Our last day of our American Institute of Avalanche Research & Education Course ended with one of the most powerful experiences one can experience in avalanche education.
A climber triggered an avalanche that caught and carried 4 climbers and 1 skier 800 feet down a 45 degree slope only a few feet a way from our class. I’m sure I’m still processing the day and while some might suggest I decompress a day or two before digging into the events leading up to the incident I feel the sooner I sit down and write about the incident from my perspective the more accurate that assessment will be. So here we go.
On Friday 1/15/16 we started our second AIARE course of the season. Ironically before our students arrived my co-instructor Mike & I debated the fact that the Mount Washington Avalanche Center had not yet started using the 5-scale Danger Rating system, and on a holiday weekend with a Nor’Easter bearing down I was concerned about mountain travelers without any formal avalanche education assuming “General Advisory = No problem”.
To the MWAC defense, the bold “Please remember that avalanche activity may occur before the issuance of a 5-scale danger rating forecast. As always, make your own snow stability assessments when traveling in avalanche terrain.” disclaimer should be sufficient, but my opinion was that a formal rating for specific terrain features and colored slat boards “might” help those with limited knowledge and mountain sense make better choices. I’ll expand on that at the end of this post…
Our first day was a bit heavy in the classroom with some companion rescue practice outside in the afternoon. While we covered some of the basics of the avalanche phenomenon our first real Nor’Easter of the season was getting ready to help our winter snow pack materialize on our 2nd day:
Pretty much missed us
We spent some time on the 2nd day (yesterday) up in Crawford Notch previewing avalanche terrain and learning about making quality weather, snow pack, and avalanche observations:
Mike talks with the group about measuring slope angles and the differences between defined and un-defined avalanche paths.
Mike demonstrates a Compression Test
On our 3rd day we met at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Storm totals didn’t quite reach the 6-14 inches forecasted, and we only received 5.2″ at the summit from this system. Regardless of the less than expected snow totals we observed active wind loading on our drive to the trail-head:
White smoke above the north rim of Huntington Ravine visible from the parking lot
During our trip planning session we identified The Chute & Left Gully as potential field locations, and areas that might also offer a few good turns.
AM Trip Planning Session
The USFS Snow Rangers had posted a General Bulletin. Two snippets I’ll highlight here for some foreshadowing:
“Many of you may be searching for these handful of locations to pursue your sport rather than the brush and rock that dominate the Ravines. If this is you, expect instability until proven otherwise by your stability assessments… recognize this holiday weekend will have many others out and about that could be potential triggers above you.”
We split into two tour groups of 7 each and made our way up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. My group arrived at Hermit Lake at 1050, a bit before our 2nd group. We made a quick weather observation then continued up to the floor of the ravine arriving below Lunch rocks at 1150.
Before our arrival USFS Snow Rangers had made some observations in the ravine and posted an update in “The Pit” that I wouldn’t see until later. A pic from their blog post:
Early morning wind loading in the ravine- pic from USFS
In their update they reported a small skier triggered avalanche to the right of our intended destination:
“a report of another small avalanche triggered by a skier. This was in the area we call “Chicken Rock Gully,”…The party triggered the slide near the rocks at the top of this slope. They reported that it was about 4-6″ deep, 40′ wide x 50′ long, and ran down to the bottom of Lunch Rocks.”
This was prior to our arrival at 1150 and we were not aware of it until much later in the day. We observed a few snowboarders ascending and descending the snowfield in The Sluice in the vicinity of the Summer Hiking Trail. Seeing debris below The Chute (and no one in the area) we decided to set a skin track up towards that area.
Spread out as we work out way up to The Chute
Our climbers traveled on consolidated surfaces and got to see some of the intact blocks of wind slab from yesterdays natural avalanche cycle:
Large intact blocks of wind slab
Our estimated skin track:
Photo from earlier in the AM during active loading- by MWAC
Right before we took our skis off to kick steps up the final stretch to our destination a student asked if it was ok we had 3 of our group in the direct line of the obvious avalanche path with a pilllow of wind slab just above us. We discussed how the lack of a natural or human trigger made our position a reasonable choice. No one was above us and we could see all active loading had ceased.
After a hand shear at the yellow dot I committed us to the small 43 degree slope to climbers left of the choke on The Chute (pink line below small crown line). A 2 person Canadian party (represented in orange) punched through. A party of 3, represented in green, held back a minute before two started climbing up through the choke point.
An estimation of position. Pink was our class. Green was the party of 3 (one, Ben, was a former student), Orange was the 2 person Canadian team.
The two Canadians pushed through the choke. Two of the three party team fell in behind them. I had just finished measuring the slope angle at our intended pit location:
A climber from the 3 person team is almost out of sight heading into “the choke”- photo by D. Tower
A minute or two later I heard a rumble and glanced up to the choke to see a size-able amount of snow come flying by. I yelled “Avalanche” multiple times as I tried to keep a visual on the 2 climbers I was able to make out in the fast moving slide. I had two students to my right, who were still 10-15 feet from the mass of snow that had just came blasting down the gully. As much as I’ve practiced this over the last 14 years I can say there is a lot of truth in the statement “practice never ends”.
