The NH Fish and Game is searching for a 47 year old French speaking, white male who was last seen at Pinkham Notch mid-day Monday. The 5’8″, 300 lb man appears to have gone for hike in the area. The man was last seen in jeans and sandals in Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. If you have any information or have seen this man in your travels around Pinkham Notch, please notify State Police or dial 911.
As I roll into my last month in the Ravine after a bunch of years I have been reflecting about many things I have seen on Mount Washington over time. This mountain’s landscape, and all of you collectively, have been with me since I was very young and therefore have influenced who I have become. As I move on to other endeavors in life I have thought a lot about my role here and the history that has unfolded.
Snow Ranger work is very diverse. One minute you’re carrying some 2×4’s, painting, trying to fix a generator and then the next checking snow conditions, running a major search for a missing climber involving many teams, being lowered into a crevasse, or notifying families of tragedy. Sometimes, as in the last few years, long periods of time may elapse between major accidents which requires us to remain vigilant and not be lulled to believe accidents don’t happen anymore, because they certainly do. But why have accidents gone down? Are visitors more skilled? Smarter? More risk savvy? …you know…. I’m not sure, but I have some thoughts that all collectively may start to get to the answer that may interest you.
About 20 years ago we moved to the net with Tuckerman.org versus faxing our typed avalanche advisories around. This began an era how we all get information…at home “online” rather than going anyway and figuring it all out once we get somewhere. When the vast majority of people started having internet access this really made a noticeable difference. When people stay at home because the web said there was elevated avalanche danger, or the Ravine was going to be a hockey ring pitched at 45 degrees, many more people decided to do something else. This is quite different compared to arriving with 4 of your friends at Pinkham Notch with no prior information which was pretty typical 25 years ago. So what happened when it was bullet proof or High avalanche danger? Well 50% went to do something else like ski at Wildcat, 30% would come up and be a bit more conservative, and 20% would do what they had their heart set on when they pulled out of their driveway. This led to accidents- when a small amount of individuals enter during the highest hazards. We found when people are already here they’re “going to see what it’s like” and then when they do see, they can’t turn around…they have to give it a go. The internet delivered safety information to give people choices before leaving home.
At about this time we went from a routine of spreading out on weekends with our Volunteer ski patrol and passing out good information, to doing it more intensively! We began following a particular method of briefing the staff and giving out assignments to assure as many people as possible knew several points of critical information. The strategy was if we can keep more people away from the worst hazards of the day we have gained ground to eliminate accidents.
Then 9/11 in 2001 occurred which we believe was a major factor in very low visitation that season (2001-2002). The following spring in 2002-2003 we saw rain almost every weekend. These two years began a decline in spring use that we can’t explain well, but think it has something to do with broken cycles in human routine. Although they still loved coming to the mountains they also started creating new spring rituals which fits with our culture of doing many more hobbies and sports generally than our parents may have.
This was coupled with people getting after colder snow/powder with their new AT/Tele/Splitboard set ups. We began seeing more and more skinning up to Hermit Lake rather than carrying skis up. In order to skin you need snow and snow melts from Pinkham earlier than 20+ years ago. So visitors started breaking March visitation records while May fell through the floor making March the new May. Because of this, we have lower use when falling ice is highest and the crevasses are largest. However we have more human avalanche close call involvements than we ever have because use is rising in the more avalanche prone months. Eventually I would expect our avalanche accidents to increase.
Then there’s the issue of climate change. How will this really play out up here? Hard to say, but I would generally expect what all the climate pundits predict. More extreme swings, heavy snow and yes also more heavy rain as warmer air can carry more moisture. And therefore winter coverage starting later and yes, ending earlier. Maybe February will be the new April.
So to get to the query I started with…why are accident rates lower? Generally in my opinion it’s the combination of climate changing human patterns, staff talking to people about hazards in the field, searching for different experiences (ie. skinning for powder rather than carrying skis for the icefall party at Lunch Rocks), and the internet giving information and options here at the Avalanche Center, other ski forums, and certain weather sites like our friends at the summit Observatory.
Why do I say all this? Well I wanted to tie some history to what I think will be a quiet weekend due to a poor winter (climate) having people pursuing other things this spring, some hard surface conditions due to cold temperatures following the rain, and you using our website for info perhaps leading you to do something else. I also wanted to say that by and large you have been very receptive to our hazard and risk information. Ultimately, accidents are falling because you are using data and making decisions keeping you away from undo risk. Mountain pursuits involve risk, but they are also there tomorrow, and you have made choices to come when risk is lower.
