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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.

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.

Sliding Fall Huntington Ravine.

The victim was performing a seated glissade with crampons on in Huntington Ravine. Once he moved from soft new snow to the older hard icy surface he lost control and began cartwheeling. He tumbled about 150 to 200 feet before stopping in the rocks. Students from Lyndon State College were in the area and assisted the victim and called 911. The Gorham Ambulance service was called who relayed the information to the Forest Service Snow Rangers. Additional rescue resources were called. The victim was placed in a litter and lowered 600′ down the Fan, slid to the Sherburne ski trail where he was placed on the USFS snowcat. Due to icy conditions on the ski trail, the litter was belayed down the two lower hills and slid to a waiting ambulance. The victim suffered three fractured vertebrae, broken ribs, hand and ankle. This rescue took 22 people approximately 4.5 hours to complete.

Sliding Fall – Huntington Ravine

A party of three was hiking in Huntington Ravine, approaching O’Dell’s Gully when one of the individuals was knocked off his feet by a wind gust. He was unable to self arrest and slid and tumbled approximately 400’ into the rocks. The victim’s partners got him down the slope on two lowers. Then one of the partners ran down to the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin to report the accident. Forest Service Snow Rangers were notified and additional rescue resources were called to the mountain. The victim was placed in a litter and carried down the Huntington winter access trail to the Tuckerman Ravine trail and over to the Sherburne ski trail where the litter was then slid down the trail to Pinkham and a waiting ambulance. The victim suffered facial injuries, fractures in both arms and a dislocated shoulder. Personnel from Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, the Harvard Mountaineering Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club worked with the Snow Rangers on this rescue. The rescue took a total of 34 people and 7.5 hours to complete

Falling Ice – Central Gully

At 1530 a climber was struck on the head by falling ice while climbing in Central Gully in Huntington Ravine. The patient was wearing a helmet and lost consciousness for 1 minute due to the impact. She was with a group of 14 people who initiated a self-evacuation. The patient was treated by members of her party, packaged in a litter from a near-by rescue cache and they began transporting her down the mountain. The group sent one person out ahead for help and the incident was reported to USFS Snow Rangers at 1700. Two Snow Rangers responded from Pinkham Notch with oxygen and other medical supplies. They met the group on the Tuckerman Ravine trail, administered oxygen and assisted them down to Pinkham Notch. The patient was met by an ambulance at Pinkham Notch and transported to a local hospital. The incident took two USFS Snow Rangers 2 hours to complete.

Long Sliding Fall – Central Gully

At around 1200 hours, the victim was attempting to ski in Central Gully in Huntington Ravine below the “ice bulge” when he fell. He slid on hard neve snow for 200 ft before hitting the rocks face first at the top of the fan. He had severe pain on his left side from his shoulder down to his leg. After assessing the victim, his partner went for help. Forest Service Snow Rangers were contacted and reached the victim at approximately 1335. The victim was put in a litter and lowered about 1200’ to the floor of the ravine. From there numerous climbers helped carry the litter to the Forest Service snowcat. He was then transported via snowcat to an ambulance at Pinkham, arriving at 1730. The victim suffered a dislocated and fractured shoulder, fracture humerus/elbow and muscular injuries of the right leg. This rescue took 19 people and up to 4 hours to complete.

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

Glissading – Huntington Ravine

The victim was glissading down the Escape Hatch in Huntington Ravine when her crampon got caught on a small tree. She suffered an ankle injury as a result. She was lowered by her party approximately 90 meters to the floor of Huntington where she was put into a litter. A USFS Snow Ranger met the group and transported the victim behind a snowmobile 2/3 of the way down the trail. The last 1/3 of the trail she was carried/sledded in a litter down to Pinkham Notch. This rescue took 6 people 2 hours.

Climbing Fall

The victim was climbing in O’dells Gully with two others. When on the last pitch of ice his crampon popped off his right foot which caused him to take an approximately 20 foot lead fall suffering a right ankle injury. The party self-rescued using a litter from the Dow Cache once they rappelled/lowered to the bottom of the ice. They pulled the litter to the Harvard Cabin where they met the HMC Cartetaker. The Caretaker contacted USFS Snow Rangers who then transported the victim to Pinkham Notch via the snowcat. His climbing partners then drove him to the hospital. This rescue took 4 people 2+ hours to complete.

Injured Climber

The victim was leading a climb in O’dells Gully when he took a 10′ fall on the third pitch of ice. He landed on a sloping ice shelf and fell backwards suffering an injury to his lower left leg. He was lowered down the ice by his climbing partners and then by USFS Snow Rangers. At the base of the ice he was put in a litter and lowered to the floor of the ravine and the waiting snowcat. He was transported by snowcat to Pinkham and then by ambulance to the hospital. This rescue took 6 people 3.25 hours.

