Three Human Triggered Avalanches- Center Bowl

This was a very warm and busy day with three human triggered avalanches, three head lacerations, and two lower leg injuries. Avalanches were a concern as recent snowfall had developed slabs in lee areas a couple days earlier. These slabs had been subject above freezing temperatures for a full day and night, leading to the Lip, Headwall, and Bowl being posted at Considerable on Friday the 24th and Moderate danger for the 25th. Additionally, the potential for falling ice from the Sluice and Headwall areas was another cause for concern.

The first patient of the day fell in the center Bowl area and injured his lower leg in the fall. One Snow Ranger and one Ski Patroller had to briefly delay hiking to him as a safety measure. When the area became sufficiently clear of traffic, they brought a litter to the patient, loaded him into it, and quickly moved to a safer location for further assessment. The second patient fell in the upper Chute and injured his knee and thigh during the fall. As a safety measure, lookouts were posted above the patient as well as off to the side. Both patients were splinted and transported to Pinkham with the help of numerous bystanders who were willing to help out.

All three head lacerations were bandaged and the patients were able to walk themselves down to Pinkham. One cut the back of his head when he attempted a backflip on a man-made jump in the floor of the ravine. A second fell off a cliff while skiing the left side of the Headwall. The third fell while carrying his skis down a steep section between the Little Headwall and the Lower Snowfields. He slipped and fell into another person’s ski edge, causing a facial laceration.

As mentioned, three human triggered avalanches took place, all in the center Headwall area. This area, as well as the Bowl and Lip (including the Sluice) were rated at Moderate avalanche danger. The avalanche advisory for the day discussed the unusual avalanche issues for the day related to continued warming of recently developed slabs over an older more stable bed surface. Despite the Moderate rating, numerous people were skiing almost every line imaginable in the Headwall area. Just prior to noon, the first slab avalanche was triggered by sluff created as a person attempted to descend the center Headwall. A little more than an hour later a second and slightly smaller slab released farther left of the first slide. This snowboarder was carried with the debris but not buried. The third avalanche involved hangfire that remained between the first two slides; the trigger for this one was able to remain on his board and not be carried with the slide. In addition to the Headwall, we were concerned about stability issues in the Lip and Sluice. Stability was decreasing as the day progressed due to increased melting; however, skier compaction of the Lip from the day before and early on this day helped stabilize this area before the decreasing strength of the slab reached the critical threshold. Somehow, the Sluice did not see any traffic except for a couple riders at the very end of the day. The avalanches that occurred are not the usual type for Mt. Washington. As an example, the second slide released after many people, perhaps up to 30, had already descended the same area that day. Warm slabs can still retain their cohesiveness while the meltwater breaks down their tensile strength. We believe this is what happened to the slabs that released here. In these cases the trigger was human but it also could have been entirely natural.

It is difficult for us, as professional avalanche forecasters, to fully understand the human factors involved in the decisions visitors were making throughout the day. We believe there existed a wide variety of attitudes and perceptions of the hazards on the mountain this day. The vast majority of visitors listened to our advice and made safe decisions. Others listened to our safety messages then allowed other human factors to take priority. There were also some who understood the hazards and willingly chose to accept the risk involved. We also believe there are others who truly did not understand the magnitude of risks they were dealing with. In this case, several key pieces of bulls-eye data existed (i.e. recent avalanche activity in one part of the Headwall gives a clear indication that snow may be unstable on other similar slopes). We are thankful for the relatively low number of injuries on such a busy day and feel lucky that no injuries resulted from the three avalanches. We want to emphasize that our role in Tuckerman Ravine each spring goes beyond helping out those who are injured. We firmly believe that with good information visitors will make better and safer decisions. We are here to provide information and guidance that will help you have a positive experience. Please seek us out anytime you have questions about what hazards exist on a given day!

Four Injuries

USFS Snow Rangers and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol assisted with four injured visitors. Each patient was able to evacuate themselves without further assistance beyond Hermit Lake. The first patient was a participant in the Inferno pentathlon who fell during the ski leg and dislocated his shoulder. The dislocation was reduced and the shoulder immobilized. The second patient fell while climbing Left Gully, sustaining abrasions to both forearms as a result of his efforts attempting to self-arrest without an ice axe. The third patient fell while climbing above Lunch Rocks. He also dislocated his shoulder; this dislocation was reduced and immobilized for his walk to Pinkham.