My class was safe, positioned outside the fall line of this avalanche, but having just noted a solo skier approaching from below, I was sure at least 4 people had taken a ride, and as the powder cloud settled my biggest fear was someone had been buried with no beacon on (not wearing beacons in avalanche terrain on Mount Washington is an issue I won’t get into here, but needs addressing).
I radioed Mike who had just passed Connection Cache. After conveying some of my first impressions he continued up with his portion of the class to provide assistance. Ben, a former student and the only person not caught from the party of 3, indicated he would respond with us, and we all switched to “search mode” on our beacons. A visual search quickly located 4 people on the surface, and a 5th moments later as we made our descent. Uncertain if only 5 were caught we carried out a quick signal search on the debris field, which I estimated was 40 meters wide by 100 meters long.
As we reached the toe of the debris it was only slightly comforting that we hadn’t picked up any signals. None of the 5 people carried by the avalanche had beacons on. The two climbers from the party of 3 had ended up high in the debris and not taken the full ride. While they reported fruitless attempts at self-arrest and escape they were lucky to be pushed off to the skier’s right of the main slide. The other three ended up very low in the debris, carried pretty far down into the bushes that hadn’t been reached yet by the avalanche cycle yesterday.
The first two we reached was one of the French Canadians and Androscroggin Search and Rescue Member Corey Swartz (who was caught & carried but uninjured). Corey was providing first aid and my student Joe contributed some first aid supplies.
Joe provides one of the victims with some gauze while ASVAR member Corey, who was one of the climbers caught in the avalanche, provides first aid.
I made contact with the far left victim, the solo skier who was hit far down in the run out by the avalanche, who was being assisted by the other Canadian. He had an obvious leg injury but with the help of a partner was trying to exit the debris field. We advised that stabilization would be best as USFS Rangers were in route, and they elected to crawl/drag down to flatter terrain.
The injured skier being attended to by the other Canadian climber.
I sent Joe to the floor of the ravine to communicate with the rest of our class and assist with the initial packaging of the injured climber then returned back to my group who had been standing by with shovels & probes in case an extrication was required.
Looking back up the debris where my students were waiting
We returned to our high point to collect our skis and I grabbed a shot of the crown from the right side of “the choke”.
The crown was about 3 feet deep on the left and tapered quite far to looker’s right. The climber who triggered it thought it broke just above him but later analysis makes it seem much higher, perhaps 50-100 feet above.
The Canadians had climbed through the fresh crown line from yesterday’s cycle and had climbed about 15 feet higher on the “hang fire” from the wind slab before the remaining slab released and dragged them down, catching the 2 climbers from the 3 person team that had just entered the choke point.
We descended to the floor just as the more seriously injured patient was littered down the Tuck’s trail with two of my students and my co-instructor Mike, eventually to be evacuated by USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane by snowmobile.
After a bit of discussion at the floor of the ravine we descended to Hermit Lake to regroup with the two who assisted with the patient transfer to Hermit Lake and we descend the Sherburne ski trail together.
We then debriefed the course and incident before parting ways. And then I got to spend some solo time thinking about our day.
So what happened? Well, the first thing is recognizing we have the advantage of hind-sight. We could Monday morning quarter-back the Patriots close win last night as well as this incident. Knowing almost nothing about football, and a bit about snow, I’ll take a stab at what happened here based on everything I heard, saw, and assumed, today (corrections from witnesses welcome).
Ben reported talking to the Canadians earlier in the day and that they said their intention was to summit Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. This is disturbing, as this was clear in the bulletin that had been posted yesterday:
“There may also be a small number of you that plan on trying to follow the Tuckerman and Huntington summer trails through each Ravine. This is not a good idea as they both run through some snowfields that harbor potential hazards. Save the summer trails for summer.” -MWAC
I would like to say that everyone knows that the Summer/Winter Lionshead Trail is the preferred method of ascending Mount Washington from the east in the Winter.
I would like to say that.
“Blue Sky Syndrome”
It was absolutely bluebird up there today. While temps in the ravine were around -9c (16F) there was almost no wind, so it was a really enjoyable place to be…
At this point I am convinced the two who triggered the avalanche, who had stated they had planned to climb up the ravine via the “trail” decided to follow my group, and the group of three, because;
A) It looked like we knew what we were doing
B) It looked like a fun ascent line
I can’t think of any other reason why they would have deviated from their previously stated intention.
“Familiarity” and “Experienced”
Ben’s group, having talked with USFS Snow Rangers, had decided they would investigate the crown from yesterdays natural avalanche but not travel above it. They recognized the risk, to an extent. Members of that party had stated earlier in the AM that avalanche gear would not be needed as it was “early season/general bulletin”.
This did not sit well, rightfully so, with Ben, who was the only member wearing a beacon and carrying rescue gear when his two partners were swept past him in a size-able avalanche.
I estimated the avalanche to be R3 (40-60% of path) and D2.5 (easily bury or kill a person). It’s remarkable to me that out of 5 people carried only 1 was partially buried and only two received notable injuries. Had anyone been buried under the snow without a beacon on it would have been likely for this to have been an avalanche fatality, and not an “incident”.
This incident, as most “first of the season” incidents usually are, should serve as a wake up call to both those with considerable snow sense, and those who know they need to gain some. Winter came a bit late, but avalanche season has arrived.
Some recent media coverage: