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Avalanche Accident in Tuckerman Ravine

Two climbers were involved in an avalanche accident in Tuckerman Ravine. The accident took place on a sunnier-than-expected Saturday early in the spring skiing season. The weather forecast had called for mostly cloudy skies, summit temperatures falling to 15F, and winds ranging from 25-40mph. The morning avalanche advisory discussed the snowpack staying frozen for most of the day, with the best chance of warm soft snow being on south-facing aspects. Northerly aspects were expected to remain cold and frozen through the day. DZ and TF, both athletic and experienced mountaineers, were climbing the steep snow route known as “Dodge’s Drop” unroped, each with two technical ice axes and crampons. They had recently climbed Hillman’s Highway and were familiar with the terrain on the Boott Spur Ridge. The plan was to climb the route to access the hiking trails to the summit of Mt. Washington, then descend through Tuckerman Ravine.

For much of the climb, the surface conditions were refrozen springtime crust. The party reported they were enjoying the climbing conditions when on this surface. At times, they encountered small areas of newer softer snow but this surface was more difficult to climb, so they opted for the old surface when possible. Nearing the top of the climb, they encountered an isolated pocket of relatively new slab. The upper climber (DZ) reported he was unable to swing his axes through the new snow into the crust, his boots were getting full penetration when kicked into the snow, and the snow was fully supporting his weight. He stated that he decided to move left to get around the slab both for stability reasons and for the easier climbing on the crust. As he was working himself toward the edge of the slab the avalanche released.

DZ recognized what was transpiring and was able to see the fracture line propagate upwards from his feet to a point about 6-8 feet above him. The fracture then propagated outward and the slab began to slide downhill. TF was about 10 feet below and slightly to the side of DZ. He had both ice tools sunk into the snow. The initial slab, which DZ was entrained in, pulled out more snow above TF. He attempted to hold on against the force of the slab pouring over him but he was eventually pulled off his stance. Both individuals were carried downhill, and each reported being airborne at some point. DZ stated he was impressed by how much time he had during the course of the slide to figure out what to do. He said he was unsure of whether to try to self arrest or swim to stay on top. At one point he discarded one tool and attempted to self arrest with the other. He felt the pick engaging the crust, but was unable to stop himself. He also reported that during this time he saw his partner slide past him, indicating he at least managed to slow himself to some degree. The avalanche carried them over a small cliff (hence DZ reporting being airborne for “3 heartbeats”) and down into a treed slope below. The compressive force of the snow impacting the slope below the cliff was quite strong; it ripped both ice axes out of TF’s hands and they both felt as though their clothes and gear were also being pulled loose. They came to rest in the trees with most of the debris though some of the debris continued to run farther downslope. Both individuals came to rest on top of the snow; no excavation was required.

The avalanche was witnessed by a crowd in the courtyard of Hermit Lake Shelter’s caretaker’s cabin. The commotion alerted a Snow Ranger (Jeff Lane) who saw the climbers sliding into the trees. The caretaker of the shelter site was climbing nearby in Hillman’s Highway; he established communication with the climbers who yelled to him that they were all right. The caretaker continued over to the climbers to assess their injuries more thoroughly. Meanwhile a Snow Ranger and one member of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol headed uphill to tie in with the party. DZ suffered a small laceration on his forehead, a broken pinky finger, sprained ankle, some ligament damage in his knee, bruising on his thigh and shin, and abrasions on both elbows. The abrasions were caused by sliding on the icy crust while wearing only a synthetic t-shirt. TF reported that he lost his vision momentarily when they came to rest but regained it soon after. He also suffered multiple abrasions on both arms and hands, ligament damage in one knee, and a bruised pelvis. The climbers were escorted to the Snow Ranger cabin at Hermit Lake where they were more thoroughly assessed and treated. From here, they were transported to the parking lot in the USFS Snowcat, where they were released into their own vehicle for transportation to a local hospital.

Snowpack information: On the night of April 6, 2009 Mt. Washington received a soaking rain transitioning to mixed precipitation and snow. Total water equivalents from this event were 0.71” recorded on the summit, with 1.2” of this coming as snow. Lower on the mountain at Hermit Lake the USFS manual snowplot precip can had collected 1.45” water equivalent with 1.9” of this falling on the storm board as snow. This rain event soaked the snowpack then refroze, giving us a baseline below which there have been no stability issues. Overnight on April 8, the summit recorded 0.4” of new snow. This new snow was not sufficient to raise the avalanche danger above Low for any of the nearby forecast areas in the days following this relatively small snowfall. It’s worth noting the ability of the wind on Mt. Washington to transform seemingly insignificant snow totals into deeper slabs. One excellent example came earlier this month. On April 4, the summit recorded 0.6” new snow. The following morning USFS Snow Ranger Brian Johnston found slabs averaging 9-10” in sheltered lee areas, with one slab measuring 24” deep. Although the snowfall responsible for this avalanche was only 0.4”, winds had been able to develop deeper slabs in isolated areas. This slope has a NNE aspect, and recent weather had been warm but not sufficiently warm to create a melt freeze cycle on northerly aspects. This isolated pocket was able to remain cold and dry while similar slabs in nearby areas with different aspects had been skied numerous times without incident in the days between the snowfall and the avalanche. The fracture line from this avalanche was estimated to average 6” deep and 30-40 feet wide. The slab depth at DZ’s high point was at least 12”.

