INCIDENTS & ACCIDENTS

Every year, on average, 25 people who are injured while climbing, skiing and mountaineering on Mount Washington require some type of assistance from rescue groups such as the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and the US Forest Service. The incident summaries listed below are provided as an educational tool in order to help prevent future accidents. The accidents range  from sprained ankles to multi-systems trauma. The reports and analysis of these accidents have revealed some interesting insights into winter mountain safety

Accident reporting and investigation is a time consuming and often detailed process. Reports of major accidents from the US Forest Service Snow Rangers may take some time to appear on this page.

Human Triggered Avalanches on April 7, 2018

On April 7, 2018, seven avalanches occured in Tuckerman Ravine. All were human triggered. This write-up discusses the weather and snowpack that lead up to these events, an objective summary of the events, and an analysis of factors that lead to at least five people being caught in one of the avalanches.

Weather

In the week leading up to April 7, 2018, our snowpack saw two rain events. The first was March 29 and 30 which delivered 0.75” of rain followed by 0.32” of rain on April 4. Both of these rain events were followed by hard freezes. On Friday, April 6, light snow showers began just after noon and continued through sunrise the following day. By the time snowfall stopped, the snowplot at Hermit Lake recorded 16cm (6.3”) of 9% snow while the summit recorded between 7 and 8” (this is an estimate based on hourly observations as the total snowfall was recorded as less due to excessive blowing snow) of snow. When snowfall began on Friday, wind at the summit was around 30mph from the south. Overnight, wind direction shifted to the west and speeds increased to 60-70mph. Weather on Saturday April 7 was clearing skies, winds diminishing to around 40mph from the west, and temperatures in the single digits on the summit and reaching into the 20sF at Hermit Lake. This weather pattern built a robust melt-freeze crust over which wind slab was built from new snow and wind April 6-7. This touchy wind slab was the avalanche problem involved in all known avalanches on April 7.

Summary of Events

During the morning of April 7, three avalanches were intentionally triggered by skiers. All three were ski cuts, two occurring in Lobster Claw (both SS-ASc-R1-D1.5-I) and one occurring on the rollover of the Little Headwall (SS-ASc-R1-D1-I). Slab depths were up to 14” and all occured on a layer of softer snow immediately above the melt-freeze crust. Of note in the Little Headwall was that the second skier through was able to trigger the “hangfire”, or slab remaining above the crown of the initial avalanche.

Examining the crown in Little Headwall. MWAC photo.

We have less definitive information on the Left Gully and Chute avalanches, which occurred shortly before and after the Hillman’s Highway avalanches, respectively. We believe that no one was caught or carried by either avalanche, both of which were triggered unintentionally. Left Gully, which was rated Moderate, produced an avalanche from a relatively thick though isolated pocket, while Chute, which was rated Considerable, produced a larger in area avalanche from a thinner slab. Both are estimated SS-ASu-R2-D1.

Unlike the other avalanches this day, the avalanches in Hillman’s Highway did involve a number of people being caught and carried. At approximately 2:00 pm, at least 40 people were climbing and skiing in Hillman’s. An individual climbing uphill from the looker’s right fork to the looker’s left fork triggered the initial avalanche as they entered the looker’s left fork. This person was not carried in the slide. The crown of this avalanche was approximately 300’ below the top of Hillman’s and ran ⅔ of the way down (SS-AFu-R2-D2-I). Of the many people in the avalanche path, at least 5 were caught and carried. USFS Snow Rangers responded to the incident and identified one injured skier who was ultimately transported to Pinkham Notch with a back injury that was not life threatening. Another individual who was also caught and carried sustained a minor injury to their hand.

Looking at the crown of the first avalanche in Hillman’s Highway. Photo by Kurt Schleicher.

