American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, New Hampshire, Mount Washington, King Ravine

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

AVALANCHE

New Hampshire, Mount Washington, King Ravine

King Ravine is a large glacial cirque located in the Northern Presidential Range. It features several prominent avalanche paths and starting zones. There are no avalanche forecasts issued for this part of the range.

On November 23, Joel Reigner and Luc Parent were ascending the Great Gully Trail, a steep and difficult hiking trail (and major avalanche path) in King Ravine. On a round- trip day hike, they carried crampons, ice ax, day packs and headlamps, but no avalanche rescue equipment. While they did know something about avalanches, they assumed it was too early to be a concern.

As they ascended the trail, they triggered numerous small avalanches. Although they had no formal avalanche training, they were able to recognize the instability but considered the small avalanches inconsequential. They proceeded up towards tree line, slogging through thigh deep pockets of wind deposited snow as the trail became increasingly steep. At this time, Joel and Luc had separated to about 15 to 25 feet apart. Luc, who was trailing behind, became concerned about the possibility of a larger avalanche and made an effort to move to the right of the gully where the snow was shallower. Luc attempted to tell Joel, who was climbing in the middle of the gully where the snow was much deeper, to also move to the right but the distance between them made communication difficult. It was now dark, and Joel's headlamp had failed. At approximately 5:00 pm, Joel triggered an avalanche that swept him down the gully.

By Joel’s approximation, the avalanche was a soft slab with a crown 10 feet wide and 4 to 6 inches deep. The slide ran 150 feet and carried Joel past Luc, safe on the right of the gully. Fortunately for Joel, the snow came to a stop on a bench, preventing him from being carried over several small cliffs to the floor of the ravine. He estimates his burial depth of three to four feet. Joel was buried on his left side, with his head and right arm above the snow. He yelled out, and could see Luc's headlamp above him on the trail. Luc thought he heard someone yelling, but dismissed it as his imagination. Luc thought it was too dangerous to descend the trail to look for Joel. Both the steepness of the trail and the possibility of starting another avalanche intimidated him. Later, during the interview, he affirmed his awareness that successful avalanche rescue must be carried out by the victims party. Nonetheless, he continued up the Great Gully Trail in hopes of finding the Spur Trail. He intended to hike to the Grey Knob cabin to report the accident there.

In the meantime, Joel was busy digging himself out of the avalanche. His mouth and nose had been filled with snow. Still clutching his ice ax in his right hand, he used it to dig the snow out from around himself. After 40 to 50 minutes of self-excavation, Joel set out to find Luc. He continued up toward tree line, became lost without his headlamp, dug a snow-cave, and settled in for a long cold night.

Luc was lost. His headlamp died as well and he was forced to bivouac. On the following morning, Luc was unable to find the trail and bushwhacked his way down to the ravine floor, walked out and reported the accident at a local fire station around 11:30 am, 18 hours after the accident occurred. A rescue team was dispatched and as the advance party began hiking, Joel appeared at the trailhead. He was cold, tired, had a large bruise on his leg and a twisted ankle.

Analysis

It is obvious that both men are very lucky to escape unharmed. Not only did they survive an avalanche, but also the notoriously dangerous winter weather of the Presidential Range had been fairly mild for spending an unprepared night out above tree line. It is worth repeating that successful avalanche rescue must be carried out by the victim's party. US Statistics show that a victim completely buried has only a 20% survival rate after 30 minutes. (Source: Kai-Uwe Allen, Snow Ranger, US Forest Service)

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