Deal Alert- Arc’teryx 25% Off! My Top Ten Picks

I’ve been a huge fan of Arc’teryx for quite a few years now and Backcountry is running an awesome sale on all Arc’teryx including footwear and gear! Below you’ll find my top ten picks from the sale, some of which I have linked to my in-depth reviews.

Ski Boots

Arcteryx Procline Boots Review
Light and comfy enough for a steep volcano scree field in blue jeans- photo by Matt Baldelli

Arc’teryx Procline Carbon Lite Boots– Arguably the greatest savings during this sale Backcountry has them listed at 45% off!

Mountaineering Boots

Arc'teryx Arcux AR Mountaineering Boots
The author testing the Arc’teryx Acrux Mountaineering Boots- Photo by Brent Doscher

Arc’teryx Acrux AR GTX Mountaineering Boots– My in-depth review is here.

Approach Shoes

Arc’teryx Konseal FL Approach Shoes– Just started reviewing them and so far so good!

Climbing Harness

Arc'Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review

Arc’teryx FL-365 Harness– My in-depth review from this past winter is here.

Backpack

Arc’teryx Alpha FL 30L Backpack– While I haven’t personally tested this pack yet quite a few of my friends swear by this pack so I feel comfortable including it here!

Light Insulated Puffy

Arc’teryx Atom LT Hooded Jacket– This is the perfect insulated light puffy and standard issue to the guides at Northeast Mountaineering where I work.

Sun Hoody

Arc’teryx Phasic Sun Hooded Shirt– Everyone needs to own a “sun hoody” for protection from both UV and biting insects. This one is an excellent choice!

Ice Climbing Pants

Arc’teryx Gamma MX Softshell Pants– Prime choice for a winter mountaineering/ice climbing pant!

Hiking/Climbing Pants

Arc’teryx Palisade Pant– Perfect for warm weather hiking and rock climbing!

Hiking/Climbing Shorts

Arc’teryx Gamma LT Shorts– Super comfy stretchy climbing/hiking shorts!

Lightweight Gloves

Arc’teryx Gothic Gloves– Just a nice light-weight stand-alone glove or liner, perfect for 4 season use!

This is definitely a good time to save some money on one of the best brands in the industry! The above models are just my top ten favorites. You can see everything in the sale at this link!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Affiliate links above support the content created on Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you! Thank you.

How to: Surviving “Bug Season”

After a long snowy winter many climbers and hikers are chomping at the chance to get on some dry Spring rock and trail. Unfortunately right around this time many insects are chomping at the chance to chomp on us! Namely:

Black-flies

Gnats

Mosquitoes

Ticks

Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody Review
Black flies try to fly away with my climbing partner Tom on White Ledge in Albany, NH. How many black flies can you count?

In this post I’d like to share some of my favorite strategies to keep the dreaded “bug season” from keeping you from enjoying what it is you do in the mountains! To combat these four little buggers we will use a four-pronged approach! First…


Clothing

Step 1: The first line of defense should be clothing. Everyone knows long-sleeves and pants are preferable for bug protection but they seem so hot when the temperature and humidity is high right? Well some long-sleeve options actually feel cooler than going shirtless! Here’s my current favorite tops when dealing with an onslaught of bloodthirsty insects and warm temps!

Patagonia Sunshade Technical Hoody
The Patagonia Sunshade Technical Hoody

Patagonia Sunshade Technical Hoody (Women’s Here)

I have a detailed review of this staple of my outdoor clothing kit here, but the gist of it is every New England climber (and possibly every climber/traveler everywhere) should own this piece. Solid UPF protection and bug protection in a super comfy hoodie. Win win win.


Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody Review

Black Diamond Alpine Start Hooded Jacket (Women’s Here)

This ultralight ultra-breathable hooded “wind-shirt” is an excellent physical barrier for Cannon Cliff’s renowned alpine tough black-flies. You can see my detailed review of this piece here.

