2016-02-07 At approximately 12:10pm on Sunday, February 7, one member of a climbing party of three slipped while approaching a technical snow and ice climb in Huntington Ravine. The climber rapidly gained speed on the 35-40 degree snow slope beneath Central Gully and tumbled into the rocks below, sustaining non-life threatening injuries. Two nearby parties of two including a guide and student went to the party’s aid and assisted the injured climber down to a rescue cache where she was loaded into a litter. Snow Rangers received initial notification of the incident via a satellite phone call to the Saco RD office. Snow Rangers reached the group and assisted the climbing party in transporting the patient to Pinkham Notch, arriving at approximately 4:00pm.
Four days prior to the incident, temperatures on the mountain soared into the mid-30s F for over 24 hours. Following this, the temperature dropped to near 0F creating a thick, knife hard, melt-freeze crust. While stabilizing the snowpack, these conditions create a very hard and icy snowpack. A meager snowpack from a dry and warm winter created lots of water ice in Huntington Ravine to climb, but with plenty of rocks to serve as obstacles to a falling climber.
As many parties do, the plan for this group was to rope-up at a terrain bench beneath the ice bulge marking the start of the steepest climbing in Central Gully. The most experienced climber went first and coached the two less experienced climbers to use both tools to climb the ten feet of exposed ice in order to reach the flat platform of snow beneath the ice bulge. The second, and least experienced of the three, slipped climbing this section. After losing both ice tools, the victim managed to orient her feet downhill but soon caught a crampon in the snow. Starting to tumble, the victim came to a stop just above the Fan, falling a distance of approximately 200 feet. A guide and client, who had just descended Pinnacle Gully were nearby and went to her aid. After assessing the injuries and stabilizing the victim’s shoulder and ankle, the guide short-roped the victim with assistance down the snow slope. At this point, the remaining two climbers in the team retrieved a litter and splint from the Dow Cache and met the patient and guide as they descended. Volunteers and Snow Rangers slid the litter down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Pinkham Notch where the party drove the patient to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment.
Long, sliding falls are the leading cause of numerous injuries in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. Melt-freeze crusts can be rock hard and often make self-arresting impossible. This was the case in this fall. It is important to assess snow conditions and combine this with as honest assessment of the experience of members of a party. Depending on the competence and risk tolerance of party members, even low-angle snow slopes may need to be belayed in order to assure safe passage. In this case, the most experienced member had demonstrated self-arrest and offered to teach the other members of the party in the Fan on the approach. The fact that they declined to practice the technique turned out to be irrelevant since it is unlikely that anyone could arrest a fall in these hard snow conditions. Even in ideal snow conditions, steep, snow climbing requires flawless technique and more often resembles unroped, solo climbing with the requirement that “the climber must not fall”. The conditions this day were far from ideal and required a greater measure of security for a team that included novice alpine climbers. This team carried a 33m rope which may have played a role in being frugal with its use. A climb like Central Gully, especially in hard snow conditions would be more efficiently climbed, and belayed with a 60m, or even 70m, rope with weight savings perhaps realized with a smaller diameter, rather than a shorter rope.
Though this party did not make it to the most technically difficult part of this climb, they did experience difficulty in the type of terrain in which many other parties struggle. The transitions found within alpine terrain with sections of 3rd, 4th and low 5th class, forces climbers to find a balance between speed and safety. History has shown that it is not at all unusual for inexperienced alpine climbers to be challenged by building secure anchors when confronted with long and continuous pitches of snow with little, if any, options for more familiar ice screw or rock protection anchors. This factor has led many parties down the risky path of unroped climbing, tenuous, seated belays or running belays with no protection at all in Central Gully. In many cases, climbers have the skills necessary to climb much steeper and harder rock or ice climbs but are lacking the experience in negotiating longer, lower angled terrain. The ability to construct secure T-slot anchors with pickets or axes, effectively manage rope for efficient belays and having the judgement to transition to the next higher level of security for the terrain before it is really needed should be well developed before leading novice climbers into the more committing terrain of Huntington Ravine. It would be a mistake to consider Huntington climbs merely longer ice climbs requiring steep ice skill sets.
