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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two climbers approaching Pinnacle Gully reported that they were swept down 70 to 100 meters from the start of the first ice pitch in Pinnacle Gully. In waist to chest deep snow the lead individual triggered the avalanche as he approached the ice from the north. The fracture occurred above the climber and was approximately 5 meters below the transition to steep ice. Neither climber was buried in the incident and no injuries were sustained.
At approximately 3:45pm, Norman Priebatsch was hiking with his son and two others when he fell on steep icy terrain. The group members reported that he fell over a rock band and began sliding downhill. The group received no response to their shouts as the victim slid downhill, and the victim was not attempting to stop his fall at the time. He slid into an open crevasse in the lower portion of the Bowl, below the Lip, in the vicinity of the “Open Book” area. The other members of the group immediately went to the edge of the crevasse, but could not make contact with the victim. One member, along with one bystander who was not part of the group, quickly went to the AMC caretakers’ cabin at Hermit Lake to report the accident.
USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the accident shortly after 4pm. While the Snow Rangers made their way to Pinkham Notch, the AMC caretaker and other bystanders went to the ravine to gather more information and began preparing for the rescue effort. In addition to the USFS Snow Rangers, assistance was requested from Mountain Rescue Service of North Conway and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue of Gorham. The caretaker from the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin also assisted at the scene, while the AMC staff at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and the Mt. Washington Observatory provided organizational support and spot weather forecasts.
USFS Snow Rangers established two anchors for use in a technical rope rescue system. One Snow Ranger was lowered into the crevasse to a depth of about 40 feet. From this point, he could clearly see another 40 feet down. As the slope angle decreased, the crevasse narrowed to about 4 feet in diameter. There was no sign of the missing hiker in the area that could be seen. Due to the objective hazards involved in descending into the confined space, the decision was made to not descend farther into the crevasse. The Snow Ranger was raised back to the surface and rescue efforts were suspended for the night. Snow Rangers returned to the site the following day, but again the decision was made not to descend into the crevasse due to the hazards involved with such a recovery effort.
In the weeks following April 1st, Snow Rangers continued to monitor conditions in the area. Numerous attempts were made to visually check the crevasse, but further descents into the crevasse were not safely possible. On May 20th, Snow Rangers were able to safely descend underneath the snow using an access point located below and to the side of the waterfall. Using this new entry point, the victim was visible approximately 90 feet from the opening, or 125 feet below the original crevasse opening. That evening, plans were formed to recover the victim from the crevasse the following morning. On Monday morning, May 21st, the victim was recovered by a team of four Snow Rangers, with assistance from Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue and the Appalachian Mountain Club caretaker.
Earlier in the day on April 1st, two Snow Rangers had climbed through the Lip area, with the intention to assess and better understand the extent and severity of the crevasse hazard. They found crevasses to be very large and deep, though the magnitude of the hazard was not easily visible from above. They specifically looked into the opening that the victim later fell into. Climbing through the Lip, they also noted that the snow conditions that day were very hard and icy. These conditions and the Snow Rangers’ assessment were not unexpected. The avalanche advisory from that morning stated, “With the frozen surfaces comes the potential for very dangerous sliding falls. Every year we see numerous people climbing very steep and icy slopes (e.g. the Lip) without an ice axe and crampons…even very experienced mountaineers with all the right equipment would still have a very difficult time self-arresting under the current conditions on some slopes in Tuckerman, so play it safe.” It continued, “Climb up what you plan to descend. This gives you an opportunity to check for hazards such as crevasses at a leisurely pace.”
As mentioned in the advisory, having equipment is not a guarantee of safety. Down-climbing this route in these conditions is a very difficult endeavor; to do so safely would likely require facing into the slope and front-pointing one’s way down. The fact that three of the four group members were able to safely descend the Lip on this day is remarkable. None in the group were wearing winter mountaineering boots, no one besides the victim was wearing crampons, and though they did have ski poles, they were not carrying ice axes. In this very unfortunate accident, it would be an over-simplification to blame the lack of an ice axe as the primary cause of the accident, but this could be considered one contributing factor.