As for pant protection there are a ton of solid choices out there so a lot of it comes down to personal preference/style. I’m a fan of the Black Diamond Modernist Rock Pants but there are so many good options out there as long as you treat them with Step 2:


Permethrin

rock climbing bug protection

Step 2: I’ve used this stuff on my clothes from Peru to Okinawa to my home-state of New Hampshire with a season blatantly called “bug season” and I’m 100% convinced it is the most effective and safe option for true bug protection. You can Goggle all the research in the world on this product but I’ll just leave the highlights here:

  1. It is for clothing/gear/shoes… not skin.
  2. It dries in a few hours after treating and is then 100% safe to humans, no “leaching” into your sweaty skin
  3. It lasts for weeks even with washing (I only treat my “bug season” outfit once a year each Spring)
  4. While safe for almost all mammals it is not safe with cats for some reason. Do not spray your cat with this.

Pro-tip: treat your approach/hiking shoes and you will likely never find a tick crawling up your leg unless the grass you walk through is higher than your shoes. Treat your hiking pants and shirt and wade through fields of ticks with little worry. You can pick up a bottle cheap on Amazon here.


Timing

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review
The author topping out the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, Mount Washington. Photo by Brent Doscher

Step 3: Generally bug season in the US is from early April to early May but in the White Mountains it’s a usually a little later, and Spring we’ve had some prolonged late season cold and snow that has pushed it back a bit further than normal. I’ve only seen two ticks on my so far and haven’t seen my first mosquito yet, while southern NH is probably getting into the thick of it as I type this. Also biting things are most active an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. Climbing mid-day might help reduce bloody interactions.


DEET/PICARIDIN

rock climbing new hampshire bug season

Step 4: I have long carried a small 4 oz bottle of DEET as a last resort when all the above measures fall to protect from an onslaught of thirsty flying things. Both products are effective, but Picaridin is showing more appeal as it is definitely less toxic to both us and the plastics/nylon we come in contact with. Regardless of which you use, I recommend trying the first three steps on my list and carrying a small bottle of this as a “last resort”.


Summary

Protecting yourself from biting insects and the diseases they can carry should be more thought-out then just stepping out of the car and soaking yourself (and your kids) with an aerosol can of bug dope. Hopefully some of these tips can help keep you bite-free while you are out doing what you do!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



Affiliate links support this blog.

Deal Alert! Happy Five Ten Day!

Five Ten Climbing Shoes


Today is 5/10/19, or “Five Ten” day. To celebrate Adidas is running 20-30% off all Five Ten models for the next 24 hours. I’ve reviewed a couple models over the years including the ultra-popular Five Ten Guide Tennie Approach Shoe. You can read my detailed review here if you don’t already know about this classic.

Other models I’ve climbed in over the years include the casual Rogue VCS and the more performance minded Anasazi Pro. I’ve never been disappointed with a Five Ten which also carries a whole line of mountain bike shoes!

I feel fortunate to have gotten my first few days of rock climbing in for the season this week before I start my WEMT course next week and have my head in the books for a bit! A day at Cathedral Ledge, another at the recently re-opened to access Band M Ledge, and White Ledge in Albany all with great weather and even better friends was the perfect start to my season.

Upcoming Reviews: Super stoked to get my hands on the new Wild Country Revo Belay Device, the new Petzl Meteor Climbing Helmet, and the Arcteryx Koneal FL Approach Shoes. Stay tuned!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

 

Affiliate links support this blog.

Tech Tip- How Not to Fall while Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

(originally posted April 2018, updated March 2019)

With the arrival of April the Spring skiing (and falling) season has started in Tuckerman Ravine. After watching a couple tumble almost 500 feet down “The Lip” last year I thought some advice on fall prevention might be prudent.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Approximate fall

First tip…

Timing

The snow conditions in Tuckerman Ravine vary greatly this time of year from day to day and often hour to hour. The best type of snow for descending this time of year is referred to as “corn snow”. This is snow that has undergone multiple freeze thaw cycles and looks like little kernels of corn. Backcountry skiers jest that we are “harvesting corn” when the conditions are good. But corn snow is all about timing.

