The Mount Washington Avalanche Center will no longer issue daily avalanche forecasts for the 2020/21 season. Instead, we will post an updated General Avalanche Information statement as needed, if significant snow or weather events that might vary from the typical daily changes that come with spring weather. We will also keep you informed about the official closure of the portion of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail where it passes by Lunch Rocks and through the Lip and above the Headwall. Observations from the field will continue to be a valuable resource, so please keep submitting photos, videos and observations here and we will do the same.
The switch to General Avalanche Information from a daily Avalanche Forecast does NOT mean that the mountains are now free of avalanches. If you spent much time in the mountains here, you understand how quickly wind slabs develop with just a few inches of snow and the legendary Mount Washington wind and terrain configuration. Be sure to keep a close eye on the weather forecasts linked below and pick your days carefully.
New snowfall and winter conditions are possible during any month of the year at higher elevations in the Presidential Range. One tool to help reduce the chance for unwelcome surprises due to snowfall, icing conditions or just raw, hypothermia weather is the weather record produced by MWObs summit staff. The NWS displays the summit hourly data here with hourly data from Hermit Lake shown here. Spring and early summer bring rapid changes to our upper snowpack, with conditions often changing by the hour. Plan accordingly for these changes by reading the weather forecast before you head out (MWObs Higher Summits and NWS Hourly forecast).
Useful Weather Forecasts:
- MWOBS Higher Summits Forecast -updated twice daily.
- NWS Hourly Point Forecast for Mount Washington – detailed view of what and when, hour by hour.
- NWS Mount Washington Forecast – useful for a quick look overall.
- MWOBS Hourly Weather Data – useful for a look backwards.
- Hermit Lake SNOTEL – very useful for temperature and recent snowfall information.
- NWS Area Forecast Discussion – look for section on “long term” for information on weather several days out
The MWAC Snow Ranger Team hosted a training with NEK9 on Sunday, Feb 14. These dogs are critical to finding lost people in the woods and find many people every year in Vermont and New Hampshire. The recent deep burial in the Ammonoosuc was a reminder that disaster planning needs to include deep burials and multiple burials. Recco units don’t work well with incidental electronics and the risk of burials deeper than a probe can reach is very real. Dogs are the best remaining option for finding people.
It was a great day working with both the handlers and dogs. We were barely able challenge their skills by running through repeated scenarios of finding a carefully buried human. It’s obvious they are an active, dedicated and organized team.
Wednesday, February 3, 2021, a NH Fish and Game officer contacted the lead snow ranger at the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center to ask for assistance in locating the vehicle of an individual who was reported missing on Tuesday night, Ian Forgays, a 54 year old male from Vermont. Recent communications between Ian and his friends suggested that he had been planning a day of backcountry skiing, either in Ammonoosuc Ravine or Monroe Brook on the west side of Mount Washington, on Monday, Feb. 1, prior to the start of a significant winter storm arriving Monday night and continuing Tuesday.
On January 22 at 3:20 pm, a skier was caught by an avalanche triggered by his party and carried from near the top of Left Gully almost to the floor of the ravine. A ~six inch slab of new and wind deposited snow released from the uppermost start zone from skier 2’s feet as skier 1 made their first turn. Skier 1 was quickly swept into and under the moving debris and lost their skis and poles. When the flow stopped, they found themselves buried face down, fortunately with their head very near the surface, but the rest of their body buried by two feet or more of debris. They were unable to move but could raise their head for a breath.
Skier 2 did not see their friend and skied away. (Edit: Skier 2 found their friend but, without a shovel, was unable to dig them out.) Ultimately, skier 2 alerted others down by the Connection rescue cache. Bystanders closer to the scene began to dig out skier 1. Others arrived, including Hermit Lake and Harvard Cabin caretakers and later, snow rangers, to assist.
Just prior to the avalanche, a snow ranger suggested to the two skiers, who did not have beacons, shovels or probes, that they ski the lower angled slope between Right Gully and LC or the lower section of Left, if they skied anything at all. They later told snow rangers that the excitement of new snow drove them to the top and into the upper start zone where the incident then unfolded. These two were very helpful to the community by honestly sharing their story with snow rangers.
There were no natural avalanches reported that day which carried a Moderate danger rating, though the forecast included possible human triggering of D1-2 wind slabs. This pair was among many poorly equipped skiers or skiers traveling alone. Low visibility marked conditions for the day with periods of moderate snow squalls and minor wind loading at the tops of gullies.
