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.

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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

Caught and Carried… a reminder small slab avalanches can have consequences

I have triggered a lot of small avalanches over the 10 years I’ve been an avalanche educator. They have all been intentional, small, and inconsequential. Yesterday morning I triggered one that bordered on the line of consequential as it carried me about 20 feet down slope towards some uninviting looking trees. It was a fairly small avalanche with a crown that was estimated to be about 25 meters across the slope and 30 centimeters deep at its apex. I was high on the slab when it failed and able to self arrest with my ski poles in the bed surface quite quickly. While there were no injuries there is certainly something to learn from the experience so I’ll present the following account with that desire in mind.

Earlier this season a new client hired me for a Backcountry Ski Skills Course. After getting a resume of ski descents and experience from him we conducted a skills course into the bottom of Hillman’s Highway and had a very successful day. A few weeks later he was back to take a 3-Day AIARE Avalanche Course and toured with me in the Gulf of Slides. Having vetted his ski ability and fitness we made a plan to ski from the summit of Mount Washington.

Mother Nature however decided our plan to travel above tree-line on our day together would be unrealistic.

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Higher Summits Forecast for 2/19/19

After conveying that the summit was out for our day together he let me know he was still stoked to see how far we could go so we made a plan to head into Tuckerman Ravine and see if we could ski some of one of the renowned gullies located within.

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center forecasted “Moderate” avalanche danger with the following “Bottom Line”:

Low density snow yesterday has been affected by NW wind overnight which has produced relatively small new slabs that are possible to human trigger.

I had experienced this low density snow the day before during a tour in the Gulf of Slides on the last day of teaching an AIARE 1 Avalanche Course with Northeast Mountaineering. Some footage from that tour…

 

The next day we made excellent time up the Tuckerman Ravine trail reaching Hermit Lake in one hour and 15 minutes. Fausto is a fitness coach so it was easy for us to both stay warm in with the current conditions:

avalanche mount washington

After a quick re-fuel stop we made out way up the Little Headwall and observed some signs of instability on the slopes just above.

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Shooting cracks observed in thin fresh wind slab just above the Little Headwall

Here the winds were full value and we tucked our heads down and pushed on to Connection Cache. We moved off the trail to the right to find a brief reprieve from the wind and don face masks and goggles before deciding to push a little further into the ravine. The winds were a little less brutal as we set a skin track up to the right of the Lobster Claw run out. We had observed enough active wind loading to rule out entering any of the major avalanche paths and a few hundred feet up the far right side of the ravine we decided it was time to transition and head back down.

We dropped on some stiff wind board low angle terrain and I brought us down into the Cutler drainage then out to skier’s right aiming for the high exit that would connect us down to the far side of the Lower Snowfields. Here we traversed across a small steep slope one at a time before getting to the top of the chute that leads down to the flats then connects back out to the Cutler.

The snow was a little punchy here but we could make a few good jump turns down about 50 feet. I posted up under a little tree island and had Fausto stop just above the island. A slightly lower angle open slope to skiers right looked like it would offer a few more turns before heading back into the drainage but it looked size-able enough to warrant caution. I told Fausto to stay put while I traversed over and onto this slope trying to stay high with the intention of ski cutting it and posting up on the far side.

About halfway across the slope I saw it fail around me. There was no noticeable collapse or whumph but the cracks I saw everywhere in sight made it clear what was happening. I yelled “avalanche” as I started moving down hill and noted the crown was only 10 feet above me. I dug my ski poles into the bed surface and the little amount of debris that I was riding on continued downhill… I came to a stop about 20 feet below where I had triggered it. For a few seconds I watched the debris go down slope for about 100 feet through some small trees that I was glad I wasn’t meeting soon.

Looking back uphill I could see Fausto was still in the spot I told him to stay and I instructed him to traverse over to me as there was no significant hang-fire left and I wanted him to join me on the bed surface. I shot some video and measured the slope angle, aspect, elevation, and position with the convenient Theodolite app. We then made our way down to the bottom of the run out for a couple more pics of the slide.

