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.
As winter turns rapidly to spring, a number of hazards become prevalent in the steep terrain of the Presidential Range and particularly the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine. Waterfall holes, glide cracks or crevasses, moats around cliffs and rocks, and other deep holes open as the thick snowpack melts. A fall into these holes, which often also have significant amounts of cold flowing water which can quickly cause hypothermia, can be very difficult to escape or be rescued from. Such accidents have resulted in several fatalities in Tuckerman Ravine. A lucky skier had a very close call in this type of accident yesterday.
At 1:58 PM on Monday, April 22, a skier fell over the Tuckerman Ravine headwall and into one of several waterfall holes. Partners and bystanders quickly initiated rescue efforts and also called 911 for emergency response. Unsure of where under the snow the fallen skier was, a beacon search was initiated and could have been helpful, though this was a non-avalanche accident. At 2:18 pm, after 20 minutes out of view to the rescuers, the subject climbed out of a different hole in the snow and slid down to the rescue party below him in the slope. He had lost his skis, poles, and pack.
The subject was alert, oriented, and able to walk but in pain from several impacts during the fall. He was also cold and wet from spending most of the 20 minutes in very cold flowing water, though not submerged. The rescue party quickly changed his clothes to drier ones. They wrapped him in a sleeping bag and briefly transported him in a rescue litter obtained from the nearby Connection Cache of emergency supplies. In effort to warm the subject, the rescue party then helped the subject begin walking down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail towards Hermit Lake.
Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers were notified of the incident by emergency dispatchers. They travelled to Hermit Lake with urgency, aware than similar accidents have historically been fatal. Upon arriving at Hermit Lake, Snow Rangers were told by the AMC caretaker that the subject had extracted himself from the waterfall hole and was walking, with aid, down to Hermit Lake. They proceeded up the trail, meeting the rescue party at 3:20 PM. The subject, still alert and oriented but now warmer, was transported to Pinkham Notch via snowcat and released to the care of friends.
This positive outcome should be regarded as quite lucky and be taken as a warning for all who travel on steep snow slopes in spring conditions in our mountains. Had the subject, who was a strong athlete and also a climber, been unable to self-extricate himself from the waterfall hole the outcome could have been far worse. Many of these deep holes in the snow are impossible for even the strongest individual to climb out of. Extricating a person from these holes can be very dangerous for rescuers and is difficult to accomplish in a sufficiently timely manner to save a life. We know the subject would urge you to learn from this accident, giving potentially deep holes and glide cracks in the snow a wide berth and taking care to not fall above one.
The rescue initiated by partners and bystanders of the subject was a positive example we would also like you to learn from. Partners were paying attention to each other and able to quickly initiate a rescue. They had sufficient dry clothing and emergency supplies to provide proper care for the subject. Several emergency medical professionals observed the accident and immediately helped rescue efforts. Rescuers had knowledge that a litter and hypothermia wrap materials were available in nearby Connection Cache and used them. All individuals on the scene had avalanche rescue gear, as large wet slab avalanches were forecast as unlikely but not impossible that day. While a call was made for professional rescue, this group realized that they could provide timely aid to the subject and took appropriate action that could have resulted in an effective evacuation had professional rescue been delayed or unavailable. This self-reliant level of accident response is commendable. It is also the level of response that everyone travelling in the backcountry should be prepared for, every time you’re out.
Please learn from this accident to have a safer spring ski season, and see you on the hill!
A group of three was descending the streambed between the bowl and the Little Headwall. One snowboarder was unable to avoid an open hole in the snowpack. He fell into the water with his snowboard still attached to his feet. His friends were able to quickly extend a ski pole to him. Despite being pulled by the force of rushing icy water, he was able to hold his position for several minutes. Eventually, he was unable to either be pulled up or hold on, and he was dragged underneath a snow bridge. Meanwhile, other bystanders had come along. One had entered the water on the downhill side and worked at freeing the snowboarder from that end. After a couple minutes, the snowboarder was pulled free from under the snow bridge.
He was hypothermic when extricated, with a diminished level of consciousness. His friends and bystanders worked to remove him from his soaked clothes and begin the rewarming process. AMC employees arrived on scene after he had been pulled from the water. By the time Snow Rangers arrived, his level of consciousness had improved and he was able to stand up under his own power. The snowboarder was able to walk himself down to the parking lot (with borrowed dry clothes.)
Each season, we try our best to inform skiers and snowboarders of the hazards related to riding the streambed. In this case, we had stopped recommending this as a descent route three days prior. The victim and his group stated that they were aware of the hazard presented by undermined snow. In this case, the group was very unlucky in that one fell into the water, but they were also very lucky that he came out of the situation alive. Many others had skied or ridden the slope in the days before this incident, long after the conditions had deteriorated beyond a safe level. Most of these people are unaware of how close they might have been to a similar incident, so in that respect, we see a big difference between this group and all the groups that do the same thing without consequence – at least this group now fully understands the risk involved.