At face value Snow Ranger work is most rewarding when you know that your actions made a big difference for someone, such as lifesaving procedures. The challenging rewards to notice are the successes made because information made someone think differently and decide to avoid the terrain. These far out-number rescues, but have made more impact on our mountain community at large. Thanks for following all our information over the years and giving it some thought…now for the weekend.
- THE INFERNO. Yes the Inferno will occur. Based on conditions there may still be alterations in the morning, but currently a unique double loop foreshortened course down low has been established to dramatically reduce risk. More to come tomorrow.
- COLD Our thin snowpack was hit by 2” of rain at Hermit Lake and a bit less on the summit over the past 24 hours. This has been followed by a scant amount of snow and a dropping temperature. Tomorrow morning the temperature will start cold at about 5F, rise to the teens, and then start falling again to about 0F Saturday night. See the details at https://www.mountwashington.org/experience-the-weather/higher-summit-forecast.aspx Hypothermia for “spring” visitors could be an issue. Needless to say there won’t be many sunbathers this weekend. Bring winter clothing.
- MACH 1 FALLS Cold ambient air will not only make you shudder it will also make the rain saturated snow very very hard. I know you just got those edges tuned up and I can’t deny that they are better than they were before for the ice, but think through the potential and consequences for long unplanned falls. Expect self-arresting with your ice ax and whippet self-arrest poles to be nearly impossible after 0.5 seconds. Rocks are hard generally, but are very hard when on the unexpected luge run at the speed of sound. As you plan your travel, constantly think about if you fall what will happen. Without an Ice ax, real crampons, and the experience to use them well, I would refrain from ascending anything steep because safe descent will not be likely.
- CREVASSES/HOLES Some holes on the right side of the Ravine near the Lip and way down under the Lip near Lunch rocks are deep enough that ultimate tragedy is likely if they are fallen into. Ask us about the holes and how to avoid them.
- ICY HIKING TRAIL The Tuckerman Ravine trail below Hermit Lake from Pinkham has record breaking ice coverage on it. Today ascending wasn’t extremely bad because it was wet and warm, but the dropping temperature will make it treacherous tomorrow, particularly going down. In our Patrol briefing tomorrow morning we will discuss how we will effectively respond to accidents on the trail because they are quite likely.
- SKI TRAIL The Ski Trail is still open a third of the way, but expect water ice! Please cross over and walk to Pinkham on the hiking trail.
This is a quick post in prelude to the afternoon “Weekend Update” which we’ll post between 3 and 6pm. The weather maker moving through the area today will give us up to 0.45-.5″ of total melt water, primarily rain in the mountains. Currently the valleys and the summits are colder than avalanche terrain at the mid elevations, which have been above freezing for many hours already. There is a chance for a period of heavy rain this morning with even a clap or two of thunder. As this system moves through a cold front will usher in dry cold air. The weekend should offer fairly clear skies, albeit a bit cool. As for surface conditions and the existing cold snow that exists…..well…we need to wait a bit to see how much rain we get but generally we’re thinking this:
- Rain today will increase avalanche danger quickly with natural wet slab avalanche potential.
- The cold front, falling into the teens F on the summits, will begin locking up the snow pack from the surface down decreasing the avalanche danger, but creating slick surface conditions.
- Saturday morning will start cold with icy surfaces, but sun and and very light winds from the north will allow for softening on S and SE faces.
- The avalanche danger over the weekend will depend a lot on the amount of rain we get today, how deeply free water can percolate into the snowpack, and in part how much warming we get on Saturday and Sunday. We will be in a general decreasing avalanche danger but we may have some aspects higher than others (Moderate and Low). Again depends on rain today and how hard a “reset button” our snow pack goes through. See Today’s avalanche advisory discussing the Considerable rating for Friday, don’t forget to check the weekend update later today, and certainly the Saturday Avalanche advisory in the morning. Chris
It’s not time to put your long underwear away yet; winter is returning. Last weekend, skiers enjoyed spring conditions around sunny aspects of Tuckerman Ravine. This weekend will be vastly different and those venturing into terrain should be prepared for winter conditions. The next few days will bring cold temperatures, strong winds, elevated avalanche hazard, and the potential for the first big storm of the winter.
Saturday’s forecast is cold and windy. Skies will clear throughout the day with temperatures on the summit bottoming out around -10F at daybreak. The cold will remain with winds hovering around 50mph into the evening, leaving the current windchill advisory in effect until 7pm Saturday. Clear skies overnight Saturday along with decreasing winds will make Sunday a bit more pleasant day to be on the mountain, but by no means a day for spring skiing. Temperatures will increase into the teens after starting the day around 0F. Winds will also increase later in the day, reaching 70mph by dark. As the day progresses, the potential for snow will increase with snow showers likely developing mid-afternoon.