This party was fortunate that a well-trained and experienced guide and client were nearby. The guide’s satellite phone call ultimately reached the Snow Ranger staff but it was the pair’s ability to render prompt assistance, organize a rescue effort and share knowledge of the nearby rescue cache which sped the rescue along and kept the incident from being drawn out into the night. Be sure to check out our Emergency Planning page in the Search and Rescue section of our website which contains more information to help you develop a solid contingency plan for your next climb.
2016-02-05 After climbing Odell Gully on Friday, February 5, 2016, a climbing team called 911 after being unable to find the Winter Lion Head Route to descend. The party of three topped out earlier in the day in low visibility due to blowing snow and fog. Temperatures at that time were -2F with winds gusting to 70mph. The trio, who started the day with two headlamps between them, apparently lost the Alpine Garden trail and assumed that they had also missed intersecting the Lion Head trail. Fearing that they may be descending into avalanche terrain in Tuckerman Ravine, the team turned around and headed back toward Huntington, only to descend further into Raymond’s Cataract. Initial phone signal location software placed the party in Center Conway, then Raymond’s Cataract, with a third and fourth call indicating that the group was at the top of Pinnacle Buttress and on the Alpine Garden Trail, respectively.
Two teams comprised of a Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake caretaker each accompanied by volunteer paramedic climbers staying at the Harvard Cabin, were dispatched shortly after the 911 call was received. The team’s search assignment was to scan for a headlamp above the Huntington Ravine Fire Road between the Lion Head Winter Route and the ridge forming the southern end of Huntington Ravine. Around 11pm, the search parties made visual contact with the climbers who were in the steep area of short cliff bands in the woods to the north of the Raymond Cataract waterfall. One of the search parties reached the three climbers and led them back to the Harvard Cabin, reaching it at 1am.
Analysis: Many climbers with experience in the mountains have their own tale to tell of being benighted or disoriented. In retrospect, it’s easy to find errors but applying lessons learned makes us more resilient and lends perspective and maybe even less prone to repeat the same mistakes. We rely heavily on visual cues to navigate and maintain our balance. Remove or reduce that sense and anyone can easily become disoriented. The disorientation experienced while traveling “inside the ping pong ball” of a whiteout is something that can mislead even those with intimate knowledge of the terrain.
A travel plan for an outing should include contingencies for the preferred descent route, variations in weather and snowpack conditions, injuries in the party, or forgotten gear. Having a plan in place to handle adverse weather, low visibility, or unforeseen incidents is a good idea on any longer climb in the mountains. The ability to navigate in adverse conditions should be in the skill set of anyone venturing into Huntington Ravine, particularly when climbing a long technical route. This includes having GPS coordinates of critical locations*, as well as having a map, compass, and knowing how to use them appropriately.
Having the right equipment can buy time when caught out above treeline and the increased comfort can lower stress levels and lead to better decision making. If you are going above treeline, clear or yellow googles, facemasks, a light for everyone in the party are vital. This party was no doubt slowed down by having only one light between them and was fortunate that this light functioned throughout their descent. A small back-up headlamp that lives in your climbing pack can serve as backup to failed batteries, faulty wiring or a simple oversight.
It is important to understand that a phone is a last resort for emergency communication and not an alternative to complete self-sufficiency. They simply are not as reliable in the mountains. With phone calls to this party, we confirmed their position and helped them navigate back to the trail. Phones can be great tools, but you can reduce the chances of needing to use it by being fully prepared with the right equipment, knowledge, and skills.
*Note: You can find a spreadsheet of GPS points in and around the Cutler River Drainage on this page of our website.