Try to ski too early in the season or the day and the corn hasn’t formed yet. Conditions that promote the formation of good corn snow are close or above freezing temperatures, strong solar radiation, and low winds. Try too ski to late in the day when the sun has dipped below the ridge will often find that the soft buttery edge-able forgiving corn has quickly transformed back into a frozen mess. Literally minutes can make a difference in how a run will ski.

So how do you hit it at the right time? First, you check the Higher Summits Forecast before you even leave Pinkham Notch. You’re hoping that the forecasted temps are at least in the mid to upper 20’s and that summit winds are under 50 mph. You also want to see “Mostly Sunny” or “In The Clear”. Overcast days are not for harvesting corn.

Next you should check the Current Summit Conditions. Specifically what you want from this page is the temperature “profile” that shows what the temperatures are at various elevations on the mountain, wind speeds, and sky condition. This page, along with the Higher Summits Forecast, are both bookmarked on my iPhone for quick daily reference.

Spring Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
MWOBS Current Conditions Page- The ski terrain in the ravine is roughly between 4,200 and 5,200 feet in elevation

Ideally temps in the Ravine will be at or above freezing, winds will be low, and the sky will be mostly clear. The lower charts help identify trends. In the above example the winds have died to almost nothing, temperatures are increasing, and barometric pressure has risen and is holding steady (indicating not a big change for the rest of the day). Visibility however is only 1/8 of a mile with some snow and freezing fog (shown under “weather”)… this means no corn today.

Finally, to determine when the slope you want to descend will lose the sun you have a few tools at your disposal. During trip planning you can use CalTopo’s “Sun Exposure” layer to see when certain aspects and runs will lose the sun. In this example you can see what areas still have sun at 2 PM today.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

While actually out skiing you could also use an app like PeakFinder AR. An example of how I might use this app would be climbing up Right Gully and deciding to go ski in the East Snowfields for a bit before returning to descend Right Gully. Halfway up the gully, near the steepest pitch, I open up the PeakFinder app and find the path of the sun. Where it intersects the ridge the app will mark the exact time the sun will go below the ridge line (often an hour or more before true sunset). I know now what time I need to be through this spot if I still want soft snow!

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
This screenshot is not from Right Gully, but demonstrates the capability

Next up let’s look at…

Gear

Later in the season there will likely be established “boot ladders” where dozens, or hundreds, of other visitors will have kicked deep steps into the 40 to 50 degree slopes allowing people to ascend these slopes with little extra gear.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
A well established boot ladder- photo from OutdoorTripReports.com

However, some of these items could really make a difference early in the season, or later in the day, and also could allow you to travel outside of the established boot ladder, which would make you less of a sitting duck if someone higher up looses their footing. First, the most important…

Helmet!

Skida Headwear Review
The author preparing to descend from 4900 feet in Tuckerman Ravine during mid-winter conditions

Most skiers these days wear helmets at ski resorts while ripping fast groomers and shredding pow in the glades but then many choose not to wear a helmet while skiing in Tuckerman Ravine (which has much more objective hazards than a controlled ski resort). Head injuries can occur from falls, collisions with other skiers, and occasionally falling ice and/or rocks. Most ski helmets though are too hot for a 50 degree sunny day in the ravine, so consider buying or borrowing a well ventilated climbing helmet. New this year the Petzl Meteor Helmet is the first UIAA and CE-certified ski touring helmet and would be my first pick (currently reviewing).

They are available from BackcountryREI and Moosejaw.

Mountaineering Axe

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Crampons and a mountaineering axe provide security on steep firm slopes- photo by Brent Doscher

When the professional rangers of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center say that “long sliding falls” are a specific hazard today one would be wise to carry, and know how to use, a mountaineering axe to arrest or prevent a fall. This would be in hand during the ascent with your ski poles strapped to your pack (baskets up). While there are many models that will suit this purpose I am currently carrying the Black Diamond Raven Ultra Ice Axe which is incredibility light-weight (12 ounces) yet still has a steel head and pick. Lots of experienced skiers like the added flexibility of carrying a Black Diamond Whippet Pole (also available in a carbon model) instead of a full fledged mountaineering axe, and if snow conditions are soft enough this can be a great option.