Reading the forecast carefully, applying safe travel techniques, and carrying the proper equipment are fundamental to recreating in avalanche terrain. It is critical to acknowledge that the majority if avalanche incidents and fatalities occur in Moderate danger rating days where the avalanche hazard may include the potential for isolated, stubborn but large avalanches OR widespread, smaller avalanches, such as this day. Both can carry real consequences.
Editors note: Skier one’s skis were found later and returned by a good samaritan. Also, Skier One reported that his GPS watch recorded a total vertical drop during the avalanche of 850′ and a max speed of 53 mph.
Events: At 11:50 am on Saturday, January 16, a 911 call was relayed to snow rangers at Hermit Lake by the AMC Front Desk that 3 climbers had lost their way while descending from a climb in Huntington Ravine. Coordinates provided by location services from the caller’s phone placed the caller 1/10 mile north of the junction of the Lion Head Trail and Alpine Garden Trail. The user was calm but concerned that the situation would take a turn for the worse if they couldn’t find the trail. Wind recorded on the summit at the time was near 80mph from the ESE with gusts in the 100-110 mph range. They did not need a rescue at the time but wanted to share location information to be safe.
At 12:45 pm, another call from 911 dispatch came in sharing the phone number of a person who lost the trail near the previous caller’s location. Joining the call with the dispatcher revealed a much higher level of distress. Winds from the ESE were now steady in the 85 mph range and gusting near 110 and likely higher. Snow was falling at a rate of an inch and hour or more and blowing snow and fog severely limited visibility. A hasty team of three snow rangers were dispatched to the location carrying warming rescue gear. The caller was a mile from the cabin but 1400’ vertical above. The lead snow ranger and dispatcher convinced the individual to stand and walk into the wind to find the trail and head back down the Lion Head Trail. The hasty rescue team of 3 made contact with the subject not far above Hermit Lake in the switchbacks.
Analysis: Typical ground conditions in events like these make it hard or impossible to see from one trail marking cairn to the next. Combined with drifting snow on the ground, normal navigational cues such as rock cairns, turnpiking, and crampon scratched ice and rock are lost. Veteran guides and rescuers, including this writer, with scores of Mount Washington ascents and decades of experience have lost their way in even milder conditions. It is important to note that wind direction in the alpine zone is a critical data point. East winds are unusual and generally limited to passing strong low pressure systems and the associated wrap around winds. Hikers on the Lion Head Trail are shielded by the summit “cone” along much of that trail above treeline but only from west and northwest wind. An east wind strikes this area unmitigated by any terrain features. When wind approaches 50 mph on the ground, walking is exceedingly difficult and being knocked down is a regular occurrence. Snow on the ground is whipped into the air and stinging needles of snow make functional goggles a requirement.
On this day, the first party struggled through these conditions but were relatively well equipped. The second caller, travelling solo, has a depth of experience and was extremely fit with car to car trips to the summit of Washington taking 4 hours in better conditions. Dressed in clothing appropriate for a September hike in settled weather, this avid trail runner found themselves in conditions that led them to believe that they would die of exposure. The panic that accompanied losing the way, combined with reduced visibility, disoriented the runner in the flat area of the alpine plateau. They wallowed off trail in the krumholz (wind shaped, stunted fir trees) in chest deep snow and brush but found some shelter from the wind deep in the snow and bushes. Had they not been able to find the trail, it seems likely they soon would have been immobilized by moderate to severe hypothermia and may even have perished due to low visibility hampering a rescue. The decision to leave the safety of the deep snow in which they were apparently captive most likely saved their life. The running shoes, tights and lightweight insulating jacket and waterproof shell were not enough to allow this person to remain in place until help arrived. Once in the snow ranger cabin, several hours on the floor heater with dry clothes and the Norwegian heater were required to start the needed shivering again and to raise core temperature from the low 90’s Fahrenheit back to normal. After being fed and rehydrated, the person was transported and released at Pinkham Notch several hours later.
