2007-2008 Summaries

 

04-18,19,20-2008: During this Friday through Sunday period, thousands of visitors came to Mt. Washington to enjoy an excellent stretch of spring weather.  Over the course of the weekend, Snow Rangers, members of the Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol  and AMC caretakers responded to 7 incidents.  Three medical related calls, a broken pelvis and three leg and knee injuries.  One rescue was in technical terrain and required two 300′ lowers.

04-09-2008: A skier was at Lunch Rocks with a group of people when he was struck in the face by falling ice.  The group had intentionally positioned themselves in a location that offered shelter from icefall, but the piece silently threaded its way through the rocks and impacted the victim, causing him to fall approximately 70 feet down the slope.  Realizing the severity of the injury, his friends rapidly treated him and began transporting him down to Hermit Lake.  He was transferred into another toboggan at Hermit Lake and transported to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile, where he was loaded into an ambulance and transported to the hospital.  Due to excellent response from his friends, good trail conditions and machine assistance, the patient was in an ambulance in just over one hour from the time of his injury.

03-30-2008: During the afternoon of Sunday, March 30, Forest Service Snow Rangers at Hermit Lake were alerted to an avalanche incident in North Gully in Huntington Ravine. A climber elsewhere in the ravine witnessed the slide and was able to connect with 911 via a cell phone. Two Snow Rangers responded with snowmobiles and were on the scene 18-20 minutes after the incident took place. The details that follow were gathered from the climbers involved.

Two climbers were emerging from North Gully onto the more open slopes above the gully. After simul-climbing the gully’s midsection, they unroped and began to climb the snow up toward Ball Crag. They identified an area of potentially unstable snow and decided to move off to the side of the slope and travel one at a time. One of the climbers triggered an avalanche but neither were caught or carried in the slide. Unsure of the outcome below, they quickly worked their way around the ravine and descended the Escape Hatch to see if anyone needed help.

A second party of two believed the first party had already finished the climb, and began the first ice pitch. The leader arrived at a fixed belay above the first pitch of ice and clipped his rope to the anchor with a carabiner. He was in the process of backing up the anchor when the avalanche came from above. At this point the anchor was serving as a piece of protection and he was essentially still on lead.

The avalanche carried the leader downslope over the top of the first pitch of ice. The belayer was unanchored at the bottom and was lifted upslope and into the ice. He was able to maintain control of the belay and the fixed anchor held, resulting in approximately a 50 foot fall for the leader. Both climbers were shaken up, sore, and had damaged their helmets in the fall. Examinations by Snow Rangers at the scene found no serious injuries. The climbers stayed overnight at the Harvard Cabin, where the following morning they reported general soreness but no other injuries.

The weather leading up this incident is an example of a classic setup for an avalanche cycle. On Friday, March 28, Mt. Washington received 6.4” of 7.8% density snow. Hermit Lake recorded almost 8” from the same weather system. Friday night and Saturday the winds wrapped from the W to the NNW and increased in velocity before falling again on Sunday (from 1mph Friday afternoon to a peak of 99mph Saturday then back down to single digit speeds Sunday). Evidence of natural avalanche activity was visible Sunday morning in several locations, including Hillman’s Highway, South Gully, Raymond’s Cataract, the Lion Head Summer Trail, the East Snowfields of the summit cone, and in small snowfields that descend from Lion Head toward the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Avalanche danger for North Gully on Sunday was rated Moderate.

Fortunately this incident turned out well for all parties involved. It very easily could have been worse. Several lessons can be gleaned from this incident:
·          Choice of route. Five of eight gullies in Huntington had Low avalanche danger while three (North, Damnation, and Central) had Moderate.  In regards to snow stability, choosing anther gully would have been a safer option.
·          Climbing below another party. Ice climbing below others always carries additional risk, whether it’s from falling ice and rocks or avalanches. The party that was hit by the avalanche understood that climbing under another party was a bad choice.  They thought that the gully was clear and that it was safe to start up.  It is difficult to see the entire gully from the base of the ice, but a short walk to a better vantage point is all that is required for a view of the entire gully.
·          Ongoing stability assessments: The top party did a good job of recognizing the unstable snow at the top of the climb. Traveling one at a time off to the side of the area in question helped prevent them from being caught in the avalanche. Had they wanted to protect themselves further, they could have roped up again and climbed to the top using belays and protection.

