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:

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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:

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MapBuilder Topo
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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.

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Ascending Ammonoosuc Ravine minutes from AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut
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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.

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Skinning up the east side of Mount Monroe on stiff wind board
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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.

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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
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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
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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/

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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

27 thoughts on “Caught and Partially Buried in Oakes Gulf Avalanche (4/11/19)

  1. How many years experience? Obviously no common sense. That was my backyard for years.. you want experience…you should have never been there in the first place.. all of you are putting others at risk. Not just the poor bastards that decide to ski with you .. but the peeps that read this bullshit and think you’re hero’s.. Smarten the f$$k up..all of you.

    Coach Gnar..AMC alumni.. PSIA instructor.. high school race coach… older than dirt..still alive..

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    • I don’t understand this comment. Post accident reports are used all the time in case studies, even used during AIARE training courses. The way this account is written, I assume that it’s primary purpose. Okay, so that was your backyard, but you never skied it then because you should never be there in the first place? So we should stick to ski areas and our arm chairs and be critical of anyone you ventures outside those lines? AMC alumni of what? Meaning you where a member? Okay cool, yeah for sure resume worthy. PSIA instructor, okay cool, that totally makes you qualified to add rude commentary to someone giving an accident account so that others may learn from their mistakes from your qualification as a groomed trail ski instructor. High School race coach – Oh cool so none of your athletes ever had an accident then? You’re more likely to get in a car accident than one in the mountains, guess we should all stop driving too.

      I don’t think anyone believes Mr. Lottman is a hero, he sure is brave though for putting such a vulnerable story out with the arm chair trolls ready to pounce.

      Your half hearted apology below doesn’t cut it, you sir are out of line. I’d say I hope we never cross paths in the hills but you’re never there in the first place right?

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      • As the mother of the victim, yes…the idiots armchair commentary was more than uncalled for. My son, Nicholas, was well educated, had the appropriate safety gear and was a phenomenal skier. So, sit in your armchair and shut up.

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  2. Thanks for the write up. You know my opinion of radios for climbing but I think you are correct that they are great for back country skiing. So sorry about your friend. I have been a bit worried myself wondering who it is and why I haven’t heard from some folks lately that I know spend time up there… It seems like with that kind of skiing it is critical to not go it alone…. I wish they would change the terminology from Moderate to medium. Or perhaps completely shake it up. low, severe, very severe and completely stupid. Moderate plants the idea in peoples heads that its safe when its clearly not safe.

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    • I totally agree about the “moderate” rating terminology. Either go with numbers 1-5 or change moderate to a more effective word. And as far as solo skiing goes, far more incidences occur with groups of two or more than with solo skiing. Yes he coulda been dug out by a partner which would be the 1st ever rescue from a full burial ever in the mountains history, or both could’ve died very easily had one skier entered and the second skier triggering the slide. Solo skiing usuallly yields more conservative choices and approaches.

      Liked by 2 people

      • “Solo skiing usuallly yields more conservative choices and approaches.”… and leaves little room for error… in our case I asked my partners if they would have skied our first objective if I wasn’t there and the answer was an unequivocal yes, despite us all agreeing it would have been triggered. The consequence of triggering it was slightly misaligned, but I whole heartedly acknowledge the three of us made better choices than any one (or two) of us would have, and this fact is backed up by research in multiple high risk pursuits from aviation to avalanche… to think being solo makes one safer in high risk terrain is a very case by case assumption IMO Roger, but I appreciate you contributing here!

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  3. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
    Accident reports are the “No Judgement Zone” of mountaineering. Subjective judgements, opinions, feelings, ad hominem attacks have no place in evaluating objective hazards, cause(s) and effect, decision making, ‘heuristics’, the ‘human factors’ that motivate all our actions. I’ve fallen out of the habit, but I learned valuable lessons by annually reading the analysis and conclusions in “Accidents in Northeast Mountaineering” (and updated Not Without Peril edition…).
    I know the steep glades well, where you skied OG, and have repeatedly observed similar red flags there. I’ve noted the lack of low branches on the tree trunks there, and observed several large boulders, as big as railway cars, in the runout, almost to the Dry River. In addition to avy hazards, Rock fall is also a concern there, under certain conditions. But that aspect harbors the best pow in OG, and I keep going back.