 

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Theodolite app

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So what happened?

The 13 cm of super low density (3.7%) snow that fell during an almost windless day on February 18th got introduced to severe winds over the evening hours and into the morning. As mentioned in the bulletin today “winds often allows us to  exceed the 1:3-5 ratio of new snow to wind slab”. This new slab felt like it was probably 1-Finger to Pencil on the Hand Hardness Scale. I estimated the crown to be about 30cm deep at its apex. This small test slope is directly lee to the west winds that were howling all night and observed while we were in the area. In the video you can see active loading occurring directly following the avalanche.

While this was my first “unintentional” triggered avalanche I don’t feel that I was completely caught off guard. Signs of instability along with expert opinion in the form of the avalanche bulletin guided our terrain choices and we stayed under 30 degrees and outside of major avalanche paths for good reason. We moved one at a time across suspect slopes and stopped where we could watch each other. I went onto the slope that failed half expecting to perhaps trigger a small slab and assumed I would be able to stay above it. I ended up taking a short some-what controlled ride 20 feet downslope while Fausto watched from a good vantage.

With the benefit of hind-sight a more conservative choice would have been to descend skier’s left of the Little Headwall, basically down our skin track where we had already accessed slope stability. Assessing “top down” terrain is obviously harder to do. In speaking with one of the snow rangers my terrain choice was somewhat validated as a reasonable choice given the conditions. Still, I’ll be thinking about this day for quite awhile. Unintentional but somewhat expected is a strange way to think about triggering an avalanche, but that’s where I’m at right now.

I hope sharing these details and thought processes with the community is beneficial. It doesn’t happen with out acute knowledge that my choices can be judged with different levels of objectivity. As an avalanche educator though I strongly believe we should learn from every single avalanche involvement and being able to share your experience in a clear and transparent fashion can only benefit the greater avalanche community.

 

Snow, Avalanches, Reflection, and More Snow for MLK Weekend!

Well that was an intense four day weekend of snow, snow, and more snow. It all started for me on Friday when I taught an AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course for Northeast Mountaineering. The timing of our first rescue course was somber as an avalanche accident made national news the evening before when two young men would die from being caught in an avalanche and many others injured in Taos Ski Valley, NM.

New Mexico Avalanche
From ABC News: People search for victims after an avalanche buried multiple people near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. The avalanche rushed down the mountainside of the New Mexico ski resort on Thursday, injuring at least a few people who were pulled from the snow after a roughly 20-minute rescue effort, a resort spokesman said. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)
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People search for victims after an avalanche near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Jan. 17, 2019. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)

My thoughts and prayers go out to the two young men, their families, and friends who have suffered this tragic loss.

Friday’s rescue course brought 10 students from first year back-country travelers to seasoned vets who teach avalanche awareness classes for the Appalachian Mountain Club. We spent a couple hours in the morning going over rescue gear and methodology before moving to a field location for hands on realistic practice. Towards the end of the day I was partially buried a meter down in the snow while my friend and SOLO Instructor Sue addressed patient considerations, treatment, and evacuation. I thank former USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane for showing me the effectiveness of having students try to pull an unconscious 180 pound person out of a burial position.

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Just my airway cleared and one arm free there is a lot of work to do before proper treatment can begin- photo by Ryan Mcquire

We ended the course just as the edges of an incoming Nor’easter brought some snow fall and by Saturday morning it was coming down steady!

Nor'Easter Avalanche Course
My AM check of the radar showed multiple heavy bands of cold fluffy snow was on tap for all day Saturday

Saturday was the start of a three day AIARE Avalanche 1 Course and with my co-instructor Grant Price we had a full course of 12 students, all ski tourers with various levels of experience, but all eager to learn. After a productive morning of classroom and an afternoon of rescue practice I headed north to the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to present a Know Before You Go presentation. This one-hour program is designed for a broad audience to introduce the 5 steps of avoiding getting caught in an avalanche.