Forecast for the day from the avalanche center included the following:
2” of liquid precipitation in the form of mostly snow with possibly a wintry mix is forecast today. For the first half of the day, snow showers become steady and intense snowfall as temperatures will warm and winds increase. Winds from the SE will increase from 45-60 mph to 50-70 mph with gusts up to 90 mph. Summit temperatures increase from the high teens F to lower 20’s F. Up to 7” of snow is possible by 1pm. At around mid-day, winds decrease from 25 to 45 mph as snowfall continues and temperatures creep higher, possibly reaching the upper 20’s on the summit before falling again after dark. Snow accumulations of 6 to 10” are possible today.
On the morning of Saturday, January 9, 2021, two 20 year old males were ascending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Around 11 am, witnesses noted these two individuals on foot, falling near the rollover at the top of the ravine. Both individuals fell around 500 vertical feet, impacting exposed boulders and ice along the way. One came to a stop on a ledge above the final ice cliff while the other fell past this point and was described as being airborne until he landed on his upper back in the snow below the ice cliff.
The incident was reported to snow rangers shortly after noon. Both patients were reportedly conscious, though one potentially had an altered level of consciousness. A hasty team departed Hermit Lake with an EMT medical pack and AED. Additional personnel followed close behind with technical rescue gear.
At 12:30 pm, en route to the ravine, the hasty team encountered one patient walking downhill with a bystander. This was the individual who had landed at the base of the ice cliff. His clothing was wet, so he had been stripped of the wet clothing and given a dry jacket, helmet, and trekking poles. After a patient assessment, it was determined that he should continue on foot, assisted, to the USFS cabin at Hermit Lake for further assessment and rewarming.
Upon arrival at Lunch Rocks, snow rangers determined that the safest and most expedient access to the 2nd patient was to ascend steep snow to the right of the patient, rather than directly up the ice cliff. Snow rangers reached this patient shortly after 1 pm. He was chilled, as he had been sitting on the snow for about 2 hours, so he was given an extra jacket and gloves. The patient was provided a harness and rope belay, and guided down steep snow to the ravine floor. A technical litter and anchor had been prepared, but was deemed unnecessary as his injuries were limited. He was also comfortable walking to the cabin for further assessment.
Both individuals were equipped with leather hiking boots and microspikes. The pair had trekking poles in the mix, but no ice axes. They were navigating using the GPS in their phones. One individual had been on the same route 4-5 times before, while the other was there for the first time. Their objective was to ascend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, and presumably continue to the summit.
One patient reported reaching a point where his microspikes provided insufficient traction. He said he fell forward like a starfish, slid over an ice bulge, and continued falling. His partner saw this happen, lost his footing, and subsequently fell as well. Both individuals impacted multiple exposed boulders and ice bulges during their descent.
This season has seen slower snowpack development than recent years. December accumulation took a big hit from the Christmas rain event, and January has provided less than 6” of new snow so far. As such, exposed hazards abound and present a minefield of challenges and consequences.
At the time, the aspect they were in was intermittently exposed to solar radiation through fog and scattered clouds. Perhaps more importantly, temperatures were relatively warm (25F at the summit), so the snow may have been more forgiving to soft boots than otherwise would have been the case. However, this very well could have provided a false sense of confidence that evaporated once they had to navigate bare ice with inadequate traction. The two hikers encountered difficulties near the top of the ravine, where wind often scours the soft snow and leaves a hard, icy surface.
In the winter, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail through the headwall becomes a true mountaineering objective, complete with steep sections of hard frozen snow, cliffs of ice, and snow slopes capable of producing an avalanche. Individuals choosing to climb this route should be prepared with proper mountaineering equipment and the skills to use them. Rigid boots, crampons, two ice axes, avalanche rescue gear (beacon, probe, and shovel), and a roped system to protect against a long dangerous fall are often required to climb through this steep section safely.
Ultimately, these individuals were incredibly lucky. Despite numerous bumps and bruises, neither experienced significant trauma. Despite inadequate gear for conditions in the ravine, multiple bystanders were willing to provide equipment, support, and reassurance, and to seek qualified help to extricate patients from steep terrain.
Mount Washington is relatively accessible, and oftentimes people manage to get away with an objective despite a lack of preparation and appropriate equipment. However, this accessibility means there are also plentiful resources available. Trip planning must consider weather and avalanche conditions, which are provided locally by the Mount Washington Observatory and Mount Washington Avalanche Center. Trip planning must consider trail conditions and suggested routes. Caretakers provide this readily at Hermit Lake and Harvard Cabin, as well as AMC staff at Pinkham Notch. Maps and appropriate equipment can be acquired from numerous retail locations and guide services in the area. Local guide services are also a great way to learn to use said equipment, and learn best practices for movement and decision making in the mountains.
