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Avalanche North Gully Huntington Ravine

During the afternoon of Sunday, March 30, Forest Service Snow Rangers at Hermit Lake were alerted to an avalanche incident in North Gully in Huntington Ravine. A climber elsewhere in the ravine witnessed the slide and was able to connect with 911 via a cell phone. Two Snow Rangers responded with snowmobiles and were on the scene 18-20 minutes after the incident took place. The details that follow were gathered from the climbers involved.

Two climbers were emerging from North Gully onto the more open slopes above the gully. After simul-climbing the gully’s midsection, they unroped and began to climb the snow up toward Ball Crag. They identified an area of potentially unstable snow and decided to move off to the side of the slope and travel one at a time. One of the climbers triggered an avalanche but neither were caught or carried in the slide. Unsure of the outcome below, they quickly worked their way around the ravine and descended the Escape Hatch to see if anyone needed help.

A second party of two believed the first party had already finished the climb, and began the first ice pitch. The leader arrived at a fixed belay above the first pitch of ice and clipped his rope to the anchor with a carabiner. He was in the process of backing up the anchor when the avalanche came from above. At this point the anchor was serving as a piece of protection and he was essentially still on lead.

The avalanche carried the leader downslope over the top of the first pitch of ice. The belayer was unanchored at the bottom and was lifted upslope and into the ice. He was able to maintain control of the belay and the fixed anchor held, resulting in approximately a 50 foot fall for the leader. Both climbers were shaken up, sore, and had damaged their helmets in the fall. Examinations by Snow Rangers at the scene found no serious injuries. The climbers stayed overnight at the Harvard Cabin, where the following morning they reported general soreness but no other injuries.

The weather leading up this incident is an example of a classic setup for an avalanche cycle. On Friday, March 28, Mt. Washington received 6.4” of 7.8% density snow. Hermit Lake recorded almost 8” from the same weather system. Friday night and Saturday the winds wrapped from the W to the NNW and increased in velocity before falling again on Sunday (from 1mph Friday afternoon to a peak of 99mph Saturday then back down to single digit speeds Sunday). Evidence of natural avalanche activity was visible Sunday morning in several locations, including Hillman’s Highway, South Gully, Raymond’s Cataract, the Lion Head Summer Trail, the East Snowfields of the summit cone, and in small snowfields that descend from Lion Head toward the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Avalanche danger for North Gully on Sunday was rated Moderate.

Fortunately this incident turned out well for all parties involved. It very easily could have been worse. Several lessons can be gleaned from this incident:
·          Choice of route. Five of eight gullies in Huntington had Low avalanche danger while three (North, Damnation, and Central) had Moderate.  In regards to snow stability, choosing anther gully would have been a safer option.
·          Climbing below another party. Ice climbing below others always carries additional risk, whether it’s from falling ice and rocks or avalanches. The party that was hit by the avalanche understood that climbing under another party was a bad choice.  They thought that the gully was clear and that it was safe to start up.  It is difficult to see the entire gully from the base of the ice, but a short walk to a better vantage point is all that is required for a view of the entire gully.
·          Ongoing stability assessments: The top party did a good job of recognizing the unstable snow at the top of the climb. Traveling one at a time off to the side of the area in question helped prevent them from being caught in the avalanche. Had they wanted to protect themselves further, they could have roped up again and climbed to the top using belays and protection.

Avalanche Solo Climber Huntington Ravine

At 9:20 pm on January 18 the USFS Snow Rangers were informed that a solo climber was overdue from his climb in Huntington Ravine.  The overdue climber had signed into the winter climbers register at Pinkham Notch with the plan of climbing Central Gully in Huntington Ravine.  According to his friends who reported him overdue, he had experience in many gullies in Huntington Ravine and had talked about Odell Gully as another option for his day.

A team searched the access routes into Huntington Ravine between 10:00 pm and midnight on the 18th.  Due to snow stability concerns, search teams didn’t enter avalanche terrain until first light the next day to begin searching Huntington Ravine.  Shortly after sunrise, the missing climber’s body was found in avalanche debris below Odell Gully.  The climber was on top of the debris and died as a result of being avalanched out of Odell Gully.  He was put in a technical litter, lowered 500 ft to the floor of the Ravine and transported to Pinkham Notch by the USFS snowcat.

The avalanche danger rating for January 18 was posted High for all forecast areas in Huntington Ravine.  The definition of this rating states natural and human triggered avalanches are likely, unstable slabs are likely on a variety of aspects and slope angles, and travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.  This rating was based on active wind loading of new snow that had been accumulating since snowfall began around 4 am that morning.  Winds associated with the storm began out of the south before shifting to the west around 12:00 pm and increasing to the 60-70 mph range with a peak gust on the Summit out of the west of 86 mph (139 kph) at 5:42 pm.  Recorded snow totals from this storm were 3.9” (10 cm) at Hermit Lake and 3.1” (7.9 cm) on the summit of Mt. Washington with locally higher amounts.  The density of the snow was lighter at the beginning and became heavier through the day with an average density at Hermit Lake of 12.8%.  Odell is a popular climbing route with sections of snow and grade 2 and 3 ice.  It faces E and ENE and has multiple avalanche start zones.  The winds associated with this storm were ideal for loading Odell by starting out of the south and wrapping around to the west.  It is believed that the climber triggered the avalanche, though this is not conclusive.  The size of the avalanche was classified as D2R3.  D2 refers to the destructive force of an avalanche and means that it could bury, injure or kill a person.  R3 means that the avalanche was medium sized relative to its normal path.  Evidence of natural avalanche activity from this storm was observed on similar aspects.

We would like to thank Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Harvard Mountaineering Club and the Mount Washington Observatory for assisting in this incident.

Lessons learned:  It is easy to look at incidents such as this one and make simple judgments on the victim’s actions.  Undoubtedly, most people would change their plans when a current avalanche forecast projects avalanches as being likely on their intended route.  Nonetheless, the majority of our avalanche fatalities and serious accidents have occurred in areas that were posted with High avalanche danger.  This contrasts with the general trend around the world where the majority of accidents happen under a Considerable rating.  Though this accident did happen in an area that was rated as High, it could have occurred under a rating of Low, Moderate or Considerable.

