On a tour to the Gulf of Slides via the Graham Trail, two snow rangers observed the aftermath of a D2-sized avalanche in Main Gully. While discussing the nature of the avalanche and observing the rapid and intense snow loading from northwest winds, a second D2-sized avalanche occurred in Main Gully. Debris from these two avalanches was 8-12 feet deep. No one was caught or injured in either of these avalanches, however, six people in three unique teams of two had been traveling at the bottom of Main Gully within 20-30 minutes of both avalanches.
The current snowpack at mid and upper elevations in the Presidential Range presents widespread hazards of long sliding falls. These hazards are a result of warm weather and rain followed by a refreeze.
Looking at the MWOBS F6 for March reveals nearly a week (03/21 to 03/26) of average daily temperatures that were 15-20F above average. On March 31, the summit stayed above the freezing mark overnight before temperature dropped rapidly on Thursday, April 1. Rain was observed at the summit for 12 hours before turning to freezing rain, sleet, and then snow. Summit temperature dropped below zero Thursday night and remained in the single digits above zero on Friday. The Hermit Lake snow plot, just below Tuckerman Ravine, reached a high of 18F. Accordingly, Friday’s forecast warned of long sliding fall hazards: “the risks associated with taking a long sliding fall are the greatest concern, by far, for safe travel in steep terrain today.”
On Friday, a group of skiers climbed into South Gully in Huntington Ravine. They assessed conditions as they ascended, finding a variable mix of edgeable snow and ice patches. When the snow became too firm for easy booting in crampons, they stopped climbing and transitioned to skis. The first skier made a few turns before losing an edge, resulting in a tumbling slide over a buttress. He collided with a tree below with enough speed to cause a femur fracture. His party and nearby skiers and climbers responded quickly and prepared for a litter evacuation. Snow rangers arrived on scene with the litter, which was belayed down to low angle terrain and transported by snowmobile to an ambulance.
Saturday brought clear skies and sunshine. This resulted in some softening of surface snow, but the long sliding fall hazard persisted beneath. Early in the afternoon, a skier lost control near the Lip in Tuckerman Ravine and took a long sliding fall down to the ravine floor. He sustained injuries to the knee and shoulder. A suspected shoulder dislocation was unable to be reduced in the field. He was unable to walk due to the knee injury, necessitating a litter evacuation down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrollers, the Hermit Lake Caretaker, bystanders, and a belay rope were all necessary to transport him down to Hermit Lake safely. A snowmobile then transported the skier to the parking lot.
Shortly thereafter, a second skier was injured in a long sliding fall in Tuckerman Ravine. A bystander assisted in treating the resulting shoulder injury and the skier was able to hike out after being loaned a pair of crampons.
Later that afternoon, a skier was seen falling the entire length of Main Gully in Gulf of Slides, around 800 vertical feet. The skier was reported to be sliding very fast, and tumbled airborne multiple times on the way down. The severity of initial reports necessitated immediate response. Two MWAC snow rangers began traveling to Gulf of Slides from Hermit Lake while other MWAC staff contacted Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team to request helicopter assistance. Unfortunately, when the DHART helicopter arrived to assess the area, all landing zone options were deemed unsuitable. Snow rangers made contact with the skier, who was being transported down the trail in a litter, and assessed his injuries. Finding the skier stable, the decision was made to continue with the litter transport. About 15 people assisted with this process, including nearby skiers, snow rangers, and NH Fish and Game officers. The rescue party reached the parking lot well after dark and the skier was cared for and transported to the hospital by Gorham EMS.
Remember that there can be a fine line between being in control and being totally at the mercy of the mountains. As such, be prepared for the conditions and consequences of the day. Start by tracking weather and snow conditions. Bring your beacon, shovel, and probe when traveling in avalanche terrain. Equip yourself with crampons and an ice axe to navigate steep slopes. Know how to use your equipment and practice regularly. Assess risks and consequences constantly. Temporal and spatial variability can provide avenues to improve your safety margins, but could also result in the opposite – whether you recognize it or not. Stay alert as you travel so you can recognize no-fall zones and choose terrain carefully. Know your abilities and limits. In case things still go wrong, be prepared to stay warm and self evacuate.
Thanks to all responding parties, AMC Caretakers, MWVSP, NH Fish and Game, Gorham EMS and DHART. Events such as these often require a community effort. We are fortunate to be surrounded by a community that is always willing to help.
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.