The fourth incident of the day is worthy of further analysis. This skier began to descend the Lip in the late afternoon when he realized the surface was much more firm and steep than he had anticipated. At some point before descending, he dropped his ski poles down the Lip, stepped out of his skis, and began to climb back upward to the ridge. He traversed over to the top of the Sluice, where conditions were not much better than in the Lip. Upon descending, he lost control and began a tumbling fall that ended just short of Lunch Rocks. He was able to walk himself down the Snow Ranger Quarters at Hermit Lake where he was examined by Snow Rangers and the MWVSP. It was determined he may have suffered a minor concussion but was otherwise all right. At the request of the caregivers, he returned later in the evening for a follow-up evaluation before spending the night at his shelter. This incident involves a few common hazards we see each spring. First, when the sun begins to set behind the ridge, the snow surface can quickly turn very icy and slick. Second is descending an unknown route without first climbing it to determine its nature. The Sluice is every bit as steep as the Lip, but also has cliffs and a runout into Lunch Rocks making falls especially precarious. Skiing at the top of your ability in unfamiliar terrain without poles and with a large pack can be very challenging; sometimes walking down can be a good option. Kudos to the patient’s friends for encouraging him to get checked out by trained personnel.

Avalanche Accident in Tuckerman Ravine

Two climbers were involved in an avalanche accident in Tuckerman Ravine. The accident took place on a sunnier-than-expected Saturday early in the spring skiing season. The weather forecast had called for mostly cloudy skies, summit temperatures falling to 15F, and winds ranging from 25-40mph. The morning avalanche advisory discussed the snowpack staying frozen for most of the day, with the best chance of warm soft snow being on south-facing aspects. Northerly aspects were expected to remain cold and frozen through the day. DZ and TF, both athletic and experienced mountaineers, were climbing the steep snow route known as “Dodge’s Drop” unroped, each with two technical ice axes and crampons. They had recently climbed Hillman’s Highway and were familiar with the terrain on the Boott Spur Ridge. The plan was to climb the route to access the hiking trails to the summit of Mt. Washington, then descend through Tuckerman Ravine.

For much of the climb, the surface conditions were refrozen springtime crust. The party reported they were enjoying the climbing conditions when on this surface. At times, they encountered small areas of newer softer snow but this surface was more difficult to climb, so they opted for the old surface when possible. Nearing the top of the climb, they encountered an isolated pocket of relatively new slab. The upper climber (DZ) reported he was unable to swing his axes through the new snow into the crust, his boots were getting full penetration when kicked into the snow, and the snow was fully supporting his weight. He stated that he decided to move left to get around the slab both for stability reasons and for the easier climbing on the crust. As he was working himself toward the edge of the slab the avalanche released.

DZ recognized what was transpiring and was able to see the fracture line propagate upwards from his feet to a point about 6-8 feet above him. The fracture then propagated outward and the slab began to slide downhill. TF was about 10 feet below and slightly to the side of DZ. He had both ice tools sunk into the snow. The initial slab, which DZ was entrained in, pulled out more snow above TF. He attempted to hold on against the force of the slab pouring over him but he was eventually pulled off his stance. Both individuals were carried downhill, and each reported being airborne at some point. DZ stated he was impressed by how much time he had during the course of the slide to figure out what to do. He said he was unsure of whether to try to self arrest or swim to stay on top. At one point he discarded one tool and attempted to self arrest with the other. He felt the pick engaging the crust, but was unable to stop himself. He also reported that during this time he saw his partner slide past him, indicating he at least managed to slow himself to some degree. The avalanche carried them over a small cliff (hence DZ reporting being airborne for “3 heartbeats”) and down into a treed slope below. The compressive force of the snow impacting the slope below the cliff was quite strong; it ripped both ice axes out of TF’s hands and they both felt as though their clothes and gear were also being pulled loose. They came to rest in the trees with most of the debris though some of the debris continued to run farther downslope. Both individuals came to rest on top of the snow; no excavation was required.

The avalanche was witnessed by a crowd in the courtyard of Hermit Lake Shelter’s caretaker’s cabin. The commotion alerted a Snow Ranger (Jeff Lane) who saw the climbers sliding into the trees. The caretaker of the shelter site was climbing nearby in Hillman’s Highway; he established communication with the climbers who yelled to him that they were all right. The caretaker continued over to the climbers to assess their injuries more thoroughly. Meanwhile a Snow Ranger and one member of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol headed uphill to tie in with the party. DZ suffered a small laceration on his forehead, a broken pinky finger, sprained ankle, some ligament damage in his knee, bruising on his thigh and shin, and abrasions on both elbows. The abrasions were caused by sliding on the icy crust while wearing only a synthetic t-shirt. TF reported that he lost his vision momentarily when they came to rest but regained it soon after. He also suffered multiple abrasions on both arms and hands, ligament damage in one knee, and a bruised pelvis. The climbers were escorted to the Snow Ranger cabin at Hermit Lake where they were more thoroughly assessed and treated. From here, they were transported to the parking lot in the USFS Snowcat, where they were released into their own vehicle for transportation to a local hospital.

