Disoriented in whiteout conditions – Lion Head and Alpine Garden trails

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.

Long Sliding Fall – Tuckerman Ravine Trail

Events:

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.

Rescuer and patient looking across the ravine at exposed hazards lower in the runouts of Chute and Center Headwall, which are not yet full-length ski runs.

Analysis:

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.

Looking upslope from where patient #2 landed at the top of the ice cliff.

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.

ESAW wrap-up and Outreach Events

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
Eric Knoff

Using the ECT and PST to reduce false stable snowpack assessments

Don Sharaf

Wind Slab; Anticipation, Observation and Management

Frank Carus

Updates from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center

Grant Statham

The Howse Peak Search and Recovery Operation

Bruce Tremper 

Back to the Basics – All I really need to know I learned in a Level I Class.

All Speakers

Panel Discussion

Interactive Q & A Interactive Q & A
Link:

https://esaw.org/2020-esaw-tuesday-november-17th/

Link:

https://esaw.org/2020-esaw-wednesday-november-17th/

Link:

https://esaw.org/2020-esaw-thursday-november-19th/

 

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 : 

https://esaw.org/avalanche-safety-video/

 

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

 

 

Thank you!!

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!

 

 

Help needed at the Harvard Cabin!

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.

Access Prohibitions on Mount Washington

The USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center has issued its final avalanche and mountain safety forecast for the 2019/20 season.

At this time, the need to reduce exposure of workers and forest visitors to the novel coronavirus outweighs the value of providing avalanche safety information to backcountry travelers. The decision to stop forecasts was made in order to better provide for public health and safety by reducing interactions between the recreating public, USFS employees and volunteers. NH Governor’s Order Section 18 of Executive Order 2020-04, part 4 requests that the public limit non-essential travel and further defines essential businesses and activities. Among the allowed activities are “leaving home for outdoor recreation” or “to get fresh air and exercise” provided that appropriate social distancing protocols are observed. The unavoidable travel and social congregation that occur in Tuckerman Ravine, Gulf of Slides, nearby hiking trails, and parking areas suggest that more aggressive measures are needed in order to comply with state and federal guidelines intended to reduce the spread and impact of coronavirus.

There is an official closure order now in place for an expanded area which includes all of Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine as well as the Gulf of Slides, Appalachian Mountain Club Visitors Center grounds, parking lots and facilities at Pinkham Notch.  These areas are now closed to the public for all use including hiking, skiing and riding, or climbing. This larger closure is in addition to the annual closure of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail above Lunch Rocks.

Violation of these prohibitions is punishable by a fine of not more than $5000.00 for an individual or $10,000.00 for an organization, or imprisonment for not more than six (6) months, or both (16 U.S.C., 18 U.S.C. 3559 and 3571).

R9-22-20-02 Closure Order, Closure Order Map, Press Release

The USFS and MWAC understand and support the need for outdoor recreation, fresh air and exercise but interpret the measures to limit the spread should exclude riskier activities, particularly at a highly popular venue which attracts visitors from around the region. Furthermore, high risk activities such as skiing and climbing in complex avalanche terrain with extreme weather conditions create an unnecessary risk of injury or a need for search and rescue intervention. What is frequently overlooked is the potential for an injury, even a minor one, takes on much different logistics when hiking, than, say, walking around your neighborhood. These injuries could lead to rescues and the opportunity to further spread the virus through close contact among rescuers and the patient, whether they show symptoms or not.

We acknowledge that the absence of avalanche and mountain safety forecasts increases your risk in the backcountry, but since backcountry travel is not an essential need at this time of pandemic, you assume this increased risk. We will continue to support local rescue teams with spot forecasts on request but every effort will be made to encourage parties to self-rescue without intervention.

Thank you for your support as we all grapple with challenging decisions and redefine our work and community life. We look forward to getting through this pandemic with a minimum loss of life and economic disruption.

For more information, contact:

Sherman Hogue, Public Affairs Officer, sherman.hogue@usda.gov, p) 603-536-6215 or c) 603-348-1649

Or Colleen Mainville, Public Affairs Specialist, colleen.mainville@usda.gov, p) 603-536-6243 or c) 603-790-0860

End of the season and closures

Thank you for your support through this season that ended much differently than normal. We had a successful season from a safety standpoint with only a handful of incidents and accidents despite quite a few human triggered avalanches. The community stoke was high though the snowpack and weather did not supply the goods as often as we would like. As usual, our amazing ski patrol turned out to help in March and were invaluable in navigating those first weekends when the coronavirus reared its ugly head. Late in March, we had @avalanchegeeks, Mike Austin to work as an intern with Glenn Pinson as an emergency hire. They were meant to provide late winter opportunities for the other members of the snow ranger team to take some time off. Turns out, vacation travel was off the table given the rising epidemic, but the two visiting forecasters helped us maintain social distancing among the team and reduced our exposure time to the public and to each other. 

The season ends on the east side of the range with a closure order in effect for the east side of Mount Washington, including Gulf of Slides, Tuckerman Ravine and Huntington Ravine and all of the trails in between. While this may seem to be an extreme measure, consider the viewpoint of Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease. “the fact is what I like to see is when people look at what we’re doing and say, ‘you’re overreacting.’ For me, the dynamics and the history of outbreaks is you are never where you think you are with the (spread)– if you think you’re in-line with the outbreak, you’re already three weeks behind. So you’ve got to be almost overreacting a bit to keep up with it.” So in addition to the annual closure that occurs to the section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, a much larger closure is in effect. Pinkham Notch parking lot will be closed to the public, with both the closure orders enforced with fines and even possible jail time.

Please do your part and stay near home, hike in the woods, run a new route, or take up that project you’ve been putting off. The mountains have been around for a long time and will be here when life returns to normal. Thanks again for your cooperation as we navigate these rough waters.

Frank Carus, Lead Snow Ranger
Director, USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center