Stranded Hikers – May 3, 2022

At approximately 5:00pm on Tuesday, May 3rd, two hikers called 911 after descending into Tuckerman Ravine and becoming stranded in the Lip / Sluice area.

Disoriented in whiteout conditions – Lion Head and Alpine Garden trails

Events: At 11:50 am on Saturday, January 16, a 911 call was relayed to snow rangers at Hermit Lake by the AMC Front Desk that 3 climbers had lost their way while descending from a climb in Huntington Ravine. Coordinates provided by location services from the caller’s phone placed the caller 1/10 mile north of the junction of the Lion Head Trail and Alpine Garden Trail. The user was calm but concerned that the situation would take a turn for the worse if they couldn’t find the trail. Wind recorded on the summit at the time was near 80mph from the ESE with gusts in the 100-110 mph range. They did not need a rescue at the time but wanted to share location information to be safe.

At 12:45 pm, another call from 911 dispatch came in sharing the phone number of a person who lost the trail near the previous caller’s location. Joining the call with the dispatcher revealed a much higher level of distress. Winds from the ESE were now steady in the 85 mph range and gusting near 110 and likely higher. Snow was falling at a rate of an inch and hour or more and blowing snow and fog severely limited visibility. A hasty team of three snow rangers were dispatched to the location carrying warming rescue gear. The caller was a mile from the cabin but 1400’ vertical above. The lead snow ranger and dispatcher convinced the individual to stand and walk into the wind to find the trail and head back down the Lion Head Trail. The hasty rescue team of 3 made contact with the subject not far above Hermit Lake in the switchbacks.

Analysis: Typical ground conditions in events like these make it hard or impossible to see from one trail marking cairn to the next. Combined with drifting snow on the ground, normal navigational cues such as rock cairns, turnpiking, and crampon scratched ice and rock are lost. Veteran guides and rescuers, including this writer, with scores of Mount Washington ascents and decades of experience have lost their way in even milder conditions. It is important to note that wind direction in the alpine zone is a critical data point. East winds are unusual and generally limited to passing strong low pressure systems and the associated wrap around winds. Hikers on the Lion Head Trail are shielded by the summit “cone” along much of that trail above treeline but only from west and northwest wind. An east wind strikes this area unmitigated by any terrain features. When wind approaches 50 mph on the ground, walking is exceedingly difficult and being knocked down is a regular occurrence. Snow on the ground is whipped into the air and stinging needles of snow make functional goggles a requirement.

On this day, the first party struggled through these conditions but were relatively well equipped. The second caller, travelling solo, has a depth of experience and was extremely fit with car to car trips to the summit of Washington taking 4 hours in better conditions. Dressed in clothing appropriate for a September hike in settled weather, this avid trail runner found themselves in conditions that led them to believe that they would die of exposure. The panic that accompanied losing the way, combined with reduced visibility, disoriented the runner in the flat area of the alpine plateau. They wallowed off trail in the krumholz (wind shaped, stunted fir trees) in chest deep snow and brush but found some shelter from the wind deep in the snow and bushes. Had they not been able to find the trail, it seems likely they soon would have been immobilized by moderate to severe hypothermia and may even have perished due to low visibility hampering a rescue. The decision to leave the safety of the deep snow in which they were apparently captive most likely saved their life. The running shoes, tights and lightweight insulating jacket and waterproof shell were not enough to allow this person to remain in place until help arrived. Once in the snow ranger cabin, several hours on the floor heater with dry clothes and the Norwegian heater were required to start the needed shivering again and to raise core temperature from the low 90’s Fahrenheit back to normal. After being fed and rehydrated, the person was transported and released at Pinkham Notch several hours later.

Forecast for the day from the avalanche center included the following:

2” of liquid precipitation in the form of mostly snow with possibly a wintry mix is forecast today. For the first half of the day, snow showers become steady and intense snowfall as temperatures will warm and winds increase. Winds from the SE will increase from 45-60 mph to 50-70 mph with gusts up to 90 mph. Summit temperatures increase from the high teens F to lower 20’s F. Up to 7” of snow is possible by 1pm. At around mid-day, winds decrease from 25 to 45 mph as snowfall continues and temperatures creep higher, possibly reaching the upper 20’s on the summit before falling again after dark. Snow accumulations of 6 to 10” are possible today.

Search for Missing Hiker

On Sunday March 17, Snow Ranger staff from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center participated in a search for a missing hiker. Agencies involved included the NH Fish & Game, Mountain Rescue Service and  Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue.  Teams searched areas of “last known location”. The search was discontinued at the day’s end pending additional information.