Snowpack information: On the night of April 6, 2009 Mt. Washington received a soaking rain transitioning to mixed precipitation and snow. Total water equivalents from this event were 0.71” recorded on the summit, with 1.2” of this coming as snow. Lower on the mountain at Hermit Lake the USFS manual snowplot precip can had collected 1.45” water equivalent with 1.9” of this falling on the storm board as snow. This rain event soaked the snowpack then refroze, giving us a baseline below which there have been no stability issues. Overnight on April 8, the summit recorded 0.4” of new snow. This new snow was not sufficient to raise the avalanche danger above Low for any of the nearby forecast areas in the days following this relatively small snowfall. It’s worth noting the ability of the wind on Mt. Washington to transform seemingly insignificant snow totals into deeper slabs. One excellent example came earlier this month. On April 4, the summit recorded 0.6” new snow. The following morning USFS Snow Ranger Brian Johnston found slabs averaging 9-10” in sheltered lee areas, with one slab measuring 24” deep. Although the snowfall responsible for this avalanche was only 0.4”, winds had been able to develop deeper slabs in isolated areas. This slope has a NNE aspect, and recent weather had been warm but not sufficiently warm to create a melt freeze cycle on northerly aspects. This isolated pocket was able to remain cold and dry while similar slabs in nearby areas with different aspects had been skied numerous times without incident in the days between the snowfall and the avalanche. The fracture line from this avalanche was estimated to average 6” deep and 30-40 feet wide. The slab depth at DZ’s high point was at least 12”.

Summary: These two climbers were incredibly fortunate. This route is generally considered “no-fall” territory due to numerous rocks, cliffs, and trees in the fall line. The total vertical drop of their fall is estimated to be around 800 feet. They managed to pass through the rocky section of the fall unscathed, with the injuries being sustained only after being carried into the trees. Ironically the avalanche which caused their fall likely helped protect them from more significant injuries as they probably rode on the debris cushion to their resting point. Falling this distance with crampons on, ice tools in hand, and going over small cliffs usually concludes much worse. That they were able to walk themselves down from an incident such as this is remarkable to say the least.

From an avalanche perspective, the climbers had chosen a reasonable route. Although Dodge’s Drop is not one of the forecasted areas on the mountain it is adjacent to Hillman’s Highway which is one the 8 forecasted slopes and gullies of Tuckerman Ravine. All 8 areas were forecasted at “Low” at the time of the accident and where heavily skied without incident. Some isolated pockets of instability did exist but between skier compaction; skiers cutting up the continuity of these pockets; and solar gain baking out any fracture propagation potential they became inconsequential by late morning. Dodge’s is a northern facing slope which makes it slow to react to sunny days as it does not receive direct solar gain. Slabs on these aspects often require higher ambient air temperatures for rapid settling compared to southern facing slopes which react very quickly to solar radiation. Using an avalanche forecast issued for an adjacent slope to your intended ascent/decent as a tool is a smart use of your available resources. In addition to the forecast discussion points however always consider how your intended route might harbor different instability issues. The slab they triggered was small and isolated; if this were in a forecasted area it would be considered an “isolated pocket.” The climbers recognized the hazard when they encountered this pocket and were attempting to mitigate it as best as they could when the fracture initiated. Many valuable lessons can be learned from this event, two are offered here as they are not uncommon occurrences on Mt. Washington. First, it’s important to recognize that “Low avalanche danger” does not mean “No avalanche danger”. Isolated pockets of instability can be present under a Low rating and you should be capable of recognizing and assessing this hazard for yourself. Second, it underscores the importance of being able to assess hazards before dropping in over the top of them. In this instance, there was at least one skier known to be hiking up Hillman’s with the intention of descending Dodge’s Drop. It’s quite likely that this skier would have triggered the pocket if the climbers had not. Whether the hazard is avalanches, crevasses, undermined snow, etc., it’s always a good idea to assess for hazards before descending from above.

