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Tuckerman Ravine–Crevasse fall fatality

Circles in the Lip area mark the approximate location from which the victim fell and the location of the open crevasse at the top of the Open Book.

At approximately 3:45pm, Norman Priebatsch was hiking with his son and two others when he fell on steep icy terrain. The group members reported that he fell over a rock band and began sliding downhill. The group received no response to their shouts as the victim slid downhill, and the victim was not attempting to stop his fall at the time. He slid into an open crevasse in the lower portion of the Bowl, below the Lip, in the vicinity of the “Open Book” area. The other members of the group immediately went to the edge of the crevasse, but could not make contact with the victim. One member, along with one bystander who was not part of the group, quickly went to the AMC caretakers’ cabin at Hermit Lake to report the accident.

USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the accident shortly after 4pm. While the Snow Rangers made their way to Pinkham Notch, the AMC caretaker and other bystanders went to the ravine to gather more information and began preparing for the rescue effort. In addition to the USFS Snow Rangers, assistance was requested from Mountain Rescue Service of North Conway and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue of Gorham. The caretaker from the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin also assisted at the scene, while the AMC staff at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and the Mt. Washington Observatory provided organizational support and spot weather forecasts.

USFS Snow Rangers established two anchors for use in a technical rope rescue system. One Snow Ranger was lowered into the crevasse to a depth of about 40 feet. From this point, he could clearly see another 40 feet down. As the slope angle decreased, the crevasse narrowed to about 4 feet in diameter. There was no sign of the missing hiker in the area that could be seen. Due to the objective hazards involved in descending into the confined space, the decision was made to not descend farther into the crevasse. The Snow Ranger was raised back to the surface and rescue efforts were suspended for the night. Snow Rangers returned to the site the following day, but again the decision was made not to descend into the crevasse due to the hazards involved with such a recovery effort.

In the weeks following April 1st, Snow Rangers continued to monitor conditions in the area. Numerous attempts were made to visually check the crevasse, but further descents into the crevasse were not safely possible. On May 20th, Snow Rangers were able to safely descend underneath the snow using an access point located below and to the side of the waterfall. Using this new entry point, the victim was visible approximately 90 feet from the opening, or 125 feet below the original crevasse opening. That evening, plans were formed to recover the victim from the crevasse the following morning. On Monday morning, May 21st, the victim was recovered by a team of four Snow Rangers, with assistance from Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue and the Appalachian Mountain Club caretaker.

Analysis

Earlier in the day on April 1st, two Snow Rangers had climbed through the Lip area, with the intention to assess and better understand the extent and severity of the crevasse hazard. They found crevasses to be very large and deep, though the magnitude of the hazard was not easily visible from above. They specifically looked into the opening that the victim later fell into. Climbing through the Lip, they also noted that the snow conditions that day were very hard and icy. These conditions and the Snow Rangers’ assessment were not unexpected. The avalanche advisory from that morning stated, “With the frozen surfaces comes the potential for very dangerous sliding falls. Every year we see numerous people climbing very steep and icy slopes (e.g. the Lip) without an ice axe and crampons…even very experienced mountaineers with all the right equipment would still have a very difficult time self-arresting under the current conditions on some slopes in Tuckerman, so play it safe.” It continued, “Climb up what you plan to descend. This gives you an opportunity to check for hazards such as crevasses at a leisurely pace.”

As mentioned in the advisory, having equipment is not a guarantee of safety. Down-climbing this route in these conditions is a very difficult endeavor; to do so safely would likely require facing into the slope and front-pointing one’s way down. The fact that three of the four group members were able to safely descend the Lip on this day is remarkable. None in the group were wearing winter mountaineering boots, no one besides the victim was wearing crampons, and though they did have ski poles, they were not carrying ice axes. In this very unfortunate accident, it would be an over-simplification to blame the lack of an ice axe as the primary cause of the accident, but this could be considered one contributing factor.

