At approximately 12:30pm, 2 Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrollers skiing in Tuckerman Ravine witnessed a long sliding fall from near the top of the 50 degree couloir known as the Chute. A 60 year old male skier lost his footing near the skyline, either while climbing or transitioning to skis, and slid into the uppermost rock band that separates Chute from Chute Variation South. The patrollers arrived at the patient in about 5 minutes. The life-threatening nature of the injuries combined with clear weather and light winds indicated rapid transport via helicopter. After assessing the patient, packaging him in a hypothermia wrap and applying an external warming device to him, he was transferred to the closest available air resource which was a Dartmouth Hitchcock Advanced Response Team helicopter flying from Manchester. The helicopter cleared the scene at 2:05 pm.
According to accounts from other skiers, the subject had skied one lap in Left Gully before climbing up the Chute. He was not wearing a helmet, nor did he have crampons or an ice axe and made no attempt to self arrest while falling. He had AT gear and was skiing alone. Unlike Left Gully, where booting up without crampons was not difficult, skiers reported firm snow conditions in Chute and apparently people without crampons turned around as a result. (The patient later informed me that it was a patch of ice that he stepped on and that he never needed crampons on his 100+ trips to Tucks. – Frank) One thing that seems certain in the aftermath of the incident is that climbing or skiing steep slopes in our current conditions with freezing temperatures overnight and an uncertain daily thaw reduces your safety margin on the climb as well as on the ski down. Crampons, even lightweight aluminum models, but NOT micro-spikes, are the right tool for steep ski mountaineering. An ice axe can improve security if not allow for self-arrest. A helmet can reduce the extent of head injuries. And above all, choosing to ski in conditions that suit your abilities and on routes that lower your exposure to a potentially lethal fall are a good way to reduce your risk of injury or death in steep terrain. Almost every ski route in Tuckerman Ravine grows more challenging, the higher you climb. Snow becomes firmer, the bootpack less secure and the slope becomes steeper while the consequences of a fall grow more serious. Choose your routes wisely and consider retreat. Downclimbing may be slow and humbling but it beats a long sliding fall.
Again this year a helicopter was used to bring advanced medical help to a patient. It is rare to have this option due to wind and weather on the mountain. The nearest available helicopter was 40 minutes flight time with logistics, briefing communications and souting of the LZ tacked onto that time. Severe injuries such as this often require transport to a Level 1 trauma center, so the risk to bring a helicopter into mountainous terrain with lots of people around makes sense when a patient’s injuries warrant this consideration. Many factors contribute to a quick turnaround here in Tuckerman Ravine where skilled and experienced ski patrollers can quickly bring medical and rescue resources to your side. As the backcountry ski community continues to grow, learn and build confidence, we hope that people calculate and pre-plan a strategy for handling injuries that arise from simple mistakes in consequential terrain.
As I write this, there are two ongoing missions for hikers lost and struggling in deep, melting spring snow around the Whites. Please remember the difficulty of travel in a warming snowpack where snowshoes only limit the depth of post-holing and the exhaustion that accompanies the struggle of hiking in those conditions. Even if it is not avalanche season, details found in our snow plot page can help you understand snow conditions in the high country.