Synopsis: On Sunday, January 17, a wind slab avalanche cycle on the east side of Mount Washington occurred following a period of moderate snowfall and wind. Two human-triggered avalanches occurred, one of which was widely publicized on social media and in the news. A number of factors led to the incidents which are worth looking into in order to shed light on some of the issues around the events. As is the case with many accidents, it is easy to pick out poor decisions in hindsight. In reviewing incidents, it is also rarely productive assigning blame to individuals compared to what lesson can be drawn. This incident presents an opportunity to highlight what appear to be trends in travel practices and decision making on Mt. Washington.
Weather: The snowfall leading up to the avalanche cycle was a typical upslope snow event which often follows more robust synoptic systems passing through our region. As an air mass is forced up and over the windward side of the range, the cooling process turns lingering atmospheric moisture into snow. In the case of the Sunday, January 17 avalanche cycle, the synoptic storm system had deposited 8” on the mountain on the prior Tuesday and Wednesday. A period of unsettled weather followed with 2” falling Thursday and Friday accompanied by periods of high winds and prolonged low visibility. A natural avalanche cycle occurred sometime during this loading event with the areas beneath Center Bowl and Chute later showing debris piles. By the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, as a Nor’easter passed offshore to the east, snow began to fall again during a 4 hour period of light SE and SSE winds. This snowfall became the weak layer when the wind shifted to the west and increased to the 50 mph range. By Sunday morning, sky conditions were clearing with W wind speeds in the 50’s mph lifting snow plumes with the previous days 5.5” snow (.55” SWE) from the alpine elevations. These plumes were visible from the parking lot at Pinkham Notch in the early morning hours. By 10am cold temperatures and blowing snow had begun to give way to clear skies, sunshine, and light wind.
Avalanche activity: By late morning, skiers and climbers began to test the slopes in both Ravines. Two skiers reported triggering a small slab (R1, D1) near Lunch Rocks beneath the Lip around 11am. One skier was carried about 20’ before arresting his slide. A little later, a guide entered South Gully in Huntington Ravine causing a slab to collapse and settle in place with no avalanche. At 12:50pm, an avalanche from the mid-section of Chute in Tuckerman Ravine caught and carried the two climbers who triggered the slide. Also caught were a solo skier crossing the runout on his way to Left Gully and two from a group of three skiers climbing up the track below the climbers. Of these five people caught and carried, two received minor injuries, with only one transported to a hospital. An avalanche course and a number of students were approximately 15’ from the moving debris on a 40 degree slope which had avalanched earlier in the avalanche cycle.
Chicken Rock Gully: SS-ASu-R1-D1, reported as 10-15cm deep, 15m wide, ran to elevation of the base of Lunch Rocks
Chute: SS-AFu-R2-D1.5, estimated to be 10-50cm x 30m wide crown, 115m track of 400m path
Analysis: We have been seeing both positive trends in avalanche terrain travel choices and decision making as well as trends leaving room for improvement. Unfortunately, the trends needing improvement are all too common.
First, for the positives:
- Everyone involved was geared up appropriately for winter conditions with the right warm clothing, boots, etc. Despite the reputation Mount Washington has for “the world’s worst weather,” the number of travelers who come unprepared for the cold and wind is astounding.
- Some of the individuals involved were equipped and trained to apply first aid skills to the injured. Similar to the increasing trend in avalanche education we are seeing, there appears to be an increased interest in becoming more self-sufficient in the mountains. While at times Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines seem like frontcountry recreation areas with Snow Rangers and caretakers at both Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake, it is important to remember that these locales are indeed backcountry settings and help can often be a long way away.
- Many of the individuals nearby, and one of the skiers who was in the path, were carrying avalanche rescue gear including beacons, probes, and shovels.
- Several Level 1 avalanche classes were in progress in Tuckerman Ravine. More and more people each year are seeking out professionally-taught avalanche courses which is a very good thing.
- At least some of the parties read the General Avalanche Bulletin issued on Saturday morning. This type of Bulletin is valid for up to three days, and was both in effect and posted Sunday morning. The Bulletin accurately described recent and upcoming snowfall and wind loading as well as the developed slopes which would become bed surfaces in this avalanche cycle.
