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NHPR at Hermit Lake

We had the privilege of spending the day with Sean Hurley from NHPR a couple weeks back. Here are the results of tour of the east side in in pictures and audio. Once again, Lily proves herself to be the most popular and interesting snow ranger while Sean demonstrates one of the most soothing and mellow voices on the radio today. ;-)

Got a Mount Washington or Presidential Range tale to tell. Contact Sean at NHPR.

Human Triggered Avalanches

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

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.

Avalanche Accident – January 17, 2016

The following news release was issued by the White Mountain National Forest Sunday evening, January 17th. A more comprehensive accident summary and lessons learned will be posted later.

Two Climbers Trigger Tuckerman Avalanche

Early on Sunday afternoon, January 17, 2016, two climbers from Canada triggered and were caught by an avalanche in “The Chute” located in Tuckerman Ravine.

Just before 1 pm, the climbers ascended the couloir on the left side of the Ravine. Four other skiers and an avalanche class were nearby at the time. The pair of climbers reached the narrow point of the slope after climbing several hundred vertical feet from the floor of the ravine on a steepening slope. They climbed over an old fracture line a foot to a foot and a half high and continued into softer snow. After ascending approximately 30 more feet through deeper snow, the climber in front felt that the slope may be unstable and decided to turn around. As they turned to descend, the slope fractured about 75-100’ above them and approximately 75-100’ wide. The two climbers were carried most of the distance to the Ravine floor.  Two of the three nearby skiers were also caught and carried varying distances by the debris as well, while another skier below was able to dodge the debris. (see correction below)

One of the two climbers, Michel Houde from Lorraine, Quebec, sustained non-life threatening injuries and was treated and released by Snow Ranger staff and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. One of the skiers, Kaj Huld from Brunswick Maine, also received non-life threatening injuries. Members of several nearby avalanche classes assisted in transporting the second climber by litter to Hermit Lake where he was transported by snowmobile to Gorham EMS waiting in Pinkham Notch.

The Mount Washington Observatory reported 5.5” of snow on the summit during the previous day, with around 4” falling at Hermit Lake. Summit winds blew between 40 mph and 60 mph overnight from the west. Plumes of wind transported snow were visible in the morning as Snow Rangers made snowpack assessments. The wind shifted to the NW and diminished to 20 mph when visitors began to enter Tuckerman.

Each year from December 1st through May 31st, the US Forest Service is the lead agency coordinating SAR missions on the eastern side of Mount Washington which includes Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines.  The White Mountain National Forest operates the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to provide safety information and SAR services to the public.   The Avalanche Center had posted a General Bulletin Saturday Morning, January 16th ,on www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org for the holiday weekend. A brief follow up analysis of the incident will be post on the website this week.

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Correction: the solo skier who is described as having “dodged the debris” was indeed hit and injured by the avalanche. In total, six people were in the path when it released. Only one was able to avoid being caught. Two of the five caught were injured. Broken down by group: of the two climbers who triggered the slide had one was injured; of the group of three, one escaped while the other two were caught, carried, and thankfully uninjured; there was also the aforementioned solo skier traversing his way low in the track toward Left Gully.

Human-triggered avalanche incidents

Synopsis: On Sunday, January 17, a wind slab avalanche cycle on the east side of Mount Washington occurred following a period of moderate snowfall and wind. Two human-triggered avalanches occurred, one of which was widely publicized on social media and in the news. A number of factors led to the incidents which are worth looking into in order to shed light on some of the issues around the events. As is the case with many accidents, it is easy to pick out poor decisions in hindsight. In reviewing incidents, it is also rarely productive assigning blame to individuals compared to what lesson can be drawn. This incident presents an opportunity to highlight what appear to be trends in travel practices and decision making on Mt. Washington.

Weather: The snowfall leading up to the avalanche cycle was a typical upslope snow event which often follows more robust synoptic systems passing through our region. As an air mass is forced up and over the windward side of the range, the cooling process turns lingering atmospheric moisture into snow. In the case of the Sunday, January 17 avalanche cycle, the synoptic storm system had deposited 8” on the mountain on the prior Tuesday and Wednesday. A period of unsettled weather followed with 2” falling Thursday and Friday accompanied by periods of high winds and prolonged low visibility. A natural avalanche cycle occurred sometime during this loading event with the areas beneath Center Bowl and Chute later showing debris piles. By the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, as a Nor’easter passed offshore to the east, snow began to fall again during a 4 hour period of light SE and SSE winds. This snowfall became the weak layer when the wind shifted to the west and increased to the 50 mph range. By Sunday morning, sky conditions were clearing with W wind speeds in the 50’s mph lifting snow plumes with the previous days 5.5” snow (.55” SWE) from the alpine elevations. These plumes were visible from the parking lot at Pinkham Notch in the early morning hours. By 10am cold temperatures and blowing snow had begun to give way to clear skies, sunshine, and light wind.

Avalanche activity: By late morning, skiers and climbers began to test the slopes in both Ravines.  Two skiers reported triggering a small slab (R1, D1) near Lunch Rocks beneath the Lip around 11am. One skier was carried about 20’ before arresting his slide. A little later, a guide entered South Gully in Huntington Ravine causing a slab to collapse and settle in place with no avalanche. At 12:50pm, an avalanche from the mid-section of Chute in Tuckerman Ravine caught and carried the two climbers who triggered the slide. Also caught were a solo skier crossing the runout on his way to Left Gully and two from a group of three skiers climbing up the track below the climbers. Of these five people caught and carried, two received minor injuries, with only one transported to a hospital. An avalanche course and a number of students were approximately 15’ from the moving debris on a 40 degree slope which had avalanched earlier in the avalanche cycle.

Chicken Rock Gully: SS-ASu-R1-D1, reported as 10-15cm deep, 15m wide, ran to elevation of the base of Lunch Rocks

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully.

A sub-feature in Tuckerman Ravine often referred to as Chicken Rock Gully. (image: MWAC, taken morning of Jan 17, 2016)

 

Chute: SS-AFu-R2-D1.5, estimated to be 10-50cm x 30m wide crown, 115m track of 400m path

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image from Facebook)

The scene shortly after the avalanche in Chute. (image: from Facebook)

 

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

A view into the Chute after the avalanche. Crown most likely wraps around out of view to the right. (image: nealpinestart.com)

Analysis: We have been seeing both positive trends in avalanche terrain travel choices and decision making as well as trends leaving room for improvement. Unfortunately, the trends needing improvement are all too common.

First, for the positives:

  • Everyone involved was geared up appropriately for winter conditions with the right warm clothing, boots, etc. Despite the reputation Mount Washington has for “the world’s worst weather,” the number of travelers who come unprepared for the cold and wind is astounding.
  • Some of the individuals involved were equipped and trained to apply first aid skills to the injured. Similar to the increasing trend in avalanche education we are seeing, there appears to be an increased interest in becoming more self-sufficient in the mountains. While at times Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines seem like frontcountry recreation areas with Snow Rangers and caretakers at both Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake, it is important to remember that these locales are indeed backcountry settings and help can often be a long way away.
  • Many of the individuals nearby, and one of the skiers who was in the path, were carrying avalanche rescue gear including beacons, probes, and shovels.
  • Several Level 1 avalanche classes were in progress in Tuckerman Ravine. More and more people each year are seeking out professionally-taught avalanche courses which is a very good thing.
  • At least some of the parties read the General Avalanche Bulletin issued on Saturday morning. This type of Bulletin is valid for up to three days, and was both in effect and posted Sunday morning. The Bulletin accurately described recent and upcoming snowfall and wind loading as well as the developed slopes which would become bed surfaces in this avalanche cycle.