  • Get the Gear
  • Get the Training
  • Get the Forecast
  • Get the Picture
  • Get out of Harm’s Way

Know Before You Go at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
Presenting at AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

In attendance were various guests, visitors, AMC trip leaders, and an AMC avalanche awareness class. After the presentation Q&A took us pretty late into the night.

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Some Q&A after the presentation- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

Driving home around 10 pm I got to see some of the heaviest rates of snowfall before waking early Sunday to get Day 2 of the avalanche course going. We spent a little time inside talking about Human Factors and Heuristic Traps, some of which I had quite recently let get the better of my own decision making, before jumping into some sweet online tools and creating a tour plan for the rest of the day.

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“PLAN your trip” is one part of the AIARE Framework that helps us make better decisions in the back country

As soon as we hit the trail we started spotting obvious clues of unstable Storm Slab. Just as we were crossing the first Cutler River bridge we saw this… can you spot the two clues to unstable snow?

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From the first bridge over the Cutler River minutes from the Visitor Center

There are two natural “baby” slab avalanches in this picture. One is just left of the rock in the center and harder to see. The one on the right is easy to see. This is evidence of this fluffy “fist” density storm snow has gained cohesion and is sitting on a reactive weak layer… in other words it has formed into a “slab”. We found multiple spots along side the trail where “hand shears” would fail during isolation and informal ski cutting would produce noticeable results, on of the best just off the trail while crossing a small creek and captured by this students video:

 

We continued up to Hermit Lake and took a few minutes to poke in the snow near the Volunteer Ski Patrol Cabin. As we were close to our established turn around time we soon found ourselves enjoying some nice if not a bit bumpy turns down the Sherburne ski trail.

I’d later find out my friend and fellow avalanche educator Ben Allen was out in Bill Hill Glades in Gorham kicking off small slabs there. I could just picture his smile and giggle as he poked around in the snow triggering small inconsequential avalanches. If you didn’t know that is one of the favorite things for an avalanche educator to do! Well, that and shred super stable POW of course…

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Skier triggered storm slabs in Gorham, NH- photo by Ben Allen

On Monday, the final day of our avalanche course, our students started trip planning at the NEM Bunkhouse at 8 AM. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center was forecasting HIGH danger for the day. In addition the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast was predicting ambient air temperatures to plummet to the negative teens with wind chills in the -50 to -70 range. A conservative tour was needed, and the group selected a tour up the Cog Railway with a high point of Jacob’s Ladder and  possibly a side trip over to the top of a new slide path.

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Using the incredible CalTopo website we created a tour map that highlighted areas that might harbor more risk. Yellow were aspects fully exposed to the hurricane force NW winds coming later that day. Red terrain fit the criteria of areas of HIGH danger, and orange represented some areas of CONSIDERABLE danger.

We hit the trail close to 10 AM with a parking lot temperature of -9 Fahrenheit but surprisingly very low winds. The skin up to Waumbek tank took us just over an hour.

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Skiing up the Cog

During a break the group decided they would like to visit the top of the new slide path so we made our way up a few more hundred feet before contouring and bushwhacking over to the slide path.

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Top of “Phillipe Path”

Here I could feel the Human Factors tugging hard. The snow looked great. No tracks in it! We hadn’t really seen any signs of unstable snow like we had the day before. No cracking or whumping. It wasn’t as windy as we thought it would be. We had time to ski it. It was cold but climbing back up it would really warm us up.

I thought back to last weeks course when I had let Human Factors have a serious negative effect on my decision making. It was bluebird… no wind… perfect day to gain the ridge and complete a full “tour” on the last day of an avalanche class. The snow down here looked good… it must be good over there? Right? A student was apprehensive of her ability. Basically first time in the back country… My impaired objectivity reared its ugly head. “You can do it” I reassure without any evidence that she could. “We can side slip down until you feel comfortable making turns” I wrongly assumed. “It’s not that steep”… sure, for me, but what about her?