Snowboarder caught an edge in the Lip – torn ACL

A snowboarder caught an edge in the Lip causing him to tumble about 300 feet to the floor of the ravine. The victim tore his ACL during the fall. USFS Snow Rangers and members of MWVSP splinted the injured leg and he was able to walk with assistance to Hermit Lake, where he was loaded into the USFS snowcat for transportation to Pinkham Notch.

Sliding fall injuries

At approximately 1:00pm a mountaineer was taking a photograph in the vicinity of the Lip when he lost balance and fell about 300 feet to the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. He sustained a lower leg injury as a result of the fall. The patient was splinted and packaged into a litter which was brought down to Pinkham on the USFS snowcat. While this was taking place, a snowboarder injured his left leg in a sliding fall in Tuckerman Ravine. He was evaluated by the MWVSP and was able to walk to Pinkham under his own power.

Sliding Falls

Two incidents took place which required responses from USFS Snow Rangers, the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (MWVSP), the AMC, and the HMC. In both cases, the victims slid out of control for a long distance on a very hard icy surface that dominated the mountain resulting in multiple injuries to each.

The first incident to be reported to the Snow Rangers involved a woman falling approximately 1200 feet from near the top of Left Gully. She was unable to self arrest and quickly lost her ice axe as she rapidly accelerated on the very slick surface. Along the way her crampon caught the surface, resulting in an open angulated lower leg fracture. She also suffered arm and rib injuries before coming to a stop low in the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. Snow Rangers, MWVSP, and AMC personnel responded, treated her injuries, and packaged her into a litter. The litter was belayed down the Little Headwall to the top of the Sherburne Ski Trail. From there a snowmobile transported the litter to an ambulance waiting at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Approximately 15 minutes after being notified of the first incident, Snow Rangers learned of a second incident unfolding in Huntington Ravine. A mountaineer had fallen from somewhere between the top of the Fan and the ice bulge in Central Gully. He slid approximately 1000 feet through icy talus before coming to rest near the base of Huntington Ravine. The victim suffered numerous significant injuries including a mid-shaft femur fracture. Bystanders began to provide care while assistance was sought out. By the time the Snow Rangers arrived, the victim was conscious and in severe pain. He was splinted and packaged into a litter; which was belayed one rope length to flat ground at the base of the Ravine due to the icy surface. The USFS snowcat transported the victim to a waiting ambulance at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

These two incidents have one strong central theme—that sliding falls on icy surfaces are very difficult to stop. In these cases, the crust was formed three days prior to the incidents with a warm, wet day followed by a sharp drop in temperature. Surfaces immediately became incredibly hard and slick and stayed that way through the Saturday. The morning’s Avalanche Advisory stated “The main safety concern today is the potential for long sliding falls due to the hard icy snow conditions… Bring your crampons, ice axe and mountaineering experience with you today so you can get around in steep terrain and successfully self arrest if you slip. If you don’t have this equipment and the ability to use it you should stick to low angled terrain.” One lesson we can all take home from these incidents is the importance of practicing your skills in all conditions and avoiding steep terrain on days when the difficulty of the conditions exceeds your ability to self arrest. Many thanks go out to the numerous bystanders and volunteers who helped out on these incidents.

Two injured skiers

Two incidents involving skiers occurred almost simultaneously in Tuckerman Ravine in the late afternoon. At about 4pm, a skier descended the Sluice and as he transitioned into the floor of the Ravine his skis broke through a crust layer causing him to fall. The skier suffered a lower leg injury just below the top of his ski boot. At the time, the AMC caretaker from Hermit Lake and a friend were hiking to the ravine to have a look around. They saw bystanders packaging the skier into a litter retrieved from the Lunch Rocks cache and went to assist. As this party was working their way down the floor of the ravine, another skier fell in Right Gully, injuring his knee. This skier was able to walk to Hermit Lake under his own power while the first skier was brought down via the Little Headwall. USFS Snow Rangers transported both skiers from Hermit Lake to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center by snowcat.

Hit by falling ice

A skier was at Lunch Rocks with a group of people when he was struck in the face by falling ice.  The group had intentionally positioned themselves in a location that offered shelter from icefall, but the piece silently threaded its way through the rocks and impacted the victim, causing him to fall approximately 70 feet down the slope.  Realizing the severity of the injury, his friends rapidly treated him and began transporting him down to Hermit Lake.  He was transferred into another toboggan at Hermit Lake and transported to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile, where he was loaded into an ambulance and transported to the hospital.  Due to excellent response from his friends, good trail conditions and machine assistance, the patient was in an ambulance in just over one hour from the time of his injury.

