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April 11, 2019 Avalanche Fatality, Raymond Cataract

Around lunchtime on Thursday, April 11, 2019, two hikers took a break on the summit of Lion Head. This ridge separates Tuckerman Ravine from a stream drainage to the north known as Raymond Cataract. While on Lion Head, they noted a skier descending into Raymond Cataract, an ephemeral, but recently popular ski descent only possible during winters with a deep snowpack.

The hikers remarked on the solid and skillful turns the skier was making and watched him descend out of view. At the same time, two skiers skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail watched a solo skier make a couple of turns in upper Raymond Cataract and then returned their focus to skinning. Unknown to anyone, within a few turns of both sightings, Nicholas Benedix would ski over a convex 39 degree bulge and trigger a fatal avalanche.

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.

#######end#####

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.

Two human-triggered avalanches

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.