Areas for improvement and lessons to take away:
- Of the five people caught in the avalanche, none were wearing beacons or carrying avalanche rescue gear. Sadly, this is not that unusual in our terrain. The avalanche class was wearing beacons and carrying rescue gear, as was one skier who was able to get out of the path as well as the two skiers who triggered Chicken Rock Gully. Frequently, climbers leave behind avalanche rescue gear to save weight, leaving no quick course of action should burial occur. Hats off to all who recognize the value of carrying avalanche rescue gear to be searchable and have the committed discipline to carrying it. The gear may or may not save your life should you get caught, but it certainly won’t help you if it is in your closet. Situations change, plans change, and mistakes happen—always carry the gear.
- Given the clustering of users near the Chute, it seems safe to assume that the Social Proof heuristic was at play. Following some discussion, the avalanche class chose to travel in steep terrain beneath a recently loaded slope. They were followed by the party of two climbers and the three skiers. Whether due to the easier travel following in someone else’s boot track, the erroneous assumption that a slope is safe because someone else already traveled on it, or the belief that other travelers know more than you, this behavior is all too common in Tuckerman Ravine. The two climbers then passed the avalanche class and ventured onto the unstable slope. This bunching in avalanche terrain forces constant re-evaluation of hazard. Additional challenges exist when trying to rebalance risk on a continual basis based on actions of others outside your control. This issue has been a factor in many avalanche accidents and fatalities locally, as well as around the world. Mount Washington has very concentrated avalanche terrain and has a high amount of visitation. We have seen on many occasions a group descend a route while others are unwittingly climbing up in the same avalanche path. This makes safe travel difficult when instabilities exist on a weekend on Mount Washington. Your party’s movements may be under tight control and stay within your chosen level of accepted risk, but only in the absence of other more unpredictable people. Take the same scenario, with other people as an uncontrollable variable, and you may increase your risk rapidly. This issue was demonstrated by this incident. We often see a compounding effect of visitors concentrating together in unstable conditions when they should be considering staying clear of one another by using fracture limiting terrain features and avoiding runout paths. This is certainly a major challenge for guided parties, courses and organized parties. Managing objective mountain hazards like icefall, avalanches, crevasses, etc. is hard enough, but adding subjective hazards due to other parties may be untenable. Every leader must balance the group’s level of skill with their agreed upon risk tolerance on a constant basis
- An associated concern to the above is the challenges of spreading out to reduce overall risk. While spreading out is a good, basic technique for traveling in or below avalanche terrain it may not be as effective as it is often assumed without a quality pre-plan to reduce risk. This pre-plan would review the actual benefits compared to truly going one at time, how you will communicate when spread out if new observations or decisions need to be made, and is this the best route. A best route option should always be a constant question. This can be a difficult decision because the safest route is often less convenient. Again, the effectiveness of spreading out as a team of 2 climbers, 3 skiers, or a large avalanche class are complicated when they are all interacting in the same terrain exposed to the hazards.
- The two climbers overlooked a red flag when they climbed over a recently reloaded crown line and onto a slope that rises from 40 to 45 degrees or more. Moreover, all parties involved in the Chute incident crossed beneath this slope within 4 hours of a period of active loading. While everyone chooses their own level of acceptable risk, it is unclear whether all parties involved sought out the information needed to make an informed decision by reading the posted General Avalanche Bulletin or seeking the right weather data. Hourly precipitation and weather data can be found here and is included among the list of other useful weather related websites on our site. These sites can be incredibly useful tools in the planning stages of your trip or even in the field when cell access is available (don’t forget a pocket charger or spare battery).
Lastly, a short discussion of MWAC’s published products, and any avalanche advisory for that matter, is worthwhile. It is a valuable topic to expand upon specifically. See “Avalanche Products” in our website Blog, ‘The Pit’ this weekend for a more in depth discussion.
- A General Avalanche Bulletin, which was published the day before these avalanche incidents, is used to convey hazards that are most typically a problem during the early and late season. This document is a one page narrative describing the hazards, but does not assign a danger rating. It is a broad discussion to highlight that instabilities and avalanche potential may currently exist, although not across the entire forecasting area in each Ravine.