Avalanche North Gully Huntington Ravine

During the afternoon of Sunday, March 30, Forest Service Snow Rangers at Hermit Lake were alerted to an avalanche incident in North Gully in Huntington Ravine. A climber elsewhere in the ravine witnessed the slide and was able to connect with 911 via a cell phone. Two Snow Rangers responded with snowmobiles and were on the scene 18-20 minutes after the incident took place. The details that follow were gathered from the climbers involved.

Two climbers were emerging from North Gully onto the more open slopes above the gully. After simul-climbing the gully’s midsection, they unroped and began to climb the snow up toward Ball Crag. They identified an area of potentially unstable snow and decided to move off to the side of the slope and travel one at a time. One of the climbers triggered an avalanche but neither were caught or carried in the slide. Unsure of the outcome below, they quickly worked their way around the ravine and descended the Escape Hatch to see if anyone needed help.

A second party of two believed the first party had already finished the climb, and began the first ice pitch. The leader arrived at a fixed belay above the first pitch of ice and clipped his rope to the anchor with a carabiner. He was in the process of backing up the anchor when the avalanche came from above. At this point the anchor was serving as a piece of protection and he was essentially still on lead.

The avalanche carried the leader downslope over the top of the first pitch of ice. The belayer was unanchored at the bottom and was lifted upslope and into the ice. He was able to maintain control of the belay and the fixed anchor held, resulting in approximately a 50 foot fall for the leader. Both climbers were shaken up, sore, and had damaged their helmets in the fall. Examinations by Snow Rangers at the scene found no serious injuries. The climbers stayed overnight at the Harvard Cabin, where the following morning they reported general soreness but no other injuries.

The weather leading up this incident is an example of a classic setup for an avalanche cycle. On Friday, March 28, Mt. Washington received 6.4” of 7.8% density snow. Hermit Lake recorded almost 8” from the same weather system. Friday night and Saturday the winds wrapped from the W to the NNW and increased in velocity before falling again on Sunday (from 1mph Friday afternoon to a peak of 99mph Saturday then back down to single digit speeds Sunday). Evidence of natural avalanche activity was visible Sunday morning in several locations, including Hillman’s Highway, South Gully, Raymond’s Cataract, the Lion Head Summer Trail, the East Snowfields of the summit cone, and in small snowfields that descend from Lion Head toward the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Avalanche danger for North Gully on Sunday was rated Moderate.

Fortunately this incident turned out well for all parties involved. It very easily could have been worse. Several lessons can be gleaned from this incident:
·          Choice of route. Five of eight gullies in Huntington had Low avalanche danger while three (North, Damnation, and Central) had Moderate.  In regards to snow stability, choosing anther gully would have been a safer option.
·          Climbing below another party. Ice climbing below others always carries additional risk, whether it’s from falling ice and rocks or avalanches. The party that was hit by the avalanche understood that climbing under another party was a bad choice.  They thought that the gully was clear and that it was safe to start up.  It is difficult to see the entire gully from the base of the ice, but a short walk to a better vantage point is all that is required for a view of the entire gully.
·          Ongoing stability assessments: The top party did a good job of recognizing the unstable snow at the top of the climb. Traveling one at a time off to the side of the area in question helped prevent them from being caught in the avalanche. Had they wanted to protect themselves further, they could have roped up again and climbed to the top using belays and protection.

Glissading accident

A group of mountaineers were glissading the Lion Head Winter Route when one of them lost control and fell down approximately 75-100 feet through the trees to the bottom of the steep section of trail. Along the way he hit some trees and came to a stop against a large stump. USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the incident by a hiker who had been sent to Hermit Lake to get help. Although below the steepest section of trail, the patient was found in terrain sufficiently steep to warrant belaying the litter downhill until the flat section of trail. From here he was sledded to the junction of the Winter Route and the Huntington Ravine Winter Access Trail, then transported via snowmobile and haul sled to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. The Winter Route is a steep mountaineering route which requires the ability to self arrest in the event of a fall. Glissading was a reasonable descent option given the soft snow conditions on this day; however, one should never glissade at a speed beyond his or her ability to self arrest.

