Every year the USFS Snow Rangers, Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, and AMC caretakers get a front row seat to the action in Tuckerman Ravine. Through the years, we’ve seen a lot. At best, we see talented skiers and riders making the even the hardest runs look easy. But much of the good stuff that happens is less noticeable, such as the decision of a group of skiers to stick to lower angle terrain on an icy day, or the recent avalanche class graduate going out of his way to ask us for information about the snowpack.
Tucks can certainly take on a circus-like atmosphere at times. When this happens, it is easy to forget what the Ravine truly is—a backcountry ski mountaineering adventure. I was thinking the other day about how many different accidents I’ve witnessed in the last ten years or so, which is when I started working here as a caretaker for the AMC. These accidents range from minor lacerations, to serious but not life threatening musculo-skeletal injuries, to critical injuries requiring rapid evacuation. The variety of causes of these injuries is impressive as well. Here’s a quick list I came up with to help put these causes into perspective.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. My hope is that you’ll see some of these as things you’ve done before. Maybe you knew there was risk involved and maybe you didn’t. I know I’ve been in situations where I had no idea of the risks I was taking. When I reflect back on them, I think of how lucky I was and how I’d love to have everyone at least understand the risks involved. That should be the foundation of making good decisions, because it’s hard to change your behavior when there is no compelling reason to.
The other motive is slightly selfish. First aid and rescue in the ravine is much more difficult than at roadside locations such as ski resorts. Although we are often here to help out, that’s not always the case. We’d like you to consider how much effort is involved with a carryout from the ravine down to Pinkham. Not only are a lot of people involved, but it tends to take a long time. Trust me, you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re waiting for rescuers to show up and help you out. Not because we aren’t good at our jobs, but because at best you’re several hours from definitive medical care. So without further ado…
Ten ways for you to get hurt in Tuckerman this spring
1. Sit at Lunch Rocks on a warm sunny day.
Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t make it right.
Whoever named these boulders “Lunch Rocks” obviously wasn’t here on a day when there was much falling ice. We’ve seen injuries in recent years, even when people are hanging out on the downhill side of large rocks, in supposedly safe locations. The most recent fatality I am aware of was in June of 1994, when a skier was hit with falling ice from the headwall. It’s impressive how far down onto the ravine floor falling ice can tumble. Both the Sluice ice and the Headwall ice can strike Lunch Rocks, so be aware. There are better, safer locations to park yourselves for the day. Seek the advice of the Volunteer Ski Patrol and Snow Rangers. Set up your hang out spot well down the floor of the ravine and off to the sides.
2. Ski the area with the lowest avalanche danger rating, regardless of what that rating is.
If you’re scratching your head thinking, who would do this? You might be surprised to learn that it’s a pretty common theme. In one instance in the Lower Snowfields a few years ago, everything around the ravine was rated Considerable while only the Snowfields were Moderate. We did our best to let people know that Moderate meant it was dangerous, but being a sunny Saturday people still flocked to the area. One of the first groups to get there triggered an avalanche that carried one skier down into the trees below. While this rescue was going on, another skier triggered a slide in Hillman’s Highway. Pay attention to the rating, know what it means, and know the reason behind the rating (which you’ll find by reading the avalanche advisory)
3. Mistake a) microspikes for crampons or b) your ski pole for an ice axe.
High speed sliding falls are no laughing matter. We recommend bringing an ice axe and crampons when you’re in steep terrain such as Tuckerman or the Lion Head Winter Route. Microspikes are great for hiking up to the Bowl, but they are not an effective substitute for crampons. Your ski pole will help you to stay on your feet, but if you start to fall it will do little to help you stop yourself. Make no mistake, this terrain is mountaineering terrain. If you are here on a perfect spring day, there is a good chance you won’t need to use these tools. But, if conditions stay frozen or if you’re out later in the day and the shadows come across the bowl, you may need them for climbing down the slope safely. Be prepared with proper equipment, or at least know the limitations of the equipment you are carrying.
