The victim was solo ice climbing in Huntington Ravine’s Pinnacle Gully when he fell approximately 400 feet. He injured his back, neck, legs and suffered minor contusions and lacerations. The victim self evacuated himself to the Harvard Mountaineering Cabin where he was then put in a litter and transported to the Sherburne Ski trail he was then transferred to the USFS Snowcat to Pinkham Notch. The rescue took 6 people about 3 ½ hours to perform.
DB and CL were climbing Damnation Gully, a 1600 foot, grade 3 snow and ice route on the north side of Huntington Ravine. Weather conditions on the mountain were moderate with light winds. Approximately 2 inches of new snow was reported in the previous 24 hours from the summit of Mount Washington. Both climbers are experienced winter mountaineers and experienced climbing Mount Washington in winter. Damnation gully was the last remaining gully climb in Huntington Ravine for DB.
The pair had successfully climbed most of the gully. About thirty feet remained of the pitch when disaster struck. DB was near the end of the pitch, looking for an anchor when he triggered a small avalanche. He had recognized the instability and was moving off the slope when it failed. Nearly a full rope length out from the belay, DB was swept off his feet and began sliding down the gully. No intermediate climbing protection had been placed. Unable to self-arrest, the fall was taken directly on to the belayer and belay anchor, which subsequently failed. Still roped together, DB and CL fell 1000 feet down Damnation Gully.
Other climbers responded to DB’s cries for help. They hurried to the accident scene and began assisting the fallen climbers. One of these climbers was equipped with a portable handheld radio. He transmitted an emergency message which was received by another Forest visitor 3 miles away at the trailhead. The accident was then reported at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and turned over to the US Forest Service. The initial report was of a broken leg in Huntington Ravine. USFS Snow Ranger Brad Ray and John Knieriem, patrol leader of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol responded to the accident in the USFS Thiokol snow vehicle. They were met on the trail by witnesses who reported a much more serious accident than had been initially thought. Additional resources were mobilized from the USFS, AMC, and HMC to assist in the care and evacuation of the victims. Trauma equipment and technical climbing gear was dispatched to the scene.
Upon arrival of rescuers, CL had been evacuated from the lower slopes of the gully by volunteers using equipment from a nearby rescue cache. DB was still on the slope below the gully and required further evacuation using ropes and a belay. CL’s injuries and vital signs were quickly assessed. Oxygen was administered and he was transported in the Thiokol snow vehicle under the care of an ER doctor, and ER nurse, and 2 USFS EMT’s. A second trip up the mountain by the Thiokol was required to evacuate DB to Pinkham Notch.
CL suffered an L1 spinal compression fracture, numerous broken ribs, a fractured right femur, hemothorax of the right lung, and severe head trauma. He was immediately flown by helicopter to the regional trauma center. DB sustained serious injury to the sacral/pelvic region, including a displaced sacroilliac joint. DB also required surgery for his injuries.
Snow conditions in the gully during the climb were generally firm, making self arrest difficult if not impossible. An unarrested climber falling over 40 degree snow slopes quickly gains a great deal of speed. On low angle, less technical snow climbs, rope teams often proceed without placing intermediate climbing protection. While this type of terrain rarely exceeds the abilities of skilled and experienced climbers, the consequences of a fall could be disastrous. Without the placement of intermediate protection, any unarrested fall will translate directly to the belay/anchor system. A fall of this type puts the greatest possible stress on the belay system, a theoretical factor 2 fall. In this case, the belay anchor consisted of a block slung with 1″ tubular webbing backed up by a # 6 Stopper. Leaders must take care to place protection as soon as possible after leaving the belay, thus reducing the fall factor in the event of an accident.
Climbers should make the commitment to place protection. Otherwise, the party should dispense with the rope altogether and the climbers proceed solo. The decision to climb roped with belay, with running belays, or solo is a complicated one which must take many factors and conditions into account. Some of these considerations include weather, snow surface conditions, party experience, avalanche danger, terrain, and availability of good protection and belays. If possible, climbers in avalanche terrain must take care to place adequate protection and utilize ‘bombproof’ belays.
Climbers should never let their guard down. Even on seemingly easy climbing terrain, the unexpected can happen. All too often, climbers rely on luck or ability as opposed to skilled ropework for safety over such terrain.
The pair were climbing with short ice axes, better suited for steep ice climbs. A good combination of tools for moderate snow and ice terrain like that found in Huntington Ravine consists of a longer mountaineering axe in addition to one or two short technical type axes. A mountaineering axe is more effective for self-arrest and self-belay while climbing steep snow.
Both climbers were wearing helmets. The helmet worn by CL was destroyed in the fall. There is no doubt it saved his life.
The Mount Washington Observatory reported 1.3 inches of new snow in the previous 24 hours with light winds fron the West which shifted into the Southwest. The slope aspect of Damnation gully is generally S-SE. The gully is commonly cross-loaded with W winds. Another precipitation event earlier in the week which deposited 3.9 inches of snow on the summit of Mount Washington with NW winds from 70-90 m.p.h. may have contributed to the instability. Total snowfall from the summit in the 7 days preceding the accident was 5.6 inches, interspersed with fair skies.