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center often recommends springtime visitors hike up what they plan to descend. We make this recommendation to backcountry visitors regardless of their level of experience. Every season brings similar hazards of crevasses, undermined snow, icefall, etc., but throughout each season the location, severity, and extent of the hazards does change. In this particular situation, the party had ascended a different route than they descended, so they did not have the opportunity to assess the extent of the crevasses before descending. When Snow Rangers were checking the conditions earlier on the day of the accident, it was using roped climbing techniques and utilizing an avalanche probe to locate, evaluate, and avoid crevasses. Despite this technique, one Snow Ranger inadvertently broke through a snow bridge and nearly fell downslope. If this had happened, the rope safety system as mitigation would have prevented a long sliding fall. This roped and probing technique is rarely used by spring visitors to Mt. Washington, even though it would be considered standard practice for mountaineers in other glaciated mountain ranges.

Each visitor, according to his or her experience and skill set, should be prepared for the current conditions. It is important to understand that what may be a reasonable level of risk for one person may not be the same for another, and that each person or group is responsible for deciding when, where, and how to travel. It is also important to understand that no person begins his or her life with mountaineering experience. There is no better way to learn safe mountain travel than through the actual experience of traveling in the mountains. It is imperative to honestly evaluate one’s own experience, skill, and tolerance for risk.

Tuckerman Ravine – Lip area of Tuckerman Ravine

A solo hiker died as a result of injuries sustained in a fall while descending in the vicinity the Lip area of Tuckerman Ravine. The fall was witnessed by the AMC caretaker at Hermit Lake Shelters, who immediately notified USFS Snow Rangers and initiated rescue efforts. Despite the fact that rescue was immediately begun, the victim passed away while rescuers were preparing for the evacuation.

Descending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail in Winter

USFS Snow Rangers were heading home at the end of the day Sunday when notified of hikers having dialed 911 from Mt. Washington. Apparently, two hikers were attempting to descend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail through the ravine, when one of them slipped and fell. He was able to self-arrest, but somehow lost track of his partner. Thinking his partner had also fallen, he called 911 for assistance. After making the call, he was able to locate his partner above. He and his partner eventually found their way to and descended the Lion Head Trail. The HMC caretaker made contact with the party on the lower portion of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, confirmed that they had made the distress call, and did not need further assistance.

Lion Head Winter Route Glissade

A group was descending the Lion Head Winter Route, when one of the member of the group lost control of his glissade. He slid an unknown length, impacted trees along the way, and came to rest wedged between two trees just above the first steep pitch on the route ( atop the “rock step”). The party was able to reach 911 via cell phone, and also local caretakers from the AMC heard their voices while skiing and went over to assist. Due to the unfortunate location of where he came to rest, stabilization and extrication was difficult and took longer than usual for accidents in this area. The patient was eventually packaged on a backboard in a rescue litter, which was lowered by rope through the steep sections of trail. He was loaded into the USFS snowcat and transferred to an ambulance at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Overall the rescue involved 2 Snow Rangers, 2 caretakers, one bystander, and a handful of people from the group. The total time from injury to when he was transferred to the ambulance was approximately 4-5 hours.

Although this patient’s injuries were caused by impact with trees, we would like to remind everyone that glissading while wearing crampons is a dangerous activity. Every year people are injured doing this. You are better off staying on your feet if you are wearing crampons. If you do want to glissade, we recommend removing your crampons first. The Lion Head Winter Route is a steep route that requires the ability to self arrest to navigate safely. We recommend hikers should not only have an ice axe and crampons, but be experienced in how to use them effectively.

Snow Shoeing in Tuckerman Ravine

A group of people were snow shoeing in Tuckerman Ravine in the bottom of Right Gully when one of them slipped on an icy surface and began a head first sliding fall toward boulders.  His friend, who was below him, got in his fall line and stopped his fall.  This successfully kept his friend from injuring himself, but the person who stopped the fall suffered a broken lower leg in the process.  The caretaker from the Harvard Cabin and three local guides were in the area.  They provided first aid and began transporting the patient with some assistance from bystanders.  Snow Rangers responded to help and the patient was lowered down the Little Headwall and transported to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile where he was transferred to an ambulance.

Four Injuries

USFS Snow Rangers and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol assisted with four injured visitors. Each patient was able to evacuate themselves without further assistance beyond Hermit Lake. The first patient was a participant in the Inferno pentathlon who fell during the ski leg and dislocated his shoulder. The dislocation was reduced and the shoulder immobilized. The second patient fell while climbing Left Gully, sustaining abrasions to both forearms as a result of his efforts attempting to self-arrest without an ice axe. The third patient fell while climbing above Lunch Rocks. He also dislocated his shoulder; this dislocation was reduced and immobilized for his walk to Pinkham.

