Maine, Baxter State Park, Mount Katahdin
The following is an account of an avalanche on Mount Katahdin which resulted in two fatalities on February 8, 1984.
Bob Esser, Ken Levanway, Rick Cumm, Peter Cochetti, and Steve Hilt—all in their twenties—had preregistered at Park Headquarters for the dates of February 5 through February 10, 1984. They had met all the criteria of our regulation requirement, and after two days hiking to Chimney Pond cabin, all five climbers were in very high spirits and health. The trip was a culmination of six months of expedition planning, including many meetings and research on the mountain itself. Esser and Levanway had been there four years before and had done extensive outdoor technical climbing on Katahdin. Cumm, Hill, and Cochetti had had winter climbing experience and were very excited at the opportunity to take this trip. The first day at Chimney Pond, they decided to warm up on climbing by ascending by the Chimney, an easy grade to climb. Their observations of the mountain during this climb led them to believe the snow was very stable.
Following this climb, they went back to the cabin where Esser, Levanway, and Cumm prepared for a short, highly technical climb on the Pamola ice cliff. Meanwhile, Cochetti and Hilt got water and food for the cabin and did some skiing around.
The following day, Esser, Levanway, and Cumm set out to climb Cilley-Barber, a technical climb, at 0600. Cochetti and Hilt prepared to climb up to Baxter Peak on the tourist route, as they referred to it, which is the Cathedral Trail. By 0800, they had returned to camp to report that the winds and temperatures were too high to do this planned climb, and they would like to go with Cochetti and Hilt just to get out. The group left the base camp area and proceeded in the direction of the First Cathedral on the Cathedral Trail. They were about 15 to 20 minutes out of camp, approaching First Cathedral, when the avalanche occurred. All five climbers were swept down.
Cochetti reports that they were all wearing goggles and face masks, so, with the high winds, they could not see the avalanche approaching; and when the snow knocked him on his back, he was completely covered, and could only sense that he was falling head-first down the mountain on his back. He fell for a long time and then hit something on his back which was very hard and was absorbed by the pack he was wearing. When he did stop, heavy snow had packed all around him tightly. He couldn’t breathe or see anything. His first movement was his right hand, so he continued to move until he was able to work his arm loose. He felt like he was drowning. He was clawing with all he was worth, and finally was able to remove both arms, and then able to open airways to his mouth. He pushed the snow from his face and then was able to free himself and found that there were no apparent broken bones. He had been approxmately half a meter under.
Once out, he shouted and heard a voice. One head was out of the snow. He ran over and pulled off the face mask. It was Cumm. He kept yelling, “There is somebody beneath me. Get him out.” He pawed the snow from around Cumm’s face so that he could breathe, then tried to dig where Cumm could feel the other person. After five minutes or less of swatting with his gloves and boots at the hard-packed snow, he realized that he couldn’t dig fast enough without a shovel, so he had to go for help. He looked at his watch at the time. It was 0956. He ran as fast as he could back to the Ranger’s cabin and broke in. He alerted Ranger Charlie Kenney, who gave him a shovel and sent him back to the scene. Kenney then reported to Park Headquarters, got his gear on, grabbed his shovel, an ice ax, and rushed to the scene.
When Kenney arrived, he found that the four individuals’ heads had been cleared of snow. Cochetti had accomplished this on his return. They checked all four and, although it appeared that Levanway and Hilt had expired, they dug them out and administered CPR to both, with no response. They then focused their attention on the two injured who were yelling continuously at them throughout the duration of this time period.
The avalanche had set up very fast and, consequently, the snow was hard packed, making it extremely difficult to shovel Esser and Cumm out. After a considerable length of time and a lot of hard work, they were able to free the two victims, provide medical attention, and start packing extra clothing and cover around them. They feared hypothermia setting in. There were obviously broken bones and severe injuries.
Meanwhile, Ranger Robert Howes, who had been working a short distance from Chimney Pond on trail work, had arrived at the scene. Forest Technician Paul Rumney and A1 Cooper, the owner of Katahdin Lake Camps, were enroute. The call for help had gone out from Millinocket, and back-up support was provided by Northern Timber Cruisers, Dirigo Search and Rescue Team, other Park personnel, volunteers, and off-duty Park personnel and family members.
While Cochetti and Ranger Kenney were waiting for assistance to evacuate Esser and Cumm, they started digging out Levanway and Hilt and were able to free them. By this time, enough people had arrived to start the evacuation from the scene of the two injured to Chimney Pond Campground. This was successfully accomplished.
At Chimney Pond, they were taken into the camp, given warm cover and medical attention, and crews attempted to get something warm to drink into them. A helicopter evacuation for all three was made later in the afternoon, transporting them to Millinocket Regional Hospital. The deceased victims were removed later in the afternoon by snowmobiles and tote sleds. (Source: Irwin C. Caverly Jr., Director, Baxter State Park)
Kevin Slater, a graduate student from the University of Maine with several seasons of technical climbing experience—including Alaska—was flown in to analyze the snow pack. His findings revealed that what caused the avalanche was a delayed slab release. This was described as heavy snow about 66 centimeters in depth, about 16 meters square. It was sitting on a thin layer of granulated snow which had no substance or no stickiness. The granulated snow was on top of a heavy, icy crust. All of this was sitting on an angle just waiting to be triggered. If we could describe how that build-up occurred in reverse, we would simply go by the fact that we had some snow in the area, got some rain, and cold temperatures had caused that to become solid ice. Following that was the occurrence of the granulated snow. Then, about three days prior to the incident, the heavy wet snow had come which created the slab itself. It is Kevin’s opinion that the weight of the climbers hiking over that area is what triggered the avalanche. He clearly pointed out, though, that there was no way that the climbers could have known that that situation existed. Even he or other Rangers who might have been in the area would not have known that they were in the same situation. It was a case of those people not doing anything wrong, unaware of what was happening beforehand, but being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kevin advised that during his survey of the area there were several other potential avalanches just waiting to be triggered. Therefore, we restricted climbing to routes of solid rock and ice until conditions stabilized. (Source: Irwin C. Caverly,Jr., Director, Baxter State Park)
(Editor’s Note: Following this accident we learned that last year at the same time two climbers tumbled over 100 meters on a wet slab avalanche in the same area, escaping with only bruises and some strained muscles.
By reviewing local weather history and digging snow pits, one can become acquainted with probable conditions. It has been suggested to park officials that weather and snow pack history from the current season be made available to climbers and back country users. The emphasis is on educating the custodians and the users as to when potential avalanche conditions exist so that informed decisions can be made.)