Accident Report: Gulf of Slides, Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Date: March 1, 2011, Time: approximately 12:30 pm
Location: Gulf of Slides, about 1 mile south of Hermit Lake Shelters
Author: David Lottmann, EMS Climbing Guide and Avalanche Instructor
Summary: One skier caught, carried, not injured.
Weather: Sunny, cold, NW winds 30-50mph
Background Weather and Snow Conditions:
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center Advisory on March 1st, 2011 for nearby Tuckerman Ravine was “Considerable”. “At Hermit Lake we picked up 4.1″(10.5cm) with an average density of 16% and at the Harvard Cabin we found 4″(10cm) of fresh snow with a slightly higher density. New snow was blown in on winds that wrapped from the S through the W and eventually to the NW. This progression has allowed significant wind loading to take place on all aspects… The potential for human-triggered slides will remain especially high with forecasted temperatures that will only reach the single digits (F).”
Andy (age 39) has been backcountry skiing for one year, has EMT training, and has taken a level 1 Avalanche Course. Rog (age 38) has “close to 20 years BC experience and hundreds and hundreds of up high days east and west, 30-50+ days a season for the past 2 decades, 30 so far this season, mostly higher danger days” and has not taken an avalanche course.
After obtaining the avalanche bulletin for the day they decided to ski into the Gulf of Slides. They gained the ridge near Slide Peak by skinning through treed areas. The first line they skied one-at-a-time and reported “consolidated snow and no ‘whumping’ noticed”.
Having not observed any signs of instability they skinned back up for the “big ride”, “a run that I’ve skied hundreds of times in all conditions. It too can be safely skied with careful route finding.” The pair decided on skiing the length of the run one-at-a-time so only one skier would be exposed to at a time, and if Rog “felt anything odd” that he’d “pull off to skiers left where there is this ridge/nub type thingy that I’ve often used as an island of safety, and if I did that, that I would then proceed with a new plan.”
Andy: “Rog dropped in, first turns looked good – similar to our previous run. Then he headed left to a ridge knob. As he was stopping, I saw the snow give way right around him. It looked pretty localized the first instant. I was about to yell “avalanche” when what appeared to be most of the hill started sliding from maybe 15 ft above him. Then nothing but a cloud of snow – no sound, nothing.
Rog: “So I ski in and all felt good on the wind buff, and then I got to a softer than I expected slab that felt awesome to ski, but too awesome to be safe. All of a sudden, shooting cracks leave in both directions from me so I cut hard left to the nub thinking I was out of it. I then look up and say to myself, “Oh $hit, I’m no where near out of it. I then ducked down a bit, grabbed a little tree and took the wall of snow and all of it’s force on my side. Boom!”
“Down I go under the snow, flipping, flailing, free falling over a rollover. I’m pretty calm thinking, “well twas just a matter of time I guess, time to stay alive”. The whole time I’m spitting out snow, getting a breath when finally my ski pops off allowing me to kick and swim. Well luckily I swam to the top and popped out half way down the runout zone.”
Andy: “I said “Oh, sh!t!” and mumbled something resembling a prayer. I couldn’t see below the knob, so I had no idea for a “point last seen” to begin the search. As the snow was settling, I ran through the basics that I could remember from my avy class – scene safety, switch beacon mode, look for gear poking out of the debris. When all appeared clear and stable (most everything below me slid, so I assumed it was good) I skied down to and over the crown line.”
“When I got down below the knob, to my amazed relief I saw Rog standing way down hill. I skied right to him and did the best assessment I could muster from my decade old EMT training: Standing and talking, so airway, breathing and circulation are good. Knows what day it is, so brain still functioning. Quick check of limbs, all working. Pupils equal and normal, hopefully no head trauma. I’m sure there was more that I should have / could have done, but overall he seemed fine. Had him sit down while I went searching for gear. One pole was down a bit and stood right out, one ski partially buried way up took longer to find.”
When asked on an internet forum if any pits were dug during their trip Rog’s response was;
“Pits? Nope not up there. I have dug a pit or two over the years, but stuff is just so variable and our instabilities are mostly near the surface given our maritime type snowpack. I use pole probing mostly because I can feel out a lot of snow quickly over a large area. Not too tough to get a sense of layering once you get a feel for it. Many of the areas on monday were fairly well consolidated from wind and I banked on that a bit too much on the big ride run.”
Rog: “Number 1 had gone huge (naturally) in the previous 12 hours or so and had what appeared to be, new slab. the crown line was very visible and is the reason we stayed away from it and all of the other gullies and sub gullies… the snowfields “generally” allow for more safe traveling opt.
“It seems that the fracture line ranged between 1 and 3 feet deep and propagated about 400′ across the slope.” – next day’s Avalanche Bulletin. The start zone was estimated at 34 degrees and is east facing. The estimated size of the slide is D2, R3.