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Tuckerman Ravine–Crevasse fall fatality

Circles in the Lip area mark the approximate location from which the victim fell and the location of the open crevasse at the top of the Open Book.

At approximately 3:45pm, Norman Priebatsch was hiking with his son and two others when he fell on steep icy terrain. The group members reported that he fell over a rock band and began sliding downhill. The group received no response to their shouts as the victim slid downhill, and the victim was not attempting to stop his fall at the time. He slid into an open crevasse in the lower portion of the Bowl, below the Lip, in the vicinity of the “Open Book” area. The other members of the group immediately went to the edge of the crevasse, but could not make contact with the victim. One member, along with one bystander who was not part of the group, quickly went to the AMC caretakers’ cabin at Hermit Lake to report the accident.

USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the accident shortly after 4pm. While the Snow Rangers made their way to Pinkham Notch, the AMC caretaker and other bystanders went to the ravine to gather more information and began preparing for the rescue effort. In addition to the USFS Snow Rangers, assistance was requested from Mountain Rescue Service of North Conway and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue of Gorham. The caretaker from the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin also assisted at the scene, while the AMC staff at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and the Mt. Washington Observatory provided organizational support and spot weather forecasts.

USFS Snow Rangers established two anchors for use in a technical rope rescue system. One Snow Ranger was lowered into the crevasse to a depth of about 40 feet. From this point, he could clearly see another 40 feet down. As the slope angle decreased, the crevasse narrowed to about 4 feet in diameter. There was no sign of the missing hiker in the area that could be seen. Due to the objective hazards involved in descending into the confined space, the decision was made to not descend farther into the crevasse. The Snow Ranger was raised back to the surface and rescue efforts were suspended for the night. Snow Rangers returned to the site the following day, but again the decision was made not to descend into the crevasse due to the hazards involved with such a recovery effort.

In the weeks following April 1st, Snow Rangers continued to monitor conditions in the area. Numerous attempts were made to visually check the crevasse, but further descents into the crevasse were not safely possible. On May 20th, Snow Rangers were able to safely descend underneath the snow using an access point located below and to the side of the waterfall. Using this new entry point, the victim was visible approximately 90 feet from the opening, or 125 feet below the original crevasse opening. That evening, plans were formed to recover the victim from the crevasse the following morning. On Monday morning, May 21st, the victim was recovered by a team of four Snow Rangers, with assistance from Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue and the Appalachian Mountain Club caretaker.

Analysis

Earlier in the day on April 1st, two Snow Rangers had climbed through the Lip area, with the intention to assess and better understand the extent and severity of the crevasse hazard. They found crevasses to be very large and deep, though the magnitude of the hazard was not easily visible from above. They specifically looked into the opening that the victim later fell into. Climbing through the Lip, they also noted that the snow conditions that day were very hard and icy. These conditions and the Snow Rangers’ assessment were not unexpected. The avalanche advisory from that morning stated, “With the frozen surfaces comes the potential for very dangerous sliding falls. Every year we see numerous people climbing very steep and icy slopes (e.g. the Lip) without an ice axe and crampons…even very experienced mountaineers with all the right equipment would still have a very difficult time self-arresting under the current conditions on some slopes in Tuckerman, so play it safe.” It continued, “Climb up what you plan to descend. This gives you an opportunity to check for hazards such as crevasses at a leisurely pace.”

As mentioned in the advisory, having equipment is not a guarantee of safety. Down-climbing this route in these conditions is a very difficult endeavor; to do so safely would likely require facing into the slope and front-pointing one’s way down. The fact that three of the four group members were able to safely descend the Lip on this day is remarkable. None in the group were wearing winter mountaineering boots, no one besides the victim was wearing crampons, and though they did have ski poles, they were not carrying ice axes. In this very unfortunate accident, it would be an over-simplification to blame the lack of an ice axe as the primary cause of the accident, but this could be considered one contributing factor.

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center often recommends springtime visitors hike up what they plan to descend. We make this recommendation to backcountry visitors regardless of their level of experience. Every season brings similar hazards of crevasses, undermined snow, icefall, etc., but throughout each season the location, severity, and extent of the hazards does change. In this particular situation, the party had ascended a different route than they descended, so they did not have the opportunity to assess the extent of the crevasses before descending. When Snow Rangers were checking the conditions earlier on the day of the accident, it was using roped climbing techniques and utilizing an avalanche probe to locate, evaluate, and avoid crevasses. Despite this technique, one Snow Ranger inadvertently broke through a snow bridge and nearly fell downslope. If this had happened, the rope safety system as mitigation would have prevented a long sliding fall. This roped and probing technique is rarely used by spring visitors to Mt. Washington, even though it would be considered standard practice for mountaineers in other glaciated mountain ranges.

Each visitor, according to his or her experience and skill set, should be prepared for the current conditions. It is important to understand that what may be a reasonable level of risk for one person may not be the same for another, and that each person or group is responsible for deciding when, where, and how to travel. It is also important to understand that no person begins his or her life with mountaineering experience. There is no better way to learn safe mountain travel than through the actual experience of traveling in the mountains. It is imperative to honestly evaluate one’s own experience, skill, and tolerance for risk.