Crampons

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Petzl LLF Crampons- photo from Petzl.com

While an established boot pack might feel secure leaving the boot back or taking the path less traveled may require some traction. Micro-spikes might be helpful on the lower angled hiking trail below Hermit Lake (Hojo’s) but won’t cut it in 40 degree terrain. For snowboard boots check out the Black Diamond Neve Strap Crampons. For those who count ounces and wear technical touring boots my current favorite is the feather-weight Petzl Leopard LLF Crampons.

Education

skiing Tuckerman Ravine
The author heads into steeper terrain in the Gulf of Slides, Mount Washington- photo by Erik Howes

If you would like to take a course in basic crampon and mountaineering axe technique I teach a one-day skills course at Northeast Mountaineering. I also offer Backcountry Skiing Skills Courses along with Ski Mountaineering and this is the perfect time of year to attend one of these courses! Contact me at nealpinestart@gmail.com for availability.

Resources

Higher Summits Forecast

Current Summit Conditions

Mount Washington Avalanche Center

Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol

Time for Tuckerman

Friends of Tuckerman Ravine

Granite Backcountry Alliance

Ski the Whites

Summary

Skiing (and falling) in Tuckerman Ravine is a time-honored tradition and rite-of-passage for many East Coast and beyond skiers. YouTube is full of videos of these falls. Some result in no injury, others result in “snow rash”, bruises, cuts, broken bones, a least one LifeFlight, and occasional fatalities. Hopefully the above advice can help prevent a few of these from happening this season. There is a lot of fun and sun to be had in the next few weeks in Tuckerman Ravine but let’s be sure we respect the hazards that exist in our wild places.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Gear Review- HitCase Ferra iPhone Case

I had already been a huge fan of HitCase after reviewing the HitCase Pro iPhone case back in October 2018. You can find that full review here. Now HitCase has entered the more casual/stylish iPhone case market with the new HitCase Ferra model and I was happy to receive a media sample to check out a couple months ago.

In a market flooded with fashionable iPhone cases I was curious why HitCase would deviate from their “hard-core” type protective cases. As the founder and CEO of the company says, “Protective products on the market today are focused on making products cheaper, but in the race to make things cheaper, things got worse, sharp edges, flow lines, rough textures, careless design.”

Hitcase Ferra iPhone Case Review
HitCase Ferra Case with TrueLux SuperWide Lens

HitCase definitely doesn’t take short-cuts with their cases and the Ferra looks and feels like a swanky hand-crafted Italian leather phone case. With 2 meter drop protection it certainly isn’t as bomber as the Pro case which boasts a 5 meter drop protection rating, but 2 meter’s is pretty good for a casual case. Stainless steel buttons add more style and I appreciate having access to my mute switch through an open port while using the case.

The best thing about the case, and all HitCases for that matter, is the ability to use the TrueLux lenses with the case.  These lenses open up the photography capabilities of the already amazing iPhone X to new levels. With Macro, Wide, and SuperWide options you can get pretty creative with your smartphone photography. One important distinction between the Ferra and the more active sport Pro model is how these lenses secure to the case. While the HitCase Pro has these lenses secure by a few screw threads keeping the lenses safely attached during bumpy mountain bike or ski descents they only attach to the Ferra with a bit of magnetism. This is fine (and fast) for casual use/outdoor photography but if you want to shoot while being less stationary you might be better off with the HitCase Pro.

Hitcase Ferra iPhone Case Review
HitCase Ferra iPhone Case with attached TrueLux Super Wide Lens

Summary

The HitCase Ferra is for someone who likes hand-crafted leather and wants something more than a cheaply made case to accessorize their tech. The ability to use the TrueLux lenses with a casual case is an additional benefit. While I appreciate the style my iPhone is now snuggled back in the HitCase Pro case which has become my all time favorite case so far! If you are looking for a really nice casual iPhone case maybe the HitCase Ferra is for you?