    Radios. Priceless. 2 friends texted me for 45 minutes from that treed slope, but I didn’t receive their msgs until I was descending MB an hour later…
    One day, I yelled “Avalanche!” up Oakes central gully, 3 descending partners didn’t hear me…
    Radios are priceless in the pack, worthless when left in the car at the traihead.
    Your tree-hugger instincts and keying up the radio mic paid off. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • and I apolgize for calling Dave a “tree-hugger”, I meant it as a compliment, not a value-judgement, and as a safe-travel-in-avy-terrain strategy. Tree-hugging might save ur life someday!❄🌲⛷🌲❄

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Glad you’re ok Dave… I would (and have) gladly been in the mtns with you…. you are skilled and never one to be a cowboy. Hoping that is the last time you get that surprise .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, I listen to the American alpine club accidents podcast, the sharp end. This would be a great podcast. I’d suggest contacting the host Ashley to setup an interview. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you David for the response to my solo comment. So you say that your partners would have skied your first objective as a pair had you not been there. Now, do you think they would have each skied if they were solo? If not, then that’s what I’m getting at. I never used the words “solo skiing is safer in high consequence terrain”. What I meant was that solo skiing may keep one out of high consequence terrain where a pair or more may be more likely to venture into it with the extra “security” blanket that other humans bring. What is the ratio of avy fatalities involving a party of 2 or more vs solo?

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    • I can’t say for sure what anyone would do other than myself and even that response lacks being in a moment at the same time. That said knowing my partners I think we all feel skiing consequential terrain alone is something we prefer to avoid under anything but “perfect” solo conditions. So I see your point but point to all the data out there that small teams make better decisions than any one person. A party of three communicates and respects opinions and adjusts plans… a party of two may have needed that third voice to scale back… a party of 5 would have said “sure let’s do it (herd-mentality, social proof, acceptance), a party of one may avoid consequential terrain to begin with… this is a particularly poignant case as the information so far released makes it seem like this could have been the first “save” of a completely buried avalanche victim EVER on Mount Washington… but there was no one there to make the save. Your last question is a great one, and one I’d love to see hard research done on, but my gut tells me that the ratio would really vary between the different danger ratings (most multiple caught/buried cases were under Considerable rating)… Solo skiing + Moderate Rating + Terrain Traps is really high risk IMO… no room for error, so as you say “solo skiing may keep one out of high consequence terrain”… yes… it “might”.

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  7. As the mother of the victim, yes…the idiots armchair commentary was more than uncalled for. My son, Nicholas, was well educated, had the appropriate safety gear and was a phenomenal skier. So, sit in your armchair and shut up.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The mountain does not care that you are an expert. “By the grace of God Go I”.

    Hope there are learning opportunities that benefit all who would venture into the back country

    from each of these events. Sad that it takes so many deaths despite education and extensive experience.

    Perhaps the social media has created a new dynamic in our “Hueristic Factors”. Caution is

    the word of the day after any untoward outcome. “Plan B” often can derive just as much enjoyment

    as “Plan A”. The voice of 40+ year experience plus may provide insight you would otherwise be inclined to

    overlook. Remember “The Chute”?

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  9. Thank you for posting this detailed analysis of the slab action, aspects, and weather. More importantly, thank you for including the vulnerable admissions of emotion and doubt and team dynamics. It’s very humbling. May this April day stick in our minds for the rest of our outback lives.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thanks, Dave, for posting your story. Your insights are refreshingly transparent and I think your analysis will be educational and encouraging. I shared this on the SOLO FB page, and I suspect we will get a lot of likes. Stay safe out there, and keep on keeping the rest of us safer!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hi Dave, a good follow up article might be to discuss specific local areas that demonstrate concepts of high consequence, terrain traps, slope angle, sunlight timing issues, etc. E.g. What are the analysis or factors you think about for gulf of slides, hillmans, chute, east snowfield, burt, cog, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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