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center often recommends springtime visitors hike up what they plan to descend. We make this recommendation to backcountry visitors regardless of their level of experience. Every season brings similar hazards of crevasses, undermined snow, icefall, etc., but throughout each season the location, severity, and extent of the hazards does change. In this particular situation, the party had ascended a different route than they descended, so they did not have the opportunity to assess the extent of the crevasses before descending. When Snow Rangers were checking the conditions earlier on the day of the accident, it was using roped climbing techniques and utilizing an avalanche probe to locate, evaluate, and avoid crevasses. Despite this technique, one Snow Ranger inadvertently broke through a snow bridge and nearly fell downslope. If this had happened, the rope safety system as mitigation would have prevented a long sliding fall. This roped and probing technique is rarely used by spring visitors to Mt. Washington, even though it would be considered standard practice for mountaineers in other glaciated mountain ranges.
Each visitor, according to his or her experience and skill set, should be prepared for the current conditions. It is important to understand that what may be a reasonable level of risk for one person may not be the same for another, and that each person or group is responsible for deciding when, where, and how to travel. It is also important to understand that no person begins his or her life with mountaineering experience. There is no better way to learn safe mountain travel than through the actual experience of traveling in the mountains. It is imperative to honestly evaluate one’s own experience, skill, and tolerance for risk.
A skier was injured while booting up the Chute when he attempted to stop another falling skier. The patient suffered a 2″ laceration to the left ear. MWVSP members treated and released the patient. The falling skier was uninjured.
A hiker injured her knee while descending from the summit. USFS Snow Rangers encountered the woman, who was a member of a guided party, at the Tuckerman/Lion Head Summer Route trail junction and transported the patient to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile drawn litter.
A skier fell near the top of the Chute, slid to about the Narrows and then “log-rolled” before finally stopping about 200′ above and right Gumdrop Rocks. Witnesses reported that the skier, who was skiing for his first time in Tuckerman Ravine, took about 2 turns and pre-released from the binding of one ski. Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol members and USFS Snow Rangers responded, treated and packaged the patient who was unconscious and seizing on arrival. It is unclear whether or not he impacted any rocks during the fall.
Due to the presentation of symptoms and the calm winds, a helicopter evacuation was ordered. Lifeflight of Maine, flying out of Bangor, transported the patient to Maine Med in Portland. The ability to fly into Tuckerman Ravine is very unusual due to the preponderance of days with turbulence, high winds, limited visibility, limited landing options or all four factors at once. Fortunately, a relatively limited number of skiers were in the bowl, which reduced the risk and consequence of mishap with the helicopter.
A solo hiker died as a result of injuries sustained in a fall while descending in the vicinity the Lip area of Tuckerman Ravine. The fall was witnessed by the AMC caretaker at Hermit Lake Shelters, who immediately notified USFS Snow Rangers and initiated rescue efforts. Despite the fact that rescue was immediately begun, the victim passed away while rescuers were preparing for the evacuation.
USFS Snow Rangers were heading home at the end of the day Sunday when notified of hikers having dialed 911 from Mt. Washington. Apparently, two hikers were attempting to descend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail through the ravine, when one of them slipped and fell. He was able to self-arrest, but somehow lost track of his partner. Thinking his partner had also fallen, he called 911 for assistance. After making the call, he was able to locate his partner above. He and his partner eventually found their way to and descended the Lion Head Trail. The HMC caretaker made contact with the party on the lower portion of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, confirmed that they had made the distress call, and did not need further assistance.
A party of two was climbing Central Gully when the leader was hit with a naturally-triggered sluff avalanche. During the fall, one of the climbers fractured his ankle. Much of the information below was gathered from a narrative provided by a guide who was in the area as well as from conversations with the injured party.
Just prior to the incident, the guided group climbed up to top of the ice bulge in Central. The guide decided not to continue up the gully due to excessive spindrift, blowing snow, and generally harsh conditions above treeline. He had a 3-ice screw anchor built for his group in the ice. When the party of two arrived, he allowed them to clip the anchor while they climbed the ice. However, after the group cleared the ice they were climbing unprotected with a short rope between them.
