Long sliding fall in Huntington Ravine

Central Gully in Huntington Ravine. Photo: Sean Hurley, NHPR

On Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 4:45 p.m. U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center responded to a report of an overdue climber. Local volunteer search and rescue teams assembled with Snow Rangers to search the terrain above Huntington Ravine and below the climbers intended route.  The climber was attempting to climb a moderately difficult snow and ice climb called Central Gully. Icy surface conditions that developed in the mountains following several days of warm temperatures and rain increased the danger of long sliding falls the day of the accident. The body was found at approximately 7:45 p.m., recovered from the mountain, and released to local authorities that night. The incident is currently under investigation with law enforcement. When it is appropriate to do so, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center will release an incident report as a public safety and educational tool designed to inform the recreating public of any lessons learned.

The U.S. Forest Service operates the Mount Washington Avalanche Center (MWAC). MWAC issues daily avalanche forecasts and assumes search and rescue responsibilities from the State of New Hampshire for the Cutler River Drainage annually between December 1st and May 31st. In addition to identifying probability of encountering snow avalanches, the forecast contains mountain safety information to help guide Forest visitor decision-making when entering the backcountry.

For media inquiries regarding this incident, please contact Evan Burks, White Mountain National Forest Public Affairs Officer at 603-536-6215.

 

NHPR at Hermit Lake

We had the privilege of spending the day with Sean Hurley from NHPR a couple weeks back. Here are the results of tour of the east side in in pictures and audio. Once again, Lily proves herself to be the most popular and interesting snow ranger while Sean demonstrates one of the most soothing and mellow voices on the radio today. ;-)

Got a Mount Washington or Presidential Range tale to tell. Contact Sean at NHPR.

Avalanche Watch and Warning criteria

You’ve likely noticed, and many have asked us, what’s an avalanche warning all about? The purpose of an avalanche warning is to save lives by alerting the public when avalanches are certain or very likely in many areas and when unusually dangerous avalanche conditions exist. Those of you who read our advisory regularly probably don’t need to see an avalanche warning to know when unusually dangerous avalanche conditions are developing.

Early winter in the high country

East side from Wildcat, December 1, 2018. Photo courtesy of Jay Philbrick Photography.

Winter came early this year with almost 110” of snow on the summit before December rolled around. Skiers and riders enjoyed the deep soft snow, while warmer temperatures at lower elevations didn’t keep ice climbers happy. Typically, climbers can find an early season fix on ice in Tuckerman and Huntington but all the new snow made for particularly unenjoyable postholing to reach climbing objectives.

As of today, we are one week into our first season of writing five-scale forecasts for the Presidential Range. During this week, we’ve visited and made observations in the Great Gulf, Gulf of Slides, and of course, Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. The team here at MWAC are all fans of snow…the more, the better usually, but the early snowfall and growing need to move to a five-scale advisory advanced our schedule quite a bit and sent us scrambling to complete all the usual pre-season tasks. At the same time that we were prepping sleds, SAR caches, and the usual day to day task that accompany government employment, we were honing a brand-new process to produce and disseminate an advisory. Mother nature and winter arrive on their own schedule and, inconveniently, not according to our calendar! Our new website and forecast presentation presented some unexpected challenges and we are currently playing catch-up to complete our planned projects. I’m writing to update you on our progress.

Our ultimate goal with the new website is to provide all of the information that we use to create an avalanche forecast. All the information on the Forecast page (formerly Advisory page) will be useful to you, as well, to apply to your travel plans in the mountains. As previously, the snow, weather and avalanche information is presented in tiers that correspond to our estimation of their order of importance starting with an overall danger rating. Since we have a wide range of levels of experience and education among our readers, the information is laid out strategically from the most basic, which is the danger rating, through mountain weather factors that affect snow conditions, down to raw snow and weather data. If you want only the most basic guidance, read the Bottom Line section at the top. If you want to dig deeper to develop a more nuanced understanding of the snow, keep scrolling down into snowpack and avalanche observations and on to the raw snow and weather data from local snow study plots.