As a solo climber you are often exposed to a greater degree of risk than a roped climber.  In this incident the size of the avalanche probably had little to do with the outcome.  Had the victim triggered an isolated pocket of unstable snow, as is feasible under a rating of Low, the end result would likely have been similar.  Although a rope cannot save you from all mountain dangers it does substantially increase the size of your safety net if used properly.  When approaching a suspect area the best use of a rope incorporates solid protection that is located to the side of the pocket or snowfield in question.  This is by no means a failsafe tactic but it does provide some extra security should you be knocked off of your feet by snow, falling ice, etc.

Secondly it is worth noting that the US 5-Scale Danger Rating System is a continuum and not a series of 5 distinct categories without overlap.  Within any particular rating there is also a range and we frequently try to discuss this in the daily avalanche advisory.  When the victim passed the Harvard Cabin the avalanche advisory stated the following:  “N-facing aspects will be the first to move up into the High rating with E and S-facing aspects to follow as the winds shift.”   Armed with this data, it would be prudent to consider the other options if one was determined to climb a gully in the ravine that day.  By the time the victim was approaching the start of the climb the winds had begun their forecasted shift and Odell Gully was in the direct lee of wind loading.  Farther to the right, gullies such as North and Damnation likely had less loading occurring and would have had smaller sections of suspect snow to navigate.

Mountain skills are complex and require a high degree of technical training in a variety of disciplines.  This climber had a lot of experience climbing in Huntington including numerous solo ascents of gullies.  He was well prepared to deal with the weather and steep mountain terrain found in Huntington Ravine.  As is often the case in avalanche accidents, it appears that his technical climbing experience surpassed his knowledge of mountain snowpack.  In addition, the victim was not carrying any avalanche safety equipment.  Though it did not make a difference in this scenario, carrying this equipment provides an additional tool should the unthinkable occur.  Even if climbing alone this gear can help you out when things go bad.  Other climbers in the area could locate you if you were buried while wearing a beacon and you could provide the same service for them. With this said, self sufficiency is paramount in avalanche rescue so having a party of two or more is needed. Having these items with you should be standard practice anytime you enter avalanche terrain.

Avalanche at Base of Pinnacle

On Thursday morning December 20th three climbers were suiting up after breakfast at the Harvard Cabin when USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane entered the building.  Jeff was in the process of writing the avalanche advisory for the gullies of Huntington Ravine and asking visitors what their plans were for the day.  Jeff got into a conversation with two of the three climbers about avalanche stability issues and the Considerable and Moderate postings for the Ravine.  Their plans were to climb for a couple of days with Pinnacle and Damnation as the desired routes, the former being the main goal.  With Pinnacle being posted at Considerable Jeff called Chris Joosen on the radio about his thoughts and concerns about a party ascending Pinnacle.  Jeff and Chris agreed that that they could not recommend Pinnacle posted at Considerable or Damnation Gully posted at Moderate, but would instead focus on presenting the stability facts.  Jeff discussed what gullies had more instabilities than others and convinced them Pinnacle was not a good idea.  Although Damnation held the possibility of unstable slabs, they were less likely and widespread than areas posted at Considerable.  After a 15 minute conversation they said they would climb Damnation today and perhaps hit Pinnacle tomorrow (Friday).  The weather conditions as they entered the Ravine included snow, light winds and limited visibility.  They decided to head up to Pinnacle to look at it and then traverse over to Damnation rather than head straight up to it.  After looking at Pinnacle from below they traversed under Central Gully and began heading across the top of the Fan.  They changed their plans partway across and headed back following their original plan to climb Pinnacle Gully.  On the approach to Pinnacle they began pushing through deep snow that they said was up to the chests.  They felt that because it was loose and unconsolidated that it was safe and not in risk of avalanching because in their opinion a slab did not exist. When the three were about 25 meters from the bottom of the ice which marks the traditional 1st pitch, the slope fractured and failed above them just below the ice.  At the time of slope failure the 1st climber was a few feet above the 2nd and about 10+ feet above the 3rd.  KA was out front and yelled “Avalanche!” and grabbed GW below him.  All three were flushed down the slope, but remained on the surface cart-wheeling with the entrained snow.  KA and GW were still next to one another about 75m below their high point while KB was sent almost twice that distance farther down slope.  They were extremely fortunate to have no injuries and to remain on top of the snow.  After shaking themselves off they proceeded to search for missing gear and decide what to do next.  Two wanted to climb the gully now that it had, in their opinion, been rendered safe by the release of its instabilities.  The third was done for the day.  They decided that they would all descend.

Lessons Learned: Often it is only in 20/20 hindsight that the reasons for an incident present themselves, but occasionally the natural world provides clues that were so obvious they should have been seen and heeded.  Each year we have examples of common mistakes that have human factors and psychology behind them even though the natural bulls-eye information was there.  This is such an incident.

Environmental Factors:

  • At 7am the summit temperature was around 15 F with a south wind at 20mph.  Approximately 3.5 inches of new snow was recorded at the summit while Hermit Lake in Tuckerman and the Harvard Cabin in Huntington each reported about 4 inches for the same period.  Snow continued through the morning bringing another 2-3 inches to all areas by noon.
  • Pinnacle is a steep E/ENE facing gully that is cross-loaded by S winds.  In addition to spindrift and sluffing from up high, the entire first pitch is water-ice which does not hold snow.  All of this snow piles up at the base of the gully on a slope of increasing angle averaging between 30-35 degrees.  This build up of snow accounts for the group’s comments of chest deep snow even though only 4-5” had fallen.  The light 7.7% density snow and light winds explains their impression that slabs did not exist.  Light density snow slabs can be practically indiscernible and although it appears unconsolidated and loose, even the slightest cohesion can create a slab.  Slab density closer to the ice was likely increased by the packing of spindrifts and sluffs from higher in the gully.
  • Pictures taken right after the slide by the group showed constant sluffing from the rock face that forms the gully’s left wall, further contributing to the accumulations on the slope.