Sliding Fall Huntington Ravine

A climber was injured from a sliding fall while descending in Huntington Ravine.  A party of two started up Odell Gully around 3:00 pm on Saturday afternoon.  After completing the main ice climbing section, they traversed to the east to begin their descent.  Neither of them had their headlamps with them and darkness complicated their descent.  According to the party, they were in the lower section of the Escape Hatch when one of them lost his footing and began a sliding fall.  Unable to self arrest, he slid approximately 150 feet before slamming into a tree and stopping.  The fall resulted in injuries to his back and legs.  The two were able to get to the Harvard Cabin under their own power where local guides and the caretaker provided assistance to the climber and notified the USFS Snow Rangers who arrived at the Harvard Cabin around 9:30 pm.  The patient was reassessed, immobilized on a backboard and transported to Pinkham Notch via snowcat where he was transferred to an ambulance and brought to the hospital.  We later learned that the patient fractured two vertebrae in his lower back and had numerous sprains and contusions.

Lessons Learned:  This was the third sliding fall injury in three days that may have been prevented with a quick self arrest.  The surface that all of these occurred on is a very hard icy snowpack from the January thaw, which is difficult to stop on.  If you don’t arrest your fall immediately you will get out of control fast.  In each of these incidents, the parties involved did a good job getting to the Harvard Cabin under their own power.

Sliding Fall – Huntington Ravine

A party of four was ascending the Fan in Huntington Ravine when one of them fell and slid into two other people in his party causing them to fall as well.  One of three involved in the fall was unable to self arrest on the icy surface and tumbled about 50 feet before hitting a rock.  He sustained a soft tissue injury to his left thigh.  The patient’s party was able to assist him down to the Harvard Cabin and notified the caretaker of the incident and requested assistance.  A Snow Ranger assessed his injuries and transported the patient to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile.

Sliding Fall – Tuckerman Ravine Trail Summit Cone

A party of three was descending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail on the summit cone of Mt. Washington when they lost the trail.  Due to poor visibility, they wandered off trail to the east and began descending a steep snowfield.  One of them caught her crampon, causing her to trip and start a sliding fall.  One of the other people in the party chased her down and was able to assist her in stopping the sliding fall.  The person who tripped had no experience self arresting.  During the fall, the person twisted her ankle and her party was able to get her down to the Harvard Cabin in about 5 hours where they spent the night.  The next day USFS Snow Rangers assessed, treated and transported the patient down to Pinkham Notch via snowcat.

Avalanche Solo Climber Huntington Ravine

At 9:20 pm on January 18 the USFS Snow Rangers were informed that a solo climber was overdue from his climb in Huntington Ravine.  The overdue climber had signed into the winter climbers register at Pinkham Notch with the plan of climbing Central Gully in Huntington Ravine.  According to his friends who reported him overdue, he had experience in many gullies in Huntington Ravine and had talked about Odell Gully as another option for his day.

A team searched the access routes into Huntington Ravine between 10:00 pm and midnight on the 18th.  Due to snow stability concerns, search teams didn’t enter avalanche terrain until first light the next day to begin searching Huntington Ravine.  Shortly after sunrise, the missing climber’s body was found in avalanche debris below Odell Gully.  The climber was on top of the debris and died as a result of being avalanched out of Odell Gully.  He was put in a technical litter, lowered 500 ft to the floor of the Ravine and transported to Pinkham Notch by the USFS snowcat.

The avalanche danger rating for January 18 was posted High for all forecast areas in Huntington Ravine.  The definition of this rating states natural and human triggered avalanches are likely, unstable slabs are likely on a variety of aspects and slope angles, and travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.  This rating was based on active wind loading of new snow that had been accumulating since snowfall began around 4 am that morning.  Winds associated with the storm began out of the south before shifting to the west around 12:00 pm and increasing to the 60-70 mph range with a peak gust on the Summit out of the west of 86 mph (139 kph) at 5:42 pm.  Recorded snow totals from this storm were 3.9” (10 cm) at Hermit Lake and 3.1” (7.9 cm) on the summit of Mt. Washington with locally higher amounts.  The density of the snow was lighter at the beginning and became heavier through the day with an average density at Hermit Lake of 12.8%.  Odell is a popular climbing route with sections of snow and grade 2 and 3 ice.  It faces E and ENE and has multiple avalanche start zones.  The winds associated with this storm were ideal for loading Odell by starting out of the south and wrapping around to the west.  It is believed that the climber triggered the avalanche, though this is not conclusive.  The size of the avalanche was classified as D2R3.  D2 refers to the destructive force of an avalanche and means that it could bury, injure or kill a person.  R3 means that the avalanche was medium sized relative to its normal path.  Evidence of natural avalanche activity from this storm was observed on similar aspects.