Areas for improvement and lessons to take away:

  • Of the five people caught in the avalanche, none were wearing beacons or carrying avalanche rescue gear. Sadly, this is not that unusual in our terrain. The avalanche class was wearing beacons and carrying rescue gear, as was one skier who was able to get out of the path as well as the two skiers who triggered Chicken Rock Gully. Frequently, climbers leave behind avalanche rescue gear to save weight, leaving no quick course of action should burial occur. Hats off to all who recognize the value of carrying avalanche rescue gear to be searchable and have the committed discipline to carrying it. The gear may or may not save your life should you get caught, but it certainly won’t help you if it is in your closet. Situations change, plans change, and mistakes happen—always carry the gear.
  • Given the clustering of users near the Chute, it seems safe to assume that the Social Proof heuristic was at play. Following some discussion, the avalanche class chose to travel in steep terrain beneath a recently loaded slope. They were followed by the party of two climbers and the three skiers. Whether due to the easier travel following in someone else’s boot track, the erroneous assumption that a slope is safe because someone else already traveled on it, or the belief that other travelers know more than you, this behavior is all too common in Tuckerman Ravine. The two climbers then passed the avalanche class and ventured onto the unstable slope.  This bunching in avalanche terrain forces constant re-evaluation of hazard. Additional challenges exist when trying to rebalance risk on a continual basis based on actions of others outside your control.  This issue has been a factor in many avalanche accidents and fatalities locally, as well as around the world.  Mount Washington has very concentrated avalanche terrain and has a high amount of visitation.  We have seen on many occasions a group descend a route while others are unwittingly climbing up in the same avalanche path. This makes safe travel difficult when instabilities exist on a weekend on Mount Washington. Your party’s movements may be under tight control and stay within your chosen level of accepted risk, but only in the absence of other more unpredictable people.   Take the same scenario, with other people as an uncontrollable variable, and you may increase your risk rapidly.  This issue was demonstrated by this incident.  We often see a compounding effect of visitors concentrating together in unstable conditions when they should be considering staying clear of one another by using fracture limiting terrain features and avoiding runout paths.  This is certainly a major challenge for guided parties, courses and organized parties.  Managing objective mountain hazards like icefall, avalanches, crevasses, etc. is hard enough, but adding subjective hazards due to other parties may be untenable. Every leader must balance the group’s level of skill with their agreed upon risk tolerance on a constant basis
  • An associated concern to the above is the challenges of spreading out to reduce overall risk. While spreading out is a good, basic technique for traveling in or below avalanche terrain it may not be as effective as it is often assumed without a quality pre-plan to reduce risk. This pre-plan would review the actual benefits compared to truly going one at time, how you will communicate when spread out if new observations or decisions need to be made, and is this the best route.  A best route option should always be a constant question.  This can be a difficult decision because the safest route is often less convenient. Again, the effectiveness of spreading out as a team of 2 climbers, 3 skiers, or a large avalanche class are complicated when they are all interacting in the same terrain exposed to the hazards.
  • The two climbers overlooked a red flag when they climbed over a recently reloaded crown line and onto a slope that rises from 40 to 45 degrees or more. Moreover, all parties involved in the Chute incident crossed beneath this slope within 4 hours of a period of active loading. While everyone chooses their own level of acceptable risk, it is unclear whether all parties involved sought out the information needed to make an informed decision by reading the posted General Avalanche Bulletin or seeking the right weather data. Hourly precipitation and weather data can be found here and is included among the list of other useful weather related websites on our site. These sites can be incredibly useful tools in the planning stages of your trip or even in the field when cell access is available (don’t forget a pocket charger or spare battery).

Lastly, a short discussion of MWAC’s published products, and any avalanche advisory for that matter, is worthwhile. It is a valuable topic to expand upon specifically. See “Avalanche Products” in our website Blog, ‘The Pit’ this weekend for a more in depth discussion.

  • A General Avalanche Bulletin, which was published the day before these avalanche incidents, is used to convey hazards that are most typically a problem during the early and late season. This document is a one page narrative describing the hazards, but does not assign a danger rating. It is a broad discussion to highlight that instabilities and avalanche potential may currently exist, although not across the entire forecasting area in each Ravine.
  • It is a common occurrence across the United States to see active visitor use in avalanche terrain and have avalanche accidents before a 5-Scale Avalanche Danger Rating Advisory is utilized. These occur under either Informational Bulletins or no products. These isolated instabilities are acceptable and tolerated without postings due to the limited nature of the issues.  Incidents, although unfortunate, are a national actuality based on statistical probabilities and ever increasing backcountry use numbers. This fact clearly focuses to the importance of possessing avalanche knowledge and field skills.  This is an important reality to note when entering any avalanche terrain whether in the Eastern or Western United States.
  • Gaining and maintaining good avalanche assessment skills, training and experience is critical. If you don’t have this knowledge we would highly encourage you to get it through controlled learning environments versus relying solely on posted advisories.  As stated in our Bulletins and Advisories, it is merely one tool to make field decisions. This is not a disclaimer; it addresses the complexity and nature of avalanches and the inevitable spatial variability we often see.  If the Advisory states one thing and our dynamic weather creates another reality with increasing hazard, certainly go with your observations and neck hackles and not the advisory.  Your future well-being makes it essential that avalanche skills match your desire for playing in the mountains.  It will also help you draw as much as possible from the Advisory tool because we’ll be speaking the same language.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact us at mwactucks@gmail.com  We’ll do our best to respond in a timely manner.

Avalanche Accident in Tuckerman Ravine

Two hikers descending from the summit triggered an avalanche that carried them down the Lip of Tuckerman Ravine.  In this incident, a group of four hikers started up from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Along the ascent, the group separated into two teams of two. Descending in poor visibility and fading daylight, the faster team lost the trail and inadvertently began descending the Lip. This forecast area had been rated Considerable avalanche danger due to expected wind loading late in the day. The slower team, realizing the other party had gone off trail, followed their tracks to the crown line of the avalanche. From there they were able to verbally communicate with their friends and learn the extent of the injuries. They decided it would be safer to descend the Lion Head Summer Trail to summon assistance.

As an avalanche forecasting center, we were not surprised that the party triggered an avalanche in the location they did. Considerable danger includes “human triggered avalanches are likely” in its definition. Weather conditions in the days prior to the accident created conditions ripe for avalanche activity. About a week before the accident, Mt. Washington was subjected to a warm rain event. This created slick crusty snow surface conditions for future snow and wind-loading land on and create new stability problems. In the 48 hours prior to the event, about 10.5” of new snow had fallen, with 1-3” having been forecasted for the 28th. During this time, west and northwest winds also increased in speed from 30-40mph to 60-80mph. This created a situation with increasingly dense slab building on top of weaker layers, all of which sat on the pre-existing crust.  This is a typical scenario for Mt. Washington; one in which we regularly see human triggered or naturally triggered avalanches.