Human Factors:

  • Jeff Lane spent 15 minutes of detailed conversation with the party about snow stability in Huntington and specifically the issues in Pinnacle.  The discussion ended with Jeff not being able to recommend their desired climb based on instability and the associated Considerable rating.  When traveling to various mountain ranges that have an avalanche advisory and you’re able to personally speak with the individuals that developed the forecast it should be acknowledged as key data.  In addition to avalanche forecasters there are ski patrollers, guides, Wardens, and Rangers working in their local mountains that can give you valuable safety advice worth listening to.  While you should not make your decisions based 100% on the advice of others, when available, use personal focused advice from experienced local avalanche expertise as a critical tool to help your decision making process.
  • The group initially passed Pinnacle and then convinced themselves that it was okay.  It becomes easy to overlook all the red flags when desire overcomes reason.  We must enjoy our winter pursuits on the mountain’s terms, not on our tight time schedule. It’s easy to make a go/no-go decision on the days that are truly nasty or sunny and stable.  It’s the large spectrum in between these two when you must err on the side of caution and fight the desire to “squeak through” and “beat” the mountain.  Snow stability is hardest to accurately assess when the margin of error can put you into either a green light or red light situation based on how you’re seeing the data.  The bulls-eye data can be a little more difficult to pick out.  For these reasons most fatalities occur under a Considerable avalanche rating.
  • Safe travel rules were not adhered to and rescue equipment was not worn.  Safe travel rules include (1) Travel one at a time, (2) Don’t travel over or under your partner, and (3) Have a plan in mind about exactly where you’ll go if an avalanche happens.  Number 3 can be very difficult to manage in every situation, but rules 1 and 2 mitigate risk well and limit the number of individuals in a potentially hazardous situation to one.  This is absolutely critical to individual and group survival if an avalanche does occur.  Having only one person buried allows more individuals to focus on the rescue, thus increasing the odds of survival.  On the other hand, having the whole group buried brings the group’s chance of survival pretty much down to zero.  This group was very lucky as all of them were caught, entrained in the debris, and brought downhill.  Had someone been buried, the big problem would have been the lack of beacons, probes, and shovels.  If anyone was completely buried this incident would have likely turned out tragically.

Back to back skier triggered avalanches in the Lower Snowfields and Hillman’s Highway

Back to back skier triggered avalanches in the Lower Snowfields and Hillman’s Highway resulted in one injury. Around 1230 a party of three were skinning up the Lower Snowfields. One person decided to head down while the other two continued up. The top skier stopped at the top of the “Christmas tree” for a break when he heard his remaining partner yell, “slide!”. Prior to the slide, both individuals observed shooting cracks propagating from their skis. The lower of the two people was caught and carried about 750 feet down the Lower Snowfields (D2R3*). During the ride, the victim swam feet first in an attempt to stay on top of the debris. At one point he hit a tree with his upper right ribcage. Debris momentarily went over his head and his mouth was packed with snow. When he stopped he was on his back and partially buried. He self extricated and a bystander showed up shortly after to help him. U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers, members of the Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and Mountain Rescue Service responded and were on scene in 20 minutes. The priority was to help the victim and assure no other people were caught in the slide. An initial search, a beacon search and thorough interviews with witnesses were conducted. The patient was able to walk to Hermit Lake under his own power where he was reassessed and transported down to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile.

Forty-three minutes after the initial avalanche, another one occurred in Hillman’s Highway (D3R3). Response time was immediate due to the proximity of the rescue crew working in the Lower Snowfields. Six people were in the gully at the time of the avalanche and some reported that it came from the top and was a natural avalanche. Confirmation of a natural avalanche was difficult due to low clouds and blowing snow. All witnesses stated that nobody was caught in the avalanche. With enough uncertainty about this fact, we conduced an initial search, a beacon search, a Recco search and a dog search. A probe team was mobilized to the area and held out of avalanche terrain for safety reasons. Clouds cleared and the fracture line became visible in the middle of Hillman’s Highway allowing us to confirm that the trigger was likely a person. We were able to deduce this due to the odd location of the fracture line, the suspicious amount of hangfire left above and the proximity of the people in the gully to the fracture line. Witnesses and bystanders stated that no one was missing and that they believed no one was caught. Based on this information and significant scene safety concerns we called off the search. Safety concerns included the instability of adjacent slide paths that run into the bottom of Hillman’s and the large amount of unstable snow left above the fracture line in Hillman’s, which included both of it’s primary start zones.

We are very happy that more people were not injured and no one was killed in these incidents, as this could have been a plausible outcome. Statistically, most avalanche accidents occur under Moderate and Considerable ratings. On this day, the Lower Snowfields were rated Moderate and Hillman’s Highway was rated Considerable. Both of these ratings state the potential for human triggered avalanches as being possible and probable respectively.

* “D” represents the destructive force of the avalanche on a scale of 1-5. “R” represents the size of the avalanche relative to the path, also represented on a scale of 1-5.

Avalanche Huntington Ravine

A party of five people were practicing mountaineering skills under Central Gully in Huntington Ravine. As they packed up to leave a loose snow avalanche came down and knocked three of them off of their feet. One individual caught his foot between some rocks and broke his lower leg just below the knee. While people went to get help, the party splinted the injury and managed to get the person down the talus to the floor of the ravine. At this point they were met by a USFS Snow Ranger and more bystanders who put the patient into a litter and assisted in the evacuation down to Pinkham Notch where they were met by an ambulance.

