At approximately 3:45pm, Norman Priebatsch was hiking with his son and two others when he fell on steep icy terrain. The group members reported that he fell over a rock band and began sliding downhill. The group received no response to their shouts as the victim slid downhill, and the victim was not attempting to stop his fall at the time. He slid into an open crevasse in the lower portion of the Bowl, below the Lip, in the vicinity of the “Open Book” area. The other members of the group immediately went to the edge of the crevasse, but could not make contact with the victim. One member, along with one bystander who was not part of the group, quickly went to the AMC caretakers’ cabin at Hermit Lake to report the accident.
USFS Snow Rangers were notified of the accident shortly after 4pm. While the Snow Rangers made their way to Pinkham Notch, the AMC caretaker and other bystanders went to the ravine to gather more information and began preparing for the rescue effort. In addition to the USFS Snow Rangers, assistance was requested from Mountain Rescue Service of North Conway and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue of Gorham. The caretaker from the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin also assisted at the scene, while the AMC staff at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and the Mt. Washington Observatory provided organizational support and spot weather forecasts.
USFS Snow Rangers established two anchors for use in a technical rope rescue system. One Snow Ranger was lowered into the crevasse to a depth of about 40 feet. From this point, he could clearly see another 40 feet down. As the slope angle decreased, the crevasse narrowed to about 4 feet in diameter. There was no sign of the missing hiker in the area that could be seen. Due to the objective hazards involved in descending into the confined space, the decision was made to not descend farther into the crevasse. The Snow Ranger was raised back to the surface and rescue efforts were suspended for the night. Snow Rangers returned to the site the following day, but again the decision was made not to descend into the crevasse due to the hazards involved with such a recovery effort.
In the weeks following April 1st, Snow Rangers continued to monitor conditions in the area. Numerous attempts were made to visually check the crevasse, but further descents into the crevasse were not safely possible. On May 20th, Snow Rangers were able to safely descend underneath the snow using an access point located below and to the side of the waterfall. Using this new entry point, the victim was visible approximately 90 feet from the opening, or 125 feet below the original crevasse opening. That evening, plans were formed to recover the victim from the crevasse the following morning. On Monday morning, May 21st, the victim was recovered by a team of four Snow Rangers, with assistance from Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue and the Appalachian Mountain Club caretaker.
Earlier in the day on April 1st, two Snow Rangers had climbed through the Lip area, with the intention to assess and better understand the extent and severity of the crevasse hazard. They found crevasses to be very large and deep, though the magnitude of the hazard was not easily visible from above. They specifically looked into the opening that the victim later fell into. Climbing through the Lip, they also noted that the snow conditions that day were very hard and icy. These conditions and the Snow Rangers’ assessment were not unexpected. The avalanche advisory from that morning stated, “With the frozen surfaces comes the potential for very dangerous sliding falls. Every year we see numerous people climbing very steep and icy slopes (e.g. the Lip) without an ice axe and crampons…even very experienced mountaineers with all the right equipment would still have a very difficult time self-arresting under the current conditions on some slopes in Tuckerman, so play it safe.” It continued, “Climb up what you plan to descend. This gives you an opportunity to check for hazards such as crevasses at a leisurely pace.”
As mentioned in the advisory, having equipment is not a guarantee of safety. Down-climbing this route in these conditions is a very difficult endeavor; to do so safely would likely require facing into the slope and front-pointing one’s way down. The fact that three of the four group members were able to safely descend the Lip on this day is remarkable. None in the group were wearing winter mountaineering boots, no one besides the victim was wearing crampons, and though they did have ski poles, they were not carrying ice axes. In this very unfortunate accident, it would be an over-simplification to blame the lack of an ice axe as the primary cause of the accident, but this could be considered one contributing factor.
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center often recommends springtime visitors hike up what they plan to descend. We make this recommendation to backcountry visitors regardless of their level of experience. Every season brings similar hazards of crevasses, undermined snow, icefall, etc., but throughout each season the location, severity, and extent of the hazards does change. In this particular situation, the party had ascended a different route than they descended, so they did not have the opportunity to assess the extent of the crevasses before descending. When Snow Rangers were checking the conditions earlier on the day of the accident, it was using roped climbing techniques and utilizing an avalanche probe to locate, evaluate, and avoid crevasses. Despite this technique, one Snow Ranger inadvertently broke through a snow bridge and nearly fell downslope. If this had happened, the rope safety system as mitigation would have prevented a long sliding fall. This roped and probing technique is rarely used by spring visitors to Mt. Washington, even though it would be considered standard practice for mountaineers in other glaciated mountain ranges.
Each visitor, according to his or her experience and skill set, should be prepared for the current conditions. It is important to understand that what may be a reasonable level of risk for one person may not be the same for another, and that each person or group is responsible for deciding when, where, and how to travel. It is also important to understand that no person begins his or her life with mountaineering experience. There is no better way to learn safe mountain travel than through the actual experience of traveling in the mountains. It is imperative to honestly evaluate one’s own experience, skill, and tolerance for risk.