Below are the highlights of the features we will be rolling out onto the website soon:

 

  • Terrain rose – This graphic will be associated with each avalanche problem type. The example shown could be one we might use after a period of unsettled weather passes to describe a storm slab problem that developed due snowfall at higher elevations. The elevation bands we’ll use will be in elevation bands with Presidential range ravine elevations generally occupying the middle band. The lower elevation band will be around 3,500’ with the upper band being 5,500’ and up. The terrain rose graphic, like our forecast map, is not meant to serve as a navigational tool but as a learning and visualization tool to help you understand and remember the distribution of the problem so you can look for it in the field. The vast majority of our avalanches occur at the elevation of the ravines. Notable exceptions exist above and below that elevation, such as the slide paths in Crawford Notch and the summit cone. This tool can help communicate when that kind of avalanche problem exists. The graphic will be adjacent to the avalanche problem icon with the chance and size sliders. 
  • Observations section – We will be displaying our field observations and photos below the Additional Concerns section of the advisory. There will be a link for you to use to upload photos and videos along with some simple fields to fill in. A photo and a location may be all that you want to contribute but there will be options for more elaborate, professional level observations as well. Snow pit data, avalanche debris photos, crown profiles and other info can be super helpful to us and the reader but they aren’t the only things that can help folks form an image of conditions they might encounter in the field. 
  • Snowpack information – Snow Rangers have been recording and compiling snow and weather data at two snow study plots near Hermit Lake and Harvard Cabin since 2003. Last season, we began to publish Hermit Lake data daily on the website, which includes key 24 hour and storm snow totals along with settlement and snow temperatures. The AMC caretaker gathers this information early in the morning and publishes it to our database and website so we can use it to help formulate the avalanche advisory. As the Harvard Cabin becomes fully staffed and operational, we may also publish similar information from there. This year, the caretakers and the Randolph Mountain Club have stepped up to help and will be collecting the same data from a small clearing near Gray Knob cabin near 4,400’ feet on the northwest shoulder of Mount Adams. Along with weather data from the good folks at the Mount Washington Observatory, we have the snow and weather data we need to develop a reasonably accurate forecast. Our mission in the future is to continue to expand this network and further inform our forecasts. Since snow and weather change quickly and can be remarkably different spatially, we will continue to fill in the gaps with the existing MWObs mesonet along with direct field observations from staff and the public.
  • Avalanche forecast in your email – In the past, we have directed people to sign up for our email advisory by using a third-party app such as IFTTT or some other RSS feed. We did this to avoid the direct cost to our program for using a mail handling program such as MailChimp. To make it easier for you to sign up, and for local cooperators to print our new, graphics heavy forecast, we’ll be using MailChimp or another product to send the daily forecast directly to your inbox. We’ll using some of our limited funds to make this happen but we feel that this will help folks get the info more readily in their mobile devices when traveling to the mountain. We’ll provide a link for signing up soon.

I hope this helps to answer some of the questions that folks have been asking in the past week or two. We’ll continue to try to help you use the new tools by posting information on how and when to use them. Or better yet, sign up for an avalanche course from a local guide service! As we move further into the season and refine the product and our new forecast process, feel free to reach out with any questions or feedback to our staff at mwactucks@gmail.com. Have fun out there!

-Frank

 

The Evolution of Mount Washington Avalanche Center Forecasts

As those who attended ESAW and recent MWAC outreach events have heard, our forecast zones are changing this year. The primary drivers of this change are changing use patterns, a desire to be consist with the use of North American avalanche danger scale (and other forecast center messaging), and a desire to provide information to folks venturing into other aspects and elevations around the area. Beginning this year, we will provide an avalanche forecast for most of the Presidential Range, shown on the map below.

Along with an overall expansion, we have reduced the number of forecast zones in Huntington and Tuckerman Ravine from eighteen to seven to more accurately use the North American danger scale in the forecast. Additionally, our goal is to have our forecast available online by 7am every day. We will also be rolling out some graphical products to help our readers retain the information, as well as to clarify the written narrative found in our text.