The second avalanche was triggered around 2:30pm, within minutes of the initial Snow Ranger team arriving on scene. The trigger was unknown at the time, but consensus of bystanders is that this second avalanche was triggered by the same individual who triggered the first, having topped out on the ridge and beginning to ski the hang fire slab above the initial crown. This second avalanche was smaller (SS-ASu-R2-D1-I) and luckily did not capture any people or result in injuries.

Analysis

Many opportunities for learning are presented by this day which which fortunately did not involve more serious injuries. First, it’s an excellent reminder that avalanche conditions can develop during the spring months which bring crowds of backcountry skiers to Tuckerman Ravine. As with any time of year, these avalanches can widely vary in size and character. Avalanches can be of minimal concern on certain spring days, but April 7 was a day with avalanches as the primary concern for alpine travelers. On any such day, anyone venturing into avalanche terrain should bring a beacon, shovel, probe, and knowledge to use them effectively.

Carrying avalanche rescue gear is a cardinal rule for travelling in avalanche terrain. Another is travelling one at a time through areas exposed to avalanche danger. This requires recognizing avalanche terrain, which includes both terrain capable of producing an avalanche and terrain threatened by avalanches. A phrase often heard in the courtyard is, “It’s just Hillman’s”. All of Hillman’s Highway is avalanche terrain. On top of that, it’s easily the biggest gully in Tuckerman Ravine and is particularly confined. Exposing one person at a time to avalanche danger is crucial, particularly on a day like April 7. It’s likely that nobody would have been injured had this been the case.

Avalanche danger was Moderate in Hillman’s Highway on this day, which forecasts natural avalanches as unlikely and human triggered avalanches as possible. These possible human triggered avalanches can be either small and in many areas or large and in specific areas. With a number of similar avalanches in other Moderate rated areas, we consider April 7 as a small avalanches in many areas kind of day. It’s worth noting that a Moderate rated day for large avalanches in specific areas is sometimes referred to as “scary moderate”, in which you’re less likely to find signs of instability but potentially able to trigger a large avalanche. Further, remember that even small avalanches can ultimately be fatal.

The Chute was rated Considerable and produced a slightly larger in area avalanche from a thinner slab. The primary distinction between Moderate and Considerable is increased likelihood of both natural and human triggered avalanches with greater chance for larger avalanches. Other Considerable areas received little if any traffic, which we suspect is a reason that more did not produce avalanches.

All avalanche problems exhibit some degree of spatial variability. This means that the snowpack is not uniform across the terrain and avalanches can often only be triggered from specific locations. A number of people can travel on a slope, particularly one as large as Hillman’s, before someone finds this specific location and triggers an avalanche. Tracks on a slope do not mean it’s safe to ski or climb.

The Little Headwall was not rated on April 7 for lack of snow, but did have enough snow in one isolated pocket to produce an avalanche. Unrated terrain, which encompasses all of our terrain early and late in the season, can produce avalanches. The human triggered avalanche in Central Gully on Dec 1 of this season is another example. We do issue danger ratings for areas of most concern during the bulk of the season in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines, but avalanche activity is not confined to areas forecast on a particular day.

Finally, we should touch on ski cutting. The avalanches in the Little Headwall and Lobster Claw were intentionally triggered in a controlled manner through ski cutting. This process of intentionally skiing a specific part of a slope likely to trigger an avalanche, with speed and from one safe zone to another, is an advanced practice and is only appropriate under certain conditions. A book could easily be written about the practice of ski cutting, but a simple explanation is that it is only wise when you possess a high degree of certainty about what the the ski cut will produce AND the consequences if you’re wrong. In particular, ski cutting is inappropriate when an avalanche may initiate above you. On April 7, we had the rare conditions for our terrain in which instability was limited to surface slabs and individuals were able to ski potential start zones for isolated and small pockets of wind slab. Certainty was high both in terms of anticipated result and consequences for being wrong, and avalanches above the individuals ski cutting were nearly impossible. Further, other people were not in the potential avalanche runout zones.