03-03-2008: A group of mountaineers were glissading the Lion Head Winter Route when one of them lost control and fell down approximately 75-100 feet through the trees to the bottom of the steep section of trail. Along the way he hit some trees and came to a stop against a large stump. USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the incident by a hiker who had been sent to Hermit Lake to get help. Although below the steepest section of trail, the patient was found in terrain sufficiently steep to warrant belaying the litter downhill until the flat section of trail. From here he was sledded to the junction of the Winter Route and the Huntington Ravine Winter Access Trail, then transported via snowmobile and haul sled to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. The Winter Route is a steep mountaineering route which requires the ability to self arrest in the event of a fall. Glissading was a reasonable descent option given the soft snow conditions on this day; however, one should never glissade at a speed beyond his or her ability to self arrest.

01-26-2008: A climber was injured from a sliding fall while descending in Huntington Ravine.  A party of two started up Odell Gully around 3:00 pm on Saturday afternoon.  After completing the main ice climbing section, they traversed to the east to begin their descent.  Neither of them had their headlamps with them and darkness complicated their descent.  According to the party, they were in the lower section of the Escape Hatch when one of them lost his footing and began a sliding fall.  Unable to self arrest, he slid approximately 150 feet before slamming into a tree and stopping.  The fall resulted in injuries to his back and legs.  The two were able to get to the Harvard Cabin under their own power where local guides and the caretaker provided assistance to the climber and notified the USFS Snow Rangers who arrived at the Harvard Cabin around 9:30 pm.  The patient was reassessed, immobilized on a backboard and transported to Pinkham Notch via snowcat where he was transferred to an ambulance and brought to the hospital.  We later learned that the patient fractured two vertebrae in his lower back and had numerous sprains and contusions

Lessons Learned:  This was the third sliding fall injury in three days that may have been prevented with a quick self arrest.  The surface that all of these occurred on is a very hard icy snowpack from the January thaw, which is difficult to stop on.  If you don’t arrest your fall immediately you will get out of control fast.  In each of these incidents, the parties involved did a good job getting to the Harvard Cabin under their own power.

01-25-2008: A party of four was ascending the Fan in Huntington Ravine when one of them fell and slid into two other people in his party causing them to fall as well.  One of three involved in the fall was unable to self arrest on the icy surface and tumbled about 50 feet before hitting a rock.  He sustained a soft tissue injury to his left thigh.  The patient’s party was able to assist him down to the Harvard Cabin and notified the caretaker of the incident and requested assistance.  A Snow Ranger assessed his injuries and transported the patient to Pinkham Notch via snowmobile.

01-24-2008: A party of three was descending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail on the summit cone of Mt. Washington when they lost the trail.  Due to poor visibility, they wandered off trail to the east and began descending a steep snowfield.  One of them caught her crampon, causing her to trip and start a sliding fall.  One of the other people in the party chased her down and was able to assist her in stopping the sliding fall.  The person who tripped had no experience self arresting.  During the fall, the person twisted her ankle and her party was able to get her down to the Harvard Cabin in about 5 hours where they spent the night.  The next day USFS Snow Rangers assessed, treated and transported the patient down to Pinkham Notch via snowcat.

01-18-2008: At 9:20 pm on January 18 the USFS Snow Rangers were informed that a solo climber was overdue from his climb in Huntington Ravine.  The overdue climber had signed into the winter climbers register at Pinkham Notch with the plan of climbing Central Gully in Huntington Ravine.  According to his friends who reported him overdue, he had experience in many gullies in Huntington Ravine and had talked about Odell Gully as another option for his day.

A team searched the access routes into Huntington Ravine between 10:00 pm and midnight on the 18th.  Due to snow stability concerns, search teams didn’t enter avalanche terrain until first light the next day to begin searching Huntington Ravine.  Shortly after sunrise, the missing climber’s body was found in avalanche debris below Odell Gully.  The climber was on top of the debris and died as a result of being avalanched out of Odell Gully.  He was put in a technical litter, lowered 500 ft to the floor of the Ravine and transported to Pinkham Notch by the USFS snowcat.

The avalanche danger rating for January 18 was posted High for all forecast areas in Huntington Ravine.  The definition of this rating states natural and human triggered avalanches are likely, unstable slabs are likely on a variety of aspects and slope angles, and travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.  This rating was based on active wind loading of new snow that had been accumulating since snowfall began around 4 am that morning.  Winds associated with the storm began out of the south before shifting to the west around 12:00 pm and increasing to the 60-70 mph range with a peak gust on the Summit out of the west of 86 mph (139 kph) at 5:42 pm.  Recorded snow totals from this storm were 3.9” (10 cm) at Hermit Lake and 3.1” (7.9 cm) on the summit of Mt. Washington with locally higher amounts.  The density of the snow was lighter at the beginning and became heavier through the day with an average density at Hermit Lake of 12.8%.  Odell is a popular climbing route with sections of snow and grade 2 and 3 ice.  It faces E and ENE and has multiple avalanche start zones.  The winds associated with this storm were ideal for loading Odell by starting out of the south and wrapping around to the west.  It is believed that the climber triggered the avalanche, though this is not conclusive.  The size of the avalanche was classified as D2R3.  D2 refers to the destructive force of an avalanche and means that it could bury, injure or kill a person.  R3 means that the avalanche was medium sized relative to its normal path.  Evidence of natural avalanche activity from this storm was observed on similar aspects.

