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Rescue party reaching the parking lot

Long Sliding Falls – Weekend Incidents

Tuckerman Ravine, 04/02/21.

Tuckerman Ravine, 04/02/21

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.”

04/02/21 Events:

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.

Litter being belayed below South Gully

Litter being belayed below South Gully

04/03/21 Events:

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 transported to the hospital.

Rescue party reaching the parking lot

Rescue party reaching the parking lot

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, 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.

DHART helicopter and volunteers assisting with rescue at potential landing zone

DHART helicopter and volunteers assisting with rescue at potential landing zone

Help needed at the Harvard Cabin!

Each year, between December 1 and March 31, the Harvard Mountaineering Club operates a cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine, a popular destination for backcountry skiers, ice climbers, and other winter recreationists.  The Cabin caretaker provides critical support to the Forest Service through daily snow study plot observations, as well as critical help during search and rescue efforts.

Revenue from people staying at the cabin is typically just enough to cover the cost of a caretaker. Due to COVID-19, the HMC is unable to open the cabin to the public and thus fund the caretaker position. The New Hampshire Outdoors Council has already provided a grant for $3000, and this fundraiser will be used to cover the remainder of the caretaker’s winter stipend, with any excess funds going toward cabin maintenance (especially the new privy!).

To donate, click here for the GoFundMe page.

Please feel free to share your e-mail at https://forms.gle/YGeXQMGCLBqHRRix8 if you’d like to keep abreast of the Harvard Cabin and future developments!

Please note: while the cabin is closed to the public this season, camping at the cabin is permitted until March 31 as usual.

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.

Sliding Fall Huntington Ravine

A climber was injured from a sliding fall while descending in Huntington Ravine.  A party of two started up Odell Gully around 3:00 pm on Saturday afternoon.  After completing the main ice climbing section, they traversed to the east to begin their descent.  Neither of them had their headlamps with them and darkness complicated their descent.  According to the party, they were in the lower section of the Escape Hatch when one of them lost his footing and began a sliding fall.  Unable to self arrest, he slid approximately 150 feet before slamming into a tree and stopping.  The fall resulted in injuries to his back and legs.  The two were able to get to the Harvard Cabin under their own power where local guides and the caretaker provided assistance to the climber and notified the USFS Snow Rangers who arrived at the Harvard Cabin around 9:30 pm.  The patient was reassessed, immobilized on a backboard and transported to Pinkham Notch via snowcat where he was transferred to an ambulance and brought to the hospital.  We later learned that the patient fractured two vertebrae in his lower back and had numerous sprains and contusions.

Lessons Learned:  This was the third sliding fall injury in three days that may have been prevented with a quick self arrest.  The surface that all of these occurred on is a very hard icy snowpack from the January thaw, which is difficult to stop on.  If you don’t arrest your fall immediately you will get out of control fast.  In each of these incidents, the parties involved did a good job getting to the Harvard Cabin under their own power.

Sliding Fall – Huntington Ravine

A party of four was ascending the Fan in Huntington Ravine when one of them fell and slid into two other people in his party causing them to fall as well.  One of three involved in the fall was unable to self arrest on the icy surface and tumbled about 50 feet before hitting a rock.  He sustained a soft tissue injury to his left thigh.  The patient’s party was able to assist him down to the Harvard Cabin and notified the caretaker of the incident and requested assistance.  A Snow Ranger assessed his injuries and transported the patient to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile.

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.

North Gully Solo Climbing Fall

A solo climber fell out of North Gully when his crampon slipped on an ice bulge while down climbing. The climber fell approximately 40 feet onto talus and sustained multiple fractures in his arm. Three climbers at the base of Yale Gully came over to assist him. He walked to the Harvard Cabin with their assistance but under his own power. The caretaker and two Snow Rangers met him at the cabin, provided first aid and walked him down to Pinkham Notch where he was met by an ambulance and transported to the hospital. This incident involved seven people and it took about four hours to evacuate the patient. The patient did an outstanding job getting himself off the mountain.

At the start of this incident, a bystander left the scene to get help. On his way down the talus he injured his knee. He was able to walk to the Harvard Cabin on his own where he spent the night. He walked down to Pinkham Notch the next day with assistance from his friends. This is a good reminder for everyone that one of the worst things you can do while helping out on an incident is create a new patient. If you are helping out with a rescue be sure to slow down and be methodical. Rushing rarely speeds up the progress of a situation.