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start


Affiliate links help support this blog. A media sample was provided for purpose of review.

Top 3 Backcountry Ski Backpacks

A reader recently asked for my opinion on one of my favorite back-country ski backpacks which has motivated me to share by top three choices for back-country skiing! Here they are!


First Pick: The Ortovox Haute Route 32L Backpack

Ortovox Haute Route 34L Backpack Review
Ortovox Haute Route 34L Backpack- photo by Cait

I now have two full winters with over 70 days of back-country touring with this pack and it is my over-all favorite. I find it to be the perfect size for day trips in the White Mountains and last April’s ski trip to Iceland. The dedicated avalanche safety pocket fits my shovel and probe perfectly, and outer vertical pocket holds some of my oft used tools in an easy to get to spot; I stick my snow card, compass, Rutchsblock cord, and snow thermometer in there. The “goggle pocket” is where I stash all my food for the day, and I’m able to carry a bivy sack, large puffy, and usually fit my goggles, buff, facemask, and ski gloves inside my helmet inside the pack, though there is an external helmet carry option. Finally the back panel full access to the main compartment is super convenient!

This pack is also available in a 30 and 38 liter short torso size, and a 40 liter size here.


Second Pick: The Patagonia Snow Drifter Backpack

 

I reviewed this pack back in 2016 and having tested quite a few packs since this one has stayed in my memory of being one of the best designed ski packs on the market. It shares a lot of the same features as my first pick like a well designed avalanche gear pocket and back-panel access. Unfortunately it is either discontinued or simply out of stock at almost every retailer. There are a few left on sale here.


Third Pick: The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack Review
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack Review

This is actually my first pick if the ski mission is technical, i.e. I’ll be carrying rope, harness, a couple screws, a technical ice axe, crampons, etc. I got the ski modification on this pack and while it is the priciest of the three the materials used in construction made this a pack that will survive a decade or three of heavy use in the mountains, where as I would expect to wear our my first two picks after 5-7 seasons of heavy use. While this pack gives up some convenience features like the dedicated avalanche gear pocket it gains pure rugged simplicity. As I said in my detailed review back in 2016 this is the pack I would choose for a ski focused trip to Katahdin or a ski mountaineering day in Huntington Ravine (up Pinnacle down South or the like).


Did your favorite make my list? Let me know in the comments if it did or didn’t! I will be looking to review 2019/20 back-country ski packs early next season!


See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

 

Disclaimer: The author is an Ortovox Athlete and all packs were provided for review. Affiliate links help support this blog.

Caught and Partially Buried in Oakes Gulf Avalanche (4/11/19)

Yesterday felt like a perfect storm of conditions that ultimately led to multiple skier triggered avalanches including two from my party and one fatality on Mount Washington. While it might seem odd to write about this experience so soon after it happened, I do so before memory forgets small details in the decision making of the day. It is my intention that sharing our day helps others understand some of the complexity and uncertainty when recreating in avalanche terrain, especially under a “Moderate” Danger Rating.

Let’s start with the avalanche bulletin from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center for the day:

Avalanche Forecast 4/11/19


April 11th, 2019 7:45 AM

Ben Mirkin and I pull into the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead at the same time and find Benny Allen already waiting for us with ski boots on. The sky is “bluebird”, no wind, a couple inches of fresh snow sparkles bright in the morning sun. We greet each other warmly and conduct a departure check. All three of us have been back-country skiing for a combined total of 42 years. All three of us are climbing guides. All three of us our avalanche instructors, two certified level 3’s and one recently certified Pro 1. The thought occurs to me that many accidents happen to those who are experienced and possess a high level of technical proficiency.

The day prior to getting together we had made a complete tour plan with options A and B, with a safer option being Oakes – Main. Proper repair and rescue gear was carried and all carried radios. This was my Caltopo tour plan:

avalanche mount washington
Green is our proposed up track, though we left from the USFS lot instead, red arrows were some potential options, yellow was a conservative decent choice, orange was our exit. The yellow shading uses digital elevation modeling (DEM) to highlight the aspects, angles, and elevations that the avalanche advisory mentioned human triggered avalanches could be “possible”.