The avalanche danger for Huntington Ravine was Low. Low avalanche danger refers to generally stable snow with isolated pockets of instability. The normal caution is advised when travelling in avalanche terrain. The avalanche triggered by DB is considered an isolated pocket of unstable snow. The fracture line of the avalanche was estimated at 40 feet wide and 10 inches deep. The victims were not buried in the avalanche debris, which was deposited 3 to 5 inches deep and covered an area 40 by 60 feet. Little additional snow was entrained in the slide as it moved down the track. Temperatures during the morning showed an increasing trend, and the avalanche debris was dense and wet. It is possible that increasing temperatures around freezing contributed to snowpack instability.
For those who choose to venture into avalanche terrain, a word of caution is advised. Even when the avalanche danger is posted as Low, the normal caution must be observed. On commiting mountainous terrain like that found in the easterly ravines of Mount Washington, even the smallest avalanches can be very dangerous.
On March 5, 1999 a serious climbing accident occurred in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington.
The Mount Washington Observatory reported very strong winds and cold temperatures for the day. West winds at 70-85 m.p.h. and temperatures ranging from -5 to -8 degrees F. made travel above treeline extremely difficult and dangerously cold. Snow conditions were very firm, the result of a mid-winter rain event.
QL and his partner AB completed a successful ascent of Odell’s gully, a moderate snow and ice climb on the south side of Huntington Ravine. Upon reaching the top, they encountered extremely high winds. They decided to descend via the Escape Hatch, a low angle snow gully which is the standard descent from climbs in Huntington Ravine. Battling the strong winds, the pair made their way east along the rim on Huntington Ravine. At times, the wind forced them to crawl on hands and knees. The winds had the effect of gradually pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the Ravine. At approximately 11:00 AM, a gust of wind blew QL off his feet. He was literally blown off the mountain. QL began sliding down the top of South gully. He attempted to self-arrest, but was unable to do so. He slid and tumbled down the entire length of South Gully, a fall of approximately 1200 feet.
AB suddenly noticed that QL was no longer with him. AB continued to make his way toward the Escape Hatch. Successfully descending the gully, he found QL at the bottom of South Gully, where he began to attend his injuries and initiate a rescue. Fortunately, another climbing party had arrived on the floor of Huntington Ravine. Another stroke of fortune for QL, as the party consisted of an orthopedic surgeon, an EMT and a registered nurse. They provided emergency medical care, and evacuated QL to the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine. QL was transported to an awaiting ambulance via the US Forest Service Thiokol snow machine to Pinkham Notch.
QL suffered multiple lacerations and abrasions, a dislocated right elbow, and other internal injuries,
Climbing Mount Washington in winter can be a very serious undertaking. In addition to cold temperatures, hurricane force winds are measured on a regular basis. The climbing gullies of Huntington Ravine are somewhat sheltered from the full force of strong winds so common to the mountain. Climbers may be unaware or unprepared for what awaits them as they top out, where full exposure to the winds are experienced. Several climbing accidents have occurred in the past when climbers, upon reaching the top of the route, have been blown back down the gully. After a climb under high wind conditions, seasoned Mount Washington climbers will take care not to stand up until safe terrain is reached.
Conditions were quite severe above tree-line when the pair left to make their climb. winds were ranging from 70 to 80 m.p.h. on the summit of Mount Washington. The safety of an ascent should have been re-evaluated.
Several alternative options for descent should be considered under such difficult conditions. One option is to descend/rappel the gully to the base, rather than risking an above treeline traverse to the Escape Hatch. Climbers of Odell’s or Pinnacle gullies can also traverse east below the rim of the ravine to South Gully, providing a more sheltered descent option under high wind conditions.
QL was literally blown off the mountain attempting to descend. Climbing and traveling under such extreme conditions can be very difficult, and climbers have a narrow margin of safety in the event of an accident.
A word must be said about the tremendous fortune of having an orthopedic surgeon, EMT and RN on the scene in such a short time. A better scenario for care and evacuation under such conditions from this location is difficult to imagine.
The rescue required 6 persons and 13 person hours.
On 12-27-1998, an ice climbing accident occurred in Odell’s gully in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington. BC and his partner started up the steep water ice of Odell’s gully. BC began leading out. They were climbing the route with a running belay. About 25 meters out, BC placed one 22 cm ice screw. As he came to the end of their 50 meter rope, he started to place another screw. While doing so, his partner began climbing. The second slipped and fell, pulling BC off his stance. BC was 25 meters out from his last protection and fell approximately 50 meters. BC slid and bounced down the low angle ice. Both the leader fall and the belayer were held by the single ice screw. BC exhibited painful swelling in the pelvis/hip area and was unable to walk. With the assistance of volunteers and SAR personnel in the area, BC was immobilized in a Cascade toboggan and carried/sledded to Pinkham Notch.
Both climbers were experienced and well equipped. They were training for a winter climbing trip to Mount Katahdin.
The climbers were climbing within their abilities. Climbing with a running belay or “simul-climbing” is a common technique for the snow and ice gullies of Huntington Ravine. Climbing in this fashion is clearly more risky than belayed climbing, depending on weather conditions. Placing additional protection would have minimized the distance of the leader fall. When climbing with a running belay, the second must take care not to climb when the leader has stopped to place protection.
The rescue required 16 persons and 76 person hours.