The main talk about the upcoming days is the major storm tracking its way up the east coast. Currently, predictions about where this storm will go are in disagreement. The main differences in the track of the storm seem to revolve around the interaction of two low pressure systems. How these play out will likely change several times until Sunday evening. Looking at various models, there are historical events similar to what we are looking at that produced double digit snow totals. Only time will tell.
Look for the Weekend Update this evening to discuss the current state of affairs in the Ravines.
Helon and I hiked into Tuckerman Ravine this morning to survey the damage to the snowpack wrought by over an inch and a quarter of rain and two and a half days of summit temperatures near 40F. First and foremost we wanted to see how the snowpack dealt with the all the liquid. Several pits up to 170cm deep in the lower sections of the Lip revealed that the rain did penetrate deeply into the snow, through various melt freeze crusts and appeared to have broken down the upper ice crust at least in this area. Rain had made the snow wet to 170cm in one spot and down only 45cm in another. No matter what the depth of the penetrating rain, we expect this upper layers of the snowpack to solidly bridge over any lingering weak layer deeper in the snowpack. Our nowcast for stability at 2pm was Low avalanche danger with a strong concern for wet loose sluffing for anyone skiing steeper terrain. We were sinking well over our boot tops and expected that a significant sluff would have been generated by the first turns on any of the steeper runs. In an area like the Lip, the force of a wet heavy sluff combined with the deep, unconsolidated snow could easily make self-arrest impossible and could even push an unlucky soul into the waterfall hole.
Weather for the weekend looks pretty good though winds on the higher end should keep the temperatures from really baking the snow. High temperatures in the low 30’s on the summit with clear skies both days will cause further melting and settlement of the meager snowpack. Lows tonight in the teens should allow a nice refreeze of the snowpack. An ice axe and crampons may be necessary in spots both days, not due to the overnight refreeze but more because of the amount of water ice deep in our snowpack. This ice may be near the surface in wind eroded shallow spots near the tops and even mid-sections of some gullies. Don’t count on microspikes working in the steep terrain but they will be a godsend on the approach up the Tucks trail right out of Pinkham Notch.
The spring ski season is fast approaching, if not already here and nearly passed. Along with the arrival of skiers making their annual pilgrimage to “Tucks” come the associated hazards of springtime. The big three that you will likely hear talked about if you visit the ravine this weekend will be icefall, crevasses, and undermined snow.
Upon entering the Bowl this weekend, take note of the chunk of ice sitting on the Ravine floor. This chunk likely weighs over 600 pounds and is the cause of the wet slab that released from the Center Bowl on Wednesday. Icefall should command much more respect this season as the Ravine has not filled in enough to cover much of the ice in the Center Bowl. Due to the lack of snow cover this year, the amount of exposed ice that potentially could fall to the floor is greater than usual. Beware of sitting at Lunch Rocks since the Sluice ice is directly above this location and is slowly peeling away. Crossing the floor of the Ravine puts you under a lot of ice that could result in a nasty end to the day. This is a hazard to respect and the only way to avoid it is by not crossing under the fall line.
This label is always up for debate; does Tuckerman actually have crevasses or are they just large glide cracks? Call the gaping hole underneath two separate waterfall holes in the Lip what you will, falling into one of these holes can have fatal consequences. It seems to happen every year and multiple skiers and riders have stories of surviving the fall, however these holes are scary and nobody should see the inside. If skiing the Lip this weekend is your goal, you will be in a no-fall zone. Glide cracks are appearing in other places around the Ravine, but at the moment are primarily in the Lip area.
With the warm weather Mount Washington experienced this past week, there is a vast amount of meltwater running downhill. Just look at the Ellis River as you drive up Route 16 and think, “That’s probably the top half of Right Gully running down to Jackson right now.” Higher on the mountain and in Tuckerman and Huntington, this meltwater eats away at the snow from beneath. Punching through from above is something we’ve all done and in certain spots can have dire consequences. It would be foolhardy to try and exit the Bowl to the Little Headwall at the moment. The snow cover is so thin you can hear the water rushing underneath in the floor with the remainder of the creek more or less uncovered by snow.
Lion Head Switch
As of Saturday morning, the Lion Head Winter Route will be closed. The Summer Trail will open for the season. This switch happens every spring and this year is happening very early due to the lack of snow and ice cover on the Winter Route. If winter returns and the gods finally decide to bring snow to New England, it is possible we may re-open the winter route. This is very unlikely and we ask that you preserve the tread way of the Winter Route and refrain from using it.