At the time of this accident, Huntington Ravine was under a General Avalanche Advisory due to an overall lack of snow. However, as the advisory stated: “…it’s important to realize that avalanche activity may occur within these locations before the issuance of a 5-scale forecast. This is a critical fact to remember. Under a General Advisory you need to make your own avalanche stability assessments before venturing into any open slopes.” The day this accident occurred, there were strong indicators of increasing avalanche danger. These included new snowfall that exceeded the forecasted amounts of 2 to 4” and west winds blowing on the Summit between 40 and 50 mph, which are ideal for loading snow into easterly aspects such as Central Gully. Additionally, the group was below an avalanche path in poor visibility with another party above them and no one in the group was carrying an avalanche beacon, probe, or shovel. These are all violations of basic avalanche safety and travel rules. While the avalanche that struck the party was quite small, it was big enough to create a problem for their group. Underestimating this type of avalanche activity can create big problems for climbers—small slides that knock you off your feet resulting in high consequences. The group, as well as the bystanders who assisted, should be complimented for their efforts in caring for the patient and beginning to self-rescue as additional help was being sought out.

Avalanche Huntington Ravine – Under O’Dells

Early on January 7, 2005 A and R planned on climbing North Gully in Huntington Ravine after spending the night at the Harvard Cabin. The previous day they had climbed O’Dell’s Gully, which had gone very well. Brian Johnston, USFS Snow Ranger, passed the Harvard Cabin at around 6:50 on the way into Huntington. Upon returning back to the cabin Brian spoke with A and R about their day. Brian asked if they planned on heading into the Ravine and they hoped to climb North Gully and wondered what he thought about their plan. Brian replied “I can’t recommend any climbing in the Ravine today” and went into why. Brian discussed the weather over the past 24 hours and why the 8.5cm of snow with more coming was enough precipitation for both Considerable and High avalanche danger in the Ravine. They looked at a map of the area to discuss loading and aspects. They discussed how they could approach their intended route with out being in the runout of any forecasted avalanche paths. Due to their approach the day before, they knew the exact overhanging tree Brian referred to as a reference. At this location he advised the safest route would be to take a hard right up into the talus. He once again mentioned he could not recommend climbing in the Ravine, but that was the safest way to the bottom of their intended climb. Brian went to the nearby Harvard manual snow plot to gather data and told them he would be back shortly if they had any more questions. 10 minutes later snow accumulations and their densities were passed along to the pair upon which they asked a few questions. They had no avalanche gear and told me later that they typically rented a probe, shovel, and beacon in Montreal when the avalanche danger was Considerable or High. Brian respectfully attempted to dissuade them from their goal while allowing them to make their own decision. Although North was at Considerable it was the gully of lowest concern compared to the other forecast areas so this was their intended goal. They determined they would like to at least go up and take a look. The advisory was posted at the cabin at 745 and Brian headed over to Hermit Lake.

A and R Left the Harvard cabin at 815 and spent a bit over an hour getting into the base of the fan in Huntington. They went far beyond the downed tree they acknowledged in their discussion earlier and started moving straight up the center of the Fan. They could not see the gullies due to blowing snow and estimated there was 30-45m (100-150 ft) visibility. They went up hill an estimated 30m (100 ft) when they stopped to adjust their clothing. ‘A’ was in front bent over and took off his gloves to adjust his balaclava. As he bent over he thought to himself, ‘boy this isn’t a good place to be stopping’. Just as he concluded his thought an avalanche hit him at approximately 930. ‘A’ estimated he was only brought about 12m (40ft), but was completely buried. As the debris slowed to a stop his head and feet were between 30-45cm deep faced up with his feet pointing downhill. He frantically punched his arms up in front of his face and thrashed to free himself. He could feel the snow quickly setting up around him. Within 15 seconds he was fairly free. ‘R’ had been brought about 17m (55ft), was 5m (15ft) directly below ‘A’, and was buried to his waist. The air was so obscured he could not see ’A’ above him. ‘R’ felt he was at the terminal toe of the debris and averaged 1.25-1.5m (4-5ft) deep. They had lost ‘A’s gloves and 2 mountaineering axes, but spent no time looking for them. They moved as quick as they could to get out of the Ravine. The only injury was a scrap and bruising on ‘A’s right shin.

Both ‘A’ and ‘R’ were interviewed later at Pinkham Notch on Rt. 16 to acquire most of the above information. Following the interview I headed into Huntington to see if I could ascertain any information corroborating their story. I was most interested in finding out exactly where they were when they were avalanched. Based on my experience, being hit by an avalanche down low to the east of North gully is very unusual. At 1:30 Huntington cleared enough to see the fan and most of the gullies. The only debris I could see was a 100m (330ft) straight up from the floor flats under the entrance to Pinnacle gully. Clues and higher debris pointed to O’Dells as the avalanche source. I spent a long time looking for any debris on the north side of the Ravine, but could find none. I could only conclude they were much more south than they thought due to limited visibility. Upon re-entry on 1/8/05 for a closer look a small crown line was visible high near the horizon on the southern end of the entire gully. This likely triggered the snowfield lower at the base of the first pitch of O’Dells proper. This was confirmed as one of ‘A’s gloves was found near the toe of the debris pile.

Lessons Learned:

Looking at this incident with 20/20 hindsight a number of mistakes stand out that were made by the party. Avalanche danger being High and Considerable, having all the necessary weather information, and spending substantial time discussing plans with a Snow Ranger should of given them all the information that this was a “no go” situation. To go into avalanche terrain anyway is a clear case of the “human factor” taking over the decision making process. Entering High avalanche danger terrain, in very low visibility, with all the bull’s-eye information, without avalanche safety equipment is an obvious situation of not playing by the mountains terms. It is imperative to always remember that the mountain will be there tomorrow and everyday until we die. You can always come back another day when conditions are more suitable for your intentions. When we leave our homes to recreate in the mountains we already have a bias that we are going to ski or climb that route. We need to constantly re-evaluate the data the mountain is giving us and be able to say, “STOP” and break the chain of poor decisions leading to a potential accident. Accidents like this one stand out because for those involved it was all about climbing their intended route, the “nothing will stop us” mentality. Even inexperienced climbers can make the right choices with the facts in this event. We must play by the mountain’s terms. /s/ Chris Joosen, Lead Snow Ranger

Seven climbers were involved in an avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine.