It’s important for you to realize, and to help spread the word, that expanding our forecast zone requires that we move away from micro-scale forecasting. Slope scale forecasting has been the historic norm here and has some advantages but also has a tendency to remove some of the decision making burden from the climber or skier. Rather than providing a danger rating for each gully, we will provide information to help you identify the avalanche problem type wherever it is found in our forecast zones. This will allow you to align your mitigation strategy to the terrain and the character of the avalanche (or long sliding fall as is, unfortunately, often the case). We will continue to provide an assessment of the size and distribution of the problem as accurately as possible and strive to effectively communicate our degree of uncertainty in our forecast. Now more than ever, you will need to perform your own assessments in the field to determine the size and distribution of the avalanche problem.

An earlier forecast means a more weather-based avalanche forecast. We will no longer be able to make field observations just before final decisions are made on the danger ratings. We will rely on the previous day’s observations, made either by us or by the public, combined with the usual weather products. Posting the advisory at 7am means that we will not be able to fine tune our forecast assumptions by looking at the terrain. This is nothing new for us since poor visibility often robs us of this opportunity. Essentially, you will need to use our forecast as a starting point for your own field observations when you travel into the terrain.

Forecasting for the range means that we may be slower to respond to a call for rescue. There is no guarantee that we can save a life even if we are in position at Hermit Lake or nearby in Huntington and ready to respond to a call. Asphyxiation in an avalanche burial is likely to occur within 20 minutes of burial. An avalanche death by trauma or by asphyxiation has roughly even odds. Our best tool to help people survive and thrive in avalanche terrain is to provide information and encourage safe travel. We hope that an earlier advisory, covering more areas which are seeing more use and more incidents will assist in better decision making.

In the past year, 96,430 people read our advisory on a personal computer, phone or tablet (compared to 17,000 users 10 years ago). Last year, around 48,400 people used their phones to read the advisory 118,000 times. We still post a printed, paper copy of our advisory in several places on the mountain, but very near to where we post it on the avalanche information kiosks (or slatboards as we call them), cell phone signals are strong enough for a dawn patroller or winter camper to pull up the advisory. While we intend to continue printing out a paper copy of the advisory, at least for another year, the practice doesn’t seem to make sense in the long term. Usually one of us, especially on weekends and holidays, will still be in the Cutler River Drainage, and at the Harvard Cabin, for face to face conversations. Wave us down and we’ll be happy help you find the right slope or climb that suits the weather and snow conditions.

Avalanche forecasters don’t visit every area they forecast! It just isn’t practical to visit every location in any range in the country that has avalanche forecasts. Workloads and available daylight won’t allow the trip to those low use areas which are probably seldom visited for good reasons. Our field days will likely follow hot spots of use. Though some places will rarely be visited by a forecaster, our forecast should still be helpful to you as you look for avalanche problems. Identifying patterns is part of process and keeping up with snow and weather history and the day’s forecast can help you stay out of trouble and hopefully find the goods.

What we need from you:

  • Observations – Tag us in your Instagram videos with snow and avalanche observations, send us an email or find us on Facebook. Your observations don’t have to be pro level, but a video goes a long way toward giving us some context to your observation. What did you find on the surface? Did you dig? Perform some stability tests? Did you get results but ski the slope anyway? Did you fall into an ice dam? All of these are great for us to pass along so take a minute and share your info. We’ll be creating a new tool on our website to make the process easier and to make your post public soon.
  • Support – Your time or money will expand our capacity. Last year, we asked for help with a power inverter and battery setup at the cabin and several folks hooked us up and accomplished in a few days what would have taken us weeks. At my talk last week in Portland, 20 people won some stuff, learned a couple things and ponied up four hundred bucks to Friends of Tuckerman Ravine to support our mission. We’ll need that kind of support and more in the future. We have plans for remote weather stations at several locations and we’ll be looking for support to buy and install them. Stay tuned for opportunities and don’t be surprised if you see an online beg-a-thon, auction item, or Gofundme campaign for remote weather stations in the near future.
  • Feedback – Positive or not so positive, we need to hear from you. Send an email to mwactucks@gmail.com

