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.