By Erik Eisele
PINKHAM NOTCH — Despite a low snowpack and seemingly early-season conditions on Mount Washington, an avalanche triggered by two climbers swept a Tuckerman Ravine gully, catching four and leaving two injured.
The slide occurred just before, according to the U.S. Forest Service Mount Washington Avalanche Center, in The Chute, a narrow gully just left of the Tuckerman Headwall.
The two climbers who triggered the slide realized they were in a dangerous situation and had just turned around when the slope slid, according to a Forest Service statement.
The slide took both of them with it, then slammed into two others ascending lower in the gully. Others watched as the slide occurred, including members of a nearby avalanche training course.
One of the climbers who triggered the slide, Michel Houde of Lorraine, Quebec, sustained minor injuries and was released, according to the Forest Service, but a second victim, skier Kaj Huld of Brunswick, Maine, was evacuated by litter and snowmobile, then taken to the hospital by ambulance. His injuries were not life-threatening.
Two others were uninjured. A skier near the base was able to dodge the slide as the debris neared him.
“It was a very fast, long ride,” said David Lottmann, an Eastern Mountain Sports guide and avalanche instructor who was with six students and watched the slide. He estimated Houde and his partner fell 600 to 700 feet, perhaps more.
Earlier avalanche debris had covered most of the rocks in the slide path, he said, which is part of what kept people from getting hurt. “There wasn’t much to hit,” he said.
The climbers who triggered the slide had been following Lottmann’s group up the slope, but he and his students stopped before the narrowest point of the gully and skirted to the side to find a place to dig snow pits and look at snow layers.
Houde and his partner, also a Canadian, continued up through the constriction, followed by two others.
“A minute or two later, I heard a rumble and glanced up,” Lottmann said. He saw snow gushing past. “I yelled 'avalanche' multiple times,” he said, and tried to keep his eye on the climbers as they slid by.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Canadians had climbed over a fracture line that was a foot to a foot and a half high. Below the line, the slope was scoured clean by an old avalanche — all that was left was bed surface. But above the fracture line was softer snow, a leftover slab called “hangfire.”
“After ascending approximately 30 more feet,” the statement said, “the climber in front felt that the slope may be unstable and decided to turn around. As they turned to descend, the slope fractured about 75 to 100 feet above them.”
The slide was approximately 75 to 100 wide, and the two climbers were carried most of the distance to the ravine floor. So were the two others who had followed them through the gully’s choke point.
As the slide slowed, Lottmann and his students sprang into action. They pulled out avalanche beacons to see if there were any signs of buried victims, and readied shovels and probes to pinpoint and dig them out.
Lottmann called over the radio to his co-instructor, who was still hiking into the ravine with six more students, asking them to notify the snow rangers.
No one was fully buried, Lottmann said. That was lucky, he said, as none of the victims was wearing avalanche beacons, so it would have been much more difficult to locate had they been buried.
Only one person, Huld, suffered significant injuries. Lottmann’s group worked with Forest Service Snow Rangers and Mount Washington Valley Volunteer Ski Patrollers to package Huld and get him to Hermit Lake. From there a snowmobile took him to the road.
The Mount Washington Observatory reported 51/2 inches of snow on the summit the previous day, with around 4 inches falling on Hermit Lake. Summit winds blew between 40 and 60 mph overnight from the west. Plumes of wind-transported snow were visible as snow rangers made snowpack assessments. The wind had shifted to the northwest and diminished to 20 mph when visitors began to enter Tuckerman.
Tuckerman Ravine, which has a team of dedicated Forest Service. Snow Rangers to monitor avalanche risk, was under a general advisory. Such advisories “are issued when isolated areas of unstable snow may exist within the forecast areas,” but the five scale “low, moderate, considerable, high, extreme” rating system is generally not used on Mount Washington in January. “The five-scale danger rating system will begin when snowfields and bed surfaces become more developed,” the weekend advisory said.
The weekend advisory warned visitors to “expect instability until proven otherwise,” and to “recognize this holiday weekend will have many others out and about that could be potential triggers above you.”
, the avalanche center did post an advisory using the five-scale rating system. The Chute was posted as having a "considerable" risk, meaning natural, spontaneous avalanches are possible and human-triggered avalanches
Snow conditions have veered from the norm this year, according to Forest Service Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer. The snowpack is closer to that of late November, he said. “We’re a month and a half, two months behind.”