There are many pros and cons to the move but in balance, we think that the public will be better served by the new approach. The exception to the new plan will be the annual migration of skiers hiking to Tuckerman Ravine in the early spring. At that point in the season, we will circle our wagons at Hermit Lake and do what we can to provide for a safe experience for that crowd.  This will likely mean a return to the slat board to communicate the simplest safety messages. It will also mean a continued campaign to talk people out of sitting under teetering frozen waterfalls. This spring, you may also see one of us in the Gulf of Slides, the Ammo, or Oakes Gulf serving a different crowd. And you may see us training in Crawford Notch State Park when it is just too darned cold to climb in Huntington Ravine!

As we move into the season, look for these changes and give us your feedback. We will be looking for examples of what works and what doesn’t with our new products and approach.

Let it snow!

-Frank

Meet your ESAW Presenters: Julie Leblanc

Fellow avalanche forecaster Julie Leblanc comes to us from north of the border and Avalanche Quebec. Serving the Chic-Choc Mountains of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, Avalanche Quebec is the only avalanche center in eastern Canada. For those counting, that makes two in eastern North America when combined with the Mount Washington Avalanche Center.

Julie brings a wealth of knowledge to the Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop as a veteran avalanche professional in the region. She will be both a presenter and member of our discussion panel. We’ll see you at ESAW this Saturday, November 3rd, to learn from Julie!

Tickets available at esaw.org

Meet your ESAW presenters: Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski

We’re happy to introduce Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, coming to ESAW from the University of New Hampshire’s Earth Systems Research Center and Institute for the study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. She will enlighten us on one of her primary projects, Citizen Science Snow Observations. Dr. Burakowski is a climate scientist who uses climate modeling, remote sensing, and ground observations to investigate the interactions among land cover, land use, climate, and society. Accordingly, Liz will also help us understand regional impacts of climate change.

An avid snow sports enthusiast herself, another of her research interests is the effect of warmer winters on winter tourism and the ski industry. We hope you’re as excited as we are to learn from Liz this Saturday at the Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop!

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Dr. Sam Colbeck

From nearby Lyme, NH, we are pleased to welcome Sam Colbeck back to the Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop. Sam is an Emeritus Researcher and former Senior Research Scientist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover NH. With the metamorphosis of fallen snow as a primary research interest through his career, he contributed pioneering advancements to our understanding of how snow grains change over time. In 2000, the American Avalanche Association named Sam an Honorary Member, their highest award. His work as a true snow scientist includes but also extends beyond our world of avalanches, with research influencing all things snow, from military operations and nuclear power plants to ski racing. The Ragged Mountain ski patroller and avid skier will surely lead the charge to awaken your snow brain on November 3rd.

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Brian Lazar

We are pleased to introduce Brian Lazar, the Deputy Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center since 2010. Brian has been working in the field of snow and avalanches for the last couple decades. He began backcountry skiing in Colorado as a college student, soon becoming a mountain guide and avalanche course instructor. After a decade or so of guiding and teaching in a variety of snow climates on both sides of the equator, Brian returned to graduate school where he earned a MS in Engineering, studying snow and ice mechanics in Alaska’s Chugach range, and conducting research at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. He worked for many years as a consultant to the ski industry, investigating snowpack runoff and potential changes to seasonal snowpacks as a result of climate change.

A key figure in avalanche education, the former Executive Director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), remains a curriculum developer and board member. He is also a member of the American Avalanche Association (AAA) Education Committee, an AAA Certified Instructor, and an AIARE course leader. We are certainly excited to learn from Brian at ESAW, and we hope you are too! Get your tickets here: esaw.org

Sections of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail are Closed

The Crystal Cascade Bridge as well as Bridge #3 are currently under construction. The Tucks Trail has two separate closures that must be navigated as you ascend to Hermit Lake. Rather than the normal start to the trail behind the AMC Trading Post, the trail begins up the Sherburne. The detours are well-signed and will add no distance to your hike.