(Excerpted from Snowranger Chris Joosen’s report) Seven climbers were involved in a climber triggered class 2 slab avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine. Four individuals were buried, two partially and two completely. One of the partially buried climbers (Matt) had only his forearm and hand above the surface and the other (Richard C.) had some of his pack and shoulder exposed. The two complete burials both resulted in fatalities. The first fatal recovery (Scott, 32 yrs) was 0.6 meters below the surface with his feet approximately 1 meter deep. The second deceased (Tom B., 46 yrs), and last of the four recovered, was found 0.95 meters deep in a horizontal prone position. The crown line was estimated at 45 meters across, 0.3-0.45 meters deep, and on a slope averaging roughly 43 degrees. The distance is unclear, but the crown was estimated to be 10 meters above the highest climber. Slope failure occurred when the highest climber was on the steepest part of the Lip at roughly 47 degrees. The slide ran approximately 305 meters and left a debris field 122 meters by 17 meters and in pockets up to 3.65 meters deep. Matt was 7.6 meters from the toe of the debris, Tom B. was 21.6 meters, Scott 29.3 meters, and Richard C. 38.4 meters from the terminal end. They were almost in a straight line and very close to the center, width-wise, of the debris field.

During the early morning hours on Friday November 29th multiple parties prepared to go ice and snow climbing in Tuckerman Ravine. Tom S. and his partner Tony were the first two in the Ravine at roughly 10 am to begin climbing the “open book,” which is directly under the Lip. The Lip is often used as an easy exit out of the Ravine compared to the ice pitches towards the center Headwall. Tom reached the top of the “open book” in one pitch and began to bring Tony up, belaying off of three ice screws. At the same time three soloists, Tom B., Matt, and Richard C. approached the bottom of the “open book.” Matt climbed around the right side of Tom S. and Tony while Tom B. and Richard C. climbed on the left.

All five climbers were at the top of the first pitch at approximately the same time when the three soloists pushed on ahead. Tom S. and Tony decided they didn’t like all this activity above them and decided to bail out by traversing right and ultimately to walk down and around back to the floor of the Ravine. According to Tom S. the three soloists were beginning to “touch off surface slides” which were small loose snow sluffs. The upper three were close together, near the bottom of the northern end of the Tuckerman Headwall, when Tom B. went left for some low angle water ice and was knocked off by a small sluff falling about 30.5 to 45.7 meters.

In the mean time Scott and his partner Richard D. approached the bottom of the “open book” and were preparing to suit up for a roped climb where the others ventured earlier. Tom B. began traversing above Tom S. heading for low angled exit. Tom S. was getting nervous about the snow conditions above him and asked Tom B. to hold tight for a minute until Tony was ready to belay him up. Tom B. agreed to wait. Up above, Richard C. had climbed out of Matt’s view, to move up into the Lip. Matt was about 15 meters behind, following him toward the horizon.

(1-Tom S., 2-Tony, 3-Tom B., 4-Matt, 5-Richard C., 6-Richard D., 7-Scott)

Jeff, one of the AMC Tuckerman Caretakers, had been watching the situation unfold from the floor of the Ravine with his climbing partner Dave. They were assessing where they could go safely to “avoid the crowds,” and were watching the seven climbers on the right side of the Ravine and four more near the center bowl. It was 11:25 am. They watched the top climber, Richard C. start to fall and quickly realized he was caught in an avalanche that was now heading for all the climbers below. Matt was quickly swept up as was Tom B. at midslope. Tom S. heard “avalanche!” from above and quickly hunkered against his anchor as the snow hit him and pulled his cordelette tight against three screws. Richard D. at the bottom was up close against the steep ice as the snow shot over his head leaving him essentially untouched. Scott, being away from the ice, took the force of the avalanche.

When the avalanche stopped, Richard D., Tom S. and Tony were still on the route unhurt and began making their way down to the debris pile. Jeff and Dave had initially run back down the trail towards Hermit Lake to put more distance between themselves and the runout zone. They quickly headed back about 60 meters to the debris pile and radioed the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on Rt. 16. I was at the Visitor Center, 3 miles from the accident, and heard the initial radio call from Jeff. We spoke and discussed scene safety and avalanche safety gear for those on site. Jeff and Dave were the only people on scene who were wearing beacons and carrying probes and a shovel. The AMC front desk manager and I had a quick conversation about contacting NH Fish and Game, putting a National Guard helicopter on standby and call out’s for volunteer SAR groups. Phone calls and beeper messages went out for AMC, MRS, and AVSAR team members.

(1-Tom S., 2-Tony, 3-Tom B., 4-Matt, 5-Richard C., 6-Richard D., 7-Scott)

Jeff sent bystanders to a first aid and avalanche cache 5 minutes down the trail to bring up probes to the debris as none of the buried individuals were wearing avalanche beacons. The two partial buried, Matt and Richard C., were uncovered within several minutes. Matt had no injuries and began participating in the rescue. Richard C. appeared to have significant rib and shoulder injuries. He was treated on scene and assisted down the trail to Hermit Lake. Richard D. said Scott hadn’t tied into their rope before the accident and was holding it in his hand. The rope, which was visible, was determined to be the best clue for either victim still buried so it was followed under the snow hoping they would find Scott. They found him using this technique, under 0.6 to 0.9 meters of debris within 20-25 minutes after the avalanche. I headed up the Sherburne ski trail on snowmobile with our avalanche dog Cutler. Upon reaching Hermit Lake I collected gear to head into the Ravine. On the way into the Ravine I passed Richard C. struggling out of the ravine with assistance. Five minutes later I came across rescuers (EMT’s) taking Scott out by sled. I spoke with them for 2 minutes about the scene above and Scott’s condition. According to the EMT’s they did CPR for about 20 minutes; he did not have an ice mask when found. I headed into the Bowl and reached the debris at approximately 12:35. Seventy minutes had passed since the avalanche accident occurred.

