1998-1999 Summaries

 

12-27-1998

On 12-27-1998, an ice climbing accident occurred in Odell’s gully in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington. BC and his partner started up the steep water ice of Odell’s gully. BC began leading out. They were climbing the route with a running belay. About 25 meters out, BC placed one 22 cm ice screw. As he came to the end of their 50 meter rope, he started to place another screw. While doing so, his partner began climbing. The second slipped and fell, pulling BC off his stance. BC was 25 meters out from his last protection and fell approximately 50 meters. BC slid and bounced down the low angle ice. Both the leader fall and the belayer were held by the single ice screw. BC exhibited painful swelling in the pelvis/hip area and was unable to walk. With the assistance of volunteers and SAR personnel in the area, BC was immobilized in a Cascade toboggan and carried/sledded to Pinkham Notch.

Both climbers were experienced and well equipped. They were training for a winter climbing trip to Mount Katahdin.

Comments

The climbers were climbing within their abilities. Climbing with a running belay or “simul-climbing” is a common technique for the snow and ice gullies of Huntington Ravine. Climbing in this fashion is clearly more risky than belayed climbing, depending on weather conditions. Placing additional protection would have minimized the distance of the leader fall. When climbing with a running belay, the second must take care not to climb when the leader has stopped to place protection.

The rescue required 16 persons and 76 person hours.
2-13-1999

On 2-13-1999, VM and her partner were descending the Lower Snowfields in Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. The snow conditions were extremely hard, the result of a mid-winter rain storm. They decided to practice self arrest technique. The slope angle of the Lower snowfields is about 35 degrees, with a poor runout of trees and shrubby vegetation. From the top of the snowfield, VM began a deliberate slide. She was unable to self arrest, and experienced a sliding, tumbling fall of approximately 500 feet into the scrub vegetation.

She was evacuated from the base of the slope in a Cascade toboggan to Hermit Lake, and then to Pinkham Notch via US Forest Service Thiokol snow vehicle.

Injuries included swollen, painful deformities of both legs and right arm, multiple abrasions and contusions and hypothermia.

Comments

Self-arrest technique must be practiced on small, unobstructed practice slopes where a safe runout is assured. Slopes such as the Lower Snowfields can be a good place for such practice, but deliberate slides from the top of this 500 foot slope are not recommended, even under the best conditions. Ideally, the best slopes are those where excessive speed will not cause injury in the event of an uncontrolled slide.

The snow conditions at the time of the accident were extremely unfavorable for self arrest. Any type of fall can be difficult to arrest under such conditions, let alone a slide of this distance.

VM was wearing crampons while practicing self arrest. The importance of removing crampons during self arrest practice or when glissading can not be underestimated. It is likely that VM injured both legs by catching the points of her crampons as she slid down the slope.

VM was characterized as a novice and her partner as experienced.

The rescue required 23 people and 27 person hours.

2-15-99

On 2-15-99, BM was involved in a serious accident on the summit cone of Mount Washington. At approximately 1500, BM and his partners left the summit of Mount Washington, descending the southeast snowfields. The slope angle varies from 30 to 35 degrees where the accident occurred. About half way down from the summit, BM began glissading the snowfield. He lost control, gained speed, and caught his crampons on the surface. The slide was estimated to be approximately 200 feet, with many boulders hit along the way.

BM suffered an angulated boot-top fracture of the right leg, and swollen painful deformities of the right hand and right chest area. A lengthy rescue followed, which was not completed until 2:30 AM the following day. The rescue involved 7 pitches of raising over steep snow via a counter balance haul system. BM was raised to the summit and brought down the Mount Washington Auto Road with the assistance from the Mount Washington Observatory snow vehicle.

Comments

BM was glissading with his crampons on. Climbers must remove their crampons to glissade steep snow covered slopes. There have been several accidents on Mount Washington this winter where climbers began to glissade on their backsides without removing the crampons. Several of these accidents have resulted in fractured legs and ankles and lengthy rescue efforts.

