred yards of the trail the party was found, low in the Fan among the boulders. The two climbers stated that they spent 4-5 hours in the dark wandering around in the Fan looking for the trail down then decided to find a place to spend the night and wait for first light. The two were accompanied to the trail and then brought to Harvard Cabin.