On 2-18-01, two climbers, NG and JB were ‘simul-soloing’ Damnation Gully, a 1200 foot ice and snow climb. They were at the last ice bulge, approximately 200 feet from the top, when the accident occurred around 12:30 pm. The plan was to have JB climb through the section of ice while NG sank his ice axes into the ice bulge to provide himself an anchor while waiting for JB to clear this section. NG was then to follow. NG was approximately 5-7 feet below JB when JB planted his left-handed ice axe into the ice, and unleashed an “ice dam”. A large section of the ice-bulge broke apart, accompanied by a rush of ice-cold water. NG was attached with his ice axes to this 6 by 10′ section of ice, which broke out. NG fell with the section of ice approximately 800 feet. When the ice blew out, JB’s left tool and left leg (crampon) were forcefully ejected from the ice. As a result JB “barn-doored” on to his right hand axe and crampon. He saw NG fall all the way down the gully. JB continued up the gully as trying to descend would have been more time-consuming and dangerous under the circumstances. He topped out on the climb and descended Central Gully to come to the aid of NG.
Other climbers nearby came to the aid of NG while a snowboarder rode ½ mile down to the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin to call for help. Forest Service Snowrangers responded. NG had suffered multiple trauma. Climbers on scene had him in a rescue litter obtained from the Dow First Aid Cache when the first Snow Ranger arrived. Several climbers pre-placed anchor systems to help lower the litter down the steep terrain. It took 3 belays to get him to the floor of the ravine. NG had an open head injury, was unconscious and having difficulty breathing. The Forest Service snowcat arrived and he was quickly loaded onto it and taken down the mountain. He was loaded into a waiting ambulance at 3:30 pm and transported to Memorial Hospital in North Conway, where he died from his injuries.
Damnation Gully is considered a grade 3 climb. There is one small section of grade 3 ice, several sections of grade 2, and many pitches of steep-snow climbing. It is not unusual or uncommon for climbers to ascend the route without the support of a rope and belay.
One way an ice dam can form is under conditions of a rapid temperature drop. The low temperature on the summit of Mount Washington in the previous 24 hours was –19 degrees F. Waterfall ice is formed when water flows over steep terrain in winter. The water that forms the ice is always flowing and constantly forming new ice. When the air temperature drops, water channels freeze up and water begins to pool up behind the ice. This creates hydraulic pressure behind the ice. When the ice dam is disturbed, the pooled water breaks out, often with an explosive force.
Mountaineering is a risk filled pursuit with many objective hazards. Risk management and mitigating hazards must be a constant endeavor. Even then, accidents in the mountains still happen due to unforeseen forces.
These climbers were knowledgeable and experienced. Ice dams are an unpredictable hazard of winter mountaineering.
Due to the tremendous forces involved, it is unclear whether belayed climbing would have saved the life of NG.
Personnel Used: USFS – 2 AMC – 2 MRS – 2 Volunteers-unaffiliated – 12
The rescue effort took approximately 4 hours total.