Snowboarder who had fallen into a crevasse near the waterfall in the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine

At approximately 3:30pm, Snow Rangers at Hermit Lake were notified of a snowboarder who had fallen into a crevasse near the waterfall in the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine. In the amount of time it took to grab gear for a technical rescue and hike up to the Bowl, bystanders had already pulled the soaked snowboarder out of the hole and were lowering him to Lunch Rocks. Other than being cold and having a scraped knuckle, he was uninjured. Although in the end the Snow Rangers did not provide medical care or transportation to the individual, the incident is significant enough to warrant inclusion here.

Based on interviews with the group and bystanders, here is how the events unfolded. The group had four people: the victim, his brother, girlfriend, and another friend. The group chose the line they wanted to take from below. The girlfriend was staying behind at Lunch Rocks to watch. The men did their best to make an assessment of what the run would be like. They planned where to enter the cliffs and where to make their turns, and they began climbing. We don’t know which route they climbed up, but this day the vast majority of the skiers were climbing the Sluice, traversing across to the top of the Lip, and dropping in from there. Earlier in the day, Snow Ranger Jeff Lane had climbed up through the Lip to assess the conditions of the crevasses and waterfall holes. Conditions were deteriorating rapidly as ravine temperatures had not gone below freezing for five consecutive days and nights, and at the time it was very warm and sunny. As of noontime, when Lane ascended, the crevasses in most location were not a significant safety concern but there were a few locations where they had grown and opened up enough for a person to fall deeply into them. He avoided approaching the waterfall holes in this assessment but noted they had grown substantially recently.

The group of three began their descent: two planned on dropping the waterfall while one chose to go through the Lip itself. The victim was the first one to go. As he attempted the final turn before dropping over the waterfall, he lost his edge, slid down, and fell in the crevasse. He landed upright in a constriction and was able to take off his snowboard so he could climb a few feet up to stand on a rocky edge. Icy water was cascading onto the snowboarder, so he put up his hood to help stay dry. The friend who was in the Lip saw him go out of sight, but did not know he fell into the crevasse. The brother also did not know the outcome right away. He carefully approached the edge to get a look down. Numerous people witnessed the incident, and before long bystanders were coming to the aid of the trapped snowboarder.

After a few minutes, someone was able to make voice contact with the snowboarder and determined he was uninjured. One of the bystanders on scene had been carrying a rope, which was lowered down to the snowboarded. After securing himself to the rope the group was able to pull him up and out of the crevasses. Wet clothes were exchanged for donated dry clothes. Some of the bystanders at this time began to descend. The victim slid down the Headwall on a belay and made his way to Lunch Rocks. Lane arrived at Lunch Rocks at approximately the same time as the victim, and confirmed he was uninjured.

This is a very remarkable event, mostly due to the fact that the victim was not injured more than he was and that bystanders were able to rescue him so quickly. A number of factors lead up to this incident, many of which could have been easily avoided or done differently. First, it is important for visitors to get the latest conditions information from reliable sources, such as the Snow Rangers, the AMC caretakers at Hermit Lake Shelters or the Visitor Center. The fact that crevasse danger existed on this day was discussed in the morning Avalanche Advisory. The daily advisory is the single best resource for information about the current conditions and potential hazards. We do not know whether or not it was read by any in the group, but they did pass by two locations where it is posted each day. Furthermore, we strongly recommend skiers climb up their intended line of descent so they can assess the hazards. Many hazards are difficult to see from the base of the ravine or from above while skiing.

03-28-2010:Snow Rangers and Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol personnel responded to a 911 call reporting a fallen skier with traumatic injuries. The location was described as the “right ridge” of Tuckerman Ravine but no other details were available. Considerable efforts were made to locate the victim, but proved unsuccessful until after some time a Snow Ranger noticed a 17 year old male (NL) skiing out of the Ravine with a minor scrape on his face. He acknowledged that he had fallen while climbing up Right Gully and decided to walk down, but he didn’t know where his other two friends were. They had continued climbing up and upon reaching the ridge one (JB) decided to go down via Lion Head Trail and the other (NB) was going to try to ski Right Gully. The skier fell on his descent, lost a ski, and then passed his NL who was now down-climbing. He looked for his ski unsuccessfully, and decided to climb back up Right Gully to the ridge without his backpack and with only one ski so that he could also descend the Lion Head Trail. Eventually JB reached Hermit Lake where he was able to confirm with Snow Rangers there that he did indeed call 911 to report his friend falling even though he did not know the extent of injuries. It is unclear as to whether he made the call to report NL’s climbing fall or NB’s skiing fall. After talking with NL and JB for some time, it became clear that NB was unaccounted for, yet his backpack and a single ski were in the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. Neither NL or JB knew the location of NB, so the search of Tuckerman resumed. NB had gone down the Lion Head Winter Route and back up to Hermit Lake, where he was reunited with his friends.