The hikers rode the avalanche to the base of the Open Book, adjacent to Lunch Rocks. Along the way they sustained non-lifethreatening injuries. In the debris, they ended up only partially buried or on top of the snow, one was at the toe of the debris and the other at the top of the debris. They reported taking about a half hour to collect themselves and figure out what happened. They also did not understand where exactly they were, or that the Tuckerman Ravine Trail could be followed downhill from their location. They knew they had fallen a long way below the trail they intended to descend, so they began to climb back up, which is when they began communicating with their friends above.

The uninjured hikers arrived at the AMC Caretaker’s quarters to tell her of the accident. She quickly notified USFS Snow Rangers, who began mobilizing rescue teams. Rescuers included USFS Snow Rangers, members of Mountain Rescue Service and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, caretakers from the AMC and HMC cabin, and a handful of helpful bystanders who were staying overnight at the Harvard Cabin. The rescue itself was not particularly noteworthy. A rescue team climbed to the injured hikers, assessed and treated their injuries, and short-roped them down to the floor of Tuckerman. From there the hikers walked down under their own power to Hermit Lake to a waiting snow tractor. They were then transferred to an ambulance at the bottom of the Sherburne Ski Trail.

Analysis:

This is an accident that could have been avoided if just a couple small factors played out differently. Most obviously, if the group had stayed together and stayed on the Lion Head Trail, they would never have entered avalanche terrain.  The two more experienced hikers had been planning to do an overnight at Hermit Lake, while the two with less experience were only doing a day trip. Hence, the two with lightweight daypacks were able to move more quickly than the heavily-laden duo. This was the primary reason for one group going faster than the other, as we understand. The plan had been for the hikers to all regroup at the summit, but the faster group went down ahead. Often in incidents involving missing or overdue hikers, splitting the group is a contributing factor. Many times there is no contingency plan made, or if there is one it is not followed. In this event we don’t know exactly what their meeting plan was. However, if they had either kept the group together for the duration, or stuck with the plan to regroup,  the chances for staying on the trail and avoiding the incident would have been better.

Avalanche fatality in Pinnacle Gully

A solo ice climber died as a result of injuries sustained in an avalanche in Pinnacle Gully. On Friday, March 1, the climber left the HMC cabin near the base of Huntington Ravine intending to climb multiple gullies. Based on earlier conversations and tracking his foot prints in new snow, we believe he had climbed the ice pitches in Odell Gully, then descended a snow ramp into the bottom of South Gully before heading up into Pinnacle. While climbing what would be the 2nd pitch for a roped party, approximately 2/3 of the way up the route, the climber triggered a slab avalanche which carried him downslope. He was found by a hiker half way down the Fan, (the talus slope in the lower portion of the ravine) at approximately 3pm. The hiker, who is a physician, called 911 to report the accident. He reported that the victim had no vital signs and was deceased. USFS Snow Rangers responded from Hermit Lake to the scene. They located the victim, confirmed his status, and prepared him for transport to Pinkham Notch.

These details that follow are conclusions based on our investigation and information supplied by parties that climbed the route the following day. The avalanche released in the upper portion of the second pitch of the ice climb, just below a narrowing formed by exposed rock in the gully. The crown line was located about 20-30 feet uphill of where we believe the climber was when the avalanche released. It was 2’ deep, 20’ wide, and slid on a bed surface of water ice.  Avalanche danger on the day of the incident was rated Moderate.

Crown line is visible in this photo just below the rock constriction

Avalanche in Central Gully

On Thursday, January 17, 2013 a party with a total group size of 12 was ascending Central Gully in Huntington Ravine when one rope team triggered a soft slab avalanche from the top of the route. The avalanche swept over the three other rope teams, carrying one team of three to the bottom of the gully. This team was not buried, but sustained injuries. The remaining three teams were able to rappel the route.

Weather Summary:

The weekend prior to the incident was incredibly warm. Mt. Washington set an all-time record high temperature for the month of January during this time, at 48 degrees Fahrenheit. On Monday, temperatures across the mountain began to fall back below freezing and by Tuesday morning, all snow surfaces in Huntington had frozen into a very firm crust. On Wednesday, snow began to fall with strong W and NW winds. The Mt. Washington Observatory reported 2.3” of light density snow from this weather system. On Thursday morning, the Observatory forecasted a trace to 2″ of new snow with isolated higher amounts possible, and W and WNW winds increasing from 60mph to 80+mph with higher gusts. Thursday’s wind and snow played out as forecasted. Most of the snow fell between 7am and 1pm; total snow accumulations of 3.6”  exceeded the forecasted amount.

Snowpack Summary:

The melt freeze crust that developed Monday and Tuesday created a slick bed surface for future avalanche activity. This was noted in avalanche advisories Wednesday and Thursday. On top of this icy layer, new soft slabs began to form on Wednesday while winds were blowing 30-40mph. As additional snow fell Thursday with increasing wind speeds, slightly denser slabs were deposited above the weaker slab and the crust. The climber who likely triggered the avalanche stated that, at the time of the avalanche, he was climbing through soft snow about thigh-deep or waist-deep. However, other reports were that the slab that released was only 8” deep and between 25-35ft across. We believe that failure occurred in a weak layer interface somewhere within the new snow, rather than at the crust.

Avalanche Summary:

The avalanche was a soft slab, artificially triggered by foot penetration, which in the professional avalanche lexicon means that it was triggered by a person climbing or hiking, not by a person traveling on skis, snowboard, etc. The slide is further classified as D1.5, R2 . This is a measure of the destructive force of the avalanche and the size of the avalanche relative to the specific avalanche path’s potential. Compared to the size of avalanches Central Gully can produce, this was on the smaller side. The debris was examined by a Snow Ranger, who estimated its size as 5-7 meters wide, 60 meters long, and 30-60cm deep.

Events Leading to the Incident:

An organized group of twelve climbers planned a promotional climb to draw awareness to their organization’s mission. They had been training for the climb in the days preceding the event, which included ice climbing in Crawford Notch. The group was organized with a variety of experience and skills, from novice to experienced mountaineers. In addition, a film crew was included in the group.

The group of twelve arrived at the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin on Wednesday afternoon and spent the night in the cabin. Thursday morning, after receiving the weather forecast from the Mt. Washington Observatory they had decided they would climb Central Gully. Before departing, a USFS Snow Ranger arrived and talked with the group about weather and avalanche conditions. Despite this discussion and warnings about increasing avalanche danger through the day and that Moderate avalanche danger means that “human triggered avalanches are possible,” the group decided to stick with their plan. They departed from the cabin at 8:30am.

Approximate location of climbers at time of avalanche

Four hours after leaving the cabin, they arrived at the start of the climb. The group split into four rope teams of three people each. They ascended to the ice bulge in the gully, then one by one they climbed the bulge on belay. Above the ice bulge, the teams began simul-climbing. They reported that they had been skirting the newly deposited snow and trying to stay on the older crust. Just prior to the avalanche, the lead team allowed the second team to pass them, so that they could get better set up for filming. At the time of the avalanche, there was one team nearing the top of the gully, another was slightly below them and positioned in the center of the gully. The other two teams were lower, hugging the climbers left side of the rock wall. During the time the teams were in avalanche terrain, snow continued to load into many areas, including the top of Central Gully.

