On March 5, 1999 a serious climbing accident occurred in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington.
The Mount Washington Observatory reported very strong winds and cold temperatures for the day. West winds at 70-85 m.p.h. and temperatures ranging from -5 to -8 degrees F. made travel above treeline extremely difficult and dangerously cold. Snow conditions were very firm, the result of a mid-winter rain event.
QL and his partner AB completed a successful ascent of Odell’s gully, a moderate snow and ice climb on the south side of Huntington Ravine. Upon reaching the top, they encountered extremely high winds. They decided to descend via the Escape Hatch, a low angle snow gully which is the standard descent from climbs in Huntington Ravine. Battling the strong winds, the pair made their way east along the rim on Huntington Ravine. At times, the wind forced them to crawl on hands and knees. The winds had the effect of gradually pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the Ravine. At approximately 11:00 AM, a gust of wind blew QL off his feet. He was literally blown off the mountain. QL began sliding down the top of South gully. He attempted to self-arrest, but was unable to do so. He slid and tumbled down the entire length of South Gully, a fall of approximately 1200 feet.
AB suddenly noticed that QL was no longer with him. AB continued to make his way toward the Escape Hatch. Successfully descending the gully, he found QL at the bottom of South Gully, where he began to attend his injuries and initiate a rescue. Fortunately, another climbing party had arrived on the floor of Huntington Ravine. Another stroke of fortune for QL, as the party consisted of an orthopedic surgeon, an EMT and a registered nurse. They provided emergency medical care, and evacuated QL to the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine. QL was transported to an awaiting ambulance via the US Forest Service Thiokol snow machine to Pinkham Notch.
QL suffered multiple lacerations and abrasions, a dislocated right elbow, and other internal injuries,
Climbing Mount Washington in winter can be a very serious undertaking. In addition to cold temperatures, hurricane force winds are measured on a regular basis. The climbing gullies of Huntington Ravine are somewhat sheltered from the full force of strong winds so common to the mountain. Climbers may be unaware or unprepared for what awaits them as they top out, where full exposure to the winds are experienced. Several climbing accidents have occurred in the past when climbers, upon reaching the top of the route, have been blown back down the gully. After a climb under high wind conditions, seasoned Mount Washington climbers will take care not to stand up until safe terrain is reached.
Conditions were quite severe above tree-line when the pair left to make their climb. winds were ranging from 70 to 80 m.p.h. on the summit of Mount Washington. The safety of an ascent should have been re-evaluated.
Several alternative options for descent should be considered under such difficult conditions. One option is to descend/rappel the gully to the base, rather than risking an above treeline traverse to the Escape Hatch. Climbers of Odell’s or Pinnacle gullies can also traverse east below the rim of the ravine to South Gully, providing a more sheltered descent option under high wind conditions.
QL was literally blown off the mountain attempting to descend. Climbing and traveling under such extreme conditions can be very difficult, and climbers have a narrow margin of safety in the event of an accident.
A word must be said about the tremendous fortune of having an orthopedic surgeon, EMT and RN on the scene in such a short time. A better scenario for care and evacuation under such conditions from this location is difficult to imagine.
The rescue required 6 persons and 13 person hours.