While we all learn from mistakes, we can stack the cards in our favor to avoid mistakes such as these. Seek relevant information, don’t skimp on safety gear, and embrace continuous education in mountain sense.
It’s hard to believe that this year marked the 10th year of our annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop. Over the years, the event has been hosted in many locations including in the basement of the Weather Discovery Center and the gym of the John Fuller Elementary School in the early days of the event, to the prestigious ballroom of the Mount Washington Hotel, and more recently at Fryeburg Academy’s Leura Hill Eastman Center for Performing Arts. This year, like all other Snow and Avalanche Workshops across the country, we adopted the virtual format. In addition to hosting some incredibly accomplished avalanche professionals from across the US and Canada, this format proved to vastly increase the accessibility of the event with a record attendance of over 450 participants.
The 10th Annual ESAW was split into three shorter, evening sessions with two speakers each night and a “roundtable” discussion with all speakers on the final evening. It broke down like this:
|Night 1||Night 2||Night 3|
Using the ECT and PST to reduce false stable snowpack assessments
Wind Slab; Anticipation, Observation and Management
Updates from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center
The Howse Peak Search and Recovery Operation
Back to the Basics – All I really need to know I learned in a Level I Class.
|Interactive Q & A||Interactive Q & A|
We have included links to the recorded presentations from each night for anyone who may have missed ESAW or who might want to access these talks for reference in the future. Here are some of the big takeaways from the presentations.
Takeaways from night 1:
Eric Knoff of Six Point Avalanche Education presented on using both the Extended Column Test and the Propagation Saw Test in test pits to reduce false stable assessments. Eric dug into a huge dataset that was derived from the computer program SnowPilot in order to look at the results of PSTs versus the results of ECTs in the same test pits and began to quantify their relationship. Knoff made strong arguments for a broader adoption of the PST in conjunction with an ECT done in the same test pit. He presented evidence that using these two tests to examine the same instability can paint a clearer picture of the avalanche problem and its susceptibility to triggering and propagation while ultimately helping to reduce false stable results.
Out of respect for the families of David Lama, Hansjorg Auer, and Jess Roskelley, Grant Statham’s presentation was not included in the ESAW recording. For those who watched the presentation live, it was a harrowing first-hand account of the complex rescue and body recovery of the three professional climbers from their deadly accident on Howse Peak in 2019. Statham broke down the incident command system, tactics, and outcome of the weeklong mission which gained significant media attention due to the high profile of the climbers and their objective – a new route near M16 on the East face of Howse Peak. Investigative in nature, Statham helped paint the picture of the route accomplishment and what might have happened on the descent. For anyone interested in learning more about this incident, check out John Roskelley’s (Jess’ father) article in the American Alpine Journal. http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/13201215535
Takeaways from night 2:
It was exciting to hear about wind slabs from someone who has spent most of his career in some pretty windy areas. Don Sharaf got his start with snow as the Hermit Lake Caretaker getting to know wind slabs intimately before living or working in other windy ranges including the Tetons, the Chugach and Alaska Range, and the Himalaya. Don presented strategies and techniques for forecasting, testing, and managing terrain involving wind slab avalanche problems. His depth of experience in this area and advice for dealing with wind slabs was valuable and pertinent for both professionals and recreationalists.
Distilling complex information into simpler terms for presentation while still capturing the nuance of the topic is incredibly challenging, and arguably one of the hardest parts of being an avalanche educator. It was inspiring to watch Bruce Tremper deliver a creative Back to Basics presentation because of his ability to do this and have his presentation be equally relevant for novice backcountry skiers as it was for avalanche educators, guides, and forecasters. Bruce talked about statistically-significant strategies for reducing our risk of being caught in an avalanche, using terrain to your advantage as a backcountry traveler, and travel rituals. That approach has helped Bruce live a long life working around avalanche terrain.
Takeaways from night 3:
The third night brought together all speakers in a roundtable-type discussion. ESAW is always a great time to see avalanche specialists come together from across the country and share ideas, trends, and stories from their local mountain ranges. This open dialogue and discussion and the collaboration that it leads to is a great example of how we can all move forward as a community. For the panelists, their connection during avalanche workshops can lead to future research projects or partnerships, adoption of new methods, and the continued evolution of best practices. For the audience, not only does new learning come from this type of discussion, but it is a fantastic reminder of the effectiveness of working together and helping each other out.