The Avalanche:

The details we received about who was where and what happened when the avalanche hit don’t give us a 100% clear view. The picture indicates our best estimates of where the rope teams were located at the time of the avalanche. It was approximately 4:30pm when the avalanche was triggered. The party at the top was not caught or carried, though they may have slid a short distance. The second-highest team was caught and carried over the ice bulge to the base of the gully. They came to rest in the debris, which terminated at roughly the elevation of the base of Pinnacle Gully. A third team, located to the side and away from the path of the greatest debris flow had started to be carried, but was able to avoid being carried downslope by the bottom climber arresting the fall with his ice axes. The fourth team was carried downslope, but they stopped moving when their rope was caught on an exposed rock.

After the accident happened, the three teams remaining on the route took a quick inventory of who was present. It quickly became apparent that one rope team, including the lead guide, had been swept down off the route below all the others. At this time, the remaining members of the group reorganized and began to descend on rappel. At all times, all members of the descending party were either clipped into a rock or ice anchor or were actively on rappel. They stated they were unable to make contact with the three people who were carried down with the avalanche, either by voice, visual, or their family-band radios. They attempted to call for help via cell phone, but were unable to do so because their batteries had died. They also had a satellite phone, but were unable to sufficiently connect with satellites.

The team that was caught and carried down to the base sustained some injuries. Of the three, two had lower leg injuries and the third initially complained of pain in his shoulder. They were carrying a radio that operates on the same frequency as the Mt. Washington Observatory, Appalachian Mountain Club, and HMC cabin. With this radio, the lead guide was able to contact Rich, the caretaker at the HMC cabin. While Rich worked with the AMC Hermit Lake caretaker to notify USFS Snow Rangers, the injured climbers began sliding along the snow, working their way down the fan to toward the base of Huntington Ravine.

The Rescue:

USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the incident at approximately 5:22. In addition to the USFS, AMC, and HMC, the volunteer Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) was called for assistance. They responded with 18 skilled mountaineers for a total rescue team of 25 people. The first two Rangers arrived at Pinkham Notch at 6:00pm. One immediately left on snowmobile for the ravine while the other stayed behind to organize other rescuers who began arriving shortly afterward.

The first Snow Ranger and HMC caretaker parked the snowmobile near the first aid cache at the base of Huntington. At 6:20pm, approximately 200 yards uphill from the cache, they encountered the injured climbers slowly working their way down the trail. They briefly questioned the group about what had happened and if they had any information about the rest of the team. Knowing there were more rescuers who would be arriving soon, they did not want first aid at this time. At the request of the lead guide, the hasty team continued up into Huntington where they could see headlamps slowly descending the gully. They climbed up the fan, careful to avoid the avalanche runout path from Odell, Pinnacle, or Central Gully, until they were able to make contact with the remaining climbers and determined that they were doing OK. The group continued to rappel out of technical terrain.

The second Snow Ranger on scene and one member from MRS arrived and began treating the team’s injuries. The two most seriously injured climbers were treated and packaged into rescue litters. As they did this, more MRS members arrived and began to transport them to the Harvard Cabin where the USFS snow tractor was waiting to transport them to ambulances while the third waited for rescuers to return and transport him in a litter. This group arrived at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at about 9:15pm. Meanwhile, the remaining MRS members and the hasty team assisted the group of 9 uninjured climbers’ rappel to the talus and then down from the top of the fan to the Harvard Cabin. Of this group, one sustained minor frostbite injuries to his toes. The entire group was transported from the Harvard Cabin 2 miles to Pinkham on the snow tractor, arriving at the base approximately 11:30pm.

Analysis:

The information and timeline described above are the facts as best as we have been able to gather them. The facts presented are as accurate and objective as possible. The discussion that follows below is our analysis and interpretation of the situation. It is a subjective analysis of what took place the day of the incident and represents the collective professional knowledge and experience of our team.

With the value of 20/20 hindsight, any accident can be picked apart by someone looking to place blame or find mistakes that may have been made. This is not our intent here. The purpose is to try to determine what lessons can be learned from the decisions that led to the accident so others can learn from these experiences and avoid making similar choices.

Every accident in the mountains is unique, so understanding the context surrounding decisions and actions is an important component. Doing this helps us understand the “decision crossroads” that led to this incident and other similar historical mountain mishaps. Whether as Snow Rangers or as recreational climbers, we have each faced decisions points where we need to assess the interaction between a wide variety of factors and choose a course of action. Things such as turnaround times, changing weather, changing avalanche hazard, group decision making dynamics, evaluation of the group’s skill and experience, etc. all provide context from which we can reflect and learn.

In this incident, there were many factors involved that added risk to the overall situation. When considered individually, each one may not seem like a catastrophic error or miscalculation. However, we believe the accumulation of these overlapping factors led this group to being in a dangerous situation, and moreover, to continue moving forward with their plan when other groups may have chosen another course of action. We believe this incident was not a freak natural event completely outside of the control of the party. Avalanches are a common natural phenomenon in Huntington Ravine and this event became an incident because the group made decisions and took actions that placed them in a precarious position.

Motivation and Commitment:

A frequent contributor to avalanche incidents worldwide is the motivation and commitment level of a group. Once a group invests themselves into an objective, it becomes more difficult for the group to retreat from the objective or alter their plan. This is a heuristic trap that is commonly taught in basic avalanche classes. No person, from the novice to the avalanche professional, is immune from it entirely. The trick is to know how to recognize its influence on one’s decision making and try hard to minimize the effect.

This group was heavily invested in success in many ways. They were organized as a charity for a very worthwhile cause. The team members had all donated significant amounts of time. The climb was being filmed by a professional filmmaker for a documentary. There was a strong media campaign to draw attention to the climb…these all increase the level of commitment beyond what might be normal for a purely recreational climb. An increased acceptance of risk comes often comes with an increased level of commitment. There is no way for us to know how much of a role this factor played in the incident, if it played a role at all. It is our assumption that for at least some members of the team this was a contributing factor to their acceptance of the risks they faced.

They also had pre-arranged to spend the night at the Mt. Washington Observatory. Whereas for most climbers the summit is the halfway point for their entire climb, in this situation the group had extra incentive to push through to their final destination. When groups are planning to return to their starting point, they will often set a turnaround time. Regardless of where they are when the time comes, they will stop climbing and head back down. Establishing protocols such as these are a time-tested method for helping keep climbers out of trouble and mitigating risk. Staying flexible and watching for reason to turn around earlier, as an example, is an excellent decision, but sticking to predetermined protocols is essential. On a one-way trip, deciding to turn around and descend is a very difficult decision to make.

Avalanche hazard:

A fundamental challenge for avalanche forecasters is to convey the meaning of each different rating level. Understanding the rating scale is a critical first step in understanding how much risk you are accepting. Often people think that Moderate conditions equate to a risk level that they are comfortable with since moderate ranks second on a scale that goes from one to five. It’s easy enough to understand the degree of risk from Extreme or High avalanche danger. The risk of traveling in the lesser-rated terrain drops from there. Read the definitions carefully and you’ll see that even a Low rating indicates some risk of encountering pockets of unstable snow. A “moderate” rating means that “human triggered avalanches are possible.” Not only should people think about the probability of an avalanche, but the consequences of such an event must not be ignored. In Huntington, particularly in lean snow cover, avalanches run out into boulder fields. Within the United States, New Hampshire has the highest percentage of avalanche fatalities due to trauma as opposed to asphyxiation due to being buried.