This incident resulted in only very minor injuries. JB suffered a bloody nose and swollen lip from a fall on the Lion Head Winter Route, and NL had minor scratches on his face. The incident highlights the importance of proper trip planning and preparation. The entire group was dressed in cotton pants and shirts on a cold gray day, the snow surface was very firm and they were not carrying ice axes or crampons, and they did not have good knowledge of the trails and terrain of the area. Among the most common causes for incidents we respond to are long sliding falls, groups that have become separated, and hypothermia. All of these could have played a more prominent role in this incident; thankfully it resolved itself in a positive way.

Snowshoe fall Tuckerman Ravine Crevasse

On 5-13-01 VM was descending the Tuckerman Ravine trail, above Tuckerman Ravine, on snowshoes. She lost her footing just above the Lip and tumbled into the Ravine, falling into a crevasse. VM was upright in the crevasse about 30′ below the surface. She was able to reach down and remove her snowshoes. Snow Rangers and members of the MWVSP lowered a harness into the crevasse. VM was able to get into the harness on her own and she was then extricated from the crevasse. VM was lowered to the floor of the ravine where she was treated for hypothermia and an injured ankle. VM was able to walk with assistance from the ravine to the Snow Rangers cabin at Hermit Lake. At the cabin she was warmed up and her ankle taped. She was then put in a litter and taken down the Sherburne Ski trail to Pinkham Notch.

Comments

VM was descending an area she was unfamiliar with on snowshoes. Snowshoeing in steep terrain can be difficult and dangerous. Snowshoes don’t allow you to “edge” in hard steep terrain. They actually act as boats making a fall in steep terrain fast and uncontrollable. Always be aware of the hazards you may encounter. In Tuckerman Ravine in the spring you can expect to find crevasses, undermined snow and falling ice. Therefore, in this area it is best to climb up what you plan to come down so you will be familiar with the hazards you will encounter.

VM had the necessary equipment for a day hike except her clothing was mostly cotton. When cotton gets wet it stays wet, it is best to have synthetic clothing such as polypropylene and fleece to help reduce the chance of hypothermia.

Personnel Used: USFS-3 MWVSP-6 Volunteers-3

The rescue effort took approximately 5 hours total.

Hiker Glissading – Crevasse Tuckerman Ravine

On 4-28-01, JL and JN were descending Mt Washington after climbing up the Lion Head Trail. Above the ravine they started to glissade down the slope. JL lost his ice axe and started an uncontrolled fall on the hard pack snow and fell 20′ into a crevasse. JN tried to descend to assist JL and also fell uncontrolled into the crevasse, approximately 30′. Two skiers (FM & RF) in the ravine witnessed JN fall, FM tried to ski down the Lip to assist when he fell 500′ down the Lip. At approximately 7:00 pm FM reached the Snow Ranger Cabin at Hermit Lake and reported that a female had fallen down the headwall into a bunch of rocks. At the same time a 911 call was relayed to the Snow Rangers from the Maine State Police, who received a call from JN in the crevasse. Members of the MWVSP and AMC employees headed into the ravine to assist the injured female. Upon arrival at 7:15pm they saw the other skier, RF descending the “Lobster Claw”, he confirmed that an accident occurred on the Lip. A search was conducted, at 7:45pm the team found JL & JN in the crevasse. A rescuer was lowered into the crevasse, a harness was put on JL and he was extricated from the crevasse at 9:30 pm. He was then lowered by rope down the headwall put in a litter, belayed by a second team down the Little Headwall and transported to the Snow Rangers cabin, where he was treated for hypothermia and his injuries. Meanwhile, the rescuer in the crevasse splinted JN’s leg and helped her into a harness. JN was extricated from the crevasse at 11:19 pm, placed in a litter and lowered to the floor of the ravine. She was then belayed down the Little Headwall and transported to the Snow Rangers cabin. JN reached the cabin at 2:45am where she was treated for hypothermia and her injuries. JL and JN where then transported by the USFS snowcat to Pinkham Notch where they were placed in an ambulance at 5:00am.

JL suffered a ruptured spleen, ruptured liver and a bruised kidney. JN suffered two broken ankles and a fractured pelvis.

Comments

JL and JN where descending a route they were not familiar with. Always be aware of the hazards you may encounter. In Tuckerman Ravine in the spring you can expect to find crevasses, undermined snow and falling ice. Therefore, in this area it is best to climb up what you plan to come down so you will be familiar with the hazards you will encounter.

The snow conditions at the time of the accident were very hard and extremely unfavorable for self arrest. Glissading is not recommended when conditions are hard, you have hazards below you, you don’t know what is below you, or you don’t have a clear run out in case you lose control.

JL and JN were well prepared for a winter hike. Having the proper clothing and extra gear may have saved them from succumbing to hypothermia while waiting for extrication from the crevasse.

Personnel Used: USFS-2 AMC-3 MWVSP-7 Volunteers-3

The rescue effort took approximately 10 hours total.