We would like to thank Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Harvard Mountaineering Club and the Mount Washington Observatory for assisting in this incident.

Lessons learned:  It is easy to look at incidents such as this one and make simple judgments on the victim’s actions.  Undoubtedly, most people would change their plans when a current avalanche forecast projects avalanches as being likely on their intended route.  Nonetheless, the majority of our avalanche fatalities and serious accidents have occurred in areas that were posted with High avalanche danger.  This contrasts with the general trend around the world where the majority of accidents happen under a Considerable rating.  Though this accident did happen in an area that was rated as High, it could have occurred under a rating of Low, Moderate or Considerable.

As a solo climber you are often exposed to a greater degree of risk than a roped climber.  In this incident the size of the avalanche probably had little to do with the outcome.  Had the victim triggered an isolated pocket of unstable snow, as is feasible under a rating of Low, the end result would likely have been similar.  Although a rope cannot save you from all mountain dangers it does substantially increase the size of your safety net if used properly.  When approaching a suspect area the best use of a rope incorporates solid protection that is located to the side of the pocket or snowfield in question.  This is by no means a failsafe tactic but it does provide some extra security should you be knocked off of your feet by snow, falling ice, etc.

Secondly it is worth noting that the US 5-Scale Danger Rating System is a continuum and not a series of 5 distinct categories without overlap.  Within any particular rating there is also a range and we frequently try to discuss this in the daily avalanche advisory.  When the victim passed the Harvard Cabin the avalanche advisory stated the following:  “N-facing aspects will be the first to move up into the High rating with E and S-facing aspects to follow as the winds shift.”   Armed with this data, it would be prudent to consider the other options if one was determined to climb a gully in the ravine that day.  By the time the victim was approaching the start of the climb the winds had begun their forecasted shift and Odell Gully was in the direct lee of wind loading.  Farther to the right, gullies such as North and Damnation likely had less loading occurring and would have had smaller sections of suspect snow to navigate.

Mountain skills are complex and require a high degree of technical training in a variety of disciplines.  This climber had a lot of experience climbing in Huntington including numerous solo ascents of gullies.  He was well prepared to deal with the weather and steep mountain terrain found in Huntington Ravine.  As is often the case in avalanche accidents, it appears that his technical climbing experience surpassed his knowledge of mountain snowpack.  In addition, the victim was not carrying any avalanche safety equipment.  Though it did not make a difference in this scenario, carrying this equipment provides an additional tool should the unthinkable occur.  Even if climbing alone this gear can help you out when things go bad.  Other climbers in the area could locate you if you were buried while wearing a beacon and you could provide the same service for them. With this said, self sufficiency is paramount in avalanche rescue so having a party of two or more is needed. Having these items with you should be standard practice anytime you enter avalanche terrain.

12-20-2007: On Thursday morning December 20th three climbers were suiting up after breakfast at the Harvard Cabin when USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane entered the building.  Jeff was in the process of writing the avalanche advisory for the gullies of Huntington Ravine and asking visitors what their plans were for the day.  Jeff got into a conversation with two of the three climbers about avalanche stability issues and the Considerable and Moderate postings for the Ravine.  Their plans were to climb for a couple of days with Pinnacle and Damnation as the desired routes, the former being the main goal.  With Pinnacle being posted at Considerable Jeff called Chris Joosen on the radio about his thoughts and concerns about a party ascending Pinnacle.  Jeff and Chris agreed that that they could not recommend Pinnacle posted at Considerable or Damnation Gully posted at Moderate, but would instead focus on presenting the stability facts.  Jeff discussed what gullies had more instabilities than others and convinced them Pinnacle was not a good idea.  Although Damnation held the possibility of unstable slabs, they were less likely and widespread than areas posted at Considerable.  After a 15 minute conversation they said they would climb Damnation today and perhaps hit Pinnacle tomorrow (Friday).  The weather conditions as they entered the Ravine included snow, light winds and limited visibility.  They decided to head up to Pinnacle to look at it and then traverse over to Damnation rather than head straight up to it.  After looking at Pinnacle from below they traversed under Central Gully and began heading across the top of the Fan.  They changed their plans partway across and headed back following their original plan to climb Pinnacle Gully.  On the approach to Pinnacle they began pushing through deep snow that they said was up to the chests.  They felt that because it was loose and unconsolidated that it was safe and not in risk of avalanching because in their opinion a slab did not exist. When the three were about 25 meters from the bottom of the ice which marks the traditional 1st pitch, the slope fractured and failed above them just below the ice.  At the time of slope failure the 1st climber was a few feet above the 2nd and about 10+ feet above the 3rd.  KA was out front and yelled “Avalanche!” and grabbed GW below him.  All three were flushed down the slope, but remained on the surface cart-wheeling with the entrained snow.  KA and GW were still next to one another about 75m below their high point while KB was sent almost twice that distance farther down slope.  They were extremely fortunate to have no injuries and to remain on top of the snow.  After shaking themselves off they proceeded to search for missing gear and decide what to do next.  Two wanted to climb the gully now that it had, in their opinion, been rendered safe by the release of its instabilities.  The third was done for the day.  They decided that they would all descend.