I spoke to Jeff briefly to get an update on the situation. They randomly probed likely burial areas with no results. A probeline was begun from the toe and was about 75 % up the debris when I arrived. Jeff wasn’t completely confident that he could rule out the area covered as probed well. I began working Cutler at roughly 12:40-12:45; he worked for about 10-15 minutes and found a buried climbing helmet. At that point I began another organized probe line from the toe. We moved about 4 meters up from the debris toe. I handed probeline responsibility back over to Jeff and began working Cutler again. Ten minutes later, at 13:11 the line found Tom B. 21.6 meters from the toe of the debris. He was under .95 meters of debris. He was pulseless and breathless, had no ice mask, and had obvious head and neck injuries.

Brief Analysis

Some of the climbers interviewed said they had seen the avalanche advisory at Pinkham Notch and then at Hermit Lake at the base of the Ravine. The bulletin discussed concern over E and SE facing aspects with some strong lee areas on the upper end of Moderate heading towards Considerable. Due to the best ice and most popular routes being on these aspects, the majority of the climbers in the Ravine that morning were concentrated in this area. Of the 11 climbing at the time of the accident, 7 were on the same route in 3 groups one over another in an area of the most potential instability. The major rules of safe travel in avalanche terrain were broken. “Always travel one at a time in suspect terrain while others in a safe area” and “Never travel over or under another person without their permission” are two tenants that were broken and should be strictly adhered to in avalanche terrain. Of the 11 individuals climbing in the Ravine at the time of the accident no one had avalanche safety equipment, i.e., beacon, probe, or shovel. Tom S. and Tony made good decisions once increased hazards were presented. They were the first up climbing so they weren’t under another group and they were roped using ice screws which in a sense allows only one to travel on a suspect slope. Although this is stretching this rule a bit the rope saved Tom S. from injury or death as his 3 screws held him while the avalanche passed over him. Once more climbers entered the scene and Tom S. and Tony witnessed more instability, the light sluffing from the three soloists climbing above them, they decided to descend. Tom B., one of the 3 above, tumbled down slope approximately 30.5-45.7 meters which was a good indication of the lower slope stability. However, these slopes are lower angle thus are not as protected from NW winds, from the preceding 2 days, as the steeper E, ESE, SE pocket that avalanched just 75 meters away.

Several factors led to the accident causing injury and loss of life. Primarily, it was a case of broken travel rules in avalanche terrain, overlooking Mother Nature’s clues in the field concerning snowpack stability, and perhaps not fully heeding the avalanche forecast discussing the aspects to watch closely. Snowpack structure in the crown area was typical for the Mt. Washington area. Several inches of snow were brought in on the 27th and 28th by moderate to high NW winds. Into the 29th, winds shifted to the W which began the predominate loading on E aspects. However, we know that NW winds don’t load new snow exclusively on SE facing slopes, but would be the predominate aspect of concern. In this case, 2 days of NW winds may have made enough difference to create more instability on this SE lee pocket. No unusual or complex weak layers were present; it was new soft slab over an ice layer. This interface between an ice or crust layer and new slab is one of the most common weaknesses in our forecast area resulting in slope failure. It is unclear if shear failure occurred on the interface between the ice and the new snow or just above. Both scenarios are commonly found depending on many factors. Temperature during new snowfall and duration of contact between the slab and ice layer before failure play large roles where shear failure occurs. Safe entry into the area for a crown line profile was not possible due to new snow and loading after the incident so highly accurate data is not available of the exact weakness resulting in failure.

The bulletin the day before the accident discussed weather and snow stability as did the bulletin the morning of the accident. The following is the specific sections of the avalanche bulletin from 11/29/03 discussing the situation in the Ravine that day and future trends. The bulletin was posted at the roadside visitor center as well as at Hermit Lake. All those climbing in the Ravine passed at least one of these 2 locations before heading into Tuckerman.

TUCKERMAN AND HUNTINGTON RAVINES CURRENTLY HAVE MODERATE AVALANCHE DANGER. Natural avalanches are unlikely and human triggered avalanches are possible on steep snow covered open slopes and gullies. Be cautious in steep terrain. The summit has received under an inch of new snow over the past 24 hours with very cold temperatures matching the all time low for Thanksgiving of -14 degrees F. NW winds and very light snow have made for ideal conditions for new loading on SE and E aspects and the cross loading of others. With even a couple inches of snow significant slabs can form when ideal densities and winds exist. In addition snow is being deposited on an ice crust that high winds swept clean in some locations during last weekends storm. Take this into account when determining stability with any new snow over the next several days. New snow falling on an ice crust won’t bond nearly as well as those with snow deposits without a crust. This may cause over confident stability assessments if they are done in areas on new snow verses the ice crust. This spatial variability will be something to keep on the forefront of decision making over the next week. You may find pockets of instability on the high Moderate end approaching Considerable particularly in strong lee areas of NW and W winds. New loading into tomorrow may push some pockets to Considerable so keep an eye on the weather and its’ effect on snow stability through the weekend. Snow showers are in the National Weather Service forecast for the next 8 days! We are expecting snow showers today and this evening with 2-5 inches possible into the beginning of the weekend. Expect an elevated avalanche danger over Saturday and Sunday. I expect either a Moderate or perhaps Considerable rating to prevail. So watch for new bulletins discussing any change in the daily rating. Remember if the snowfield is large enough to ski, climb, or recreate on it’s large enough to avalanche.

AS ALWAYS, THIS ADVISORY IS ONE MORE TOOL TO HELP YOU MAKE YOUR OWN DECISIONS IN AVALANCHE TERRAIN. It should be used along with your own snow stability assessments, knowledge of safe travel techniques, skill in mountain weather’s effect on the snowpack, and avalanche rescue.