At this point the guide was at the top belay, out of the fall line, while his clients were down at an ice screw anchor below the ice and also out of the fall line. About 15 meters above the ice, the party of two was hit with a loose snow (sluff) avalanche which carried them both downslope. According to the leader, the force felt as though he received a stiff push or kick in the chest. The guide heard “Avalanche!” but did not see the falling climbers pass by. He descended down to his clients to get them situated. He assumed that the slide had happened below him and that the party of two was still up in the gully. About 10 minutes later he heard a call for help. The party had fallen about 100m, coming to rest about 30m below the fracture line from two days earlier. It was the second climber who sustained the ankle injury. The lead climber was uninjured but did break his climbing helmet in the fall. It wasn’t until he descended to the injured party that he learned it was the climbers above who had been avalanched past.
With help from his clients and the partner of injured climber, the guide was able to lower the patient down toward the bottom of the fan. At this point two clients went to the rescue cache to bring up a litter. The guide had been able to wrap the patient in a bivy bag and help keep him warm with a water bottle of hot tea placed between his legs. The patient was then placed in the litter and they worked their way down to the Harvard Cabin. From the time of the accident (2pm) to the time they arrived at the cabin (6pm) was about 4 hours. Their efforts are very much appreciated, since the trail from the bottom of the fan to the Cabin is very difficult for a litter carry in these lean snow conditions.
USFS Snow Rangers met the group at the Harvard Cabin, reassessed and re-splinted the injured leg. From arrival at the cabin to the parking lot at Pinkham was about 2 more hours. The litter was sledded down the Sherburne Ski Trail by USFS Snow Rangers, MRS and students from SOLO who were at Pinkham for a Wilderness First Responder course.
We received word afterwards that the patient did indeed break his ankle, which will require surgical repair. This day (January 5) was the first 5-scale avalanche advisory for Huntington Ravine this season. The advisory for the day indicated Huntington Ravine starting the day at Low danger, but moving into the Moderate rating as a forecasted 1-3” loaded in on W and NW winds. The summit did record 2.4” of new snow on January 5 with winds averaging 56mph.
Two skiers triggered a R2D1.5 avalanche in Central gully at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon. The previous night 2.9 inches of new snow fell on the summit with strong winds. During the morning and through the day this snow was transported into the deposition area below the Central ice bulge. Both Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines were under a General Advisory identifying snow stability concerns in isolated snowfields in each of the ravines.
In the words of skier #2: ” The sky was mostly clear with a lot of blowing snow, which should have been our first sign of newly loaded snow in the gullies. We moved our way up the hiking trail through the fan of the ravine carrying our skis on our packs. Halfway up the fan we broke left onto the snow fields in front of Pinnacle buttress and gully. Here we turned on our beacons and did a beacon check to make sure our transceivers were working in transmit and search mode: they were and we read in each others distance from one another approximately the same. With the high winds, cold and strong gusts, we decided to dig multiple quick/hasty pits as we ascended the snow. We found a lot of spatial variability up the slope. Scoured old icy surface, very dense heavy 2″ slab, 8-12″ lighter slabs, some of these slabs were right on old surface and some were sitting on top of what seemed to be consolidated snow. The cold temps and the winds were not friendly to digging more comprehensive pits, something we should have used as a sign that it was “not a nice day to go skiing” but we pushed on to the Central buttress where we found a large patch of recently (and still being) deposited snow. At the base of the ice route known as Cloud Walkers we began inspecting this new and different snow and kept digging around and feeling for layers in the snow as we climbed. There seemed to be no inconsistencies in this wind slab. Punching ski poles and our arms up to our shoulder we found the same type of snow as deep as we could determine with the assessment/observation technique we were utilizing. Climbing through this area of snow, postholing up to our waists at times, we made our way to the base of the ice slab in Central gully and tucked ourselves away into the corner of the rock climb known as Mechanics Route, which ended being a very good idea in retrospect. ”
The first skier started out and after one or two turns triggered a slab avalanche that carried the skier approximately 500 feet down into the fan, over snow, and fortunately not into the talus. The seconds skier standing along the buttress (skiers right) was not caught in the release and was able to move down the slope to help.