4. Follow someone else’s tracks and/or assume they know what they’re doing
There are often good boot packs to follow up the gullies, however, they aren’t always established in the best locations. Sometimes the tracks you might be following are from a Snow Ranger out looking for locations with unstable snow. Following our tracks might lead you to the worst stability on the whole mountain. Other times tracks lead up locations that are more exposed to icefall potential, up steeper slopes than necessary, up the middle of the slope (which, when people are following, makes skiing down difficult). We do believe that mentorship is a great way to gain knowledge and experience, but if your mentor is someone you just met on the trail who says “follow me, I know what I’m doing,” then you may end up in a riskier situation than you would have if you were to have been making decisions for yourself the whole way. Do yourself a favor and get your information from credible sources (e.g. the USFS, AMC, MWObs).
5. Ignore the weather forecast.
Just because it’s warm and sunny in the valleys doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way up here. April and May frequently bring very wintery weather to the mountains. Be prepared for these conditions. Leave the cotton sweatshirts and blue jeans behind, bring appropriate clothing for the mountains including extra dry layers to change into, and check the higher summits forecast before heading out.
6. Ride a sled in the bowl.
You’d never want to do this again if you were here the day the guy slammed into a refrigerator sized chunk of ice sitting in the ravine floor. He never saw coming, and at full speed on an inflatable tube hit it so hard as to knock him unconscious. After several bouts of unconscious vomiting, he finally came to (see bottom of this page). Most people don’t end up this bad, but we’ve seen numerous cases of road rash, injured knees and ankles, etc. from people who have very little control once they begin their descent. Probably the worst offenders for this are the parents who encourage their kids to sled in the bowl, right in the path of any ice that may fall from the headwall or even under slopes with known avalanche hazard. If there is icefall potential, avalanche hazard, or people skiing from above, find alternative locations to ride your sled.
7. Build a jump in the bowl.
There’s nothing quite like a flat landing to stress your ACL or MCL. While we’ve seen a number of these in recent years, though lacerations are probably more common when people failing to stick their landings. And let’s not forget the rotator cuffs and dislocated shoulders. We know you’ve spent all season honing your aerials, but this probably isn’t the best place to show off your tricks. Be conservative when you’re three miles from the nearest road; keep your head above your feet in the Ravine.
8. Glissade without removing your crampons.
I can’t think of an easier way to get a boot-top spiral fracture of your tibia (shin bone) than sliding down hill with crampons on. This one is so obvious to me, I can’t fathom why anyone would think this is the proper way to use crampons. If you’re wearing crampons, stay on your feet. If you want to slide, take them off.
9. Pretend that “I’ve been here plenty of times before” actually means something.
It doesn’t. Conditions are constantly changing, from hour to hour, day to day, year to year…If you’ve been here enough times that it actually does mean something, you should already understand how variable the conditions can be. I’ve been here roughly 120 days per year for the last ten years, and I’m still seeing things I’ve never seen before. Think of every day as a new day, and pay attention to what the conditions are for the day you are here.
10. Forgetting you have skis on your pack and bending over near people.
This one won’t get you hurt, but it could easily cause damage to those around you. Try to remember that your skis are much taller than you, so when you bend over or swing your pack around, those people nearby may be within striking distance. Wearing crampons can have a similar effect, particularly when dogs are nearby. Pay attention to what’s in your immediate vicinity when moving around.
11. And here’s a bonus: Not carrying your skis or snowboard on a pack.
Carrying your skis or board on your pack will, at a minimum, make you look like you know what you’re doing. Carrying them over your shoulder as you hike or climb, that will make you look amateurish. The over-the-shoulder hike up the Lip boot pack went out of style at the same time as cutoff jeans shorts, but unlike the jorts it’s not making a comeback. Good packs with effective ski carry systems have been around for a long time. We’ve seen dropped equipment cause more than a few injuries in steep terrain. And we also had one instance ten years ago when a snowboarder who was walking out from the bowl, being too lazy to strap his board to his pack, slipped and carved an 8” laceration into his thigh all the way down to the bone. It was a nasty cut, and the evacuation required a lot of effort. That snowboarder was me, so I know how easy a day can go from great to terrible. The lessons I take home from that incident are these: Take the time to do things right; attractive as they are, taking shortcuts is a good way to get hurt; and accidents can happen to anyone, including me, so I need to be mindful of the risks while still having a good time.
For those who are looking for more information about spring skiing, or info on Mt. Washington for any season, I’d encourage you to look at the Visitor Information page of the Mt. Washington Observatory. I think the Backcountry Resources sidebar on the right is an overlooked resource, both for experienced and first time visitors alike.
Jeff Lane, Snow Ranger
Mount Washington Avalanche Center
White Mountain National Forest