Long Sliding Fall

After receiving a report of an overdue hiker and finding the hiker’s car at the Pinkham parking lot, Forest Service Snow Rangers initiated a search with the help of NH Fish and Game, AMC, MRS and AVSAR. After searching numerous areas, the individual was located on the floor of Huntington Ravine. The hiker ascended the Lion Head Winter Route to the Summit of Mt. Washington on January 27, 2004 with the intent to descend through the Ravine. The attempted descent through the Ravine resulted in a fatal fall. He was well equiped for winter weather in the mountains with appropriate clothing, food and water. He was using crampons and ski poles but did not have an ice axe.

Fall Central Gully

The victim took at 20-30 foot fall in Central Gully and suffered a possible sprained/broken ankle. He and his two partners self rescued to the Harvard Cabin. The victim was put in a litter from the Lion Head first aid cache by the Caretaker and sledded down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Pinkham. The rescue took 3 people approximately 4 hours.

Climbing Fall – Huntington Ravine

A climber fell at the top of the 2nd bulge in Damnation Gully, Huntington Ravine. Upon placing both tools in hard snow and weighting them, both axes pulled out. The climber fell about 30 feet, half way through the fall the climber hit a ledge landing directly on his foot and rolling his ankle, suffering a sprain. He and his partner self-rescued to the Harvard Cabin where they spent the night. The next morning they were transported to Pinkham in the USFS snowcat.

Fall Climbing Ice

On 2-18-01, two climbers, NG and JB were ‘simul-soloing’ Damnation Gully, a 1200 foot ice and snow climb. They were at the last ice bulge, approximately 200 feet from the top, when the accident occurred around 12:30 pm. The plan was to have JB climb through the section of ice while NG sank his ice axes into the ice bulge to provide himself an anchor while waiting for JB to clear this section. NG was then to follow. NG was approximately 5-7 feet below JB when JB planted his left-handed ice axe into the ice, and unleashed an “ice dam”. A large section of the ice-bulge broke apart, accompanied by a rush of ice-cold water. NG was attached with his ice axes to this 6 by 10′ section of ice, which broke out. NG fell with the section of ice approximately 800 feet. When the ice blew out, JB’s left tool and left leg (crampon) were forcefully ejected from the ice. As a result JB “barn-doored” on to his right hand axe and crampon. He saw NG fall all the way down the gully. JB continued up the gully as trying to descend would have been more time-consuming and dangerous under the circumstances. He topped out on the climb and descended Central Gully to come to the aid of NG.

Other climbers nearby came to the aid of NG while a snowboarder rode ½ mile down to the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin to call for help. Forest Service Snowrangers responded. NG had suffered multiple trauma. Climbers on scene had him in a rescue litter obtained from the Dow First Aid Cache when the first Snow Ranger arrived. Several climbers pre-placed anchor systems to help lower the litter down the steep terrain. It took 3 belays to get him to the floor of the ravine. NG had an open head injury, was unconscious and having difficulty breathing. The Forest Service snowcat arrived and he was quickly loaded onto it and taken down the mountain. He was loaded into a waiting ambulance at 3:30 pm and transported to Memorial Hospital in North Conway, where he died from his injuries.

Comments

Damnation Gully is considered a grade 3 climb. There is one small section of grade 3 ice, several sections of grade 2, and many pitches of steep-snow climbing. It is not unusual or uncommon for climbers to ascend the route without the support of a rope and belay.

One way an ice dam can form is under conditions of a rapid temperature drop. The low temperature on the summit of Mount Washington in the previous 24 hours was –19 degrees F. Waterfall ice is formed when water flows over steep terrain in winter. The water that forms the ice is always flowing and constantly forming new ice. When the air temperature drops, water channels freeze up and water begins to pool up behind the ice. This creates hydraulic pressure behind the ice. When the ice dam is disturbed, the pooled water breaks out, often with an explosive force.

Mountaineering is a risk filled pursuit with many objective hazards. Risk management and mitigating hazards must be a constant endeavor. Even then, accidents in the mountains still happen due to unforeseen forces.

These climbers were knowledgeable and experienced. Ice dams are an unpredictable hazard of winter mountaineering.

Due to the tremendous forces involved, it is unclear whether belayed climbing would have saved the life of NG.

Personnel Used: USFS – 2 AMC – 2 MRS – 2 Volunteers-unaffiliated – 12

The rescue effort took approximately 4 hours total.