Skier Triggered Avalanches – Hillmans & Center Headwall

At around 1pm, three skiers were approximately 20′, 40′ and 90′ respectively away from the ridgeline on the climbers right of Hillmans Highway when a slab avalanche began just below the ridgeline. The avalanche swept the lower two skiers down Hillmans Highway approximately 800′. Witnesses reported VH was buried near the surface of the debris with the exception of his face. SK was buried face down with just his pack showing. Bystanders immediately dug both victims out by hand. SK suffered a head laceration and complained of sore ribs. He immediately self evacuated himself down the Sherburne ski trail where he was met by a USFS Snow Ranger. His head laceration was attended to by AMC and ambulance personnel. SK left Pinkham on his own power. VH was relatively uninjured and walked out of the area on his own power.

At approximately 2:30pm another avalanche occurred in Tuckerman Ravine, climbers left of the Center Headwall. This slide was skier triggered. The slab avalanche occurred below the rocks that form the steeps of the Headwall and ran approximately 600′. This area is a strong lee pocket and is very protected from the wind. Avalanche activity is common here every season. The skier rode the avalanche to the transition of the flats on the floor of the ravine. He was reported to be buried up to his waist and was able to dig himself out by the time his friend reached him. The two walked out of the ravine and reported the incident to the AMC caretaker.

Comments

The avalanche danger for this day was posted at Moderate, which means natural avalanches are unlikely and human triggered avalanches are possible. There were 11 people in Hillmans Highway and two in the ravine when the human triggered avalanches occurred. None of the folks had avalanche equipment with them, ie: transceivers, probes and shovels. In Hillmans Highway safe travel techniques in avalanche terrain were not being observed, ie: expose only one person at a time, never travel over or under another person, and always have an escape route in mind. Do not climb up the middle of gullies, go from one safe anchor to another as you work your way up the gully.

More people in this country get caught in avalanches under a Moderate rating than any other because of the human factor, “well, Moderate isn’t too bad” is a common thought. Remember the definition of Moderate – avalanches are possible. Also remember that Moderate is a range within the 5-scale spectrum and is not a “point” on a line. This means on some days it is close to Low and on others it is near Considerable, but still within the definition of “Moderate”. This is an important point to remember for all 5 ratings from Low to Extreme. Just because it is spring and the weather is beautiful, you cannot ignore the avalanche potential. Spring can be a dangerous time of the year when we get late-season snow. It is a busy time in the ravines, where even on a quiet day several dozen skiers/riders may be in the ravine. The identical snow stability mid-winter usually goes without incident, but during the spring over a thousand potential triggers (skiers, riders) are swarming avalanche terrain. Keep in mind that when someone heads up a slope it doesn’t mean it’s safe. It may just mean they don’t know what they are doing. You need to know the conditions and always think twice before following.

What may have saved the two that were buried in Hillmans Highway was the quick response from bystanders. You must be able to carry out a self-rescue in the event of a burial, as time is critical. If you must go for help, it is generally considered too late.

Personnel Used: USFS- 4 AMC – 3 Volunteer – 8

The rescue took 2 hours.

Avalanche

The victim was being sledded, in a litter, down the Tuckerman Ravine trail by two people when they were met by the Hermit Lake Caretaker. He and his friends apparently had been climbing in the ravine when an avalanche swept them down. The avalanche danger rating for this day was Considerable. The victim suffered a dislocated shoulder and an ankle injury and was being evacuated by volunteers. The USFS was called and met the group on the trail and brought them down in the USFS snowcat. A second member of the party was met by the AMC Caretaker on her return back up to Hermit Lake. He had suffered an ankle injury in the same avalanche and was walking down to Pinkham. The Caretaker assisted him down the remainder of the trail to Pinkham. The rescue took approximately 2 hours and 4 people.

Avalanche – Damnation Gully

DB and CL were climbing Damnation Gully, a 1600 foot, grade 3 snow and ice route on the north side of Huntington Ravine. Weather conditions on the mountain were moderate with light winds. Approximately 2 inches of new snow was reported in the previous 24 hours from the summit of Mount Washington. Both climbers are experienced winter mountaineers and experienced climbing Mount Washington in winter. Damnation gully was the last remaining gully climb in Huntington Ravine for DB.

The pair had successfully climbed most of the gully. About thirty feet remained of the pitch when disaster struck. DB was near the end of the pitch, looking for an anchor when he triggered a small avalanche. He had recognized the instability and was moving off the slope when it failed. Nearly a full rope length out from the belay, DB was swept off his feet and began sliding down the gully. No intermediate climbing protection had been placed. Unable to self-arrest, the fall was taken directly on to the belayer and belay anchor, which subsequently failed. Still roped together, DB and CL fell 1000 feet down Damnation Gully.

Other climbers responded to DB’s cries for help. They hurried to the accident scene and began assisting the fallen climbers. One of these climbers was equipped with a portable handheld radio. He transmitted an emergency message which was received by another Forest visitor 3 miles away at the trailhead. The accident was then reported at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and turned over to the US Forest Service. The initial report was of a broken leg in Huntington Ravine. USFS Snow Ranger Brad Ray and John Knieriem, patrol leader of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol responded to the accident in the USFS Thiokol snow vehicle. They were met on the trail by witnesses who reported a much more serious accident than had been initially thought. Additional resources were mobilized from the USFS, AMC, and HMC to assist in the care and evacuation of the victims. Trauma equipment and technical climbing gear was dispatched to the scene.

Upon arrival of rescuers, CL had been evacuated from the lower slopes of the gully by volunteers using equipment from a nearby rescue cache. DB was still on the slope below the gully and required further evacuation using ropes and a belay. CL’s injuries and vital signs were quickly assessed. Oxygen was administered and he was transported in the Thiokol snow vehicle under the care of an ER doctor, and ER nurse, and 2 USFS EMT’s. A second trip up the mountain by the Thiokol was required to evacuate DB to Pinkham Notch.

CL suffered an L1 spinal compression fracture, numerous broken ribs, a fractured right femur, hemothorax of the right lung, and severe head trauma. He was immediately flown by helicopter to the regional trauma center. DB sustained serious injury to the sacral/pelvic region, including a displaced sacroilliac joint. DB also required surgery for his injuries.