In this incident, the group made the decision to climb Central Gully after receiving the weather report at the Harvard Cabin. When a Snow Ranger arrived at the Harvard Cabin shortly thereafter, the group had already decided they would climb Central. The Snow Ranger attempted to discuss snow stability with a gathering of several group members, but the group deferred judgment to the group leaders who were inside the cabin at the time. He then went inside and discussed the rating, the incoming snow, and the increasing danger with the leaders, who confirmed that they would move forward with their plan to climb Central. Later, when one of the injured climbers recognized the Snow Ranger rendering first aid as the one who had spoken with the group in the morning, he stated that this was the Snow Ranger “that thought we were idiots for climbing Central” that day. Of course these aren’t the words that were used, but the statement demonstrates that at least one member of the group understood the risks described by the Snow Ranger.

The avalanche hazard was known to be on the rise during the day. This was described in the morning avalanche advisory and as snow was forecasted to fall heavily at times. By early afternoon, hours before the avalanche occurred, snow accumulations had exceeded the weather forecasted totals by 1.6”. This snowfall event brought 0.4” of snow-water equivalent (SWE) to the summit, 90% of which was recorded between 6am and 12pm. In afternoon hours, snow continued to fall at a much lighter rate, but snow was being actively transported into Central Gully due to high winds and forming soft slabs. These slabs were recognized by the group leader, as he stated he had been trying to avoid them all afternoon. This evidence indicates increasing avalanche hazard, and is commonly considered to be “bulls-eye data” or a “red flag.”

Regardless of the forecasted rating, it is very important to be capable of assessing snow stability during a climb. In this case, the lead guide had been doing this. He stated he had been “skirting a slab all afternoon.” Indeed, avoiding areas of unstable snow and staying on hard old surfaces is a recommended way to avoid triggering an avalanche. However, it was not the lead guide’s rope team that triggered the avalanche. Another team had moved out above this team to get better set up for filming. This group had an experienced climber in the lead for most of the climb, but just before the final pitch they “swung leads,” so that the person who had been at the bottom of the rope was now leading. This person initially stated that the snow he was climbing through was thigh or waist-deep. The depth and softness of the snow would be another “red flag,” which should trigger another decision point where the climbing team can reassess the plan to move forward. Even at this point near the top of the gully, descending was still a viable option, albeit a challenging one.

We believe that the overall confidence in the leader’s ability and experience may have led to some group members withholding from the entire group avalanche concerns they may have had. This confidence was stated by one group member as a reason for not carrying avalanche rescue gear (i.e. beacons, shovels, and probes). While we don’t condone the practice, it is not uncommon for climbers in Huntington to travel without avalanche rescue gear. We understand that there are times when the risk of being buried in an avalanche in Huntington is much less than the risk of being severely injured or killed by the fall itself. However, leaving this equipment behind significantly reduces your safety margin should an avalanche occur. This life-saving equipment should be seen as an important part of an overall safety system. It’s the final defense, to be used only when objective hazards are not avoided through decision-making. Without it, the chances of rescuing a buried victim in time are reduced to unreasonable odds. We recommend carrying avalanche rescue gear when traveling in avalanche terrain, because we believe it is the right thing to do.

With the benefit of hindsight, we do not think climbing Central Gully would have been a poor choice for every group on this day. Given the weather conditions and increasing avalanche hazard, an early-rising, fast-moving team of climbers comfortable with the terrain could have climbed through the gully before instabilities developed very far. If snow stability during the climb had deteriorated too much, they could have downclimbed, rappelled, or traversed out of the gully into the rocks on the right before they developed to the point where they might naturally release. This group’s pace certainly contributed to the accident, as they arrived in avalanche terrain four hours after leaving the Harvard Cabin. It was during these hours that most of the snow had fallen, and the group continued to climb into worsening avalanche conditions.

Group Size:

Twelve people on a climb such as Central is not completely unreasonable, but it does create some challenges and risks. Managing avalanche hazard, choosing appropriate technical climbing techniques and the pace of travel are all affected by the large group size.

One of the fundamental concepts of traveling with others in avalanche terrain is to minimize the exposure to avalanche hazard at any time. For skiers, this most often equates to skiing a slope one person at a time. For climbers in Huntington, the one-at-time maxim is very difficult since the gullies are fairly narrow slide paths without many “safe zones” between which a group can move. In such cases we often advise roped parties moving through potentially unstable snow to protect their route with rock and ice gear. With the exception of descent this is one of the only ways for climbers to mitigate avalanche risk when ascending narrow steep slopes. Three distinct ways the group size added to their exposure to the hazard are 1) the sheer number of people on the same slope at the same time, 2) it slows the pace and therefore lengthens the duration of exposure, which is particularly a problem during increasing instability, and 3) more people on a slope increases the likelihood that someone will climb over a weak point and trigger a slide.

The pace of climbing is also related to group size. Generally, larger groups move more slowly than smaller groups. Other factors can slow a group down. With this group, one climber was using a prosthetic device that had a smaller footprint than a standard boot. This slowed the climbing greatly, as he would break through the crust where others would not. There is no doubt about this climber’s physical fitness and endurance, it is simply more difficult for anyone to move fast when he or she is breaking through an established boot pack. The temperatures on Thursday dropped down to around 0F during the afternoon in the ravine and -10F on the summit. In temperatures such as these, speed and efficiency are important safety measures.

Related to the pace is the choice of how to travel as a group in steep terrain. There are many techniques available to climbing teams and no one way is right for every situation. In this situation, the group was divided into four separate teams, each tied together with 60 meter ropes with one climber tied to the middle. At times earlier in the climb, the teams had used protection and anchors to belay climbers over the ice bulge. Sometime after this, most teams had begun climbing without the benefit of snow, ice, or rock protection. They were belaying at times, using “snow thrones” backed up with ice axes planted in the snow as their anchors, but otherwise there was no protection between anchors. This technique exposes climbing teams to a significant amount of risk. If one climber falls, the other two climbers must arrest the fall to prevent the entire team from falling. In steeper terrain and on icy surfaces, arresting falls becomes increasingly difficult. If one team falls together or is caught in an avalanche, there is a chance that their rope will catch other climbing teams and cause them to fall as well. Here, the topmost rope team triggered the avalanche but fortunately did not get carried downslope. The team that was caught and fell +/-800ft was located farther out into the center of the gully than the others. The other two teams did get carried at least a short distance. One team was able to arrest their fall, but the fourth did indeed fall until their rope became hung up on an exposed rock just above the ice bulge. It could be argued that they would have fallen all the way if they weren’t tied to a rope, but the rock essentially served the same function as ice, snow, or rock protection would have in this instance. We believe using protection is a safer option when using roped techniques in this terrain. Of all the options available, the chosen method for this climb on this day would be among the least desirable techniques.

