Search and Rescue on Mount Washington
Every year people get injured while climbing, skiing, and mountaineering on Mt. Washington. Search and rescue missions are difficult due to the remote and rugged nature of the terrain paired with objective hazards including weather, avalanches, and icefall. When someone gets hurt, they may receive help in a matter of minutes or it may take days depending on the situation, location, and conditions. Many people have the perception that a helicopter will come in and swoop them off the mountain if they become injured. This is not the case. Weather conditions and topography usually prevent a helicopter from safely attempting to rescue you. Once a person is reported injured or missing, rescue teams begin mobilizing and formulating their plan of action. This may include making the decision to not respond right away due to weather or avalanche conditions. In short, mountain rescue is neither easy nor fast; it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of rescuers.
The US Forest Service is the lead agency in charge of Search and Rescue in the Cutler River Drainage from December 1 to May 31 each year. We maintain a supply of first aid caches throughout the area, we are frequently on duty in the Ravines, and we are on call during this entire time frame. Additionally, we work with several volunteer groups who assist us with this effort. Hundreds of volunteers regularly give their time to this cause. It takes a lot of hands to get someone safely down off the mountain. Without these groups, our jobs would be a whole lot more difficult. These groups include:
Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol
Appalachian Mountain Club
Harvard Mountaineering Club
Mountain Rescue Service
Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue
The Mount Washington Observatory
New England K-9
Upper Valley Search and Rescue
Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue
If you would like more information or to make a donation to benefit the volunteer search and rescue effort and help promote safe hiking practices in New Hampshire, contact:
New Hampshire Outdoor Council, PO Box 157, Kearsarge, NH 03847
What to do in the event of an emergency
Nothing we can write here will truly prepare you for responding to an emergency in the mountains. They are all different. If there is one thing that holds true for all Search and Rescue missions, it’s that it takes a long time to get a person off the mountain. There are plenty of courses you can take, books to read, and people to talk to about the subject. Risking oversimplification, here’s what you should do if you or a member of your group has an accident:
- Ensure the scene is safe. If it’s not, either find a way to make it safe or move to a different area before you respond. Do not put yourself at unnecessary risk; one accident victim is difficult enough to manage.
- Provide first aid.
- Begin evacuation or get assistance if needed.
How to get help
After you’ve ensured the victim is in a safe location and you’ve provided 1st aid, consider your options. In the event of an avalanche burial, self-rescue gives the victim the best chance at survival. If you need assistance there are a number of places to get it:
- By Cell Phone. Dial 911. Your service will likely be limited depending on your location, and your battery may not last long in the cold. Like most other electronics, cell phones are good tools but not 100% reliable in the mountains.
- In Person. There are people who work and live at Hermit Lake Shelters (year round), and the Harvard Cabin (between Dec. 1 and March 31). Also, there is a USFS Snow Ranger cabin at Hermit Lake. If no one is available at these locations, your next best bet is Pinkham Notch. After hours, there is a pay phone in the pack up room (the entrance is the tunnel from the parking lot).
- 1st Aid Caches. We maintain a series of 1st aid caches spread out across the Cutler River Drainage. Each one has, at minimum, a rescue litter and a first aid kit. Please open caches only in an emergency! These caches can be found at:
- Lunch Rocks in Tuckerman Ravine
- Connection (the entrance to the Tuckerman Ravine floor)
- Upper Fire Rd at entrance to Huntington Ravine
- Junction of Lions Head Trail Winter Route and Huntington Fire Road
- Sherburne Ski Trail (2)
- Gulf of Slides Ski Trail (2)
- Base of Hillman’s Highway