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 the morning of Tuesday, March 23, an individual was descending Right Gully in Tuckerman Ravine. The man, 70 years old and traveling alone, was equipped with extra layers, crampons, and an ice axe. He described following the obvious deep footsteps in the snow that had been well-established by skier traffic. While descending, he lost his balance and was unable to arrest his fall. The man came to a stop near the top of Lunch Rocks after sliding around 300 feet. It was sunny with light wind in the ravine, and the temperature was in the 40s F.
In addition to mild weather conditions, good fortune came in the form of a quick response. The Hermit Lake Caretaker was nearby and established that an unstable knee injury was the chief complaint. He notified MWAC snow rangers by radio, two of whom happened to be at Connection Cache, near the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. Two snow rangers hauled a litter and rope up to the patient, arriving at the same time as an off-duty member of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. The Harvard Cabin Caretaker arrived shortly after.
The patient’s left knee was splinted, and a sling was applied to his right shoulder to relieve discomfort. Rescuers loaded the patient into the litter and lowered him down to the ravine floor. The patient was then slid down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, with the assistance of a belay rope for the steepest sections. Along the way, one rescuer sustained a puncture wound from a crampon point while postholing on the edge of the trail. After a brief transition at the snow ranger cabin, the patient was transported downhill by snowmobile and received care at Memorial Hospital.
The change of seasons brings longer daylight hours and generally more pleasant conditions for recreation. However, the arrival of spring is also marked by an uptick in other objective mountain hazards. Snow conditions can vary widely from one aspect to another, and from one hour to another. A frozen sliding surface can turn to mashed potatoes and back as sunlight moves around a rock buttress. A trail treadway can be solidly compacted, while stepping inches off to the side results in a thigh-deep posthole. Open water can appear overnight, or snow undermined by running water can collapse suddenly under foot or under ski. Glide cracks (crevasses) large enough to ensnare a ski can be thinly covered by snow, or be imperceptible from above. Ice fall can occur due to solar gain and warming ambient temperatures. Keep your head on a swivel for these potential hazards as well as people moving around you, uphill and downhill.
Note: The Lunch Rocks area continues to be referred to using the name derived from its historical use. It should be noted that Lunch Rocks is actually a hazardous place to have lunch due to the threat of icefall from above. Think of Lunch Rocks as a large bullseye and choose a different location to enjoy the spring skiing atmosphere.
On Sunday, March 21, multiple skier falls occurred in Tuckerman Ravine as skiers tested themselves in this extremely steep terrain. Snow conditions varied that day between boot-top deep soft, wet corn snow with firm crust in the shade or where swept off by skiers and riders. While on patrol, a snow ranger offered some advice to one in a party of three climbers attempting to descend the Lip. The group was properly equipped with ice axes, mountain boots, harnesses and helmets but at least one climber was descending the main ski line wearing micro-spikes. According the the climber, he had switched from crampons due to the “snowballing” that was occurring that day. (Snow can stick between crampon points in sunny, cool conditions). Two others in the party were preparing to use a rope to descend the steep sidehill which represents the now deeply buried Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Later, while descending Sluice, the snow ranger watched as a climber rolled down the 45-50 degree slope, winding up a length of rope in the process. An ice axe fastened to the end of the rope bounced around while coming closer and closer to the falling climber as the rope wound around them. Fortunately, the slope in the Lip is relatively short, or short enough in this case, considering the rope length in this case. No impalement occurred.
The three climbers were receptive to a short demo of the principles and construction of T-axe anchors versus plunged axe or stake anchors just after this near-miss. Training in various snow anchoring and belay methods and the experience and judgement to employ them in the right way in the appropriate terrain can reduce the risk and consequences of falls in our terrain. Consider taking a course in mountaineering skills and be sure sure to carefully match techniques to the terrain and conditions. An inadequate anchor can lead to significant problems.
On Sunday March 14th, at approximately 5:15pm, a hiker took a long sliding fall while descending a steep section of the Lion Head Winter Route. The group of three were wearing lightweight hiking boots with microspikes and carried ice axes. A local guide and paramedic/ER nurse was descending with clients, using a handline placed in steep sections to increase security. The guide witnessed the movements of the team of three and noted that they were attempting to glissade in some places and scooting down on their butts in others. Shortly before the long fall, one of the 3 in the party with the injury, slid some distance, losing their ice axe in the process, which the guide returned to them. Above the rock step, another of the party slid the length of that steep section, struck his head on a tree, was knocked unconscious and sustained a 6″ laceration to the forehead, coming to rest in the patch of trees in the fall line below. The guide then assisted his clients to safety, treated the patient and short roped the injured hiker to the Fire Road. He accompanied the patient and the party to Pinkham, arriving at 9:30pm by headlamp.
The team of three was using the wrong equipment for a trip above treeline. Strap crampons offer much better security. Many brands of them work reasonably well, even when attached to inappropriately soft and uninsulated boots. Microspikes are great for low angled trails under 15-20 degrees in steepness but the rubber straps stretch and come loose on steeper terrain. Additionally, the short points on the bottom of microspike type devices do not penetrate snow to grip the firm surface beneath. Long sliding falls kill more people in the Presidential range than hypothermia or avalanches. Invest in stiff soled mountaineering boots and crampons. Proper ice axe use requires training.