Lastly, related to the group’s pace, is the method of descent. Once the avalanche passed, the group was able to account for those still on the slope and knew that one team of three had been swept downslope. The team reorganized and made the decision to descend the route which we believe was the correct thing to do. However, when dealing with an avalanche accident you are in a race against time because statistics show you have 15-30 minutes before most incidents move from rescue to recovery in the case of full burial. The speed of the companion rescue is a key factor in preventing fatalities. Although no one was fully buried in this incident, the remaining teams in the gully were unaware of the fate of the others until rescuers arrived. With 9 people in the group, descending on rappel one at a time is a very slow process, though it is also a very safe method. Had the fallen team been buried, received more serious injuries, or not been intercepted by rescue teams, the delay in treatment would have been life-threatening. Because the terrain in Central is not overly technical it is commonly used as a descent route for parties who have climbed another route. In a group of 9 skilled and experienced climbers, it would be reasonable for some in the party to downclimb more quickly to initiate a rescue, while the others continue to rappel.

In conclusion, this is clearly a complex situation where a lot decisions needed to be made as the day unfolded. We believe that this was an avoidable accident that fortunately resulted in very minor injuries considering the magnitude of the incident. We have the benefit of hindsight and were not involved in the group’s decision making process, so it’s impossible to know all the factors and how they were considered. Again, the intent of this analysis is not to place blame, but to allow others to learn from the experiences of their fellow climbers. We wish group members the best in their admirable cause and in their future mountaineering endeavors. We look forward to seeing them again in the hills pursuing climbs with new lessons learned under their belt.

2 Climbers Avalanched in Pinnacle Gully

Two climbers approaching Pinnacle Gully reported that they were swept down 70 to 100 meters from the start of the first ice pitch in Pinnacle Gully. In waist to chest deep snow the lead individual triggered the avalanche as he approached the ice from the north. The fracture occurred above the climber and was approximately 5 meters below the transition to steep ice. Neither climber was buried in the incident and no injuries were sustained.

Huntington Ravine – Central Gully

A party of two was climbing Central Gully when the leader was hit with a naturally-triggered sluff avalanche. During the fall, one of the climbers fractured his ankle. Much of the information below was gathered from a narrative provided by a guide who was in the area as well as from conversations with the injured party.

Just prior to the incident, the guided group climbed up to top of the ice bulge in Central. The guide decided not to continue up the gully due to excessive spindrift, blowing snow, and generally harsh conditions above treeline. He had a 3-ice screw anchor built for his group in the ice. When the party of two arrived, he allowed them to clip the anchor while they climbed the ice. However, after the group cleared the ice they were climbing unprotected with a short rope between them.

At this point the guide was at the top belay, out of the fall line, while his clients were down at an ice screw anchor below the ice and also out of the fall line. About 15 meters above the ice, the party of two was hit with a loose snow (sluff) avalanche which carried them both downslope. According to the leader, the force felt as though he received a stiff push or kick in the chest. The guide heard “Avalanche!” but did not see the falling climbers pass by. He descended down to his clients to get them situated. He assumed that the slide had happened below him and that the party of two was still up in the gully. About 10 minutes later he heard a call for help. The party had fallen about 100m, coming to rest about 30m below the fracture line from two days earlier. It was the second climber who sustained the ankle injury. The lead climber was uninjured but did break his climbing helmet in the fall. It wasn’t until he descended to the injured party that he learned it was the climbers above who had been avalanched past.

With help from his clients and the partner of injured climber, the guide was able to lower the patient down toward the bottom of the fan. At this point two clients went to the rescue cache to bring up a litter. The guide had been able to wrap the patient in a bivy bag and help keep him warm with a water bottle of hot tea placed between his legs. The patient was then placed in the litter and they worked their way down to the Harvard Cabin. From the time of the accident (2pm) to the time they arrived at the cabin (6pm) was about 4 hours. Their efforts are very much appreciated, since the trail from the bottom of the fan to the Cabin is very difficult for a litter carry in these lean snow conditions.

USFS Snow Rangers met the group at the Harvard Cabin, reassessed and re-splinted the injured leg. From arrival at the cabin to the parking lot at Pinkham was about 2 more hours. The litter was sledded down the Sherburne Ski Trail by USFS Snow Rangers, MRS and students from SOLO who were at Pinkham for a Wilderness First Responder course.

We received word afterwards that the patient did indeed break his ankle, which will require surgical repair. This day (January 5) was the first 5-scale avalanche advisory for Huntington Ravine this season. The advisory for the day indicated Huntington Ravine starting the day at Low danger, but moving into the Moderate rating as a forecasted 1-3” loaded in on W and NW winds. The summit did record 2.4” of new snow on January 5 with winds averaging 56mph.

Huntington Ravine – Central Gully

Two skiers triggered a R2D1.5 avalanche in Central gully at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon. The previous night 2.9 inches of new snow fell on the summit with strong winds. During the morning and through the day this snow was transported into the deposition area below the Central ice bulge. Both Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines were under a General Advisory identifying snow stability concerns in isolated snowfields in each of the ravines.

In the words of skier #2: ” The sky was mostly clear with a lot of blowing snow, which should have been our first sign of newly loaded snow in the gullies. We moved our way up the hiking trail through the fan of the ravine carrying our skis on our packs. Halfway up the fan we broke left onto the snow fields in front of Pinnacle buttress and gully. Here we turned on our beacons and did a beacon check to make sure our transceivers were working in transmit and search mode: they were and we read in each others distance from one another approximately the same. With the high winds, cold and strong gusts, we decided to dig multiple quick/hasty pits as we ascended the snow. We found a lot of spatial variability up the slope. Scoured old icy surface, very dense heavy 2″ slab, 8-12″ lighter slabs, some of these slabs were right on old surface and some were sitting on top of what seemed to be consolidated snow. The cold temps and the winds were not friendly to digging more comprehensive pits, something we should have used as a sign that it was “not a nice day to go skiing” but we pushed on to the Central buttress where we found a large patch of recently (and still being) deposited snow. At the base of the ice route known as Cloud Walkers we began inspecting this new and different snow and kept digging around and feeling for layers in the snow as we climbed. There seemed to be no inconsistencies in this wind slab. Punching ski poles and our arms up to our shoulder we found the same type of snow as deep as we could determine with the assessment/observation technique we were utilizing. Climbing through this area of snow, postholing up to our waists at times, we made our way to the base of the ice slab in Central gully and tucked ourselves away into the corner of the rock climb known as Mechanics Route, which ended being a very good idea in retrospect. ”

The first skier started out and after one or two turns triggered a slab avalanche that carried the skier approximately 500 feet down into the fan, over snow, and fortunately not into the talus. The seconds skier standing along the buttress (skiers right) was not caught in the release and was able to move down the slope to help.

Skier#2: “I hurried down to a flatter spot where I left my skies and poles, pulled out my beacon and turned it on to search mode pointing it in the direction my partner had been swept toward. Taking a moment to make sure the beacon was indeed in search mode I found no signal, he was still too far away down hill. I began moving down through the rock fields, more or less on the hiking trail, adjacent to where the slide had flowed past. Visibility was difficult at a distance but I could see the debris from the slide. Most of it had been broken into small chunks of snow and some were still basketball size. I quickly moved downhill in a straight line scanning left and right to try to pick up his signal. Looking back and forth from my beacon to the direction I was heading, I soon saw a figure about five hundred feet below me moving from where I saw the slide go toward to where I was heading in the rock fields. It seemed to be my partner carrying his skis to a safer place away from the slide area.”

