March 14, 2009

Two incidents took place which required responses from USFS Snow Rangers, the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (MWVSP), the AMC, and the HMC. In both cases, the victims slid out of control for a long distance on a very hard icy surface that dominated the mountain resulting in multiple injuries to each.

The first incident to be reported to the Snow Rangers involved a woman falling approximately 1200 feet from near the top of Left Gully. She was unable to self arrest and quickly lost her ice axe as she rapidly accelerated on the very slick surface. Along the way her crampon caught the surface, resulting in an open angulated lower leg fracture. She also suffered arm and rib injuries before coming to a stop low in the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. Snow Rangers, MWVSP, and AMC personnel responded, treated her injuries, and packaged her into a litter. The litter was belayed down the Little Headwall to the top of the Sherburne Ski Trail. From there a snowmobile transported the litter to an ambulance waiting at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Approximately 15 minutes after being notified of the first incident, Snow Rangers learned of a second incident unfolding in Huntington Ravine. A mountaineer had fallen from somewhere between the top of the Fan and the ice bulge in Central Gully. He slid approximately 1000 feet through icy talus before coming to rest near the base of Huntington Ravine. The victim suffered numerous significant injuries including a mid-shaft femur fracture. Bystanders began to provide care while assistance was sought out. By the time the Snow Rangers arrived, the victim was conscious and in severe pain. He was splinted and packaged into a litter; which was belayed one rope length to flat ground at the base of the Ravine due to the icy surface. The USFS snowcat transported the victim to a waiting ambulance at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

These two incidents have one strong central theme—that sliding falls on icy surfaces are very difficult to stop. In these cases, the crust was formed three days prior to the incidents with a warm, wet day followed by a sharp drop in temperature. Surfaces immediately became incredibly hard and slick and stayed that way through the Saturday. The morning’s Avalanche Advisory stated “The main safety concern today is the potential for long sliding falls due to the hard icy snow conditions… Bring your crampons, ice axe and mountaineering experience with you today so you can get around in steep terrain and successfully self arrest if you slip. If you don’t have this equipment and the ability to use it you should stick to low angled terrain.” One lesson we can all take home from these incidents is the importance of practicing your skills in all conditions and avoiding steep terrain on days when the difficulty of the conditions exceeds your ability to self arrest. Many thanks go out to the numerous bystanders and volunteers who helped out on these incidents.