Our actual GPS track this day:

avalanche mount washington
MapBuilder Topo
avalanche mount washington
Google satellite imagery

We break trail for 26 minutes and reach the junction of the Ammonoosuc Link Trail and continue up to Gem Pool in just under an hour. Benny and Ben transition to crampons and strap skis to their packs while I put on ski crampons and continue up the steeper grades. We reconnect above the steeps as we reach tree line and work our way to the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut in 2 hours 12 minutes from the car. At that point we do a weather observation and find it to be -10 degrees Celsius. It’s about 10:15 and winds on the ridge are a bit higher than expected.

avalanche mount washington
Ascending Ammonoosuc Ravine minutes from AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut
avalanche mount washington
Benny conducts a weather observation and consults our tour plan

After a re-fuel break we set a course for Mount Monroe. Winds that were out of the Northwest shift to the North and are steady at 50 mph on the summit of nearby Mount Washington. Wind chills are around -15f. We confer in the lee just below the summit of Monroe. Our first objective was a steep couloir that drops off the ridge near Mount Franklin.

avalanche mount washington
Skinning up the east side of Mount Monroe on stiff wind board
avalanche mount washington
Mount Washington’s summit pokes through some forming clouds

While we could not see it from our current perch after consulting the map I felt we could transition and make it over to the top of the gully in less than 15 minutes. We de-skinned then dropped about 100 feet until we were around the shoulder that allowed us to get eyes on our proposed objective. During that short descent we attempted to test the wind slabs with no results. Franklin looked loaded, steep, and fun. We agreed to go check it out and be willing to reverse our route if we didn’t like what we saw.

avalanche mount washington
Ben prepares to descend from just below the summit of Mount Monroe

Traversing the ridge was windier than expected. We made it to the top of the proposed run and I started to get nervous. It was full of new wind effected snow. It looked steep. Light loading was still occurring. It was cold and uncomfortable and I felt like we might rush our decision. I could see my partners were a bit excited to grab this line. Acceptance was felt. I tried to picture the size of the avalanche we could trigger in this defined avalanche path. A choke mid-path just below a convexity would make this happen fast if we triggered this path. I pictured someone somersaulting through the choke-point. I even had a thought that an injured skier at the bottom of this run would need a helicopter, and that below ridge winds were light enough to get one.

We had a rope with us, and the idea of a belayed slope cut was briefly mentioned. I spoke up and exercised my veto, and it was instantly respected. We transitioned back to skins and made our way back over to Monroe with plans on skiing a more south facing aspect into the same Franklin Brook Drainage.

Winds started to drop as we reached another transition. We dropped the top 300 feet of the proposed run and found very firm conditions. No new snow had stuck to this aspect. The skiing was not good, and I suggested we cut our losses and head back up and over to get into Oakes Gulf, our conservative “Plan C”. I had skied a nice line in Oakes 5 days ago in a total white-out. The snow conditions were nice and I felt that aspect would hold the softest snow we would find on this side of the range. I was right and we dropped relatively low angle terrain from 5050 feet down to 4480 feet finding many decent turns along the way.

As I reached Ben at the bottom of this pitch he relayed he just watched a size-able skier triggered avalanche just northeast of us, basically down the Dry River main drainage. We scanned the area and saw the skier exiting from near the bottom of the path that we estimated ran about 470 feet. I would later confirm from a closer witness this was a solo skier who was able to escape after triggering the slab and that the solo skier then regained the ridge and descended Hillman’s Highway.

Here near the bottom of our run Ben suggested we transition and head back up and over to our exit route, Monroe Brook. I felt there were a few more good turns below us that could be managed. Benny wanted to finish the run. A 500 foot tight shot through a treed area was discussed. Ben gave it two ski cuts at the top and propagated a small slab 10 feet above him, about 15 feet wide and he was able to reach his targeted safer spot while we watched the small slide clear out the snow below. Now that the small slab was flushed out both Ben’s discussed descending the small path, but ultimately decided not to. I wasn’t keen on making steeper turns in the tight feature and voiced I would pop over to skier’s right into some wider and lower angle terrain and assumed we would meet up towards the bottom where the two features almost reconnect.