Brody Leven ski cutting in Lobster Claw. Photo by Lincoln Benedict.

The human-triggered avalanches on April 7 did result in injury, but everyone on the mountain lived to ski and climb another day. Luck certainly contributed to this relatively positive outcome, as did the relatively small but widespread type of Considerable and Moderate avalanche danger that day. We who like to travel in avalanche terrain rarely get such valuable lessons without more serious outcomes. Great turns can be had with minimal risk on such days, but only by choosing terrain that matches your preparedness, knowledge, certainty, and skill level.

Human-triggered avalanches, Hillman’s Highway & Gulf of Slides, 2018-3-10

On Saturday, March 10, 2018, two separate avalanche incidents were reported. During the previous 2 days, 14.5″ of snow was deposited at Hermit Lake from a nor’easter and the upslope snowfall that followed. This storm was accompanied by moderate winds that rose to the 60’s mph the afternoon before. Saturday’s advisory called for 4.5″ more snow with increasing wind shifting slightly to the NW. Avalanche danger was rated Considerable in Hillman’s Highway, along with Left Gully and the Headwall forecast zones.

Around mid-day, a party of three talked with a snow ranger on duty who advised that low visibility and continued wind loading made their plan to travel into Hillman’s Highway unwise. The party hiked to Hillman’s and entered the 75′ wide couloir onto a 15-20 degree section of the otherwise steeper runout. Soon after the party returned to the courtyard and reported that everything the snow ranger had cautioned against had played out. Two were struck by debris, knocked down, and carried downslope. Fortunately, much of the energy of the debris flow was absorbed by boulders and holes from a warm spell which reduced our snowpack substantially. When the threat of natural avalanches occurring is elevated, the risks are as well. The natural avalanche that occurred in Hillman’s Highway was much larger and would likely have been unsurvivable.

The same day a party of two skiers set a skin track near the middle gully in the Fingers area of Gulf of Slides, in sparse trees. As the terrain steepened, they began to boot along the left edge of the gully next to the trees. The snow was loose and dry with “no shearing and bonding felt okay”. The first skier had been to this area many times and stayed out of the gully as they made their way towards the rollover near the top. They had spread themselves out as they moved up the slope but paused as they reached the rollover because “something felt wrong”. In moments, the slab failed a “couple hundred feet above” the party and hit both skiers. The first skier was carried but, being on the edge of the gully, he escaped the main flow of debris while the other skier clung to a nearby bush. The skier that was carried turned his beacon to search and could not locate a signal of his partner, who was still above him. Shortly after the caught and carried skier texted for help on his cell phone, the pair made contact and eventually were able to call off the rescue response. The skier who held onto the bush lost his poles while the skier who was carried lost all his equipment though eventually recovered one ski.

Later conversations with the skiers in Gulf of Slides revealed a debate as to whether or not they triggered the slope. They considered it likely that they did not trigger the slope, but rather that it had avalanched naturally. From our perspective, the trigger is relatively unimportant in this instance. If the avalanche had not released while ascending, it is possible that they could have made it to the top and triggered the slope on the way down. In that case, much more of the slab could have been above them with more serious consequences likely. After some reflection, looking at weather data and reading the avalanche advisory, the triggering skier admitted that “overconfidence due to personal experience” in that particular area led him to ignore the obvious red flags that existed due to the snow and weather conditions that day. After the period of warm weather and ice crust which had dominated recent ski conditions, it seems likely that the scarcity heuristic was in play as well. The call of fresh powder is hard to ignore sometimes but it is important to remember that good luck can play a role in good outcomes like this one and luck is one thing no one can count on.