The surface conditions at the time were extremely hard and icy, making self arrest difficult. Glissading steep, icy slopes without a good runout can be very dangerous.

Any accident in winter on Mount Washington can become life threatening given the notoriously harsh winter weather. Fortunately for BM and the rescuers, the weather was reasonably mild. BM was well equipped and had warm outerwear which helped keep him comfortable during the lengthy rescue, and may have prevented additional damage to his leg. Climbers, hikers and skiers would do well to prepare for the worst when climbing the mountain in winter.
The rescue required 15 people and 120 hours. 3-5-1999

On March 5, 1999 a serious climbing accident occurred in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington.

The Mount Washington Observatory reported very strong winds and cold temperatures for the day. West winds at 70-85 m.p.h. and temperatures ranging from -5 to -8 degrees F. made travel above treeline extremely difficult and dangerously cold. Snow conditions were very firm, the result of a mid-winter rain event.

QL and his partner AB completed a successful ascent of Odell’s gully, a moderate snow and ice climb on the south side of Huntington Ravine. Upon reaching the top, they encountered extremely high winds. They decided to descend via the Escape Hatch, a low angle snow gully which is the standard descent from climbs in Huntington Ravine. Battling the strong winds, the pair made their way east along the rim on Huntington Ravine. At times, the wind forced them to crawl on hands and knees. The winds had the effect of gradually pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the Ravine. At approximately 11:00 AM, a gust of wind blew QL off his feet. He was literally blown off the mountain. QL began sliding down the top of South gully. He attempted to self-arrest, but was unable to do so. He slid and tumbled down the entire length of South Gully, a fall of approximately 1200 feet.

AB suddenly noticed that QL was no longer with him. AB continued to make his way toward the Escape Hatch. Successfully descending the gully, he found QL at the bottom of South Gully, where he began to attend his injuries and initiate a rescue. Fortunately, another climbing party had arrived on the floor of Huntington Ravine. Another stroke of fortune for QL, as the party consisted of an orthopedic surgeon, an EMT and a registered nurse. They provided emergency medical care, and evacuated QL to the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine. QL was transported to an awaiting ambulance via the US Forest Service Thiokol snow machine to Pinkham Notch.

QL suffered multiple lacerations and abrasions, a dislocated right elbow, and other internal injuries,

Comments

Climbing Mount Washington in winter can be a very serious undertaking. In addition to cold temperatures, hurricane force winds are measured on a regular basis. The climbing gullies of Huntington Ravine are somewhat sheltered from the full force of strong winds so common to the mountain. Climbers may be unaware or unprepared for what awaits them as they top out, where full exposure to the winds are experienced. Several climbing accidents have occurred in the past when climbers, upon reaching the top of the route, have been blown back down the gully. After a climb under high wind conditions, seasoned Mount Washington climbers will take care not to stand up until safe terrain is reached.

Conditions were quite severe above tree-line when the pair left to make their climb. winds were ranging from 70 to 80 m.p.h. on the summit of Mount Washington. The safety of an ascent should have been re-evaluated.

Several alternative options for descent should be considered under such difficult conditions. One option is to descend/rappel the gully to the base, rather than risking an above treeline traverse to the Escape Hatch. Climbers of Odell’s or Pinnacle gullies can also traverse east below the rim of the ravine to South Gully, providing a more sheltered descent option under high wind conditions.

QL was literally blown off the mountain attempting to descend. Climbing and traveling under such extreme conditions can be very difficult, and climbers have a narrow margin of safety in the event of an accident.

A word must be said about the tremendous fortune of having an orthopedic surgeon, EMT and RN on the scene in such a short time. A better scenario for care and evacuation under such conditions from this location is difficult to imagine.
The rescue required 6 persons and 13 person hours.