As I moved over to the right, I scoped the area I had descended 5 days ago. Things looked good, I checked above me. The terrain steepened about 200 feet above me with a thin cliff band stretching about 450 across the slope. The slope I was about to drop onto was under 20 degrees. I decided to enter.

I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t feel a collapse. I did look up and see the entire slope above me was failing. I had a little momentum bringing me more into the path of what was about to hit me and pointed my skis towards a spot just below a decent sized tree 5 feet ahead and hooked my right arm around it. I had about 4 seconds from when I saw the slide to when it hit. In that time I keyed the mic on my radio and said “Avalanche… coming down right on top of me”. I then locked my left arm around the tree and dug in.

The debris hit the tree and me with some force. It felt like a surprise rogue wave while playing in the ocean, or trying to cross fast moving waist deep water. It pushed on me for about 5 seconds. Debris hitting the tree broke up and threw a little snow in the air giving me a moment of thinking I would be buried. The debris around me stopped moving and I watched a lot of snow travel down the path into the woods below. Another debris pile accumulated on the far side on another lower angle bench like the one I was on. I was buried to my waist but hadn’t budged from where I dug in. The debris set up like concrete. Benny and Ben where quickly coming into view having heard my radio call.

“I’m not hurt, but I’m buried to my waist. I’m going to need help getting dug out”.

Ben quickly scanned above me and determined there was little risk of another slide and both of them skied over to me and started digging. It took about 5 minutes to free me as my skis were still on. It took Ben A. saying “remote trigger” for it to really click. My first thought when I saw the slope fail was it was either a natural avalanche, which makes no sense given the conditions and avalanche bulletin for the day, or another skier above had triggered the slope (there was no one else in our immediate area).

I had remotely triggered this avalanche from low angle terrain 200 feet below the crown line… the flanks however were quite long with the looker’s right hand flank extending to a point about 50 feet above me. This was a big slab. Using Caltopo, my GPS tracks, and what we saw after the avalanche I estimate the slide ran about 750 feet while descending about 385. The crown line was estimated to be 460 feet across, and up to a meter deep at it’s thickest, with most of it being between 15 and 30 cm. Slope angle at the crown was estimated to be 38-40 degrees.

avalanche mount washington
You can see me buried from the waist down just below the tree in the middle of the picture. The debris visible towards the upper left stopped on a lower angle bench like the one I was on, but from me to that pile a lot of snow flowed down the drainage, some of which can be seen moving in the start of the accompanying video
avalanche mount washington
Our GPS tracks in and out of Oakes Gulf with purple lines representing the two skier triggered slides and the yellow area estimating the size of the avalanche I triggered
avalanche mount washington
A closer look, you can see where I was partially buried on the edge of the yellow polygon

We transitioned back to skinning and made a plan to exit close to our descent track and well spaced out. We gained the ridge and made our way over to our exit route, Monroe Brook. Once in the upper gully we found a few inches of unconsolidated powder on a firm crust and made some enjoyable but sometimes variable turns down the run short pitching at first then leap-frogging our way down to the exit. Soon after getting back into the trees we heard a helicopter overhead traveling west to east. Given the conditions of the day we suspected this was from an avalanche involvement and hoped for the best. We had a lot of friends all over the mountain today.

Back at the parking lot we started debriefing.

So what happened?

As I mentioned at the start of this my radar was up based on our group make-up.

Experienced, Proficient, Fit, Educated

For a three person team I couldn’t ask for better ski partners. I also think three person teams are ideal when going after the type of objectives we had on our agenda this day.