Comments

Snow conditions in the gully during the climb were generally firm, making self arrest difficult if not impossible. An unarrested climber falling over 40 degree snow slopes quickly gains a great deal of speed. On low angle, less technical snow climbs, rope teams often proceed without placing intermediate climbing protection. While this type of terrain rarely exceeds the abilities of skilled and experienced climbers, the consequences of a fall could be disastrous. Without the placement of intermediate protection, any unarrested fall will translate directly to the belay/anchor system. A fall of this type puts the greatest possible stress on the belay system, a theoretical factor 2 fall. In this case, the belay anchor consisted of a block slung with 1″ tubular webbing backed up by a # 6 Stopper. Leaders must take care to place protection as soon as possible after leaving the belay, thus reducing the fall factor in the event of an accident.

Climbers should make the commitment to place protection. Otherwise, the party should dispense with the rope altogether and the climbers proceed solo. The decision to climb roped with belay, with running belays, or solo is a complicated one which must take many factors and conditions into account. Some of these considerations include weather, snow surface conditions, party experience, avalanche danger, terrain, and availability of good protection and belays. If possible, climbers in avalanche terrain must take care to place adequate protection and utilize ‘bombproof’ belays.

Climbers should never let their guard down. Even on seemingly easy climbing terrain, the unexpected can happen. All too often, climbers rely on luck or ability as opposed to skilled ropework for safety over such terrain.

The pair were climbing with short ice axes, better suited for steep ice climbs. A good combination of tools for moderate snow and ice terrain like that found in Huntington Ravine consists of a longer mountaineering axe in addition to one or two short technical type axes. A mountaineering axe is more effective for self-arrest and self-belay while climbing steep snow.

Both climbers were wearing helmets. The helmet worn by CL was destroyed in the fall. There is no doubt it saved his life.

Avalanche Information

The Mount Washington Observatory reported 1.3 inches of new snow in the previous 24 hours with light winds fron the West which shifted into the Southwest. The slope aspect of Damnation gully is generally S-SE. The gully is commonly cross-loaded with W winds. Another precipitation event earlier in the week which deposited 3.9 inches of snow on the summit of Mount Washington with NW winds from 70-90 m.p.h. may have contributed to the instability. Total snowfall from the summit in the 7 days preceding the accident was 5.6 inches, interspersed with fair skies.

The avalanche danger for Huntington Ravine was Low. Low avalanche danger refers to generally stable snow with isolated pockets of instability. The normal caution is advised when travelling in avalanche terrain. The avalanche triggered by DB is considered an isolated pocket of unstable snow. The fracture line of the avalanche was estimated at 40 feet wide and 10 inches deep. The victims were not buried in the avalanche debris, which was deposited 3 to 5 inches deep and covered an area 40 by 60 feet. Little additional snow was entrained in the slide as it moved down the track. Temperatures during the morning showed an increasing trend, and the avalanche debris was dense and wet. It is possible that increasing temperatures around freezing contributed to snowpack instability.

For those who choose to venture into avalanche terrain, a word of caution is advised. Even when the avalanche danger is posted as Low, the normal caution must be observed. On commiting mountainous terrain like that found in the easterly ravines of Mount Washington, even the smallest avalanches can be very dangerous.

Avalanche Right Gully

An avalanche accident occurred in the Right Gully of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. Right Gully is a 1000 foot snow gully with a slope angle ranging from 35 to 40 degrees. The climbers destination was the summit of Mount Washington. At approximately 1130, an avalanche was triggered by 2 climbers near the top of the gully. Four other climbers were also in the gully at the time the avalanche swept down. The four climbers had no warning and were unable to take evasive action to avoid the slide. PB was carried approximately 600 feet down to the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. WL and DC were carried approximately 300 feet. None of them were buried by the avalanche debris. PB suffered a fractured right tibia, WL a sprained left ankle, and DC a sprained right ankle. JE was not caught in the avalanche and escaped without injury.

The avalanche danger in Tuckerman Ravine was posted as Moderate. The avalanche was a pocket of windslab, which had been deposited on a combination of old, wind-packed snow and a rain crust. It appears to have been the only deposit of unstable snow in the gully, as no other snow was entrained by the slide. Crampons and ice axes were needed to safely ascend the gully.

Bystanders at the scene immediately began to assist the injured climbers. By the time the USFS snow ranger and search and rescue personnel arrived, the victims had been put into Cascade toboggans gathered from the nearby rescue cache. Rescue personnel and volunteers evacuated the injured to Hermit Lake, where the US Forest Service Thiokol was used to continue the transport to Pinkham Notch and the awaiting ambulance.

The debris from the avalanche was 180 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 2.5 feet deep. The maximum depth of the fracture was 18 inches. The fracture was approximately 175 feet wide. The track of the avalanche was 800 vertical feet.

Comments

The avalanche danger was posted at Moderate in Right Gully. The area that avalanched was an isolated pocket of unstable snow. Only this pocket was released, and very little other snow was entrained in the track of the avalanche. The area received 4.3 inches of snow in the previous 48 hours, with north winds gusting up to 60 m.p.h.. Right gully has a mostly south and southeast aspect.

Safe travel skills must be observed at all times in avalanche terrain when there is a danger of avalanches. The climbers caught in this slide were not practicing safe travel technique. They were traveling together up the gully, with another party above them.

Snow conditions were indeed stable where the victims were climbing, they were probably unaware of the unstable snow higher in the gully. Travelers in avalanche terrain should always be aware of what is above them and to have an escape route planned. These climbers were very lucky. They were not buried by the avalanche. They were not equipped with avalanche transceivers or shovels for self rescue. It was a small avalanche with a relatively benign run-out zone. Had the avalanche dragged them through an area known as Lunch Rocks located 150 feet west of the path of the avalanche, the outcome may not have been so fortunate.

The avalanche was triggered by 2 climbers also ascending to the summit of Mount Washington. They were aware that there were other climbers in the gully below them at the time of the avalanche. They declined to descend to the accident scene, choosing rather to continue on to the summit.