At around 1pm, three skiers were approximately 20′, 40′ and 90′ respectively away from the ridgeline on the climbers right of Hillmans Highway when a slab avalanche began just below the ridgeline. The avalanche swept the lower two skiers down Hillmans Highway approximately 800′. Witnesses reported VH was buried near the surface of the debris with the exception of his face. SK was buried face down with just his pack showing. Bystanders immediately dug both victims out by hand. SK suffered a head laceration and complained of sore ribs. He immediately self evacuated himself down the Sherburne ski trail where he was met by a USFS Snow Ranger. His head laceration was attended to by AMC and ambulance personnel. SK left Pinkham on his own power. VH was relatively uninjured and walked out of the area on his own power.
At approximately 2:30pm another avalanche occurred in Tuckerman Ravine, climbers left of the Center Headwall. This slide was skier triggered. The slab avalanche occurred below the rocks that form the steeps of the Headwall and ran approximately 600′. This area is a strong lee pocket and is very protected from the wind. Avalanche activity is common here every season. The skier rode the avalanche to the transition of the flats on the floor of the ravine. He was reported to be buried up to his waist and was able to dig himself out by the time his friend reached him. The two walked out of the ravine and reported the incident to the AMC caretaker.
The avalanche danger for this day was posted at Moderate, which means natural avalanches are unlikely and human triggered avalanches are possible. There were 11 people in Hillmans Highway and two in the ravine when the human triggered avalanches occurred. None of the folks had avalanche equipment with them, ie: transceivers, probes and shovels. In Hillmans Highway safe travel techniques in avalanche terrain were not being observed, ie: expose only one person at a time, never travel over or under another person, and always have an escape route in mind. Do not climb up the middle of gullies, go from one safe anchor to another as you work your way up the gully.
More people in this country get caught in avalanches under a Moderate rating than any other because of the human factor, “well, Moderate isn’t too bad” is a common thought. Remember the definition of Moderate – avalanches are possible. Also remember that Moderate is a range within the 5-scale spectrum and is not a “point” on a line. This means on some days it is close to Low and on others it is near Considerable, but still within the definition of “Moderate”. This is an important point to remember for all 5 ratings from Low to Extreme. Just because it is spring and the weather is beautiful, you cannot ignore the avalanche potential. Spring can be a dangerous time of the year when we get late-season snow. It is a busy time in the ravines, where even on a quiet day several dozen skiers/riders may be in the ravine. The identical snow stability mid-winter usually goes without incident, but during the spring over a thousand potential triggers (skiers, riders) are swarming avalanche terrain. Keep in mind that when someone heads up a slope it doesn’t mean it’s safe. It may just mean they don’t know what they are doing. You need to know the conditions and always think twice before following.
What may have saved the two that were buried in Hillmans Highway was the quick response from bystanders. You must be able to carry out a self-rescue in the event of a burial, as time is critical. If you must go for help, it is generally considered too late.
Personnel Used: USFS- 4 AMC – 3 Volunteer – 8
The rescue took 2 hours.