3-13-99

An avalanche accident occurred in the Right Gully of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. Right Gully is a 1000 foot snow gully with a slope angle ranging from 35 to 40 degrees. The climbers destination was the summit of Mount Washington. At approximately 1130, an avalanche was triggered by 2 climbers near the top of the gully. Four other climbers were also in the gully at the time the avalanche swept down. The four climbers had no warning and were unable to take evasive action to avoid the slide. PB was carried approximately 600 feet down to the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. WL and DC were carried approximately 300 feet. None of them were buried by the avalanche debris. PB suffered a fractured right tibia, WL a sprained left ankle, and DC a sprained right ankle. JE was not caught in the avalanche and escaped without injury.

The avalanche danger in Tuckerman Ravine was posted as Moderate. The avalanche was a pocket of windslab, which had been deposited on a combination of old, wind-packed snow and a rain crust. It appears to have been the only deposit of unstable snow in the gully, as no other snow was entrained by the slide. Crampons and ice axes were needed to safely ascend the gully.

Bystanders at the scene immediately began to assist the injured climbers. By the time the USFS snow ranger and search and rescue personnel arrived, the victims had been put into Cascade toboggans gathered from the nearby rescue cache. Rescue personnel and volunteers evacuated the injured to Hermit Lake, where the US Forest Service Thiokol was used to continue the transport to Pinkham Notch and the awaiting ambulance.

The debris from the avalanche was 180 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 2.5 feet deep. The maximum depth of the fracture was 18 inches. The fracture was approximately 175 feet wide. The track of the avalanche was 800 vertical feet.

Comments

The avalanche danger was posted at Moderate in Right Gully. The area that avalanched was an isolated pocket of unstable snow. Only this pocket was released, and very little other snow was entrained in the track of the avalanche. The area received 4.3 inches of snow in the previous 48 hours, with north winds gusting up to 60 m.p.h.. Right gully has a mostly south and southeast aspect.

Safe travel skills must be observed at all times in avalanche terrain when there is a danger of avalanches. The climbers caught in this slide were not practicing safe travel technique. They were traveling together up the gully, with another party above them.

Snow conditions were indeed stable where the victims were climbing, they were probably unaware of the unstable snow higher in the gully. Travelers in avalanche terrain should always be aware of what is above them and to have an escape route planned. These climbers were very lucky. They were not buried by the avalanche. They were not equipped with avalanche transceivers or shovels for self rescue. It was a small avalanche with a relatively benign run-out zone. Had the avalanche dragged them through an area known as Lunch Rocks located 150 feet west of the path of the avalanche, the outcome may not have been so fortunate.

The avalanche was triggered by 2 climbers also ascending to the summit of Mount Washington. They were aware that there were other climbers in the gully below them at the time of the avalanche. They declined to descend to the accident scene, choosing rather to continue on to the summit.

4-17-99

DB and CL were climbing Damnation Gully, a 1600 foot, grade 3 snow and ice route on the north side of Huntington Ravine. Weather conditions on the mountain were moderate with light winds. Approximately 2 inches of new snow was reported in the previous 24 hours from the summit of Mount Washington. Both climbers are experienced winter mountaineers and experienced climbing Mount Washington in winter. Damnation gully was the last remaining gully climb in Huntington Ravine for DB.

The pair had successfully climbed most of the gully. About thirty feet remained of the pitch when disaster struck. DB was near the end of the pitch, looking for an anchor when he triggered a small avalanche. He had recognized the instability and was moving off the slope when it failed. Nearly a full rope length out from the belay, DB was swept off his feet and began sliding down the gully. No intermediate climbing protection had been placed. Unable to self-arrest, the fall was taken directly on to the belayer and belay anchor, which subsequently failed. Still roped together, DB and CL fell 1000 feet down Damnation Gully.

Other climbers responded to DB’s cries for help. They hurried to the accident scene and began assisting the fallen climbers. One of these climbers was equipped with a portable handheld radio. He transmitted an emergency message which was received by another Forest visitor 3 miles away at the trailhead. The accident was then reported at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and turned over to the US Forest Service. The initial report was of a broken leg in Huntington Ravine. USFS Snow Ranger Brad Ray and John Knieriem, patrol leader of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol responded to the accident in the USFS Thiokol snow vehicle. They were met on the trail by witnesses who reported a much more serious accident than had been initially thought. Additional resources were mobilized from the USFS, AMC, and HMC to assist in the care and evacuation of the victims. Trauma equipment and technical climbing gear was dispatched to the scene.