Lost climbers

After climbing Odell Gully on Friday, February 5, 2016, a climbing team called 911 after being unable to find the Winter Lion Head Route to descend. The party of three topped out earlier in the day in low visibility due to blowing snow and fog. Temperatures at that time were -2F with winds gusting to 70mph.  The trio, who started the day with two headlamps between them, apparently lost the Alpine Garden trail and assumed that they had also missed intersecting the Lion Head trail.  Fearing that they may be descending into avalanche terrain in Tuckerman Ravine, the team turned around and headed back toward Huntington, only to descend further into Raymond’s Cataract.  Initial phone signal location software placed the party in Center Conway, then Raymond’s Cataract, with a third and fourth call indicating that the group was at the top of Pinnacle Buttress and on the Alpine Garden Trail, respectively.

Two teams comprised of a Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake caretaker each accompanied by volunteer paramedic climbers staying at the Harvard Cabin, were dispatched shortly after the 911 call was received. The team’s search assignment was to scan for a headlamp above the Huntington Ravine Fire Road between the Lion Head Winter Route and the ridge forming the southern end of Huntington Ravine. Around 11pm, the search parties made visual contact with the climbers who were in the steep area of short cliff bands in the woods to the north of the Raymond Cataract waterfall. One of the search parties reached the three climbers and led them back to the Harvard Cabin, reaching it at 1am.

Analysis: Many climbers with experience in the mountains have their own tale to tell of being benighted or disoriented. In retrospect, it’s easy to find errors but applying lessons learned makes us more resilient and lends perspective and maybe even less prone to repeat the same mistakes. We rely heavily on visual cues to navigate and maintain our balance. Remove or reduce that sense and anyone can easily become disoriented. The disorientation experienced while traveling “inside the ping pong ball” of a whiteout is something that can mislead even those with intimate knowledge of the terrain.

A travel plan for an outing should include contingencies for the preferred descent route, variations in weather and snowpack conditions, injuries in the party, or forgotten gear. Having a plan in place to handle adverse weather, low visibility, or unforeseen incidents is a good idea on any longer climb in the mountains. The ability to navigate in adverse conditions should be in the skill set of anyone venturing into Huntington Ravine, particularly when climbing a long technical route. This includes having GPS coordinates of critical locations*, as well as having a map, compass, and knowing how to use them appropriately.

Having the right equipment can buy time when caught out above treeline and the increased comfort can lower stress levels and lead to better decision making. If you are going above treeline, clear or yellow googles, facemasks, a light for everyone in the party are vital. This party was no doubt slowed down by having only one light between them and was fortunate that this light functioned throughout their descent. A small back-up headlamp that lives in your climbing pack can serve as backup to failed batteries, faulty wiring or a simple oversight.

It is important to understand that a phone is a last resort for emergency communication and not an alternative to complete self-sufficiency. They simply are not as reliable in the mountains. With phone calls to this party, we confirmed their position and helped them navigate back to the trail. Phones can be great tools, but you can reduce the chances of needing to use it by being fully prepared with the right equipment, knowledge, and skills.


Lost Hiker Boott Spur Ridge

A party lost the trail while descending the Boott Spur ridge. They called the AMC visitor center for assistance, who directed them to call 911. The party spoke with the 911 dispatchers and expressed having lost the trail, having run out of food and water, and requested assistance. SAR groups responded to begin looking for them. During the mobilization of forces, the group was able to find the trail. They then descended to Pinkham and departed without checking out with the visitor center staff.

When the group got into cell phone service in Jackson, they received their phone messages that informed them that rescuers were on the mountain looking for them. They stated that they would have checked out if they had known that rescuers were searching. It’s hard to not be cynical about this statement. If you call 911 for any reason, rescuers will be actively working to assist you until they can verify there is no problem. If you call 911 for a backcountry accident, we still encourage you to try to help yourselves as much as possible. If you manage to fully self-rescue, please give the rescuers the courtesy of letting them know you no longer need assistance.

Lost hiker on Lion Head

A hiker descending off the summit of Mt. Washington became lost after dark without a headlamp. He sent numerous texts to his friend who, having turned back earlier, was waiting at Pinkham Notch. The last of these messages indicated he needed rescue assistance immediately. These messages were not received until the friend had traveled back to town where cell service is more reliable. It was this string of messages that instigated the rescue effort. Teams from the USFS and Mountain Rescue Service located the hiker near treeline on the Lion Head Trail. He was uninjured and was able to walk down to Hermit Lake; from here he was transported by snowmobile to Pinkham Notch.

Call for Assistance

On Thursday January 10, 2012 two climbers on the floor of Huntington Ravine called 911, stating they were lost and had spent the night bivouaced under a large rock. The GPS coordinates provided by their cell phone placed the individuals near the Gulf of Slides Ski trail, the 911 caller stated and then reconfirmed that they were indeed in Huntington Ravine. Two Snow Rangers and the Harvard Cabin caretaker hiked into Huntington Ravine to locate the party. Within several hundred yards of the trail the party was found, low in the Fan among the boulders. The two climbers stated that they spent 4-5 hours in the dark wandering around in the Fan looking for the trail down then decided to find a place to spend the night and wait for first light. The two were accompanied to the trail and then brought to Harvard Cabin.

