American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Fall on Snow/Ice, Faulty Use of Crampons, Inadequate Equipment, Inexperience, New Hampshire, Mount Washington, Pipeline Gully

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005



New Hampshire, Mount Washington, Pipeline Gully

On March 9, Robert Douglas (39), John Corse (38), and Colin O’Farrell (23) became involved in a situation requiring climbing techniques due to the conditions they found when they attempted to find a good backcountry ski descent route on the west side of Mount Washington. Colin O’Farrell provided this description:

I met John and Rob at the Cog Railway base station. I had never skied with either of them, but had numerous conversations with Rob regarding backcountry skiing in the White and Green Mountains. We skinned up alongside the Cog Railway and then worked our way north along the Gulfside Trail looking for good snow. It had rained with a changeover to snow a few days before, consequently there was both fresh snow and icy hard-pack. Rob had been having difficulty keeping his crampons on, so we stopped, pulled out a Leatherman, and he readjusted them.

We found a gully off of Mount Clay that looked promising. We skied the upper ?-½ in about six inches of snow. We stopped at the transition to hard-pack and decided to head back up in order to either lap the upper portion again or find another gully. In transitioning from skis to crampons, John Corse lost his footing and fell the length of the gully, coming to rest on the apron below. Rob and I heard his cries for help. I immediately began descending with crampons and ice ax, while Rob elected to sidestep/side- slip his way down on skis. I asked him to give me a lot of distance so as to avoid any complications. I reached John and found him conscious and oriented but in a lot of pain and with facial trauma. At the time I thought his chief issues were ribs and tib/fib. Rob reached the top of the icefall that [as a result of] the low snow year of 03/04 separated the gully proper from the apron below. I advised Rob to throw his backpack/skis down to us and descend the mellowest part of the ice, along climber’s left. Rob did not have an ice ax, so he was holding his ski poles near the baskets in an attempt to gain additional purchase on the ice.

About halfway down, Rob lost a crampon. From my vantage point, it looked like he decided to jump and aim for a pocket of windslab at the base of the ice in the hopes that he would arrest his fall. It was perhaps an eight to ten foot jump. He failed to arrest his fall, gathered speed and slid through the boulder field in which John and I were sitting. He came to rest slightly above John and me.

He had no breath or pulse, so I commenced CPR for 30 minutes, but to no avail. At this time I put in the 911 call and asked for a helicopter. I ceased CPR on Rob and focused on keeping John warm, comfortable, and awake. The rescuers from the Mount Washington Observatory reached us shortly after sundown and put the call in for the heli. Given our location on the side-slope of the ravine, we had to move John to a better pick up point, using a Sked litter. John was lifted into the helicopter and I opted to get a ride with him as well. We landed at the Glen and were transferred the hospital in Berlin via ambulance.


I spoke with Colin O’Farrell and some individuals from Mountain Rescue Service (the North Conway based team). All agreed that in addition to skiing ability, mountaineering skills and equipment are required in this kind of terrain. Many backcountry skiers, if not carrying ice axes, use ski poles with picks fixed just below the handles for self-arrest purposes. Setting up an anchor and/or creating a platform when switching from skis to crampons in technical terrain, especially where a fall is possible, are common practices. On this day and in this gully, conditions required good skiing ability and winter mountaineering skills, along with the appropriate equipment for same. John Corse, an avid backcountry skier who had negotiated many good ski routes in the White and Green Mountains, did not have the equipment or mountaineering skills required for the terrain he and his partners encountered. (Source: From a report by Colin O’Farrell and Jed Williamson)

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