AVALANCHE, POOR POSITION
New Hampshire, Mount Washington, Huntington Ravine
During the afternoon of March 30, two climbers (ages unknown) emerged from North Gully onto the more open slopes above the gully. After simul- climbing the gully’s midsection, they unroped and began to climb the snow up toward Ball Crag. They identified an area of potentially unstable snow and decided to move off to the side of the slope and travel one at a time. One of the climbers triggered an avalanche, but neither were caught or carried in the slide. Unsure of the outcome below, they quickly worked their way around the ravine and descended the Escape Hatch to see if anyone needed help.
A second party of two experienced ice climbers (ages 32 and 26) believed the first party had already finished the climb so they began the first ice pitch. The leader arrived at a fixed belay above the first pitch of ice and clipped his rope to the anchor with a carabiner. He was in the process of backing up the anchor when the avalanche came from above. At this point, the anchor was serving as a piece of protection and he was essentially still on lead.
The avalanche carried the leader down over the top of the first pitch of ice. The belayer was unanchored at the bottom and was lifted upslope and into the ice. He was able to maintain control of the belay and the fixed anchor held, resulting in approximately a 50-foot fall for the leader. Both climbers were shaken up, sore, and had damaged their helmets in the fall. Examinations by Snow Rangers at the scene found no serious injuries. The climbers stayed overnight at the Harvard Cabin, where the following morning they reported general soreness but no other injuries.
The weather leading up this incident is an example of a classic setup for an avalanche cycle. On March 28, Mount Washington received 6.4 inches of 7.8-percent density snow Hermit Lake recorded almost eight inches from the same weather system. Friday night and Saturday the winds wrapped from the W to the NNW and increased in velocity before falling again on Sunday. Evidence of natural avalanche activity was visible Sunday morning in several locations, including Hillman’s Highway, South Gully, Raymond’s Cataract, the Lion Head Summer Trail, the East Snowfields of the summit cone, and in small snowfields that descend from Lion Head toward the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Avalanche danger for North Gully on Sunday was rated Moderate.
Fortunately this incident turned out well for all parties involved. It very easily could have been worse. Several lessons can be gleaned from this incident:
Choice of route. Five of eight gullies in Huntington had Low avalanche danger while three (North, Damnation, and Central) had Moderate. In regards to snow stability, choosing anther gully would have been a safer option.
Climbing below another party. Ice climbing below others always carries additional risk, whether it’s from falling ice and rocks or avalanches. The party that was hit by the avalanche understood that climbing under another party was a bad choice. They thought that the gully was clear and that it was safe to start up. It is difficult to see the entire gully from the base of the ice, but a short walk to a better vantage point is all that is required for a view of the entire gully.
Ongoing stability assessments. The top party did a good job of recognizing the unstable snow at the top of the climb. Traveling one at a time off to the side of the area in question helped prevent them from being caught in the avalanche. Had they wanted to protect themselves farther, they could have roped up again and climbed to the top using belays and protection.
(Editor’s Note: During the spring skiing season in Tuckerman, there were several falls that required Snow Rangers, members of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, and AMC caretakers to assist with lowers and medical conditions. Sometimes skiers put themselves in poor positions that can and often do result in being struck by falling ice or falling into moats.
The source for all the incidents on Mount Washington is the Tuckerman Ravine website and conversations with Justin Preisendorfer, Snow RangerZBackcountry & Wilderness Supervisor)