Listen to Every Voice, Respect Every Veto. These are tenants in good back-country partners.

Blue Sky Syndrome, Powder Fever, Over Confidence, and even some Kodak Courage had all crept into my consciousness. I failed to practice what I preach. I was not being objective. We made it down to the trail head just before dark. It took a few days and a formal debrief to really look back on that day for what it was. While I could call it a complete failure I’m looking at it as an ice cold head dunk of a wake-up call. 10 years of teaching these skills and I can still mess up. We all can. It’s how we move forward after making a mistake that counts.

Back to the top of Phillip, we turn our backs on what might be a killer powder run and head back to the Cog. We enjoy great low angle riding in calf deep powder back to the parking lot. We’ve returned way ahead of our turn around time as we listened to each other when we admitted we were pretty cold. No one got frostbite. The ski down had warmed us up enough for a quick round of Compression Tests and an Extended Column Test on a nearby slope.

 

We headed into the warmth of the AMC Thayer Hall for a tour debrief and to close the course. I handed out feedback forms that had been missing since the new curriculum rolled out.

What did you get out of this course?

How could the course be improved?

Where did you feel most at risk or in danger?

How can the instructors improve?

At the end of the day I read through all 12 forms. Small changes can be made based on these suggestions. Small changes lead to better learning environments for students and growth for the instructors.

I’m grateful for every comment and nudge from every student, fellow instructor, or guide I’ve ever gotten. Keep them coming.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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maplevilla

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course and hello Spring!

The last weekend of winter provided one of the most spectacular 3 days of higher summits weather I have ever seen in March! Blue skis and almost non-existent wind led to some really enjoyable ski touring on Mount Washington during our second-to-last American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course.

Day One

We kicked off the course on Friday with some lively classroom sessions and small group exercises.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny discusses identifying avalanche terrain on day 1.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small groups learn vicariously while discussing a local case study

Day Two

We met early to learn some advanced trip planning skills using CalTopo.com and the Avenza App. The Higher Summits Forecast called for southeast winds around 10-15 mph so we planned a tour on the west side of Mount Washington.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Powerful trip planning software that is 100% free!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Adjusting layers while skinning up the Cog
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small pockets of 2-3 mm Surface Hoar were found on sheltered north aspects above Waumbek Tank but below tree line
AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny demonstrates some snow pit observations near Jacob’s Ladder
AIARE Avalanche Course
Some cool wind effect and cornices nearby
AIARE Avalanche Course
We contoured around the rim of Ammonoosuc Ravine until we could drop the main gully or “Center Ammo”.

We concluded our tour with a debrief at the trail-head before calling it a day.

Day Three

AIARE Avalanche Course
Student led trip-planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail
AIARE Avalanche Course
Hermit Lake Snow Study Plot
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up between Lobster Claw Gully and Right Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Snow-pack Observations

Avalanche danger was LOW and we had plenty of time to spare so we booted up Lobster Claw and traversed over to the top of Right Gully.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Ready to boot up Lobster Claw
AIARE Avalanche Course
Bluebird!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Sherika after descending from pit location
AIARE Avalanche Course
300 pound block of ice came from somewhere

Some video of our descent:

AIARE Avalanche Course
All smiles after a good run!

We wrapped up the course back in the pack room with discussions about continuing to learn about traveling in the back-country. It was a real pleasure having each of you in this course. Thank you all for staying engaged and contributing through out our three days!

Tomorrow, and beyond!

Only one more avalanche course next weekend after a Mountain Skills Course tomorrow and Washington Climb on Thursday. It might seem like the winter season is winding down a little but we are set up for a fantastic Spring ski season! The warm rock climbing can wait this year… I still have a lot of skiing goals to accomplish including reviewing some new ski mountaineering gear from CAMP/Cassin, Ortovox, Petzl, and DPS. Expect a lot of gear reviews to be landing April/May after I get back from Iceland.