On the morning of Saturday, January 9, 2021, two 20 year old males were ascending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Around 11 am, witnesses noted these two individuals on foot, falling near the rollover at the top of the ravine. Both individuals fell around 500 vertical feet, impacting exposed boulders and ice along the way. One came to a stop on a ledge above the final ice cliff while the other fell past this point and was described as being airborne until he landed on his upper back in the snow below the ice cliff.
The incident was reported to snow rangers shortly after noon. Both patients were reportedly conscious, though one potentially had an altered level of consciousness. A hasty team departed Hermit Lake with an EMT medical pack and AED. Additional personnel followed close behind with technical rescue gear.
At 12:30 pm, en route to the ravine, the hasty team encountered one patient walking downhill with a bystander. This was the individual who had landed at the base of the ice cliff. His clothing was wet, so he had been stripped of the wet clothing and given a dry jacket, helmet, and trekking poles. After a patient assessment, it was determined that he should continue on foot, assisted, to the USFS cabin at Hermit Lake for further assessment and rewarming.
Upon arrival at Lunch Rocks, snow rangers determined that the safest and most expedient access to the 2nd patient was to ascend steep snow to the right of the patient, rather than directly up the ice cliff. Snow rangers reached this patient shortly after 1 pm. He was chilled, as he had been sitting on the snow for about 2 hours, so he was given an extra jacket and gloves. The patient was provided a harness and rope belay, and guided down steep snow to the ravine floor. A technical litter and anchor had been prepared, but was deemed unnecessary as his injuries were limited. He was also comfortable walking to the cabin for further assessment.
Both individuals were equipped with leather hiking boots and microspikes. The pair had trekking poles in the mix, but no ice axes. They were navigating using the GPS in their phones. One individual had been on the same route 4-5 times before, while the other was there for the first time. Their objective was to ascend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, and presumably continue to the summit.
One patient reported reaching a point where his microspikes provided insufficient traction. He said he fell forward like a starfish, slid over an ice bulge, and continued falling. His partner saw this happen, lost his footing, and subsequently fell as well. Both individuals impacted multiple exposed boulders and ice bulges during their descent.
This season has seen slower snowpack development than recent years. December accumulation took a big hit from the Christmas rain event, and January has provided less than 6” of new snow so far. As such, exposed hazards abound and present a minefield of challenges and consequences.
At the time, the aspect they were in was intermittently exposed to solar radiation through fog and scattered clouds. Perhaps more importantly, temperatures were relatively warm (25F at the summit), so the snow may have been more forgiving to soft boots than otherwise would have been the case. However, this very well could have provided a false sense of confidence that evaporated once they had to navigate bare ice with inadequate traction. The two hikers encountered difficulties near the top of the ravine, where wind often scours the soft snow and leaves a hard, icy surface.
In the winter, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail through the headwall becomes a true mountaineering objective, complete with steep sections of hard frozen snow, cliffs of ice, and snow slopes capable of producing an avalanche. Individuals choosing to climb this route should be prepared with proper mountaineering equipment and the skills to use them. Rigid boots, crampons, two ice axes, avalanche rescue gear (beacon, probe, and shovel), and a roped system to protect against a long dangerous fall are often required to climb through this steep section safely.
Ultimately, these individuals were incredibly lucky. Despite numerous bumps and bruises, neither experienced significant trauma. Despite inadequate gear for conditions in the ravine, multiple bystanders were willing to provide equipment, support, and reassurance, and to seek qualified help to extricate patients from steep terrain.
Mount Washington is relatively accessible, and oftentimes people manage to get away with an objective despite a lack of preparation and appropriate equipment. However, this accessibility means there are also plentiful resources available. Trip planning must consider weather and avalanche conditions, which are provided locally by the Mount Washington Observatory and Mount Washington Avalanche Center. Trip planning must consider trail conditions and suggested routes. Caretakers provide this readily at Hermit Lake and Harvard Cabin, as well as AMC staff at Pinkham Notch. Maps and appropriate equipment can be acquired from numerous retail locations and guide services in the area. Local guide services are also a great way to learn to use said equipment, and learn best practices for movement and decision making in the mountains.
While we all learn from mistakes, we can stack the cards in our favor to avoid mistakes such as these. Seek relevant information, don’t skimp on safety gear, and embrace continuous education in mountain sense.
March 9, 2020. AMC Hermit Lake Caretaker reported seeing a person falling end-over-end “tomahawking” the length of Chute in Tuckerman Ravine around noon. The Caretaker and Snow Ranger responding were pleased to find that the patient had no apparent injuries. The skier walked downhill to Hermit Lake and was assisted to the road by snow machine.
It was reported at the time of the fall, the skier was still climbing up somewhere near the top of Chute, wearing leather boots with micro-spikes and no ice tool. He had ski boots and skis on a back pack. The snow was still firm, barely softened by the sun.
Safe climbing of steep snow, especially hard snow requires the skilled use of stiff boots, crampons and an ice axe or two to prevent a fall from occurring. When climbing without the protection of a rope belay, preventing a fall from happening is a climber’s/skier’s primary means of safety since arresting a fall with an ice axe is difficult with, and impossible without.