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Climbing Accident Huntington Ravine

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,

Comments

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.

Glissading – Sliding Fall

On 2-15-99, BM was involved in a serious accident on the summit cone of Mount Washington. At approximately 1500, BM and his partners left the summit of Mount Washington, descending the southeast snowfields. The slope angle varies from 30 to 35 degrees where the accident occurred. About half way down from the summit, BM began glissading the snowfield. He lost control, gained speed, and caught his crampons on the surface. The slide was estimated to be approximately 200 feet, with many boulders hit along the way.

BM suffered an angulated boot-top fracture of the right leg, and swollen painful deformities of the right hand and right chest area. A lengthy rescue followed, which was not completed until 2:30 AM the following day. The rescue involved 7 pitches of raising over steep snow via a counter balance haul system. BM was raised to the summit and brought down the Mount Washington Auto Road with the assistance from the Mount Washington Observatory snow vehicle.

Comments

BM was glissading with his crampons on. Climbers must remove their crampons to glissade steep snow covered slopes. There have been several accidents on Mount Washington this winter where climbers began to glissade on their backsides without removing the crampons. Several of these accidents have resulted in fractured legs and ankles and lengthy rescue efforts.

The surface conditions at the time were extremely hard and icy, making self arrest difficult. Glissading steep, icy slopes without a good runout can be very dangerous.

Any accident in winter on Mount Washington can become life threatening given the notoriously harsh winter weather. Fortunately for BM and the rescuers, the weather was reasonably mild. BM was well equipped and had warm outerwear which helped keep him comfortable during the lengthy rescue, and may have prevented additional damage to his leg. Climbers, hikers and skiers would do well to prepare for the worst when climbing the mountain in winter.
The rescue required 15 people and 120 hours.

Long Sliding Fall – Lower Snowfields

On 2-13-1999, VM and her partner were descending the Lower Snowfields in Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. The snow conditions were extremely hard, the result of a mid-winter rain storm. They decided to practice self arrest technique. The slope angle of the Lower snowfields is about 35 degrees, with a poor runout of trees and shrubby vegetation. From the top of the snowfield, VM began a deliberate slide. She was unable to self arrest, and experienced a sliding, tumbling fall of approximately 500 feet into the scrub vegetation.

She was evacuated from the base of the slope in a Cascade toboggan to Hermit Lake, and then to Pinkham Notch via US Forest Service Thiokol snow vehicle.

Injuries included swollen, painful deformities of both legs and right arm, multiple abrasions and contusions and hypothermia.

Comments

Self-arrest technique must be practiced on small, unobstructed practice slopes where a safe runout is assured. Slopes such as the Lower Snowfields can be a good place for such practice, but deliberate slides from the top of this 500 foot slope are not recommended, even under the best conditions. Ideally, the best slopes are those where excessive speed will not cause injury in the event of an uncontrolled slide.

The snow conditions at the time of the accident were extremely unfavorable for self arrest. Any type of fall can be difficult to arrest under such conditions, let alone a slide of this distance.

VM was wearing crampons while practicing self arrest. The importance of removing crampons during self arrest practice or when glissading can not be underestimated. It is likely that VM injured both legs by catching the points of her crampons as she slid down the slope.

VM was characterized as a novice and her partner as experienced.

The rescue required 23 people and 27 person hours.