May 16, 2014

A party of three hikers attempted to make their way down the Tuckerman Ravine trail after summiting Mount Washington from Grey Knob camp during a northern Presidential Range traverse. Late in the afternoon on Thursday, May 15th, the trio descended the Tucks trail on snowshoes down a steepening snow slope, inadvertently traveling in the fall line above the main upper waterfall when one of the party slipped and “tumbled” approximately 50-60 feet on the snow. The party decided that descending further was not a good course of action considering trail conditions and the onset of darkness. They decided to dig into the snow above the Headwall and just above the brushy ledge left of the narrows of the Lip. The weather observatory recorded temperatures falling from 50F down to 36F by daybreak with intermittent rain showers for several periods during the night. Hourly weather observations also indicate that fog shrouded the summit.

The group spent Friday night sheltering under tent components atop foam pads and sleeping bags on a small snow ledge which they excavated with snowshoes. The next morning, the group packed up and began an attempt to traverse across the 40 – 45 degree snow slope at around 9:00am. The two boys went first, one at a time, and narrowly made the crossing but with another slip and recovery. The girl chose not to attempt to cross. One of the boys then accessed Lunch Rocks rescue cache and carried a rope ladder back up to the crossing. An attempt to throw a rope ladder across to the stranded hiker ended with the rope ladder irretrievably stuck in a moat. The other boy made his way to the Hermit Lake and alerted AMC and a USFS Snow Ranger at 10:45am, who then made their way to the Lip area, arriving at approximately 11:45am. Rescuers employed a rope and belay to access the stranded hiker and then received a belay from another Snow Ranger from above to exit the snowfield. Both Snow Rangers and the hiker made their way to the summit arriving at 2:23 pm and were assisted by NH Sate Park and Auto Road staff and drove down the Auto Road, arriving at the base at 4:00pm. AMC caretakers and Mount Washington Ski Patrollers hiked down to Hermit Lake with the other two before they continued down to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Analysis:  The main Headwall waterfall and the deep hole it creates in the snow below has claimed at least two lives in the past and is the scene of occasional near misses, including this one. This party had some hiking experience in the White Mountains but only in summer. Summit fog and 50 degree temperatures during this period hampered visibility and no doubt made navigation challenging but it is uncertain why, after the first fall above the waterfall, that the group chose to spend the night in such an exposed location rather than climbing back up several hundred feet to regain the Alpine Garden trail. The party carried a map though when asked why they didn’t consult it, I was told that it was too windy. No one in the party carried crampons or ice axe and though their gear, clothing and footwear were adequate for chilly nights in the range, their lightweight hiking boots were not adequate for kicking secure steps on the steep snow slopes above the Headwall. With no winter climbing training or experience, the party is very lucky that this incident did not turn out much worse. A sliding fall into the waterfall hole or one of the crevasses that were open on the slope below could have been fatal.