We made some good calls. We agreed that if we had skied the Franklin gully it was “likely” we would have triggered it. There may be slight disagreement on how “escape-able” this path would be if it did go. There was talk of a belayed ski cut being the wrong choice considering we felt it was “likely” to slide and would leave behind a firm no fall type bed surface. The fact I thought about a helicopter being possible at the bottom of the run was clear evidence we needed to scale back, and we did.

From that point on we avoided defined avalanche paths. We kept the angle pretty low. We committed to option B, and recognized the snow was not worth the effort, and switched to option C.

We ruled out Double Barrel as it has a very similar aspect/elevation/angle to the Franklin run that we had already turned our backs on. Our final option was in between the aspect that was a southeast aspect so we were actively avoiding the most likely east aspects. While we witnessed a size-able skier triggered slide on a nearby south aspect I believe we felt this relatively lower angle southeast aspect could be managed.

What would I do differently?

When Ben suggested we transition and head out I could have jumped on board there. I was enticed to get a few more turns in despite my evening commitments keeping me on the tighter timeline. While I didn’t want to ski the tight ski shot on a firm bed surface I could have posted up and let the Benny and Ben get their steeper turns in. I traversed about 100 feet to the right to access open lower angled terrain and dropped just out of sight of my partners before triggering the slope above me.

I don’t think I could have escaped given the terrain even through I was only on the edge of the path that ran. If I had gone past this tree without noticing the slide I would have been carried down the slope a couple hundred feet unless I hit a tree. We did not take the time to descend to the debris but without any doubt it was enough to completely bury someone. The lower angle bench I was on kept things less violent than being in the middle of the path would have been.

“This could have easily happened to any of us” says Ben.

“If you travel enough in avalanche terrain you are going to find avalanches” says Benny.

While I appreciate the affirmations I find it difficult to accept I made this mistake. Yes this could have happened to anyone. Hind-sight is a wonderful thing to hammer on from an armchair. Any time there is an incident, big or small, we need to learn from it. Some of my bullet points of lessons learned:

  • You can remotely trigger a wind slab. I’ve known this is possible, but our avalanche problems and incidents in the east are almost always triggered from on the slab itself.
  • You need to stay in visual contact. We had eyes on each other the entire day and broke that safe travel practice right at the end of our run.
  • Radios are king. While they might have heard me if I yelled “avalanche” being able to convey what was happening clearly and quickly, then check back in after the avalanche and know they got the message was so reassuring.
  • Travel with people you trust and have your back. I couldn’t have asked for two better ski partners to tour with this day!

Bringing this whole experience into a whole other light is learning on the drive home that a solo skier less than two miles away was buried and injured in an avalanche. Reports then came in that stated that the victim died on scene after vigorous CPR attempts were made to revive him (he was estimated to be buried over an hour).

Benny was worried it was a friend of his who hadn’t checked in yet and was suspected of touring in the area of the incident. Then, after 10 PM, I receive a text from Benny. With a heavy heart we learned the victim was indeed his friend. I’ll leave any other details or speculation until after the Mount Washington Avalanche Center releases their press release and accident report.

UPDATE 4/15/19: MWAC has released an official accident report for the fatality: https://mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org/4112019-avalanche-fatality-raymond-cataract/

avalanche fatality mount washington
Our location in relation to the Raymond Cataract fatality

I’m going to finish this long narrative with a personal thank you to everyone who has reached out to me with words of encouragement and support. News travels incredibly fast these days and our back-country ski community is pretty small and close-knit. We are all connected with only a degree or three of separation.

I also share this personal story as timely as possible as we move into a busy couple of weeks on Mount Washington that historically are “stable” by Mount Washington standards. This winter has been extraordinary in snowfall amounts and late season cold temperatures. The general Spring skiing crowd needs to be aware that this is not a typical April on Washington by any means. Heads on a swivel, read the avalanche bulletin, don’t travel solo in high consequence terrain with out a clear understanding of what the outcome may be.

My thoughts and prayers are with the victims family and his friends, especially my close friend, ski partner, and fellow avalanche educator, Benny, who lost a touring partner and friend on a day when despite the instabilities and risk we were all out doing what we loved. RIP Nicholas Benedix.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start