Yup, Iceland!  Been awhile since I’ve been out of country so I am SUPER amp’d about this upcoming trip.

Want to try backcountry skiing?

Maybe you just bought a setup or still need to rent a touring package (a few places in town rent touring gear). Maybe you’d like to avoid the maddening crowds in Tuckerman Ravine and check out some new to you terrain ? Consider learning about the joys of back-country skiing with me. The snow-pack we have in the alpine right now combined with more stable Spring weather is a GREAT time to book a back-country ski day!

You can read a bit about the program here but reach out to me directly at nealpinestart@gmail.com to check on available dates before trying to book!

Did you get out this weekend? Whatcha do? Let me know in the comments below!

Well thanks for reading, and welcome Spring!

See you in the mountains!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course on the Summit of Mount Washington!

Yesterday we concluded the first ever American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education Course on the summit of Mount Washington! The idea of holding an AIARE 1 Course in partnership with the Mount Washington Observatory has been brewing in my mind for years, and it finally turned into a reality!

Early in the morning this past Friday 8 participants met at Eastern Mountain Sports in North Conway to meet fellow AIARE Instructor Keith Moon and I to prepare for our 3 day adventure. After organizing our gear we made our way to the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road where Director of Education for the MWOBS, Michelle Cruz, welcomed the group and gave a short orientation.

Michelle welcomes and briefs the group
Michelle welcomes and briefs the group

Long time snow-cat operator and charismatic local Slim Bryant meets the group and gives them some last minute information about the snow-cat operating procedures.

099

During our ascent EMS Schools Guide Keith Moon took advantage of the improving visibility to point out various landmarks and explain some of the reasons Mount Washington has such interesting topography, weather, and flora.

Conversations about this unique trip made the first part of the ascent go by fast!
Conversations about this unique trip made the first part of the ascent go by fast!

Five miles up the road deep snow drifts required quite a bit of plowing so Slim suggested we take advantage of the warm comfortable weather and stretch our legs while he assaulted the drifts with a lot of back & forth plowing.

Walking beats motion sickness!
Walking beats motion sickness!
Great weather!
Great weather!

We arrived at the summit just before 11am and started class after a quick safety tour and lunch. Class was held in the conference room until a 6pm social hour followed by a delicious turkey dinner prepared by the Observatory volunteers, John & Gates.

Thank you John & Gates!
Thank you John & Gates!

The next morning the Higher Summits forecast called for sustained winds over 70, with gusts up to 110mph (it actually hit 118mph). Despite being “house-bound” the extra time to cover topics & info in greater detail was welcome, as the group stayed engaged and inquisitive through-out the demanding classroom day. I think the highlight for many was when we stepped out onto the observation deck after lunch to see what all the hype was about:

iPhone video uploaded to PC “upside down”. Will need to find a fix before I embed it. 😦

That evening we enjoyed a tour of the Weather Room from the very accommodating and informative Education Specialist Kaitlyn O’Brian. Despite having attended this tour in one form or another a dozen times over the last 10 years I still had questions and Kaitlyn was quick to answer and increase my understanding of what makes Mt. Washington such a remarkable place!

Weather Room tour after dinner on Day 2
Weather Room tour after dinner on Day 2

After the tour we all suited up and climbed the observation tower to visit the parapet, technically 30+ feet above the summit of Mount Washington, participants reveled in the opportunity to climb up and hold on while they felt the incoming high pressure system from Canada challenge their grip (Winds were 60-70mph at this time, down from 90mph during our Observation Deck venture)

(Asking participants for a photo or video from this time as I was busy using participants camera’s to catch anything with mine)

The next morning volunteers John & Gates treated us to a hearty breakfast of ham, eggs, and hashed potatoes before we packed our gear and met in the conference room for a trip planning session.

Gather info, form an opinion, converse, make a plan, execute!
Gather info, form an opinion, converse, make a plan, execute!