Lessons Learned: Often it is only in 20/20 hindsight that the reasons for an incident present themselves, but occasionally the natural world provides clues that were so obvious they should have been seen and heeded.  Each year we have examples of common mistakes that have human factors and psychology behind them even though the natural bulls-eye information was there.  This is such an incident.

Environmental Factors:

  • At 7am the summit temperature was around 15 F with a south wind at 20mph.  Approximately 3.5 inches of new snow was recorded at the summit while Hermit Lake in Tuckerman and the Harvard Cabin in Huntington each reported about 4 inches for the same period.  Snow continued through the morning bringing another 2-3 inches to all areas by noon.
  • Pinnacle is a steep E/ENE facing gully that is cross-loaded by S winds.  In addition to spindrift and sluffing from up high, the entire first pitch is water-ice which does not hold snow.  All of this snow piles up at the base of the gully on a slope of increasing angle averaging between 30-35 degrees.  This build up of snow accounts for the group’s comments of chest deep snow even though only 4-5” had fallen.  The light 7.7% density snow and light winds explains their impression that slabs did not exist.  Light density snow slabs can be practically indiscernible and although it appears unconsolidated and loose, even the slightest cohesion can create a slab.  Slab density closer to the ice was likely increased by the packing of spindrifts and sluffs from higher in the gully.
  • Pictures taken right after the slide by the group showed constant sluffing from the rock face that forms the gully’s left wall, further contributing to the accumulations on the slope.

Human Factors:

  • Jeff Lane spent 15 minutes of detailed conversation with the party about snow stability in Huntington and specifically the issues in Pinnacle.  The discussion ended with Jeff not being able to recommend their desired climb based on instability and the associated Considerable rating.  When traveling to various mountain ranges that have an avalanche advisory and you’re able to personally speak with the individuals that developed the forecast it should be acknowledged as key data.  In addition to avalanche forecasters there are ski patrollers, guides, Wardens, and Rangers working in their local mountains that can give you valuable safety advice worth listening to.  While you should not make your decisions based 100% on the advice of others, when available, use personal focused advice from experienced local avalanche expertise as a critical tool to help your decision making process.
  • The group initially passed Pinnacle and then convinced themselves that it was okay.  It becomes easy to overlook all the red flags when desire overcomes reason.  We must enjoy our winter pursuits on the mountain’s terms, not on our tight time schedule. It’s easy to make a go/no-go decision on the days that are truly nasty or sunny and stable.  It’s the large spectrum in between these two when you must err on the side of caution and fight the desire to “squeak through” and “beat” the mountain.  Snow stability is hardest to accurately assess when the margin of error can put you into either a green light or red light situation based on how you’re seeing the data.  The bulls-eye data can be a little more difficult to pick out.  For these reasons most fatalities occur under a Considerable avalanche rating.
  • Safe travel rules were not adhered to and rescue equipment was not worn.  Safe travel rules include (1) Travel one at a time, (2) Don’t travel over or under your partner, and (3) Have a plan in mind about exactly where you’ll go if an avalanche happens.  Number 3 can be very difficult to manage in every situation, but rules 1 and 2 mitigate risk well and limit the number of individuals in a potentially hazardous situation to one.  This is absolutely critical to individual and group survival if an avalanche does occur.  Having only one person buried allows more individuals to focus on the rescue, thus increasing the odds of survival.  On the other hand, having the whole group buried brings the group’s chance of survival pretty much down to zero.  This group was very lucky as all of them were caught, entrained in the debris, and brought downhill.  Had someone been buried, the big problem would have been the lack of beacons, probes, and shovels.  If anyone was completely buried this incident would have likely turned out tragically.

    Looking up toward Pinnacle immediately following the incident. A fracture line is visible just below the ice. Note that sluffing continues to fall from above down the left wall of the Buttress. Photo by KA.

    Looking down from where the climbing party triggered the slide. The debris ran to just below the large boulder. The texture of the debris indicates the soft nature of the slab. Photo by KA.