All indicators are pointing to this backcountry season being a busy one. Shops are selling out of touring equipment, internet forums are more active than ever before, ski resorts have heightened restrictions, and backcountry ski media is “in” right now. For anyone just getting started in the sport, welcome! We encourage you to seek out some education and coaching from guide services, avalanche educators, and more experienced friends. For those of us on our X season of backcountry skiing and riding – be aware of the increase of people in avalanche terrain, don’t be afraid to help someone out who might need it, and above all else: Ski Kind. We like this graphic:
Intro to Avalanche Awareness Night Recap
On October 30th we hosted a series of short presentations from local guides and educators covering some basic topics of avalanche education and awareness. We saw an incredible attendance of almost 800 participants! A few of the presentation topics included Choosing your Backcountry Partners, The Avalanche Danger Scale, and Identifying Avalanche Terrain. Thanks to our local presenters Nick Aiello-Popeo, David Lottman, Tyler Falk, and Jon Tierney. Check out the recorded presentations here :
Another great resource for anyone new to backcountry skiing is a a new book by local skier Brett St. Clair and ACMG Ski Guide Craig Evanoff called Tips for Beginning Backcountry Skiers. This book is available for free as a PDF download here : https://www.dezaiko.com/ski-tips-book
Updates from Mount Washington Avalanche Center:
- New website will be launched this season. Look for a format that is the same as some other forecast centers in the Western US.
- The biggest noticeable change in the forecasts will be avalanche hazard by elevation with three distinct elevation ranges plus a rating for the following day.
- Two new Snow Rangers for the 2020/2021 season.
- Hermit Lake snotel site is up and running but the 3 hour, 6 hour and 24 hour display is currently unreliable. Use the hourly display for totals.
- COVID has limited numbers of potential rescuers on the mountain. Be prepared to self rescue by traveling with at least one other person and by carrying the appropriate equipment.
- We will adding Avalanche Awareness talks over the next few days. Check our embedded calendar on our Hompage for details and ways to connect virtual talks. These are free events!
Upcoming Events to Look For:
- Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain w/ Mike Austin. December 10th, 7:00pm
- Youth Avalanche Course on March 6, 2021
- Avalanche Rescue Clinics this winter at Hermit Lake
- Continuing avalanche education presentations
- A schedule of virtual avalanche awareness talks will be posted soon
Patrick Scanlan – WMAEF volunteer
A huge thank you to Bruce, Grant, Eric, Don, and Frank for taking the time to present at ESAW this year. Another huge thank you to all who attended ESAW. The ticket sales from this event go a long way in supporting these educational opportunities and in supporting the Mount Washington Avalanche Center Operations.
Thanks to our ESAW Sponsors :
Black Diamond Equipment for their donation of an avalanche beacon for the raffle
DPS Skis for their support of our educational programs and specifically, our youth program
Patagonia for their donation of a DAS parka for the raffle
Raffle Winners : Congratulations to :
Mateusz Patrosz, winner of a Patagonia DAS Parka!
Jonathan Hartnett, winner of a Patagonia DAS Parka!
Thomas Feenstra, winner of a Black Diamond Avalanche Beacon!
Each year, between December 1 and March 31, the Harvard Mountaineering Club operates a cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine, a popular destination for backcountry skiers, ice climbers, and other winter recreationists. The Cabin caretaker provides critical support to the Forest Service through daily snow study plot observations, as well as critical help during search and rescue efforts.
Revenue from people staying at the cabin is typically just enough to cover the cost of a caretaker. Due to COVID-19, the HMC is unable to open the cabin to the public and thus fund the caretaker position. The New Hampshire Outdoors Council has already provided a grant for $3000, and this fundraiser will be used to cover the remainder of the caretaker’s winter stipend, with any excess funds going toward cabin maintenance (especially the new privy!).
To donate, click here for the GoFundMe page.
Please feel free to share your e-mail at https://forms.gle/YGeXQMGCLBqHRRix8 if you’d like to keep abreast of the Harvard Cabin and future developments!
Please note: while the cabin is closed to the public this season, camping at the cabin is permitted until March 31 as usual.