The fourth incident of the day is worthy of further analysis. This skier began to descend the Lip in the late afternoon when he realized the surface was much more firm and steep than he had anticipated. At some point before descending, he dropped his ski poles down the Lip, stepped out of his skis, and began to climb back upward to the ridge. He traversed over to the top of the Sluice, where conditions were not much better than in the Lip. Upon descending, he lost control and began a tumbling fall that ended just short of Lunch Rocks. He was able to walk himself down the Snow Ranger Quarters at Hermit Lake where he was examined by Snow Rangers and the MWVSP. It was determined he may have suffered a minor concussion but was otherwise all right. At the request of the caregivers, he returned later in the evening for a follow-up evaluation before spending the night at his shelter. This incident involves a few common hazards we see each spring. First, when the sun begins to set behind the ridge, the snow surface can quickly turn very icy and slick. Second is descending an unknown route without first climbing it to determine its nature. The Sluice is every bit as steep as the Lip, but also has cliffs and a runout into Lunch Rocks making falls especially precarious. Skiing at the top of your ability in unfamiliar terrain without poles and with a large pack can be very challenging; sometimes walking down can be a good option. Kudos to the patient’s friends for encouraging him to get checked out by trained personnel.

Sliding fall injuries

At approximately 1:00pm a mountaineer was taking a photograph in the vicinity of the Lip when he lost balance and fell about 300 feet to the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. He sustained a lower leg injury as a result of the fall. The patient was splinted and packaged into a litter which was brought down to Pinkham on the USFS snowcat. While this was taking place, a snowboarder injured his left leg in a sliding fall in Tuckerman Ravine. He was evaluated by the MWVSP and was able to walk to Pinkham under his own power.

Sliding Falls

Two incidents took place which required responses from USFS Snow Rangers, the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (MWVSP), the AMC, and the HMC. In both cases, the victims slid out of control for a long distance on a very hard icy surface that dominated the mountain resulting in multiple injuries to each.

The first incident to be reported to the Snow Rangers involved a woman falling approximately 1200 feet from near the top of Left Gully. She was unable to self arrest and quickly lost her ice axe as she rapidly accelerated on the very slick surface. Along the way her crampon caught the surface, resulting in an open angulated lower leg fracture. She also suffered arm and rib injuries before coming to a stop low in the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. Snow Rangers, MWVSP, and AMC personnel responded, treated her injuries, and packaged her into a litter. The litter was belayed down the Little Headwall to the top of the Sherburne Ski Trail. From there a snowmobile transported the litter to an ambulance waiting at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Approximately 15 minutes after being notified of the first incident, Snow Rangers learned of a second incident unfolding in Huntington Ravine. A mountaineer had fallen from somewhere between the top of the Fan and the ice bulge in Central Gully. He slid approximately 1000 feet through icy talus before coming to rest near the base of Huntington Ravine. The victim suffered numerous significant injuries including a mid-shaft femur fracture. Bystanders began to provide care while assistance was sought out. By the time the Snow Rangers arrived, the victim was conscious and in severe pain. He was splinted and packaged into a litter; which was belayed one rope length to flat ground at the base of the Ravine due to the icy surface. The USFS snowcat transported the victim to a waiting ambulance at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

These two incidents have one strong central theme—that sliding falls on icy surfaces are very difficult to stop. In these cases, the crust was formed three days prior to the incidents with a warm, wet day followed by a sharp drop in temperature. Surfaces immediately became incredibly hard and slick and stayed that way through the Saturday. The morning’s Avalanche Advisory stated “The main safety concern today is the potential for long sliding falls due to the hard icy snow conditions… Bring your crampons, ice axe and mountaineering experience with you today so you can get around in steep terrain and successfully self arrest if you slip. If you don’t have this equipment and the ability to use it you should stick to low angled terrain.” One lesson we can all take home from these incidents is the importance of practicing your skills in all conditions and avoiding steep terrain on days when the difficulty of the conditions exceeds your ability to self arrest. Many thanks go out to the numerous bystanders and volunteers who helped out on these incidents.

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.