The John Sherburne Ski Trail is now closed at cutover number 2, about a half mile uphill of Pinkham. We have placed a rope across the trail at this point and ask all ski traffic to please cross over to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and hike down. Skiing the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is frowned upon for safety reasons and also not feasible at this point due to lack of snow. The overall condition of the Sherburne is rough. The trail is skiable down to the rope, but be prepared for all types of snow as well as patches of ice and occasional grass.
There is no doubt that this winter is one for the record books. The lack of snow has changed things dramatically. It’s hard to wrap our head around the fact that the weekend of March 12 looks more like a weekend we would typically see in mid to late April. The skiing will likely be great this weekend, but keep in mind that runs have thin coverage overall and runouts are still rocky. Conservative skiing this weekend will make for a great day on the hill. We will be in the Ravine alongside the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and the caretakers of Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake. Be sure and stop to chat on your way through. There’s nothing we like more than talking about safe travel plans and getting home for dinner. See you on the hill!
-Frank and Helon
Helon and I took advantage of a warm sunny day to get up into Tuckerman. Our primary objectives were to look at the existing snowpack and get a handle on what today’s danger was, for anyone coming up later today, and for what the emerging heat wave might do to the snowpack.
For those few who came up today, they were rewarded with good stability in Right and Left Gully, but different conditions. Left Gully’s snow stayed cold and dry despite the +7C ambient air temperature. In one location, Helon found a thin 4F+ slab layer sitting on top of a loose graupel layer with very easy compression test results. Snow test results don’t always tell the whole story though. Helon’s impression was that the Moderate rating was appropriate. One of the skiers in the gully tested the slope with a finely executed faceplant, which is often a more realistic test of a slope’s stability than compression tests. (I’d name names, but the Harvard caretaker might not want his identity revealed.)
Right Gully had a much different environment than what was found in Left. Rather than cold dry snow, the surface layer was saturated with melted snow. At 11:45, the wet layer was 7cm deep. By 12:45, it was twice that or more. The loading that came in with yesterday’s 5cm snowfall didn’t create much new slab in Right, so my earlier concerns regarding stability of this layer were quickly erased as the sun baked the slabiness right out of the upper layer.
Standing in the middle of Right Gully for a long time, I began to look around at the terrain, and I realized that the snow I was standing on was probably 8-10′ lower than where it is in a typical winter. Trees whose tops are usually the only part visible were standing proud over my head. At the top of the gully, rocks that we see melt out sometime in early May have not even been buried this year. It really sunk home how poorly we’ve done for snowfall this year.
The 1F+ (hand hardness scale) slab in Right Gully was 100cm deep down to a hard, hard crust. The very top of the snowpack was wet snow from the heat and sun. Cooler snow was found down below, with a few centimeters of 1mm facets above the crust. I found it hard to really get a good look at the facets – the air temperature was +7C so as soon as I put some on a crystal card they began to melt. This facet layer gave two compression tests at CT21 and CT23. An extended column test did not propagate. I also got negative results with a shovel tilt test and shovel shear test on a suspected weak layer at 37cm down from the top. Generally speaking, these are good test results for the stability of the slope at the time the tests were done, but the facet layer is concerning for what might happen with further warming.
In the Sluice, Lip, and Chute, as well as the left side of the Center Bowl and in the hangfire, there is a good chance that the facet layer remains intact, and this might become reactive tomorrow or Thursday as the upper slab becomes wetter and wetter.
Here are some other pictures from the day:
I’m running out of time for this post now, so be sure to check tomorrow’s advisory for more information and stability ratings for the day.
This is a disclaimer to everyone who plans on hiking the Tuckerman Ravine Trail or skiing the Sherburne this week. Both trails will see heavy use by the snowcat over the next few days. As the snow depth for the year is so low, we think this may be the one week this winter where we can run the machine and resupply the Hermit Lake area with crucial items. The planned route of travel is to use the bottom half of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and to then cross over to the Sherburne at #5, roughly the halfway point. With so much ice and exposed rocks present, the machine’s maneuverability is not what it is on a midwinter snowpack. Please help us by having your group step off on the same side of the trail and making eye contact with the operator before trying to pass. We apologize for chewing up the ski trail and appreciate your patience as we hustle to make do with an unusual winter.
The top of the Sherburne is a little better than what you’ll see in this video, but not by much. The upper trail is very hard icy snow and less water ice.