Well January has come and gone, and I’m not the least bit sad that it’s over. After enduring a prolonged thaw in the middle of the month and scant snowfall throughout, the month went out with a bang. Almost 2” of rain fell across the range on the 31st. This was another serious setback in an already lackluster snow year. Currently, our snowplot at the Harvard Cabin has a meager 63cm on the ground—that’s just a little more than 2 feet. At this point of the year we should have double that amount on the ground, at least in my humble opinion.
Thursday’s rain has set the stage for the weekend to come. If you’re planning a trip up here, there is a lot we can tell you from our field work today. First, take a moment to check out the pictures at left. Next, read down below for a breakdown of what you can expect:
Weather: Overall the weather doesn’t look terrible for the weekend. I wish I could say we’re getting a lot of snow, but it’s not the case. Late in the day Saturday there is a chance for some light accumulations. Winds will be on the decrease, with fairly light speeds anticipated for Sunday. Meanwhile, temperatures will slowly be climbing somewhat. I’d fall short of saying it’s going to warm up, but compared to today and early Saturday, temperatures on Sunday will be pretty nice.
Snow: The snow around the mountain is almost entirely refrozen rain crust. Down low on the trails, this means slick and icy. I would strongly recommend traction devices even for simply hiking up to Hermit Lake. If you’re going above there, you’ll definitely want real crampons. And if you’re going into steep terrain, such as either ravine or the Lion Head Winter Route, an ice axe is essential equipment. You’ll need to be very, very good at self-arresting in order to stop a fall before you get too much speed. Rocketing into the various rocks and trees that are currently exposed is not my idea of a good time. I’m not going to tell anyone that the skiing or riding is good. In fact, I’d probably take extra efforts to dissuade anyone from bringing a board to the ravine. Even the Sherburne is bad enough! It has lots of icy snow and spots of water ice. Sharp edges are a must.
We did get just a little bit of new snow today, and this may be blown into pockets here or there. It wasn’t much, so I don’t think you’ll have much trouble avoiding them. But where you do see anything but old crust in steep terrain, expect it to be unstable. More new snow may fall both days, with Saturday afternoon being the best chance. So there might be some new instabilities to contend with by the end of the day and into Sunday. Just how much snow we get will play a big role in how slabs develop. Be sure to read the morning advisory before heading up to get the latest on avalanche conditions.
Ice Climbing: this weekend is the Mt. Washington Valley Ice Festival. This is a great event and I would encourage anyone in town to check it out. Up on Mt. Washington, the ice climbing conditions are not the same as the often are at this time of the year. The biggest difference is that the tops of the gullies have much less snow in them. Some gullies have nearly nothing—seriously, if you try to top out you’ll probably be doing more rock scrambling than ice or snow climbing. North, Damnation, Yale, Central, and Odell all have exits that fit this description. Pinnacle Gully might just be the pick of the litter right now. It seems as though much of the water ran over the ice, leaving most of it in place.
Be aware of ice dams! When meltwater or rain can’t drain away due to new ice blocking drainage channels, dangerous amounts of pressure can build. This can release when a climber swings his or her tool into the ice or kicks in a crampon. The consequences of these range from minor annoyances to fatal accidents, so be cautious on the ice for the next couple days.
Hillman’s Highway: You may have read about this in the morning avalanche advisory. I’ll describe it in a little more detail here just because I think it’s a pretty amazing natural event. Water running beneath the snow hit a choke point or blockage, a little ways below the top of the Christmas Tree (1/3 up the gully). When enough pressure had built, the blockage failed and the gully erupted. The debris from this slush avalanche is impressive, and totally worth a look if you’re in the area with nothing to do. There was enough force to cause debris to overflow the berm on the dogleg and spill out into the trees. It ran farther than the landslide during Hurricane Irene! Not by much, but farther for sure. The debris is a grayish-tan colored mix of sand and gravel and refrozen slush, spanning from one wall to another. In the middle of the gully is a stream, which has frozen over and looks more like a very easy ice climb. If you do go check this out, be very cautious. It’s far easier to climb up than it is to climb down, and falling anywhere in here would definitely be painful.
Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines currently have LOW avalanche danger. Natural and human triggered avalanches are unlikely except in isolated terrain features. These pockets of new snow do exist so watch for unstable slabs in isolated strong lee areas.