Upon arrival of rescuers, CL had been evacuated from the lower slopes of the gully by volunteers using equipment from a nearby rescue cache. DB was still on the slope below the gully and required further evacuation using ropes and a belay. CL’s injuries and vital signs were quickly assessed. Oxygen was administered and he was transported in the Thiokol snow vehicle under the care of an ER doctor, and ER nurse, and 2 USFS EMT’s. A second trip up the mountain by the Thiokol was required to evacuate DB to Pinkham Notch.

CL suffered an L1 spinal compression fracture, numerous broken ribs, a fractured right femur, hemothorax of the right lung, and severe head trauma. He was immediately flown by helicopter to the regional trauma center. DB sustained serious injury to the sacral/pelvic region, including a displaced sacroilliac joint. DB also required surgery for his injuries.

Comments

Snow conditions in the gully during the climb were generally firm, making self arrest difficult if not impossible. An unarrested climber falling over 40 degree snow slopes quickly gains a great deal of speed. On low angle, less technical snow climbs, rope teams often proceed without placing intermediate climbing protection. While this type of terrain rarely exceeds the abilities of skilled and experienced climbers, the consequences of a fall could be disastrous. Without the placement of intermediate protection, any unarrested fall will translate directly to the belay/anchor system. A fall of this type puts the greatest possible stress on the belay system, a theoretical factor 2 fall. In this case, the belay anchor consisted of a block slung with 1″ tubular webbing backed up by a # 6 Stopper. Leaders must take care to place protection as soon as possible after leaving the belay, thus reducing the fall factor in the event of an accident.

Climbers should make the commitment to place protection. Otherwise, the party should dispense with the rope altogether and the climbers proceed solo. The decision to climb roped with belay, with running belays, or solo is a complicated one which must take many factors and conditions into account. Some of these considerations include weather, snow surface conditions, party experience, avalanche danger, terrain, and availability of good protection and belays. If possible, climbers in avalanche terrain must take care to place adequate protection and utilize ‘bombproof’ belays.

Climbers should never let their guard down. Even on seemingly easy climbing terrain, the unexpected can happen. All too often, climbers rely on luck or ability as opposed to skilled ropework for safety over such terrain.

The pair were climbing with short ice axes, better suited for steep ice climbs. A good combination of tools for moderate snow and ice terrain like that found in Huntington Ravine consists of a longer mountaineering axe in addition to one or two short technical type axes. A mountaineering axe is more effective for self-arrest and self-belay while climbing steep snow.

Both climbers were wearing helmets. The helmet worn by CL was destroyed in the fall. There is no doubt it saved his life.

Avalanche Information

The Mount Washington Observatory reported 1.3 inches of new snow in the previous 24 hours with light winds fron the West which shifted into the Southwest. The slope aspect of Damnation gully is generally S-SE. The gully is commonly cross-loaded with W winds. Another precipitation event earlier in the week which deposited 3.9 inches of snow on the summit of Mount Washington with NW winds from 70-90 m.p.h. may have contributed to the instability. Total snowfall from the summit in the 7 days preceding the accident was 5.6 inches, interspersed with fair skies.

The avalanche danger for Huntington Ravine was Low. Low avalanche danger refers to generally stable snow with isolated pockets of instability. The normal caution is advised when travelling in avalanche terrain. The avalanche triggered by DB is considered an isolated pocket of unstable snow. The fracture line of the avalanche was estimated at 40 feet wide and 10 inches deep. The victims were not buried in the avalanche debris, which was deposited 3 to 5 inches deep and covered an area 40 by 60 feet. Little additional snow was entrained in the slide as it moved down the track. Temperatures during the morning showed an increasing trend, and the avalanche debris was dense and wet. It is possible that increasing temperatures around freezing contributed to snowpack instability.

