January 19, 2014

A large group of 15 hikers from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania set off for Mt. Washington before 5 a.m. Five members of the group turned back before the summit. The other ten continued onward, reaching the summit at approximately 12:30. On the descent, one hiker was moving slowly, so the group split again. Six continued down the Lion Head Trail and made it to Pinkham without incident. In rapidly deteriorating weather, the last four missed the junction of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and Lion Head Trail into Tuckerman Ravine. They continued down to Tuckerman Junction, above Tuckerman Ravine. At approximately 3:30-4:00p.m., they reached the trail sign at this junction. At least one member of the group had been here on a previous trip and knew that they should not continue down the Tuckerman Trail. They decided to stop descending, but due to weather and the slower hiker’s physical condition they were unable to ascend back in the direction they came from. They did what they could to create a sheltered spot, called 911 and triggered the emergency function of their personal locator beacon.

While rescue teams mobilized, the group waited. Although early in the day conditions above treeline were relatively straightforward, later in the afternoon and evening they took a turn for the worse. Temperatures dropped below zero F, winds reached gusts of 95mph, and several inches of recent snow were being blown across the mountain. In these conditions and without shelter and proper equipment, it is extremely difficult to spend a night above treeline without incurring significant cold-related injuries.

A total of approximately 25 people responded to the callout, including USFS Snow Rangers, Mountain Rescue Service, and New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. In the face of deteriorating conditions, a decision was made to attempt to locate and evacuate the party that evening. One team ascended the Lion Head Winter Route, while two others ascended the Auto Road in a Mount Washington State Park snow tractor. Teams had a GPS location from the PLB showing the group was in the vicinity of Tuckerman Junction. In favorable weather, this would make it easy enough to locate a group. However, blizzard conditions made the entire rescue effort more challenging. At times it was difficult to simply keep a team together without losing the hiking trail. Visibility was less than needed to move from one cairn to the next. Radio communications between teams were also challenging.

At 10:19pm, rescuers located the group near the junction of the Alpine Garden Trail and Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Fortunately, assessments of their conditions indicated they could possibly hike out under their own power. All three rescue teams regrouped and hiked out with the four hikers via the Alpine Garden Trail and Huntington Ravine Trail to the “Cow Pasture” on the Auto Road. An additional snow tractor from the State Park was brought down from the summit to assist with the evacuation. Injuries to the party were limited to relatively minor cold related injuries.

Snow Ranger Commentary

This incident turned out quite well, all things considered. There are many lessons that can be drawn from this event, some of which are commendable and others we believe could have been done differently:

  • Navigation: This was the second incident this season when hikers missed the turn onto Lion Head. The first resulted in an avalanche (see 12-28-2013 summary). In low visibility conditions, it is imperative that a party stays on the intended route. Maps, compasses, and GPS units are all useful for this, but they can be very difficult to use when conditions are tough.
  • Timing: The group started their hike before 5a.m., with a turn-around time of 12:45. While they did reach the summit before this time, the plan did not leave sufficient time for descent. Mt. Washington often requires as much time to descend as it does to ascend. If it takes 8 hours to reach the summit, plus 8 hours to descend, that makes for a 16 hour day on the mountain. This is a long time to be hiking, even for physically fit and experienced hikers.
  • Experience: In our interviews with the victims, it came to light that the slow hiker who caused the group to move slowly had very little hiking experience. In our experience, Mt. Washington in winter usually is not the best place to learn how to hike. With groups of varying experience levels, it’s best to be conservative in your route planning. To his credit, the hiker rallied for the hike out, working hard and complaining little.
  • Planning ahead: The group had left early enough in the morning that the Observatory weather forecast was not yet published. Regardless, Sunday’s forecast that was published on Saturday should have been taken into account in the trip plans. The forecast called for a relatively calm start to the day, with a rapid increase in winds in the afternoon. This is precisely what happened, causing visibility to drop and eventually leading to the missed trail junction.
  • Use of the PLB device: Increasingly, technology is finding its way into the mountains. In this incident, the GPS location provided by the PLB system proved invaluable for helping rescuers locate the group, and likely saved them from more serious injuries or death. These devices, effective as they are, should not be viewed as a replacement for equipment, experience, and judgment. As this case illustrates, rescue is neither a quick process nor an easy one to execute. Had conditions deteriorated much further, rescue that night may not have been possible. If you carry of these devices, please know that the efforts made to track down your party will not be insignificant. Use them when necessary, but think twice before pressing the button. We have no way to know whether your situation is life-threatening or something far more benign that might not require full scale rescue assistance.
  • Deciding to stay put: As much as we like to see groups self-rescue, at times that is not the best option. When this group made it to Tuckerman Junction, the hiker who had been there before knew that continuing to descend would be a dangerous decision. Given the increasing avalanche danger that evening, we think avoiding Tuckerman was a very intelligent decision. Further, staying in one location allowed rescuers to go to a single GPS location, rather than trying to chase down a moving target. It also gave them an opportunity to attempt to find some shelter (which they did not have much luck doing.) They would have had a much better chance of successfully hunkering down if they had brought equipment intended for this possibility. When traveling in a large group, the extra load can be shared so that no one needs to feel overly burdened.

Overall, we are very thankful that this incident ended as well as it had. It could have very easily taken a turn for the worse in a number of different ways.