Lost Hiker

After skiing the Upper Snowfields, a party of three decided to split their group at the intersection of the Alpine Garden and Lion Head trails. Two were planning to ski Right Gully and the other was going to hike down the Lion Head Winter Route. The plan was to reunite at the intersection of the Huntington Ravine Winter Access Trail and the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. When the group of two arrived at the rendezvous point, their friend was not there. Based on a report from another party who had hiked down the Winter Route, they decided to ascend the Winter Route to meet their friend. As they approached treeline and had not yet found their friend, so they began shouting his name. A Snow Ranger descending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at the end of the day heard this shouting and decided to investigate. Around this same time, the party of two had decided to turn around based on the time of day. They encountered the Snow Ranger at the lower section of the Lion Head Winter Route. The Snow Rangers interviewed the party and began the preliminary phase of a search mission. Before the search progressed beyond early stages, the missing friend arrived at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center under his own power and uninjured. He had missed the Winter Route and hiked down the Lion Head Summer Trail, which was closed at the time. The hike down took place at the same time the Snow Ranger was collecting information from the other two friends on the Winter Route. The party was reunited at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Although in this case the party reunited without incident, we are posting this report based on the frequency of this type of incident. Splitting up a group is one of the most common and preventable causes of “missing” people in the White Mountains. More often than not, groups that split up reunite without any problems at all. However, all it takes is a missed trail sign, a twisted ankle, or any number of other issues that can prevent a happy reunion. We recommend keeping your group together and choosing routes that are acceptable to, and within the ability level of, all members of the group. This incident involved four Snow Rangers over two hours.

Lost Hikers

The victims were part of a group of 35 students who set out to climb to the summit of Mt. Washington during a torrential rain storm. Due to thick fog, two of the hikers wandered off the trail and followed ski tracks into Raymond’s Cataract. When the group realized they were lost, they called for help on their cell phone. Four members of the party stayed behind to search while the rest of the group headed down to Pinkham. In the search, the party of four got separated. Two found the missing victims and headed down. The AMC caretaker went up the Lion Head trail to assist and search for the remaining two searchers of the group. The remaining two arrived at Pinkham Notch 30 minutes later. This incident took 3 people 1.5 hours to complete.

Lost Climbers

After spending the night at the Harvard Cabin, DM and SS planned to climb Damnation Gully. DM had climbed the route previously but it was to be SS’s first ice climb. They left the cabin shortly before 11:00am and started their climb sometime around noon. According to DM they encountered a lot of wet ice, poor belay stations and poor quality ice. These, in addition to underestimating the length of the gully, led to a slow ascent. They decided not to rappel as SS had never done so before and the pair reached the top of the gully near dusk. When they did top out they encountered high winds from the WNW which prevented them from making their way around to the Escape Hatch. They tried to find a descent route towards Nelson Crag but due to the winds and poor visibility the two turned back towards Huntington and found a sheltered spot to hunker down for the evening. The Forest Service was contacted by the Harvard Mountaineering Club (HMC) caretaker at 10:00pm informing them the pair was overdue from their climb. Winds at that time were reported to be gusting to 70 mph and the temperature was -6F. The HMC and AMC caretakers went into Huntington between 1:00-2:00 am, yelling into the darkness and looking for any sign of lights. When they did not find anything, rescue teams from Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR) were contacted to be ready at first light to search for the pair. One team of rescuers was transported up the Auto Road in the Mt Washington State Park snowcat to begin looking above Huntington Ravine from the Alpine Garden and Huntington Ravine Trails. Other teams were transported up to the Lion Head Trail and into Huntington Ravine. At dawn the pair once again tried to make their way to the Escape Hatch. By morning temperatures had dropped to -17F and winds were about 80 mph with higher gusts. At times rescuers were on their hands and knees hunkering down from the wind. Fog and blowing snow made visibility difficult. As the fog lifted DM & SS were spotted near the top of Central Gully. Rescuers reached them around 8:30am, gave them food and water and assisted them to the Auto Road and the waiting snowcat. They were suffering from frostbite and hypothermia. At the base of the Auto Road the pair were transferred to a waiting ambulance and taken to Androscoggin Valley Hospital.

This rescue was an outstanding example of team work. If not for the skill and organization of the local search and rescue community as well as the clearing visibility, the result of the search could very well have been different. Knowing the weather forecast; providing adequate time to complete your objective; having appropriate gear for emergency situations; and having the ability to change plans when the weather or situation dictates are crucial components to safe mountain travel in any season. This rescue took 32 people and 10 hours to complete.

The U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers would like to thank the Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, Mount Washington State Park, the Harvard Mountaineering Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Mount Washington Observatory for all their help in making this a successful rescue.