For those who choose to venture into avalanche terrain, a word of caution is advised. Even when the avalanche danger is posted as Low, the normal caution must be observed. On commiting mountainous terrain like that found in the easterly ravines of Mount Washington, even the smallest avalanches can be very dangerous.

All Accidents 1998-1999

Accident # Month Activity Type of Injury Hours of Rescue personnel
1 12/98 Hiking Bruised Hip 5–AMC
2 12/98 Hiking Bad bruise/back injury 5–AMC, 12-Bystanders
3 12/98 Pain & tenderness of elbow 1–AMC
4 12/98 Hiking (crampons) Fracture ankle 2.5–USFS, 3–AMC, 10-Bystanders
5 12/98 Hiking (crampons) Fracture ankle 4-USFS, 4–AMC, 4-MRS, 32-Bystanders
6 12/98 Ice Climbing Hip/pelvis injury 5-USFS, 8-AMC, 20-AVSAR, 3-UVSRT, 40-Bystanders
7 12/98 Glissading with crampons on Fracture ankle 3-USFS, 6-AMC,15-AVSAR, 30-Bystanders
8 2/99 Self arrest practice Fracture both legs, fracture arm 4-USFS, 4-AMC, 4-HMC, 15-Bystanders
9 2/99 Snowshoeing Dislocated shoulder 2-USFS, 1-AMC, 2-HMC, 12-Bystanders
10 2/99 Glissading with crampons on Fractured leg, hand and ribs 8-USFS, 8-HMC, 16-AVSAR, 32-AMC, 40-MRS, 16-MWO
11 2/99 Sliding with crampons on Fractured ankle 2-USFS, 2-AMC, 2-HMC, 6-MRS
12 3/99 Descending from Ice Climb Dislocated elbow, facial lacerations, fractured ribs 2-USFS, 15-Bystanders
13 3/99 Hiking Fractured ankle 3-USFS, 3-MRS, 18-Bystanders
14 3/99 Hiking/caught in avalanche Fractured leg
15 3/99 Hiking/caught in avalanche Sprained ankle
16 3/99 Hiking/ caught in avalanche Sprained ankle
17 4/99 Skiing Head injury, facial lacerations 2-AMC, 4-bystanders
18 4/99 Sledding Head injury 6-AMC
19 4/99 Hiking Fracture ankle 2-USFS, 2-AMC
20 4/99 Skiing Fractured ribs 2-USFS, 2-MWVSP
21 4/99 Hiking to ski Dislocated shoulder 3-USFS, 4.5-MWVSP, 1-AMC
22 4/99 Skiing Knee injury 1-USFS, 3-MWVSP
23 4/99 Skiing Scalp laceration 1-MWVSP
24 4/99 Ice Climbing, caught in avalanche L1 spinal compression fracture, broken ribs, fracture femur, hemothorax to lung, severe head trauma
25 4/99 Ice Climbing, caught in avalanche Serious injury to sacral/pelvic region
26 4/99 Skiing Fractured collarbone, shoulder injury 2-USFS, 4-MWVSP
27 4/99 Snowboarding Head injury, facial abrasions, fractured ribs 3-USFS, 10-MWVSP
28 4/99 Skiing Shoulder injury, fractured ribs 1-USFS, 6-MWVSP
29 4/99 Snowboarding Fractured ankle, Concussion 2-USFS, 2-AMC, 6-MWVSP
30 4/99 Skiing Sprained Knee 2.5-MWVSP
31 4/99 Skiing Knee injury 2-USFS, 2-MWVSP
32 4/99 Skiing Dislocated shoulder 1-USFS, 1-MWVSP
33 4/99 Skiing Lacerations to Hand 1-MWVSP
34 5/99 Skiing Fractured leg 2-USFS, 3-MWVSP, 16-Bystanders
35 5/99 Hiking Knee injury 1-USFS, 2-MWVSP
36 5/99 Snowboarding Bruised ribs 1-MWVSP
37 5/99 Hiking Fractured patella 1-MWVSP