The current snowpack at mid and upper elevations in the Presidential Range presents widespread hazards of long sliding falls. These hazards are a result of warm weather and rain followed by a refreeze.
Looking at the MWOBS F6 for March reveals nearly a week (03/21 to 03/26) of average daily temperatures that were 15-20F above average. On March 31, the summit stayed above the freezing mark overnight before temperature dropped rapidly on Thursday, April 1. Rain was observed at the summit for 12 hours before turning to freezing rain, sleet, and then snow. Summit temperature dropped below zero Thursday night and remained in the single digits above zero on Friday. The Hermit Lake snow plot, just below Tuckerman Ravine, reached a high of 18F. Accordingly, Friday’s forecast warned of long sliding fall hazards: “the risks associated with taking a long sliding fall are the greatest concern, by far, for safe travel in steep terrain today.”
On Friday, a group of skiers climbed into South Gully in Huntington Ravine. They assessed conditions as they ascended, finding a variable mix of edgeable snow and ice patches. When the snow became too firm for easy booting in crampons, they stopped climbing and transitioned to skis. The first skier made a few turns before losing an edge, resulting in a tumbling slide over a buttress. He collided with a tree below with enough speed to cause a femur fracture. His party and nearby skiers and climbers responded quickly and prepared for a litter evacuation. Snow rangers arrived on scene with the litter, which was belayed down to low angle terrain and transported by snowmobile to an ambulance.
Saturday brought clear skies and sunshine. This resulted in some softening of surface snow, but the long sliding fall hazard persisted beneath. Early in the afternoon, a skier lost control near the Lip in Tuckerman Ravine and took a long sliding fall down to the ravine floor. He sustained injuries to the knee and shoulder. A suspected shoulder dislocation was unable to be reduced in the field. He was unable to walk due to the knee injury, necessitating a litter evacuation down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrollers, the Hermit Lake Caretaker, bystanders, and a belay rope were all necessary to transport him down to Hermit Lake safely. A snowmobile then transported the skier to the parking lot.
Shortly thereafter, a second skier was injured in a long sliding fall in Tuckerman Ravine. A bystander assisted in treating the resulting shoulder injury and the skier was able to hike out after being loaned a pair of crampons.
Later that afternoon, a skier was seen falling the entire length of Main Gully in Gulf of Slides, around 800 vertical feet. The skier was reported to be sliding very fast, and tumbled airborne multiple times on the way down. The severity of initial reports necessitated immediate response. Two MWAC snow rangers began traveling to Gulf of Slides from Hermit Lake while other MWAC staff contacted Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team to request helicopter assistance. Unfortunately, when the DHART helicopter arrived to assess the area, all landing zone options were deemed unsuitable. Snow rangers made contact with the skier, who was being transported down the trail in a litter, and assessed his injuries. Finding the skier stable, the decision was made to continue with the litter transport. About 15 people assisted with this process, including nearby skiers, snow rangers, and NH Fish and Game officers. The rescue party reached the parking lot well after dark and the skier was cared for and transported to the hospital by Gorham EMS.
Remember that there can be a fine line between being in control and being totally at the mercy of the mountains. As such, be prepared for the conditions and consequences of the day. Start by tracking weather and snow conditions. Bring your beacon, shovel, and probe when traveling in avalanche terrain. Equip yourself with crampons and an ice axe to navigate steep slopes. Know how to use your equipment and practice regularly. Assess risks and consequences constantly. Temporal and spatial variability can provide avenues to improve your safety margins, but could also result in the opposite – whether you recognize it or not. Stay alert as you travel so you can recognize no-fall zones and choose terrain carefully. Know your abilities and limits. In case things still go wrong, be prepared to stay warm and self evacuate.
Thanks to all responding parties, AMC Caretakers, MWVSP, NH Fish and Game, Gorham EMS and DHART. Events such as these often require a community effort. We are fortunate to be surrounded by a community that is always willing to help.
