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:
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:
Our actual GPS track this day:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
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