Summary: These two climbers were incredibly fortunate. This route is generally considered “no-fall” territory due to numerous rocks, cliffs, and trees in the fall line. The total vertical drop of their fall is estimated to be around 800 feet. They managed to pass through the rocky section of the fall unscathed, with the injuries being sustained only after being carried into the trees. Ironically the avalanche which caused their fall likely helped protect them from more significant injuries as they probably rode on the debris cushion to their resting point. Falling this distance with crampons on, ice tools in hand, and going over small cliffs usually concludes much worse. That they were able to walk themselves down from an incident such as this is remarkable to say the least.

From an avalanche perspective, the climbers had chosen a reasonable route. Although Dodge’s Drop is not one of the forecasted areas on the mountain it is adjacent to Hillman’s Highway which is one the 8 forecasted slopes and gullies of Tuckerman Ravine. All 8 areas were forecasted at “Low” at the time of the accident and where heavily skied without incident. Some isolated pockets of instability did exist but between skier compaction; skiers cutting up the continuity of these pockets; and solar gain baking out any fracture propagation potential they became inconsequential by late morning. Dodge’s is a northern facing slope which makes it slow to react to sunny days as it does not receive direct solar gain. Slabs on these aspects often require higher ambient air temperatures for rapid settling compared to southern facing slopes which react very quickly to solar radiation. Using an avalanche forecast issued for an adjacent slope to your intended ascent/decent as a tool is a smart use of your available resources. In addition to the forecast discussion points however always consider how your intended route might harbor different instability issues. The slab they triggered was small and isolated; if this were in a forecasted area it would be considered an “isolated pocket.” The climbers recognized the hazard when they encountered this pocket and were attempting to mitigate it as best as they could when the fracture initiated. Many valuable lessons can be learned from this event, two are offered here as they are not uncommon occurrences on Mt. Washington. First, it’s important to recognize that “Low avalanche danger” does not mean “No avalanche danger”. Isolated pockets of instability can be present under a Low rating and you should be capable of recognizing and assessing this hazard for yourself. Second, it underscores the importance of being able to assess hazards before dropping in over the top of them. In this instance, there was at least one skier known to be hiking up Hillman’s with the intention of descending Dodge’s Drop. It’s quite likely that this skier would have triggered the pocket if the climbers had not. Whether the hazard is avalanches, crevasses, undermined snow, etc., it’s always a good idea to assess for hazards before descending from above.

Snowboarder caught an edge in the Lip – torn ACL

A snowboarder caught an edge in the Lip causing him to tumble about 300 feet to the floor of the ravine. The victim tore his ACL during the fall. USFS Snow Rangers and members of MWVSP splinted the injured leg and he was able to walk with assistance to Hermit Lake, where he was loaded into the USFS snowcat for transportation to Pinkham Notch.

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.

Two injured skiers

Two incidents involving skiers occurred almost simultaneously in Tuckerman Ravine in the late afternoon. At about 4pm, a skier descended the Sluice and as he transitioned into the floor of the Ravine his skis broke through a crust layer causing him to fall. The skier suffered a lower leg injury just below the top of his ski boot. At the time, the AMC caretaker from Hermit Lake and a friend were hiking to the ravine to have a look around. They saw bystanders packaging the skier into a litter retrieved from the Lunch Rocks cache and went to assist. As this party was working their way down the floor of the ravine, another skier fell in Right Gully, injuring his knee. This skier was able to walk to Hermit Lake under his own power while the first skier was brought down via the Little Headwall. USFS Snow Rangers transported both skiers from Hermit Lake to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center by snowcat.

Back to back skier triggered avalanches in the Lower Snowfields and Hillman’s Highway

Back to back skier triggered avalanches in the Lower Snowfields and Hillman’s Highway resulted in one injury. Around 1230 a party of three were skinning up the Lower Snowfields. One person decided to head down while the other two continued up. The top skier stopped at the top of the “Christmas tree” for a break when he heard his remaining partner yell, “slide!”. Prior to the slide, both individuals observed shooting cracks propagating from their skis. The lower of the two people was caught and carried about 750 feet down the Lower Snowfields (D2R3*). During the ride, the victim swam feet first in an attempt to stay on top of the debris. At one point he hit a tree with his upper right ribcage. Debris momentarily went over his head and his mouth was packed with snow. When he stopped he was on his back and partially buried. He self extricated and a bystander showed up shortly after to help him. U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers, members of the Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and Mountain Rescue Service responded and were on scene in 20 minutes. The priority was to help the victim and assure no other people were caught in the slide. An initial search, a beacon search and thorough interviews with witnesses were conducted. The patient was able to walk to Hermit Lake under his own power where he was reassessed and transported down to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile.