 

Annual Tuckerman Ravine Trail Closure in the Lip

Annual spring snow melt creates significant glide cracks, or crevasses, and undermined snow in the Lip area of Tuckerman Ravine. We close a section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail where it passes through the Lip as a safety measure. This relatively short section stretches from Lunch Rocks in the Ravine to the junction with the Alpine Garden Trail just above the Ravine. Ascending or descending through this area now has numerous hazards which greatly elevate risk to travelers. The closure also pertains to skiers and riders. The closure only pertains to this section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and will remain in effect until melt out eliminates these specific hazards.

Forest Supervisor Order 2008-19

Lion Head Summer Trail open

Hiking this time of year can be especially challenging as warm temperatures make shorts and lightweight hikers more comfortable than soft shell pants and mountaineering boots. Trails can change from knee deep rotten snow to bullet-proof ice is a matter minutes in cool temperatures and shade. Currently, the Lion Head summer trail and winter route are equally challenging but for different reasons. The Summer route has stretches of ice remaining and a long traverse through a snowfield at tree-line that has been the seen of some pretty bad falls. The winter route is generally steeper and the steepest section now is exposed rock and frozen mud. While never technically closed, the summer route is exposed to significant avalanche hazard and only becomes the recommended route to the summit from the east side of the mountain when avalanche hazard subsides. We have reached the point in time when the summer route becomes a good alternative. That said, there is still ice along with that steep and potentially icy slope near treeline. Be prepared and equipped for icy conditions on the summer trail when it’s cold at that elevation, along with rotten and deep snow as it warms up.

The Tuckerman Ravine trail through Tuckerman Ravine is nearing the point where a closure makes sense. If you plan to ski the Lip, understand that the waterfall holes are open below you and create the potential for a fatal fall into a 70′ deep or more hole.

 

MountainFilm Festival Tour comes to Fryeburg, ME

MOUNTAINFILM FESTIVAL
May 3, 2018 // 7:00 PM
Fryeburg Academy’s Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center presents the MountainFilm Festival on Thursday, May 3rd at 7:00 pm. MountainFilm is an annual documentary film festival that showcases nonfiction stories about environmental, cultural, climbing, political and social justice issues that matter. Along with exceptional documentaries, the festival goes beyond the film medium by bringing together world-class athletes, change makers, and visionary artists for a multi-dimensional celebration of worthy causes. See the trailer here.
Fryeburg Academy is situated 10 minutes from North Conway, NH in the foothills of the Mt. Washington Valley and surrounded by people that value outdoor recreation, environmental stewardship, and sustainable development. We hope that this event will become an annual evening of fun that brings people together to celebrate indomitable spirit.
Representatives from local outdoor recreation organizations, including the Mount Washington Avalanche Center and the Granite Backcountry Alliance, will be set up in the lobby to answer questions and provide information about their operations. 
All proceeds from the event will support outdoor programs at FA.
For more information visit www.mountainfilm.org
$20 In Advance, $25 at the Door

Saddle Peak, MT avalanche fatality

As with any avalanche fatality, there are opportunities to learn from tragic events. Of particular interest to me in this case is the size of the avalanche and the timing of the rescue. Both the avalanche size, type, track and bed surface are similar to avalanches frequently occurring in and near our forecast area. The timing of the rescue is also very similar to what has occurred here. Even if snow ranger or caretaker staff are alerted quickly, it would likely take the same period of time to reach and recover a victim in the Bowl. In this case, the depth of burial may have allowed the victim to live, had they not been alone. It’s up to you to decide, but it seems likely to me that our collective luck as a community could run out again.
Read about the incident here.
Please, wear and carry your avalanche beacon, probe and shovel and understand the consequences of  solo travel. Winter is not over.
Sincere condolences to family, friends and the rescue community involved.
-Frank