We would like to thank Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Harvard Mountaineering Club and the Mount Washington Observatory for assisting in this incident.

Lessons learned:  It is easy to look at incidents such as this one and make simple judgments on the victim’s actions.  Undoubtedly, most people would change their plans when a current avalanche forecast projects avalanches as being likely on their intended route.  Nonetheless, the majority of our avalanche fatalities and serious accidents have occurred in areas that were posted with High avalanche danger.  This contrasts with the general trend around the world where the majority of accidents happen under a Considerable rating.  Though this accident did happen in an area that was rated as High, it could have occurred under a rating of Low, Moderate or Considerable.

As a solo climber you are often exposed to a greater degree of risk than a roped climber.  In this incident the size of the avalanche probably had little to do with the outcome.  Had the victim triggered an isolated pocket of unstable snow, as is feasible under a rating of Low, the end result would likely have been similar.  Although a rope cannot save you from all mountain dangers it does substantially increase the size of your safety net if used properly.  When approaching a suspect area the best use of a rope incorporates solid protection that is located to the side of the pocket or snowfield in question.  This is by no means a failsafe tactic but it does provide some extra security should you be knocked off of your feet by snow, falling ice, etc.

Secondly it is worth noting that the US 5-Scale Danger Rating System is a continuum and not a series of 5 distinct categories without overlap.  Within any particular rating there is also a range and we frequently try to discuss this in the daily avalanche advisory.  When the victim passed the Harvard Cabin the avalanche advisory stated the following:  “N-facing aspects will be the first to move up into the High rating with E and S-facing aspects to follow as the winds shift.”   Armed with this data, it would be prudent to consider the other options if one was determined to climb a gully in the ravine that day.  By the time the victim was approaching the start of the climb the winds had begun their forecasted shift and Odell Gully was in the direct lee of wind loading.  Farther to the right, gullies such as North and Damnation likely had less loading occurring and would have had smaller sections of suspect snow to navigate.

Mountain skills are complex and require a high degree of technical training in a variety of disciplines.  This climber had a lot of experience climbing in Huntington including numerous solo ascents of gullies.  He was well prepared to deal with the weather and steep mountain terrain found in Huntington Ravine.  As is often the case in avalanche accidents, it appears that his technical climbing experience surpassed his knowledge of mountain snowpack.  In addition, the victim was not carrying any avalanche safety equipment.  Though it did not make a difference in this scenario, carrying this equipment provides an additional tool should the unthinkable occur.  Even if climbing alone this gear can help you out when things go bad.  Other climbers in the area could locate you if you were buried while wearing a beacon and you could provide the same service for them. With this said, self sufficiency is paramount in avalanche rescue so having a party of two or more is needed. Having these items with you should be standard practice anytime you enter avalanche terrain.

Avalanche at Base of Pinnacle

On Thursday morning December 20th three climbers were suiting up after breakfast at the Harvard Cabin when USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane entered the building.  Jeff was in the process of writing the avalanche advisory for the gullies of Huntington Ravine and asking visitors what their plans were for the day.  Jeff got into a conversation with two of the three climbers about avalanche stability issues and the Considerable and Moderate postings for the Ravine.  Their plans were to climb for a couple of days with Pinnacle and Damnation as the desired routes, the former being the main goal.  With Pinnacle being posted at Considerable Jeff called Chris Joosen on the radio about his thoughts and concerns about a party ascending Pinnacle.  Jeff and Chris agreed that that they could not recommend Pinnacle posted at Considerable or Damnation Gully posted at Moderate, but would instead focus on presenting the stability facts.  Jeff discussed what gullies had more instabilities than others and convinced them Pinnacle was not a good idea.  Although Damnation held the possibility of unstable slabs, they were less likely and widespread than areas posted at Considerable.  After a 15 minute conversation they said they would climb Damnation today and perhaps hit Pinnacle tomorrow (Friday).  The weather conditions as they entered the Ravine included snow, light winds and limited visibility.  They decided to head up to Pinnacle to look at it and then traverse over to Damnation rather than head straight up to it.  After looking at Pinnacle from below they traversed under Central Gully and began heading across the top of the Fan.  They changed their plans partway across and headed back following their original plan to climb Pinnacle Gully.  On the approach to Pinnacle they began pushing through deep snow that they said was up to the chests.  They felt that because it was loose and unconsolidated that it was safe and not in risk of avalanching because in their opinion a slab did not exist. When the three were about 25 meters from the bottom of the ice which marks the traditional 1st pitch, the slope fractured and failed above them just below the ice.  At the time of slope failure the 1st climber was a few feet above the 2nd and about 10+ feet above the 3rd.  KA was out front and yelled “Avalanche!” and grabbed GW below him.  All three were flushed down the slope, but remained on the surface cart-wheeling with the entrained snow.  KA and GW were still next to one another about 75m below their high point while KB was sent almost twice that distance farther down slope.  They were extremely fortunate to have no injuries and to remain on top of the snow.  After shaking themselves off they proceeded to search for missing gear and decide what to do next.  Two wanted to climb the gully now that it had, in their opinion, been rendered safe by the release of its instabilities.  The third was done for the day.  They decided that they would all descend.

