New Hampshire, Mt. Washington, Tuckerman's Ravine

Publication Year: 1957.

New Hampshire, Mt. Washington, Tuckerman’s Ravine—On February 19, 1956 A. Aaron Leve (29), Albert E. Sanderson (51), Charles Fay (21), Frank Truesdale (31) and George Speers (34) were involved in an avalanche in Tuckerman’s Ravine. The day before with three other companions, they had climbed the right gulley but, due to a snow storm at the time, they turned back at the Alpine Garden and descended over the Lions Head in deep powder snow. About seven inches of snow fell that night and on the 19th it was windy with floury snow and limited visibility. The snow was crusted and hard-packed above the Little Headwall where the group was walking. At the time of the accident Fay and Speers were just beginning to reach the steeper part of the headwall; Sanderson, Truesdale, and Leve had turned back and were descending on the north side of the snow field that makes the floor of the Ravine. Suddenly Fay was aware that snow under him was moving. Speers, a few feet behind Fay, was hit by a roll of moving snow and was swept off his feet. The other three, considerably lower down and not facing the headwall, were hit from behind and tossed and rolled. Fay, fortunately, remained on top of the moving snow near Speers by using a type of swimming motion. Speers was partially buried after being carried about 100 yards. He was quickly dug out by Fay. The other three were carried about 150 yards nearly to the end of the avalanche. Fay and Speers hurried to help their companions. Sanderson was buried face-down with his legs exposed. Truesdale was covered to his shoulders. Neither could move their bodies in the firmly packed snow and they had to be dug out. Their attempts to locate Leve were unsuccessful and after half an hour, they descended for help. Meanwhile three skiers had arrived and they continued the search also without success. A rescue party came up from Pinkham Notch and were also unable to locate Leve. It was extremely cold with high winds in the ravine and after a total of three hours’ searching, it was decided to abandon the attempt until the next day. Leve’s body was finally located by a group from an Army Quartermaster camp. He was two feet beneath the surface in a standing position and 5 to 8 feet to the left of where Truesdale had been buried. The snow was packed so hard that he had to be dug out all the way to his ski boots. Several attempts were made to lift him out when he was dug out to his knees, but with the combined struggle of three strong men bearing on his stiffly frozen arms and body he still could not be moved.

Source: Mr. Albert E. Sanderson, Mr. George A. Speers, Mr. Joseph B. Dodge, Appalachia 31: 94-98, 1956.

Analysis: (Joseph B. Dodge) On Saturday, after a snowfall of four inches at Pinkham Notch, there was a high wind all night and through Sunday (the day of the accident). Probably the total accumulation in the Ravine, to judge from the snow-fracture line, was from four to five feet. Under these conditions wind slab is very deceiving and treacherous. The combination is very unstable, particularly where the considerable powder snow beneath the wind slab rests on wind-pack or glaze. The wind slab might bear a person unless he jumped on it, but it is very likely that just the extra weight of Fay disturbed its delicate balance and thus started the fatal avalanche. There is nothing in the hills more unstable than wind slab, especially newly created wind slab. The whole east side of the cone of Washington sometimes lets go onto the Alpine Garden, so that climbers cannot be too careful under such conditions.

Fay’s success in staying on top of the snow by using a swimming motion should be emphasized. This is a well recognized technique and its value is demonstrated here. (See accident Washington-Snoqualmie)