2018-02-25 Sliding fall in Hillman’s Highway

Icy conditions will always be a challenge despite the use of self-arrest poles. Once momentum is gained from a skiing fall or unchecked fall while climbing, it is doubtful that even a a well deployed ice axe would work on a knife hardness, icy and steep surface such as the conditions encountered in the report that we received. Here is the submission:

“sliding fall. after climbing 2/3 of the way up hillmans and not finding a ton of good snow we transitioned for our Icy decent. I was the the third and final member of my group to descend. There was a small ribbon of wind slab on the skis right side of the Slide, hand shears had shown positive results. My two partners side slipped the ice to a good point of safety. I tried the wind slab but after a few untrustworthy turns in it I bailed for the more predictable surface of ice. After coming to a stop I started skiing once more and on my second turn I went down. I have practice self arresting on snow with a whippet and skis on but not on ice. I tried twice to self arrest with no luck. I slid for about 200ft before managing to slow myself down in some soft snow that was piled on top of a rock. Unfortunately as i came to a stop my body turned and I fell of the side of the rock landing on my shoulder and dislocating it. My partners and I were able to get in to the pine tree area where we tired to reset the joint with no luck. We slung and secured my arm. I transitioned to crampons and self rescued with a fast stop at hojo to get an ice pack. I then boot packed pinkham then the hospital. A few things I noticed: even with practice my whippet was not an adequate self arresting device in the ice conditions and also my skis made it impossible to roll on to my stomach and execute a proper self arrest.”

Long Sliding Fall, February 24, 2018

At about 1:00 PM, a climber took a long sliding fall while ascending Right Gully in Tuckerman Ravine. The subject lost their footing on very hard, icy snow and was unable to self-arrest with an ice axe. The fall occurred near the top of Right Gully and the resulting high speed slide was halted below the gully by exposed bushes and rocks. The fall totaled approximately 300 vertical feet. The subject was able to walk away from the accident, traveling on foot with help of their climbing partner down to Hermit Lake. The primary injury was presumed to be bruised or fractured ribs from impact with the bushes and rocks that stopped the fall. U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers transported the subject via snowmobile from Hermit Lake to Pinkham Notch.

The subject and witnesses of this accident unanimously described the event as a close call, all surprised that the outcome was not more serious. The subject was indeed lucky to eventually slide into a generally bushy area as opposed to the many nearby rocks that would have likely resulted in greater injuries. Further, the subject was not wearing a helmet and was very fortunate to avoid hitting their head. The party had climbed Right Gully several times in past seasons and stated that they normally did wear helmets while travelling in steep alpine terrain. Further, they did have experience climbing steep snow and were otherwise properly equipped with mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes.

This accident highlights the risk of climbing on steep snow slopes when conditions are hard and icy, making self-arrest all but impossible. Such snow conditions can develop when steep slopes in Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines are snow covered. While firm conditions can inspire confidence for climbers travelling uphill with crampons, it can be incredible difficult to arrest a fall once sliding with any amount of speed. While strong self-arrest skills are crucial for travelers on steep snow slopes, it’s just as important to remember that you may not be able to self-arrest in hard snow. Close calls like this one should remind us to always consider the likelihood and consequences of a long sliding fall when travelling on steep snow. These incidents are common and can easily have more serious outcomes.

Sick Hiker, 5/11/17

A pair of hikers departed Pinkham Notch headed for the Mount Washington Summit at 9:00 AM. At 3:00 PM, USFS Snow Rangers were notified that the hikers had called 911 via their cell phone. One of the pair was reported to be vomiting and unable to hike, while the other had no reported issues. The pair accurately relayed their location, the Lion Head trail several hundred feet below its junction with the Tuckerman Ravine trail, at 5,600 feet in elevation. One Snow Ranger responded to the incident from the Summit, via auto road vehicle transport by Mount Washington State Park staff. One AMC Hermit Lake caretaker proceeded to the scene on foot from Hermit Lake. Both arrived at 5:00 PM, by which time the subject had ceased vomiting and presented fatigue as a chief complaint. Following the provision of food and water, the subject felt strong enough to proceed on foot to the Mountain Washington Summit for vehicle transport down the auto road.

Analysis: The party stated that they had received information on potential trails to the Mount Washington Summit from the AMC Pinkham Notch front desk staff. Through this information and their own judgment, they concluded that the Winter Lion Head route would be a reasonable ascent and descent option. The hikers did not have crampons, an ice axe, and mountaineering boots as we recommend for this route, but were able to ascend the steep mixed conditions of snow, ice, mud, and wet rock on the Winter Lion Head route. Given the timeline of their day, we can assume this was quite a challenging experience for the pair.

For the relatively warm conditions of the day, the party had sufficient clothing to keep warm. Their sneakers, cotton, and lack of an insulated puffy jacket would have greatly increased the potential consequences of the incident had the weather been more in keeping with the harsh conditions the mountain is famous for.

They brought relatively small amounts of food and water, though, and continued uphill until almost out of both. The subject of the incident appears to have been primarily a victim of the “bonk”, which is to simply deplete the body’s stored sugars faster than they are being replenished by eating. Further, the party left themselves with little food to fuel their descent. Inexperienced hikers are quite prone to this issue, overlooking the massive caloric demands of ascending and descending 4,000 feet on foot in challenging wintry conditions. The amount of food one eats in a relatively sedentary day can easily be half or less than the food needed when strenuously hiking for long durations. It’s important to remember that frequent food and water intake is equally crucial to maintaining physical strength though a full day. Think eating every hour rather than every few hours.

Maintaining the strength to move yourself through the mountains, and all the way back to the car, is absolutely crucial to avoiding incidents like this one. While the subject suffered no injuries, inclement weather combined with the not uncommon delay or lack of rescue response could have created a dire situation. While we’re always happy to help you to safety, never count on a rescue. Your body is the best means of transportation in remote environments, and proper fueling is crucial to maintaining this ability.

Stranded climbers, March 18, 2017

At around 11:30a.m., a pair of hikers set out from Pinkham Notch to summit via Huntington Ravine. At approximately 4:45p.m., snow ranger staff were contacted by AMC front desk staff that there were 2 hikers stranded near Central Gully in Huntington Ravine. Scouting in the Ravine revealed that the pair of climbers were actually located approximately 500′ below the top of the rim of Huntington between Damnation Buttress (5.6 WI3- M2-3; 700′) and Damnation Gully (WI3, 1,000′).  Two snow rangers climbed to the pair while one spotted from below. Two snow rangers and a Mount Washington Volunteer ski patroller approached the top via snow tractor on the Auto Road while 2 more ski patrollers served in dispatch and radio communications roles. The pair was reached at approximately 7pm by the climbing team and led to the top with assistance from the other two snow rangers from above. Rescuers and the pair reached the waiting Mount Washington Observatory snowcat at 10:02pm and returned to Pinkham Notch by midnight.

Analysis: The party reported that they had inquired at the AMC Front Desk about whether they could make it through Huntington Ravine to the summit without ropes and indicated that they were told that they could. The pair had limited climbing experience but managed to climb through 4th and low 5th class terrain unroped, with crampons and walking axes but without harnesses or other technical gear. Regardless of the source of the miscommunication with the front desk staff, it is important to thoroughly research an intended route, to re-evaluate plans based on time of day, climbing difficulty, along with prevailing weather conditions and experience level of the party. Fortunately, the pair were properly equipped with enough clothing, food and fluids. Though the summit temperature was around 10F that evening, relatively calm SE winds in 20 mph range made for a merely uncomfortable wait rather than a more serious outcome. It is interesting to note that a party of three found themselves stranded in the same position in similar conditions several years ago. It seems that the same line-of-least-resistance appears attractive to summit bound hikers confronted with the illusion that the Huntington Ravine trail or Central Gully are more difficult. While both of those routes are comparable in difficulty and have equally serious consequences in the event of a fall, the hardest climbing appears near the start of those two routes where a hiker could receive more immediate feedback on their route selection.