On the morning of Tuesday, March 23, an individual was descending Right Gully in Tuckerman Ravine. The man, 70 years old and traveling alone, was equipped with extra layers, crampons, and an ice axe. He described following the obvious deep footsteps in the snow that had been well-established by skier traffic. While descending, he lost his balance and was unable to arrest his fall. The man came to a stop near the top of Lunch Rocks after sliding around 300 feet. It was sunny with light wind in the ravine, and the temperature was in the 40s F.
In addition to mild weather conditions, good fortune came in the form of a quick response. The Hermit Lake Caretaker was nearby and established that an unstable knee injury was the chief complaint. He notified MWAC snow rangers by radio, two of whom happened to be at Connection Cache, near the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. Two snow rangers hauled a litter and rope up to the patient, arriving at the same time as an off-duty member of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. The Harvard Cabin Caretaker arrived shortly after.
The patient’s left knee was splinted, and a sling was applied to his right shoulder to relieve discomfort. Rescuers loaded the patient into the litter and lowered him down to the ravine floor. The patient was then slid down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, with the assistance of a belay rope for the steepest sections. Along the way, one rescuer sustained a puncture wound from a crampon point while postholing on the edge of the trail. After a brief transition at the snow ranger cabin, the patient was transported downhill by snowmobile and received care at Memorial Hospital.
The change of seasons brings longer daylight hours and generally more pleasant conditions for recreation. However, the arrival of spring is also marked by an uptick in other objective mountain hazards. Snow conditions can vary widely from one aspect to another, and from one hour to another. A frozen sliding surface can turn to mashed potatoes and back as sunlight moves around a rock buttress. A trail treadway can be solidly compacted, while stepping inches off to the side results in a thigh-deep posthole. Open water can appear overnight, or snow undermined by running water can collapse suddenly under foot or under ski. Glide cracks (crevasses) large enough to ensnare a ski can be thinly covered by snow, or be imperceptible from above. Ice fall can occur due to solar gain and warming ambient temperatures. Keep your head on a swivel for these potential hazards as well as people moving around you, uphill and downhill.
Note: The Lunch Rocks area continues to be referred to using the name derived from its historical use. It should be noted that Lunch Rocks is actually a hazardous place to have lunch due to the threat of icefall from above. Think of Lunch Rocks as a large bullseye and choose a different location to enjoy the spring skiing atmosphere.
On Sunday, March 21, multiple skier falls occurred in Tuckerman Ravine as skiers tested themselves in this extremely steep terrain. Snow conditions varied that day between boot-top deep soft, wet corn snow with firm crust in the shade or where swept off by skiers and riders. While on patrol, a snow ranger offered some advice to one in a party of three climbers attempting to descend the Lip. The group was properly equipped with ice axes, mountain boots, harnesses and helmets but at least one climber was descending the main ski line wearing micro-spikes. According the the climber, he had switched from crampons due to the “snowballing” that was occurring that day. (Snow can stick between crampon points in sunny, cool conditions). Two others in the party were preparing to use a rope to descend the steep sidehill which represents the now deeply buried Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Later, while descending Sluice, the snow ranger watched as a climber rolled down the 45-50 degree slope, winding up a length of rope in the process. An ice axe fastened to the end of the rope bounced around while coming closer and closer to the falling climber as the rope wound around them. Fortunately, the slope in the Lip is relatively short, or short enough in this case, considering the rope length in this case. No impalement occurred.
The three climbers were receptive to a short demo of the principles and construction of T-axe anchors versus plunged axe or stake anchors just after this near-miss. Training in various snow anchoring and belay methods and the experience and judgement to employ them in the right way in the appropriate terrain can reduce the risk and consequences of falls in our terrain. Consider taking a course in mountaineering skills and be sure sure to carefully match techniques to the terrain and conditions. An inadequate anchor can lead to significant problems.