Snow Ranger doing a quick check on crown height.

Discussion:

In our experience looking at avalanche accidents and close calls on Mount Washington over the years, constant themes, mistakes, and oversights arise.  Many of them are related to human psychological factors, the mental drivers that whisper over our shoulder “..everything is fine, good ahead you’ll have fun, you’ve done this before…”,  while others miss the bulls-eye data that Mother Nature is offering and not having as much avalanche knowledge as we all should.  These are traps any of us can fall into, which highlights how important it is to approach avalanche terrain with skepticism and keep asking the critical questions.

In this particular case a number of things were done well and some factors were overlooked.  Good partner accountability and the ability to be support for our fellow partner is always important.  Sound rescue skills and a level head to execute under duress is what all of us want in our mountain team.  Beacon checks, going one at a time, good rescue execution are excellent practices and are commended in this case.  Having a good plan in case of an incident is critical, but focusing on and planning for rescue should not take a front seat to all the actions we should consider in order to not get caught.  It’s all about not getting caught, not avalanche rescue. New Hampshire leads the nation in the percentage of avalanche deaths resulting in trauma.  Based on our terrain and low snowfall an avalanche can often send you through the trees and rocks.  This results in a higher probability that you’ll be deceased when the snow stops more than any other state.  The avalanche beacon is of little value in this scenario.  So, avalanche rescue skills and gear are always extremely critical, but never more important than knowing how not to get caught.

In hindsight our vision is 20/20 as we ask ourselves “how could we have overlooked these clues?”  This is especially true with the objective facts we would expect to ask ourselves.  How much precipitation did we receive in the past 24/48 hours?  What direction are the winds and at what speed?  Is my intended terrain in the lee?  Do I have the slope angle and adequate bed surfaces for avalanche potential?  All these taken together will often send up some red flags.  After these questions are answered you’ve got some data, now what?  “What’s the stability like.”  Snow pits and stability tests can be a double edged sword.  They are critical to have an understanding what is going on under the surface.  Stability tests such as Compression Tests, Extended Column Tests, the Rutschbloc, etc. give you some indication how slopes might react as opposed to quick hasty digging (sans tests) which can bring out red flag layers or crystals, but are limited in what they tell us about how the slope might respond to your load.  The other edge of the sword in doing stability tests is they tell you what is going on right there and not accounting for potentially vast amounts of spatial variability.  As this team went upslope they recognized variability which led to a choice to not spend too much effort or time in one pit which is not an unreasonable decision.  There is a possibility that numerous pits would lead them to believe skiing the slope was a reasonable proposition.  In our terrain spatial variability often increases the odds of  “false stable” results when doing stability tests on a particular slope. Basically, stability tests can lead you to believe a slope is stable when in fact it’s not. No matter what mountain you’re on around the world knowing what’s buried 10-20 meters out in the middle of a couloirs is often the 64 thousand dollar question.

In this case, as best we can surmise, the initial fracture leading to failure occurred in a very thin section of the slab over water ice unseen from the surface.  It is very probable faceted snow sat between the ice and the thin slab (+/- 15-22cm) causing a failure back into the deeper slabs behind the first skier.  Given the same weak layer your “impact bulb” causes more stress on a shallow weakness than a deeper one.  The thicker a slab (i.e. +/- 80 to 100cm) the more it generally distributes your load over a broad area on a weak layer. In a thin slab (i.e. +/- 10-40cm) a point load of the same weight impacts the weakness with a greater amount of pounds per square inch generating a more likelihood of fracture and failure.

20 hours after the incident two crown line profiles were done in a +/- 12 meter section of the 30 m overall crown length.  This section was fairly consistent at 90cm deep before tapering rapidly after a rock in the crown.  A score of CT11 with Q2 shear occurred in both profiles failing at 90cm.  Although a number of layers existed above the test failures at 90cm they survived the CT11 tests.
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Avalanche in Pinnacle Gully

Shortly after 10:30am, a 31 year old man fell approximately 1150′ after triggering an avalanche in Pinnacle Gully. The avalanche deposited him at the bottom of the area known as the “Fan” about 50 feet below the debris pile. He sustained significant injuries but was able to call 911 from his cell phone alert authorities of the accident. USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the accident by the Androscoggin Ranger District at approximately 10:45 and arrived on scene with rescue equipment around 11:15. After the patients injuries were stabilized, he was packaged into a rescue sled and transported behind a snowmobile to an ambulance waiting at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

The avalanche danger for Pinnacle was Considerable, based on new snow being blown in on southerly winds around 40-50mph. Between 7.3″ and 8.0″ of new snow was recorded from the storm before it changed over to rain on Friday. It is unclear how much snow had fallen at the time of the avalanche, but we estimate about 4″ had fallen. The avalanche was triggered in new snow sitting on top of a rain crust and was classified as D2R3. The climber described his location as being “about 3/4 of the way up” the climb when the slide was triggered. He stated his belief that he was the trigger for the avalanche.

Due to unfavorable weather conditions, a rapid trauma assessment and extrication were conducted in the field. The patient was treated for a possible fractured femur. Other injuries noted, but not immediately treated, included an angulated wrist and superficial facial contusions and abrasions.

General Advisory for Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines

Posted: 8:21 a.m., Monday, May 24, 2010

A General Advisory is currently issued for Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. We are done issuing daily avalanche forecasts using the 5-scale danger rating system for the remainder of this season. You will need to do your own snow stability assessments when using avalanche terrain. Other springtime hazards exist that you should be aware of. Please read on for details.

Mt. Washington in late spring can be an incredible place to visit, however, the conditions you encounter might be very different than other mountains and trails in the area. It is your responsibility to be prepared with knowledge and appropriate gear. First, plan ahead for the weather. Late season snowfalls are not uncommon and can create avalanche hazards. Also remember that weather on the mountain and in the ravines can change quickly, so be willing to alter your plans according to the conditions.

In Tuckerman Ravine the spring snowpack is melting away, leaving behind CREVASSES and UNDERMINED SNOW that should be avoided. Crevasses are created when the steep snowpack is able to slide slowly downhill, opening up fissures that can be quite deep. Undermined snow refers to any place where water has been able to erode the snow from below and leave a potentially weak snow bridge that is prone to collapsing. This hazard is often difficult to assess until it’s too late; if you must travel over undermined snow try to do so only on the thickest, most supportive, and most structurally sound snow bridges. Better yet, travel on bare ground or fully supported snow.

FALLING ROCK AND ICE is also a significant concern. As the warm weather melts out the ice that has been holding in place a season’s worth of loose rock and ice, spontaneous rockfall and/or icefall may occur. A general rule of thumb is to stay aware of what’s going on around you and to have a plan in place for what you’ll do if something falls from above. Over the years, many people have been injured on Mt. Washington by falling rock and ice. In addition to paying attention to what’s above you, also think about what lies below you if you are traveling on steep snow. A sliding fall into a pile of boulders or into a crevasse can have severe consequences. It helps tremendously to hike up what you plan to descend so you can assess this hazard at a leisurely pace.