Forty-three minutes after the initial avalanche, another one occurred in Hillman’s Highway (D3R3). Response time was immediate due to the proximity of the rescue crew working in the Lower Snowfields. Six people were in the gully at the time of the avalanche and some reported that it came from the top and was a natural avalanche. Confirmation of a natural avalanche was difficult due to low clouds and blowing snow. All witnesses stated that nobody was caught in the avalanche. With enough uncertainty about this fact, we conduced an initial search, a beacon search, a Recco search and a dog search. A probe team was mobilized to the area and held out of avalanche terrain for safety reasons. Clouds cleared and the fracture line became visible in the middle of Hillman’s Highway allowing us to confirm that the trigger was likely a person. We were able to deduce this due to the odd location of the fracture line, the suspicious amount of hangfire left above and the proximity of the people in the gully to the fracture line. Witnesses and bystanders stated that no one was missing and that they believed no one was caught. Based on this information and significant scene safety concerns we called off the search. Safety concerns included the instability of adjacent slide paths that run into the bottom of Hillman’s and the large amount of unstable snow left above the fracture line in Hillman’s, which included both of it’s primary start zones.

We are very happy that more people were not injured and no one was killed in these incidents, as this could have been a plausible outcome. Statistically, most avalanche accidents occur under Moderate and Considerable ratings. On this day, the Lower Snowfields were rated Moderate and Hillman’s Highway was rated Considerable. Both of these ratings state the potential for human triggered avalanches as being possible and probable respectively.

* “D” represents the destructive force of the avalanche on a scale of 1-5. “R” represents the size of the avalanche relative to the path, also represented on a scale of 1-5.

Sliding Fall – Tuckerman Ravine

A climber injured his leg after falling down Tuckerman Ravine. He was with two friends and the three of them climbed Central Gully, hiked across the Alpine Garden and began descending into Tuckerman Ravine at dark. He was wearing crampons at the time of the fall but his ice axe was secured to his pack. He said he was not using it because by the time he realized he needed it, the terrain was too steep to take his pack off. During the descent, he lost his footing and fell between 400 and 600 feet to the floor of the Ravine, injuring his leg during the fall. One friend went to Hermit Lake to get help while the other assisted his friend to the rescue cache near the bottom of the Ravine. Snow Rangers, personnel from the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and the AMC, and overnight guests staying at Hermit Lake responded to help the patient. The patient’s leg was splinted and he was carried down to Hermit Lake which involved one 300′ rope lower. At Hermit Lake, the patient was reassessed and then transported to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile. This incident took 15 people 3.5 hours to complete.

If this person had his ice axe out during the fall he could have arrested himself and prevented this accident. We often see people descending Tuckerman Ravine in icy conditions without the proper equipment, particularly in the spring. An ice axe and the ability to use it properly are critical for safe travel in steep terrain. The combination of the axe and the knowledge of its use provide a reliable means of stopping yourself on steep snow in the event of a fall.

Climber fall – Lobster Claw in Tuckerman Ravine

A mountaineer was injured while descending the Lobster Claw in Tuckerman Ravine. During the descent, he lost his footing and took a tumbling fall down the gully injuring his hip. Snow Rangers and a member of the Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol assessed his injuries and assisted him down to Hermit Lake where he was transported to Pinkham Notch in the USFS snowcat. This incident involved four rescuers and took three hours to complete.

Skier Fall – Headwall

The victim fell while skiing on the left side of the Headwall. She somersaulted and fell approximately 100′ injuring her right knee. She was able to make it to Lunch Rocks where she rested and put ice on her knee. While walking out of the Ravine her knee became very swollen and she had difficulty walking. She sought assistance from the Mount Washinton Volunteer Ski Patrol. Her knee was assessed and it was determined she would most likely not be able to walk out to Pinkham. Her knee was bandaged and her leg immobilized. She was transported in a litter down to Pinkham. This incident took 10 people 1 1/2 hours to complete.

Skier Fall – Chute

The victim fell approximately 500′ while skiing in the Chute and collided with another person’s ski equipment. The victim sustained a laceration on his head and an avulsion on his right forearm. He was treated by members of the Mount Washinton Volunteer Ski Patrol and was able to walk out to Pinkham on his own. This incident took 2 people 1 hour.

Snowboarder Fall -Lip

The victim was boarding on the Lip when she fell approximately 800′. She complained of pain in her wrist and sustained abrasions to her back. She was treated by a USFS Snow Ranger. She was able to walk out to Pinkham on her own. This incident took 1 person 1 hour.