Skier#2: “I hurried down to a flatter spot where I left my skies and poles, pulled out my beacon and turned it on to search mode pointing it in the direction my partner had been swept toward. Taking a moment to make sure the beacon was indeed in search mode I found no signal, he was still too far away down hill. I began moving down through the rock fields, more or less on the hiking trail, adjacent to where the slide had flowed past. Visibility was difficult at a distance but I could see the debris from the slide. Most of it had been broken into small chunks of snow and some were still basketball size. I quickly moved downhill in a straight line scanning left and right to try to pick up his signal. Looking back and forth from my beacon to the direction I was heading, I soon saw a figure about five hundred feet below me moving from where I saw the slide go toward to where I was heading in the rock fields. It seemed to be my partner carrying his skis to a safer place away from the slide area.”
In our experience looking at avalanche accidents and close calls on Mount Washington over the years, constant themes, mistakes, and oversights arise. Many of them are related to human psychological factors, the mental drivers that whisper over our shoulder “..everything is fine, good ahead you’ll have fun, you’ve done this before…”, while others miss the bulls-eye data that Mother Nature is offering and not having as much avalanche knowledge as we all should. These are traps any of us can fall into, which highlights how important it is to approach avalanche terrain with skepticism and keep asking the critical questions.
In this particular case a number of things were done well and some factors were overlooked. Good partner accountability and the ability to be support for our fellow partner is always important. Sound rescue skills and a level head to execute under duress is what all of us want in our mountain team. Beacon checks, going one at a time, good rescue execution are excellent practices and are commended in this case. Having a good plan in case of an incident is critical, but focusing on and planning for rescue should not take a front seat to all the actions we should consider in order to not get caught. It’s all about not getting caught, not avalanche rescue. New Hampshire leads the nation in the percentage of avalanche deaths resulting in trauma. Based on our terrain and low snowfall an avalanche can often send you through the trees and rocks. This results in a higher probability that you’ll be deceased when the snow stops more than any other state. The avalanche beacon is of little value in this scenario. So, avalanche rescue skills and gear are always extremely critical, but never more important than knowing how not to get caught.
In hindsight our vision is 20/20 as we ask ourselves “how could we have overlooked these clues?” This is especially true with the objective facts we would expect to ask ourselves. How much precipitation did we receive in the past 24/48 hours? What direction are the winds and at what speed? Is my intended terrain in the lee? Do I have the slope angle and adequate bed surfaces for avalanche potential? All these taken together will often send up some red flags. After these questions are answered you’ve got some data, now what? “What’s the stability like.” Snow pits and stability tests can be a double edged sword. They are critical to have an understanding what is going on under the surface. Stability tests such as Compression Tests, Extended Column Tests, the Rutschbloc, etc. give you some indication how slopes might react as opposed to quick hasty digging (sans tests) which can bring out red flag layers or crystals, but are limited in what they tell us about how the slope might respond to your load. The other edge of the sword in doing stability tests is they tell you what is going on right there and not accounting for potentially vast amounts of spatial variability. As this team went upslope they recognized variability which led to a choice to not spend too much effort or time in one pit which is not an unreasonable decision. There is a possibility that numerous pits would lead them to believe skiing the slope was a reasonable proposition. In our terrain spatial variability often increases the odds of “false stable” results when doing stability tests on a particular slope. Basically, stability tests can lead you to believe a slope is stable when in fact it’s not. No matter what mountain you’re on around the world knowing what’s buried 10-20 meters out in the middle of a couloirs is often the 64 thousand dollar question.
In this case, as best we can surmise, the initial fracture leading to failure occurred in a very thin section of the slab over water ice unseen from the surface. It is very probable faceted snow sat between the ice and the thin slab (+/- 15-22cm) causing a failure back into the deeper slabs behind the first skier. Given the same weak layer your “impact bulb” causes more stress on a shallow weakness than a deeper one. The thicker a slab (i.e. +/- 80 to 100cm) the more it generally distributes your load over a broad area on a weak layer. In a thin slab (i.e. +/- 10-40cm) a point load of the same weight impacts the weakness with a greater amount of pounds per square inch generating a more likelihood of fracture and failure.
20 hours after the incident two crown line profiles were done in a +/- 12 meter section of the 30 m overall crown length. This section was fairly consistent at 90cm deep before tapering rapidly after a rock in the crown. A score of CT11 with Q2 shear occurred in both profiles failing at 90cm. Although a number of layers existed above the test failures at 90cm they survived the CT11 tests.