AVALANCHE, CLIMBING ALONE, POOR POSITION
New Hampshire, Mount Washington, Huntington Ravine, Odell Gully
At 9:20 p.m. on January 18 the USFS Snow Rangers were informed that a solo climber (39-male) from Lewiston, ME, was overdue from his climb in Huntington Ravine. He had signed into the winter climbers’ register at Pinkham Notch with a plan of climbing Central Gully. According to his friends who reported him overdue, he had experience in many gullies in Huntington Ravine and had talked about Odell Gully as another option for his day.
A team searched the access routes into Huntington Ravine between 10:00 p.m. and midnight on the 18th. Due to snow stability concerns, search teams didn’t enter avalanche terrain until first light the next day to begin searching Huntington Ravine. Shortly after sunrise, the missing climber’s body was found in avalanche debris below Odell Gully. The climber was on top of the debris and died as a result of being avalanched out of Odell Gully. He was put in a technical litter, lowered 500 feet to the floor of the Ravine, and transported to Pinkham Notch by the USFS snowcat.
The avalanche danger rating for January 18 was posted High for all forecast areas in Huntington Ravine. The definition of this rating states natural and human triggered avalanches are likely, unstable slabs are likely on a variety of aspects and slope angles, and travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended. This rating was based on active wind-loading of new snow that had been accumulating since snowfall began around 4:00 a.m. that morning. Winds associated with the storm began out of the south before shifting to the west around 12:00 p.m. and increasing to the 60-70 mph range with a peak gust on the summit out of the west of 86 mph at 5:42 p.m. Recorded snow totals from this storm were 3.9 inches at Hermit Lake and 3.1 inches on the summit of Mount Washington with locally higher amounts. The density of the snow was lighter at the beginning and became heavier through the day, with an average density at Hermit Lake of 12.8 percent
Odell is a popular climbing route with sections of snow and grade 2 and 3 ice. It faces E and ENE and has multiple avalanche start zones. The winds associated with this storm were ideal for loading Odell by starting out of the south and wrapping around to the west. It is believed that the climber triggered the avalanche, though this is not conclusive. The size of the avalanche was classified as D2R3. D2 refers to the destructive force of an avalanche and means that it could bury, injure or kill a person. R3 means that the avalanche was medium sized relative to its normal path. Evidence of natural avalanche activity from this storm was observed on similar aspects.
It is easy to look at incidents such as this one and make simple judgments on the victim’s actions. Undoubtedly, most people would change their plans when a current avalanche forecast projects avalanches as being likely on their intended route. Nonetheless, the majority of our avalanche fatalities and serious accidents have occurred in areas that were posted with High Avalanche Danger. This contrasts with the general trend around the world where the majority of accidents happen under a Considerable rating. Though this accident did happen in an area that was rated as High, it could have occurred under a rating of Low, Moderate or Considerable.
Solo climbers are often exposed to a greater degree of risk than roped teams. In this incident, the size of the avalanche probably had little to do with the outcome. Had the victim triggered an isolated pocket of unstable snow, as is feasible under a rating of Low, the end result would likely have been similar. Although climbing roped with a partner cannot save you from all mountain dangers, it does substantially increase the size of the safety net if used properly. When approaching a suspect area, the best use of a rope incorporates solid protection that is located to the side of the pocket or snowfield in question. This is by no means a failsafe tactic, but it does provide some extra security should one be knocked off one’s feet by snow, falling ice, etc.
Secondly, it is worth noting that the US 5-Scale Danger Rating System is a continuum and not a series of five distinct categories without overlap. Within any particular rating there is also a range and we frequently try to discuss this in the daily avalanche advisory. When the victim passed the Harvard Cabin, the avalanche advisory stated the following: “N-facing aspects will be the first to move up into the High rating with E and S-facing aspects to follow as the winds shift.” Armed with this data, it would be prudent to consider the other options if one was determined to climb a gully in the ravine that day. By the time the victim was approaching the start of the climb, the winds had begun their forecasted shift and Odell Gully was in the direct lee of wind loading. Farther to the right, gullies such as North and Damnation likely had less loading occurring and would have had smaller sections of suspect snow to navigate.
Mountain skills are complex and require a high degree of technical training in a variety of disciplines. This climber had a lot of experience climbing in Huntington including numerous solo ascents of gullies. He was well prepared to deal with the weather and steep mountain terrain found in Huntington Ravine. As is often the case in avalanche accidents, it appears that technical climbing experience surpassed knowledge of mountain snowpack. In addition, the victim was not carrying any avalanche safety equipment. Though it did not make a difference in this scenario, carrying this equipment provides an additional tool should the unthinkable occur. Even if climbing alone, this gear can help out when things go bad. Other climbers in the area could locate a person if he were buried while wearing a beacon. With this said, self-sufficiency is paramount in avalanche rescue, so having a party of two or more is needed.