Lessons Learned: Often it is only in 20/20 hindsight that the reasons for an incident present themselves, but occasionally the natural world provides clues that were so obvious they should have been seen and heeded.  Each year we have examples of common mistakes that have human factors and psychology behind them even though the natural bulls-eye information was there.  This is such an incident.

Environmental Factors:

  • At 7am the summit temperature was around 15 F with a south wind at 20mph.  Approximately 3.5 inches of new snow was recorded at the summit while Hermit Lake in Tuckerman and the Harvard Cabin in Huntington each reported about 4 inches for the same period.  Snow continued through the morning bringing another 2-3 inches to all areas by noon.
  • Pinnacle is a steep E/ENE facing gully that is cross-loaded by S winds.  In addition to spindrift and sluffing from up high, the entire first pitch is water-ice which does not hold snow.  All of this snow piles up at the base of the gully on a slope of increasing angle averaging between 30-35 degrees.  This build up of snow accounts for the group’s comments of chest deep snow even though only 4-5” had fallen.  The light 7.7% density snow and light winds explains their impression that slabs did not exist.  Light density snow slabs can be practically indiscernible and although it appears unconsolidated and loose, even the slightest cohesion can create a slab.  Slab density closer to the ice was likely increased by the packing of spindrifts and sluffs from higher in the gully.
  • Pictures taken right after the slide by the group showed constant sluffing from the rock face that forms the gully’s left wall, further contributing to the accumulations on the slope.

Human Factors:

  • Jeff Lane spent 15 minutes of detailed conversation with the party about snow stability in Huntington and specifically the issues in Pinnacle.  The discussion ended with Jeff not being able to recommend their desired climb based on instability and the associated Considerable rating.  When traveling to various mountain ranges that have an avalanche advisory and you’re able to personally speak with the individuals that developed the forecast it should be acknowledged as key data.  In addition to avalanche forecasters there are ski patrollers, guides, Wardens, and Rangers working in their local mountains that can give you valuable safety advice worth listening to.  While you should not make your decisions based 100% on the advice of others, when available, use personal focused advice from experienced local avalanche expertise as a critical tool to help your decision making process.
  • The group initially passed Pinnacle and then convinced themselves that it was okay.  It becomes easy to overlook all the red flags when desire overcomes reason.  We must enjoy our winter pursuits on the mountain’s terms, not on our tight time schedule. It’s easy to make a go/no-go decision on the days that are truly nasty or sunny and stable.  It’s the large spectrum in between these two when you must err on the side of caution and fight the desire to “squeak through” and “beat” the mountain.  Snow stability is hardest to accurately assess when the margin of error can put you into either a green light or red light situation based on how you’re seeing the data.  The bulls-eye data can be a little more difficult to pick out.  For these reasons most fatalities occur under a Considerable avalanche rating.
  • Safe travel rules were not adhered to and rescue equipment was not worn.  Safe travel rules include (1) Travel one at a time, (2) Don’t travel over or under your partner, and (3) Have a plan in mind about exactly where you’ll go if an avalanche happens.  Number 3 can be very difficult to manage in every situation, but rules 1 and 2 mitigate risk well and limit the number of individuals in a potentially hazardous situation to one.  This is absolutely critical to individual and group survival if an avalanche does occur.  Having only one person buried allows more individuals to focus on the rescue, thus increasing the odds of survival.  On the other hand, having the whole group buried brings the group’s chance of survival pretty much down to zero.  This group was very lucky as all of them were caught, entrained in the debris, and brought downhill.  Had someone been buried, the big problem would have been the lack of beacons, probes, and shovels.  If anyone was completely buried this incident would have likely turned out tragically.