- It is a common occurrence across the United States to see active visitor use in avalanche terrain and have avalanche accidents before a 5-Scale Avalanche Danger Rating Advisory is utilized. These occur under either Informational Bulletins or no products. These isolated instabilities are acceptable and tolerated without postings due to the limited nature of the issues. Incidents, although unfortunate, are a national actuality based on statistical probabilities and ever increasing backcountry use numbers. This fact clearly focuses to the importance of possessing avalanche knowledge and field skills. This is an important reality to note when entering any avalanche terrain whether in the Eastern or Western United States.
- Gaining and maintaining good avalanche assessment skills, training and experience is critical. If you don’t have this knowledge we would highly encourage you to get it through controlled learning environments versus relying solely on posted advisories. As stated in our Bulletins and Advisories, it is merely one tool to make field decisions. This is not a disclaimer; it addresses the complexity and nature of avalanches and the inevitable spatial variability we often see. If the Advisory states one thing and our dynamic weather creates another reality with increasing hazard, certainly go with your observations and neck hackles and not the advisory. Your future well-being makes it essential that avalanche skills match your desire for playing in the mountains. It will also help you draw as much as possible from the Advisory tool because we’ll be speaking the same language.
2016-01-17 The following news release was issued by the White Mountain National Forest Sunday evening, January 17th. A more comprehensive accident summary and lessons learned will be posted later.
Two Climbers Trigger Tuckerman Avalanche
Early on Sunday afternoon, January 17, 2016, two climbers from Canada triggered and were caught by an avalanche in “The Chute” located in Tuckerman Ravine.
Just before 1 pm, the climbers ascended the couloir on the left side of the Ravine. Four other skiers and an avalanche class were nearby at the time. The pair of climbers reached the narrow point of the slope after climbing several hundred vertical feet from the floor of the ravine on a steepening slope. They climbed over an old fracture line a foot to a foot and a half high and continued into softer snow. After ascending approximately 30 more feet through deeper snow, the climber in front felt that the slope may be unstable and decided to turn around. As they turned to descend, the slope fractured about 75-100’ above them and approximately 75-100’ wide. The two climbers were carried most of the distance to the Ravine floor. Two of the three nearby skiers were also caught and carried varying distances by the debris as well, while another skier below was able to dodge the debris. (see correction below)
One of the two climbers, Michel Houde from Lorraine, Quebec, sustained non-life threatening injuries and was treated and released by Snow Ranger staff and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. One of the skiers, Kaj Huld from Brunswick Maine, also received non-life threatening injuries. Members of several nearby avalanche classes assisted in transporting the second climber by litter to Hermit Lake where he was transported by snowmobile to Gorham EMS waiting in Pinkham Notch.
The Mount Washington Observatory reported 5.5” of snow on the summit during the previous day, with around 4” falling at Hermit Lake. Summit winds blew between 40 mph and 60 mph overnight from the west. Plumes of wind transported snow were visible in the morning as Snow Rangers made snowpack assessments. The wind shifted to the NW and diminished to 20 mph when visitors began to enter Tuckerman.
Each year from December 1st through May 31st, the US Forest Service is the lead agency coordinating SAR missions on the eastern side of Mount Washington which includes Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. The White Mountain National Forest operates the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to provide safety information and SAR services to the public. The Avalanche Center had posted a General Bulletin Saturday Morning, January 16th ,on www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org for the holiday weekend. A brief follow up analysis of the incident will be post on the website this week.
Correction: the solo skier who is described as having “dodged the debris” was indeed hit and injured by the avalanche. In total, six people were in the path when it released. Only one was able to avoid being caught. Two of the five caught were injured. Broken down by group: of the two climbers who triggered the slide had one was injured; of the group of three, one escaped while the other two were caught, carried, and thankfully uninjured; there was also the aforementioned solo skier traversing his way low in the track toward Left Gully.