For most people, a springtime visit to Tuckerman Ravine is a fun, enjoyable adventure. However, through the years many people have been severely injured or killed in the ravine. The information you’ll find here is relevant to all springtime visitors, regardless of whether you come to ski, snowboard, hike, watch the people, race, or whatever you choose to do. Your decisions can directly impact how your day goes, both in terms of fun and in terms of safety. Often, it takes only a very small amount of extra effort to do something in a safer way. Our role on the mountain is to help people make safer, more informed decisions. It’s up to you to make the actual decisions. As is written on each avalanche advisory throughout the winter and spring:
“You control your own risk by choosing where, when, and how you travel.”
If you have questions about the hazards, we encourage you to seek answers before you make the voyage to Mt. Washington. On the mountain, you will find numerous Forest Service Snow Rangers, Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrollers, and AMC staff. We are all there to help you out. Don’t hesitate to ask any of us if you need more information.
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center
White Mountain National Forest
Objective Hazards/Annual Springtime Hazards
How to avoid
|Avalanche||A mass of snow that releases from steep terrain, capable of engulfing anyone in its path or below its starting point. Tuckerman experiences many different types of avalanches in spring.||• Most of Tuckerman Ravine is in avalanche terrain.
• The distance slides can travel varies based on the nature of the avalanche problem.
|• During or after new precipitation
• Periods of rapid or prolonged warming
|• Read the avalanche advisory
• Talk with Snow Rangers or Ski Patrol
• Learn to recognize avalanche terrain
• Understand why flat terrain is not necessarily safe
|Icefall||Large blocks of ice falling from steep terrain. These can break into thousands of projectiles flying in all directions.||• Sluice
• Center Bowl
• Other areas have smaller icefall/rockfall potential
|• Warmth increases the hazard.
• Can happen rain or shine, night or day.
• Cold days (below freezing) minimize the hazard.
|Avoid lingering in areas with icefall potential. Lunch Rocks and below the Tuckerman Headwall which are the worst 2 areas.|
|Crevasses||A hole in the snow, often large enough for a person to fall into, caused by the snowpack creeping down slope or water eroding snow from below. Some holes are very deep, some may have running water in them. The hole may not be visible if a snow bridge is covering the opening.||Many locations. The Lip and Center Bowl have the largest and most dangerous crevasses. Hillman’s and the Chute also have locations where these have been problems in the past.||• Usually begin to open after numerous warm days in the spring.
• Exact dates vary each year.
• The hazard increases as the season progresses and crevasses grow larger.
|• Learn where these typically form
• Find a way to safely assess the hazard
• If you can’t safely assess the hazard, avoid the area
|Undermined snow||Melt water running beneath the snow surface erodes and weakens the snow at the surface, making it possible for you to fall into a water hole. These can be very difficult or impossible to get yourself out of.||• Most often found in the brook between the ravine and Hermit Lake, including the Little Headwall.
• Also Lobster Claw, Right Gully, and Hillman’s Highway.
• At times the floor of Tuckerman.
• The waterfall hole adjacent to the Lip is also very dangerous.
|• Similar to crevasses, this hazard increases as the season progresses.
• Once the snow bridges fully collapse the danger is gone.
|• Recognize where water would flow beneath the surface
• Assess thickness strength of the snow in locations with potential for undermining.
• Ask Snow Rangers or Ski Patrol where the hazard can be found
|Bad Weather||Bad weather can mean liquid precipitation, thick fog, high winds, blowing snow, etc.||Everywhere, especially up above treeline.||• All year.||• Pay attention to weather forecasts
•Come when weather is favorable.
Bring appropriate clothing.
|Icy surfaces||Spring snow that has melted and refrozen can be very dangerous, especially when at steep angles such as found in Tuckerman.||Everywhere uphill of Pinkham Notch. Most dangerous in steep terrain.||• Cold days
• Shaded terrain after sun goes down
|• Be prepared with mountaineering equipment—ice axe &crampons at minimum. Microspikes between Pinkham and Hermit Lake.|
In addition to the objective hazards listed above, there are a lot of other less objective hazards. The following list was originally posted as post in The Pit in 2013. The information contained is no less relevant this year than any other year.
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 was in June of 1994, when a skier was hit with falling ice from the headwall. A number of icefall injuries have occurred since then. 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. As importantly, have some experience and training in their use and techniques. Microspikes are great for hiking up to the Bowl, but they are not an effective substitute for crampons moving into steep terrain. 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 warm 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 more hazardous 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. In one of the closest calls we have ever seen was a 10 year old girl screaming with fear running with her sled with an enormous piece of ice bouncing down the Bowl right into her path. The refrigerator sized chunk bounced right over her and she fell in tears. Her mother sprinted to her daughter also screaming to find no injuries, but terrified. There was hushed silence from the 1000 onlookers, you could hear a pin drop. A potential tragedy averted. 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, 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. It will take 20 people to carry you out the hours down to the road. Remember it’s not your local ski area terrain park. 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. One season about 10 years ago we treated 7 broken legs, all were due to crampons, most of which were through glissading. 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. Snow Rangers work roughly 120 days per year each winter and spring, and we are still seeing things we’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.
Jeff Lane, Snow Ranger
Mount Washington Avalanche Center
White Mountain National Forest