Fall on Snow and Ice, Exposure, Darkness, New Hampshire, Mt. Washington

Publication Year: 1980.


New Hampshire, Mt. Washington

On February 14, David Shoemaker (21) and Paul Flannagan (21) were climbing in Huntington Ravine. Leaving Pinkham Notch in the late morning, they hitched a ride with Brad Ray of the United States Forest Service up to Huntington Ravine. Ray left them at the base of the gullies about noon. On February 16, hikers in Huntington Ravine spotted what looked like a body on the fan below Odell’s Gully. Climbing up to inspect, they found Shoemaker’s body frozen and badly broken up. It was obvious that Shoemaker’s body had fallen a long way before coming to rest on the fan. The body was removed by Ray and Jim Tierney, a caretaker of the Harvard cabin, along with volunteers who were in the area at the time.

The discovery of Shoemaker’s body at the base of the gully led Ray to believe that the second climber could still be in the gully above. Since Shoemaker’s body had a short piece of rope attached to a harness, it seemed logical that a second climber was involved in the incident.

The Sheriff’s department became involved as the rope appeared to be cut, and they were concerned about foul play. Ray called me Friday evening, February 16, at 8 p.m. He decided to meet at Pinkham Notch camp at 6 a.m. for breakfast with a team of technical climbers from our Mountain Rescue Service. I called together the team, which consisted of: Mark Whiton, Dave Walters, Jeffrey Phesant, Bill Ryan, John Bragg, Rob Blatherwick, Peter Cole, Jeff Lea and myself. After breakfast, the Mountain Rescue Service rode up to Huntington Ravine in the USFS Thiokol. Two representatives were present from the Sheriff’s office—Joe Martin and Butch Lovin—as was Bill Arnold from the Randolph Mountain Club and the USFS. After arriving at the base of the fan in Huntington, the technical team began to ascend Odell’s Gully. As we entered the narrow part of the Gully, just before the ice, we found Flannagan’s body up against a rock on the right side of the gully. He was frozen solid and appeared to have sustained injuries from a fall. The team lowered the body to Ray at the Thiokol, and everyone returned with the body to Pinkham Notch camp. (Source: Rick Wilcox, Mountain Rescue Service)


The following theories are presented as to the causes of this accident.

Odell’s Gully is considered a moderate ice climb, and good climbers could be expected to do an ascent and descent in the five hours of daylight these climbers had. After completing the water ice technical part of the Gully, we believe that Flannagan and Shoemaker unroped and ascended the exit snow gullies. They chose the gully which led them to the top of the Pinnacle ice climb. Upon reaching this saddle, they probably continued up the snow slope above that leads to the Alpine Gardens.

Apparently, after ascending three-quarters of this slope, they turned back toward the top of the Pinnacle buttress. They may have turned back because of high winds at the lip of the Alpine Gardens, or because of darkness, figuring they could bivouac somewhere lower and more sheltered where they could dig a snow cave. A bivouac hole was found by Tierney a short distance below the Pinnacle saddle. The climbing rope, with one end cut, was found at the top of the Pinnacle buttress (the top of the rock route); a sling and a broken tree (believed to be a rappel anchor) were also found at this point. Sometime after noon and early the next day, an attempt was made to rappel down the Pinnacle rock route.

After the first rappel failed, the rope was apparently cut and abandoned on the top of the rock buttress. It is believed that they began a traverse back south, away from the prow of the rock buttress and down below the crest of the Pinnacle buttress. Apparently, one hundred yards from the abandoned rope, Flannagan fell and slid, losing a mitten and an ice axe, which we found on the fall line below the fall point.

Flannagan fell down the snow gully, over the water ice, coming to rest in the narrow point at the base of the gully. Shoemaker fell a little further south. An alpine hammer, crampons, ice axe, and belay plate were found on the fall line before going over the water ice. Shoemaker’s body came to rest halfway down the fan at the base of Odell’s Gully.

Autopsies showed that hands and feet were frozen before the climbers died. We can only assume that they were desperate at the time of the falls and apparently were trying to descend the gully unroped. This is a good example of how the weather can change an easy climb into an extreme climb. The extremely cold, — 20°F, temperatures and 100-miles-per-hour winds were certainly a major contributing factor in this accident. (Source: Rick Wilcox, Mountain Rescue Service.)