We settled on a descent of the East Snowfields followed by a long traverse over to the Gulf of Slides.

My Trip Plan
My Trip Plan

Around 0930 we bid farewell and thanks to the summit crew and volunteers who had been so accommodating to us during our stay and ventured out into 60+ mph northwest winds. The short distance we needed to travel to make it to the more sheltered East Snowfields will definitely be a memorable moment (especially for those who had snowboards in our group). Once we dropped 200 feet onto the East Snowfields though conditions were quite appealing.

Pavan ready to put some turns in near the top of the East Snowfields
Pavan ready to put some turns in near the top of the East Snowfields
The group discusses some terrain options
The group discusses some terrain options
Looking back up the East Snowfields with Allyson & Tod taking a quick break. Slope info is captured thanks to Theodolite iPhone App!
Looking back up the East Snowfields with Allyson & Tod taking a quick break. Slope info is captured thanks to Theodolite iPhone App!

At the bottom of the East Snowfields we intersected with the Lionshead Trail and switched back to touring mode to make our way towards Boot Spur & Gulf of Slides.

Long contouring traverse (2 of these words are not snowboarders favorite things)
Long contouring traverse (2 of these words are not snowboarders favorite things)
Brendan crosses above Tuckerman Ravine
Brendan crosses above Tuckerman Ravine
Patrick is all smiles!
Patrick is all smiles!

We got a great view looking back at our home for the last couple days… see all the ants climbing up Lobster Claw Gully?

Nice view of the summit cone I don't often experience
Nice view of the summit cone I don’t often experience
A zoomed in shot of Lobster Claw Gully
A zoomed in shot of Lobster Claw Gully

While we crossed Bigelow Lawn the views on all sides were amazing. I especially liked looking over at Franconia Ridge:

Franconia Ridge and Mount Lafeyette
Franconia Ridge and Mount Lafeyette

Visibility was over 120 miles as we could make out Mount Mansfield in Vermont! A nice wind-roll above Gulf of Slides offered a quick photo op for the Swanson father & son team!

Bluebird
Bluebird
#familyadventure!
#familyadventure!

We dropped into the snowfields of Gulf of Slides and had some great turns before stopping to learn a bit more about snow-pack observations.

After checking how deep the recent rain & warmth had penetrated we practiced layer ID, Hand Hardness, and Compression Tests, then traversed our way into the Main GoS gully. A fun run down brought us to a busy Pinkham Notch parking lot, and we gathered at a picnic table to debrief our experience and figure out how to move forward with our new found knowledge.

Ultimately this course was a huge success and a great wrap up to an amazing winter.

To the 8 participants in this first of its kind AIARE course… Thank you!  Your contributions through-out the course were much appreciated, and we look forward to implementing changes for next season based on your forthcoming feedback!

To the gracious staff of the Mount Washington Observatory… THANK YOU! Your support allowed us to provide one of the most experiential and educational experiences in avalanche education I have ever been a part of. We could not have done it without your help and are incredibly grateful!

And to my regular readers, thank you for following this blog. I plan to fill the next few “quiet” weeks with quite a bit gear reviews of extensively tested gear from this season. Over the next couple weeks there will be detailed reviews on;

Ortovox Avalanche Beacons (3 different models)

Black Diamond Snow Saws

BCA Beacons (2 models)

EMS & Black Diamond higher-end clothing

And much more… so… if you’ve read this far why not subscribe? It’s right up there at the top right… or like NEAlpineStart on Facebook.

To winter 2014/15, thank you! That was awesome. To Spring/Summer/Fall rock climbing season…. LET’S DO THIS!

-NEAlpineStart

AIARE 2 Avalanche Course

Yesterday wrapped up the 2nd AIARE 2 Avalanche Course of the season. Six Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing Guides, 3 from North Conway, 2 from The Gunks, and 1 from our Lake Placid location spent the last four days furthering their understanding of the avalanche phenomenon by improving their weather and snow-pack observation skills along with their rescue skills.