On Sunday March 14th, at approximately 5:15pm, a hiker took a long sliding fall while descending a steep section of the Lion Head Winter Route. The group of three were wearing lightweight hiking boots with microspikes and carried ice axes. A local guide and paramedic/ER nurse was descending with clients, using a handline placed in steep sections to increase security. The guide witnessed the movements of the team of three and noted that they were attempting to glissade in some places and scooting down on their butts in others. Shortly before the long fall, one of the 3 in the party with the injury, slid some distance, losing their ice axe in the process, which the guide returned to them. Above the rock step, another of the party slid the length of that steep section, struck his head on a tree, was knocked unconscious and sustained a 6″ laceration to the forehead, coming to rest in the patch of trees in the fall line below. The guide then assisted his clients to safety, treated the patient and short roped the injured hiker to the Fire Road. He accompanied the patient and the party to Pinkham, arriving at 9:30pm by headlamp.
The team of three was using the wrong equipment for a trip above treeline. Strap crampons offer much better security. Many brands of them work reasonably well, even when attached to inappropriately soft and uninsulated boots. Microspikes are great for low angled trails under 15-20 degrees in steepness but the rubber straps stretch and come loose on steeper terrain. Additionally, the short points on the bottom of microspike type devices do not penetrate snow to grip the firm surface beneath. Long sliding falls kill more people in the Presidential range than hypothermia or avalanches. Invest in stiff soled mountaineering boots and crampons. Proper ice axe use requires training.
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.
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.
Andrew Drummond at the Ski the Whites invited Frank Carus and Pat Scanlon from Carrabassett Valley Academy to talk about the presentations given at the 10th Annual ESAW, decision making, future events from the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation and Friends of Tuckerman Ravine. They also discuss what this season may look like in the Presidential Range. You can listen on your favorite podcast handling app or on Spotify here.
The USDA Forest Service is making every effort to expand access to recreation sites within the context of CDC guidance and state and local government orders for residents, while prioritizing employee and public health and safety. The White Mountain NF (WMNF) is working closely with state and local partners to determine the best path forward to safely reopen sites closed in response to the pandemic. As a result of those efforts, the east side closure of Mount Washington and the Cutler River Drainage will be lifted on Monday, June 8th. Services will be limited with no camping allowed in the Cutler River Drainage, including at Hermit Lake Shelters and tent platforms or Harvard Cabin.
The WMNF asks the public to please recreate responsibly. Snow rangers are no longer on site and law enforcement and/or search and rescue operations may be limited due to COVID-19 issues so be prepared to perform your own rescue. Please seek out the AMC caretaker at Hermit Lake, or the new visitor information window at Pinkham Notch if you need assistance. Dial 911 for emergencies and be prepared to start your own rescue. It could be a long wait for rescue personnel to arrive. This is not the time for the typical large groups in Tuckerman Ravine and now more than ever, novice visitors should leave their skis at home.
Currently, conditions on the mountain are more typical of snow found in late April or May during most average years. This season was an average year for total snowfall but when combined with limited melting events, we are left with an east-side snowpack well above average in depth. Spring hazards are now plentiful with snow and ice on most shaded or wind-loaded trails above 3,500′. Those planning to hike to the summit from Pinkham should have boots and crampons and, ideally, an ice axe due to several sections of steep snow at tree-line and on the summit cone where a slip could end badly.
The Tuckerman Ravine trail is now closed where it passes through the Headwall. The crevasses and waterfall hole make this section impassable for skiers and extremely dangerous for hikers and their would-be rescuers. To understand the reasoning behind the closure, see this video. The summer Lion Head Trail is the shortest route to the summit from Pinkham and the typical route for folks when snow remains in Tucks. The Lion Head Trail has several long stretches of steep snow that create significant hazard for unprepared hikers. Stiff soled boots, crampons and an ice axe will lower your risk of a long, sliding fall in those sections.