Yesterday was quite an adventure and if we had Forest Service kayaks they probably would have been a better tool than snowmobiles. The summit received 1.93” (5cm) of water with only about 1” (2.5cm) of snow. As you can imagine around the clock melting and almost 2” (5.1cm) of rain gave the mountain a tropical rainforest feel in the middle of the monsoon season. I wish I could say otherwise, but there’s no way around it, the mountain took a beating over the past 24 hours. Hillman’s Highway had a major slush, water, snow and muddy mix blow out that scoured the lower half of the gully back to earth and boulders. The Little Headwall completely blew out and was a raging waterfall for the day and is still flowing. The main Headwall waterfall near the Lip also blew out making a mess down towards the “Open Book” and Lunch Rocks. Over in Huntington the thin climbs got thinner. Damnation’s upper reaches is a turf climb devoid of snow and ice. Central Gully’s crux, the midslope ice bulge, is now mostly a steep rock slab with a thin ribbon of ice in the climber’s left corner. The exit pitches also melted down to present some scrappy conditions. Central is usually considered one of the easier climbs in the Ravine and a good introduction to Huntington, but you should give it a bit more respect in terms of difficulty in its present state. Seeing what happened in other gullies, the hidden Pinnacle gully was likely hit hard. It wouldn’t surprise me if the first pitch is gone and if nothing else expect hollow and unnerving conditions. Although cold, it is “Icefest” weekend so anticipate climber traffic on a number of climbs, some of which may be above you. Tool placements will be variable between wet hero shots from fresh bubblers to brittle dinner plating so watch for falling ice. The Lion Head winter route likely got hammered through its crux as well. Anticipate the steep rock step to be a little longer with a veneer of ice. The main issues to consider today are:
Weather: Some light upslope snow is forecasted today with high W and NW winds. Temperatures will fall all day to -15F (-26 C) and down to -20F tonight (-29 C). Wind Chill advisories and Warnings are in effect. If venturing above treeline assure you have the best arctic clothing and the experience to deal with the forecasted weather conditions.
Avalanches: Yesterday’s High forecast has played out and snow has been increasing in strength all evening and morning. A saturated snowpack has been freezing from the surface down creating a concrete eggshell over wetter snow below. This bridging shell will continue to getter thicker through the weekend making all issues below the old surface moot. All avalanche issues are now dependent on new snow. Upslope snow today is expected to be quite light but deserves some attention. Currently we feel a “Low” rating covers the issue, but watch snowfall rates and expect some isolated pockets to be developing is some strong lee areas in the terrain from W and NW winds. Anticipate a slightly increasing avalanche danger depending on how snow accumulations play out over the next 12-24 hours.
Long sliding falls and Ice Dams: Snow surfaces are very hard, icy, and unforgiving to a trip or stumble in steep terrain. Realize we have “no fall” conditions right now and even Reinhold Messner couldn’t self-arrest in these conditions. This is our greatest concern heading into the weekend and the most likely potential for a serious accident in the mountains for the foreseeable future. Slow, methodical and mindful foot placements will help you from hooking a crampon. An ice ax, crampons and the skills and experience to use them well are critical for safe travel. Ropes and the knowledge to use them correctly for fall protection may be a wise choice.Ice Dams develop due to running water freezing at narrow choke points building hydraulic pressure waiting for a release. For climbers, the release is usually a tool placement or crampon kick in waterice. The explosive results have been catastrophic in the past so protect your climbs well with thoughtful placements of ice and rock gear.
Tuckerman Ravine trail and Sherburne Ski trail: The Tuck trail from Pinkham to Hermit Lake has long stretches of water ice due to dozens of small blowouts yesterday. Crampons will be helpful and some sort of traction device like microspikes and poles will be essential. Skiing? Forget about it! Seriously. Be sure to check www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org for our Weekend Update later today for any new information we discover today.
Safe travel in avalanche terrain requires training and experience. This advisory is just one tool to help you make your own decisions in avalanche terrain. You control your own risk by choosing where, when, and how you travel.
Anticipate a changing avalanche danger when actual weather differs from the higher summits forecast.
For more information contact the Forest Service Snow Rangers, the AMC at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, or the caretakers at Hermit Lake Shelters or the Harvard Cabin. Posted 8:25a.m. 2-1-2013. A new advisory will be issued tomorrow.
Christopher Joosen, Snow Ranger USDA Forest Service
White Mountain National Forest
(603) 466-2713 TTY (603) 466-2856