(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.
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.