The section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from Lunch Rocks to the junction with the Alpine Garden Trail is CLOSED TO ALL USE. Only this section of the trail is closed. This annual closure is due to the magnitude of crevasses and undermining that develop in this area during the spring melt-out. A fall in this area would have severe consequences. Hikers heading above treeline should seek an alternate route; the Lion Head Trail is one option.

Please Remember:
Natural events such as avalanches are impossible to accurately predict in every instance. This Advisory is one tool to help you make your own decisions in avalanche terrain. It should be used along with safe travel techniques, snow stability assessments, an understanding of weather’s effect on the snowpack, and proficiency in avalanche rescue.
You should obtain the latest weather forecast before heading into the mountains. Anticipate a changing avalanche danger when actual weather differs from the higher summits forecast.
For more information, contact the U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers, Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, or the AMC at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center or Hermit Lake Shelters. This advisory expires at midnight Wednesday, May 26.

Jeff Lane, Snow Ranger
USDA Forest Service
White Mountain National Forest
(603) 466-2713 TTY (603) 466-2856

Avalanche Advisory for Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines

Posted: 7:55 a.m., Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tuckerman Ravine has Low avalanche danger. Natural avalanches are very unlikely and human triggered avalanches are unlikely except in isolated pockets. Normal caution is advised. A General Advisory is currently issued for Huntington Ravine. We are done issuing daily avalanche forecasts for Huntington for the remainder of the season. You will need to do your own snow stability assessments when using avalanche terrain.

The weather forecast for the towns surrounding Mt. Washington is about as good as it gets for the next five days or so. Up on the mountain we might see a couple more clouds, but in general it will be pretty nice weather to be out and about. This prelude to summer is going to continue the melting that has been taking place in Tuckerman Ravine. Although I hate to see the snow departing at such a rate, the silver lining is the snow surface. We’re down to very old snow that has seen a winter’s worth of compaction, so the end result is a firm base with a soft layer of corn on top. It’s a lot better than those days in April when this type of heat created a bottomless layer of soggy wet snow. This melting also continues to keep CREVASSES and UNDERMINED SNOW in the front of our minds as some of the most significant hazards you’ll face if you come up to ski. You’ll do well avoiding the worst areas by staying out of the center of the bowl. Be particularly careful as you approach the edge of the snow near where it meets the cliffs; the edges often become undercut and prone to collapsing. This scenario is playing out in the Sluice area, making it difficult to find a safe location to put on your skis here. It’s also a good idea at this time of the year to stay aware of what’s going on above and around you and have a plan for what you’ll do when something falls from up above. Most of the substantial ice has already fallen, but there are always other things that can fall in your direction such as loose rocks, dropped snowboards, or tumbling skiers. And speaking of tumbling skiers, think about what lies below you as you choose your line. Falling fast into a crevasse or pile of talus is a rough way to end your ski season! In the past two days we’ve seen a skier fall into the boulders at the top of Lunch Rocks and a tree, rock, and mud fall event from the cliffs above the Chute. These are just two examples of why you should stay aware of what’s going on around you.

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is CLOSED TO ALL USE from Lunch Rocks to the junction with the Alpine Garden Trail. This includes the Lip area and the section of the hiking trail from the floor of the Ravine through the top of the Headwall. Only this section of the trail is closed. This annual closure is due to the magnitude of crevasses and undermining that develop in this area during the spring melt-out. A fall in this area would have severe consequences. The Lion Head Summer Trail is open and provides an alternate route to the summit.

Please Remember:
Natural events such as avalanches are impossible to accurately predict in every instance. This Advisory is one tool to help you make your own decisions in avalanche terrain. It should be used along with safe travel techniques, snow stability assessments, an understanding of weather’s effect on the snowpack, and proficiency in avalanche rescue.
You should obtain the latest weather forecast before heading into the mountains. Anticipate a changing avalanche danger when actual weather differs from the higher summits forecast.
For more information, contact the U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers, Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, or the AMC at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center or Hermit Lake Shelters. A new avalanche advisory will be issued tomorrow and this advisory expires at midnight.

Jeff Lane, Snow Ranger
USDA Forest Service
White Mountain National Forest
(603) 466-2713 TTY (603) 466-2856

Avalanche Advisory for Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines

Posted: 8:35a.m., Friday, May 21, 2010

Printable version

Tuckerman Ravine has Low avalanche danger. Natural avalanches are very unlikely and human triggered avalanches are unlikely except in isolated pockets. Normal caution is advised. A General Advisory is currently issued for Huntington Ravine. We are done issuing daily avalanche forecasts for Huntington for the remainder of the season. You will need to do your own snow stability assessments when using avalanche terrain.

Well it’s now been several days since the Ravine has been below freezing and the snowpack is receding at a rate comparable to my friend Greg’s hair line. And even though you probably don’t know him, take my word for it that it’s going fast. The amount of bald rock on the Headwall is quite substantial compared to what was there just a few weeks ago. There appears to be a stretch of sunny and warm weather approaching, so expect the pace to keep up for a while. This melting continues to keep CREVASSES and UNDERMINED SNOW in the front of our minds as the most significant hazards you’ll face if you come up to ski. You’ll do well avoiding the worst areas by staying out of the center of the bowl. Be particularly careful as you approach the edge of the snow near where it meets the cliffs; the edges often become undercut and prone to collapsing. It’s also a good idea at this time of the year to stay aware of what’s going on above and around you and have a plan for what you’ll do when something falls from up above. Most of the substantial ice has already fallen, but there are always other things that can fall in your direction such as loose rocks, dropped snowboards, or tumbling skiers. And speaking of tumbling skiers, think about what lies below you as you choose your line. Falling fast into a crevasse or pile of talus is a rough way to end your ski season!

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is CLOSED TO ALL USE from Lunch Rocks to the junction with the Alpine Garden Trail. This includes the Lip area and the section of the hiking trail from the floor of the Ravine through the top of the Headwall. Only this section of the trail is closed. This annual closure is due to the magnitude of crevasses and undermining that develop in this area during the spring melt-out. A fall in this area would have severe consequences. The Lion Head Summer Trail is open and provides an alternate route to the summit.

I’ll be heading up into the Bowl to day with a camera in hand and hopefully posting pictures on our website this afternoon. A new Weekend Update will also be posted this afternoon, so if you are interested in exactly how much snow is left or want to hear the latest thoughts on weather check back in then. If you’re having difficulties getting the current avalanche advisory or weekend update, please accept my apologies. Our host server crashed a couple weeks ago and we have been unable to resolve the problems. We are attempting to limp through the next couple weekends. You can always get the latest avalanche advisory by calling (603) 466-2713 extension 4.

Please Remember:
Natural events such as avalanches are impossible to accurately predict in every instance. This Advisory is one tool to help you make your own decisions in avalanche terrain. It should be used along with safe travel techniques, snow stability assessments, an understanding of weather’s effect on the snowpack, and proficiency in avalanche rescue.
You should obtain the latest weather forecast before heading into the mountains. Anticipate a changing avalanche danger when actual weather differs from the higher summits forecast.
For more information, contact the U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers, the Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, or the AMC at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center or Hermit Lake Shelters. A new avalanche advisory will be issued tomorrow and this advisory expires at midnight.

Jeff Lane, Snow Ranger
USDA Forest Service
White Mountain National Forest
(603) 466-2713 TTY (603) 466-2856