After reviewing AIARE 1 information we spend the rest of our first day upgrading our rescue skills with focuses on deep burials, multiple burials, close proximity burials, and rescue leadership. The deep burial scenario required a full effort from everyone as our “debris” had set up like concrete and our target was a life size stuffed Gore-tex full suit!

Digging through 2 meters of concrete
Digging through 2 meters of concrete
It took another 20 minutes of hard work to excavate the victim after reaching the "airway".
It took another 20 minutes of hard work to excavate the victim after reaching the “airway”.
One of our multiple burial scenarios unfolding...
One of our multiple burial scenarios unfolding…

Searching in Parallel, Micro-strip Search, Pro’s and Con’s of Marking, and Triage were all topics of that afternoon.

The next day was a heavy classroom day with lots of discussion on Mountain Weather, Online Resources, Metamorphism, and recording observations at the national standard in accordance with the “SWAG”.

We spent the 3rd morning covering the “how’s and why’s” of doing a Full Profile.

Mike Lackman was shadowing the course and offers up some advice during grain identification
Mike Lackman was shadowing the course and offers up some advice during grain identification

Despite increasing Spring like weather the snow pack was not iso-thermal, and a very distinct layer of 3-4mm advanced facets about 50cm down made for some impressive CT & ECT scores. (CT12 & 18, Q2 and ECTP 14)

My Full Profile
My Full Profile

From there we went on a short tour up to just above tree-line via the Cog.

Stopping for Chicken Fingers and a quick Weather Observation at Waumbek Tank
Stopping for Chicken Fingers and a quick Weather Observation at Waumbek Tank
Mike searches for the deeper faceted layer in a small pocket just to the right of Jacob's Ladder
Mike searches for the deeper faceted layer in a small pocket just to the right of Jacob’s Ladder
Gaining our high point with the incoming warm front right on our heels
Gaining our high point with the incoming warm front right on our heels

After some poking around in the snow and previewing terrain in the Ammonoosuc Ravine we descending the Cog in fairly good conditions. Right before the base the snow that had started falling around noon turned to rain and we wrapped up our day back at the Highland Center.

For the last day of the course we met at Pinkham Notch and planned a tour into Tuckerman Ravine. We zipped up to Hermit lake in short order and had a quick birthday celebration for Ryan before updating our travel plans.

Good skiing that requires very heads up attention!
Good skiing that requires very heads up attention!

We skinned up a very stable Little Headwall and gathered at the floor of the ravine to make a plan. Our climbers headed up into Lobster Claw and our skiers moved across and up into Left Gully.

Dustin and crew crossing the run out and starting the boot pack up climbers right side of Left Gully.
Dustin and crew crossing the run out and starting the boot pack up climbers right side of Left Gully.

With lots of probing and hand-shears we worked our way up below the ice fall to the left of Left Gully and after a brief group discussion decided we could push higher up to the “choke” of the gully.

We could see our other group just to the right of the mouth of Lobster Claw making observations
We could see our other group just to the right of the mouth of Lobster Claw making observations
Looking down the run I use the "Theodolite" iPhone App to capture some slope info
Looking down the run I use the “Theodolite” iPhone App to capture some slope info (Location/Altitude not reported as phone was on Airplane mode to conserve battery; i.e. No GPS Data)
Looking up into the start zone I capture incline and aspect (180 math needed)
Looking up into the start zone I capture incline and aspect (180 math needed)

Just below the choke we get some fairly positive hand shear results but the slab that is failing is quite thin, only about 20-25 cms or so. Two of our group wish to push a bit higher, which seemed reasonable, so the rest of us de-skinned and spotted their last 100 foot climb to just above the choke. From here we all descended, one-at-a-time at first, then with good spacing down below. Turns were pretty soft in most spots with occasional sections of hard scoured surface. The flat light made it a bit tricky to really let it rip.

Pretty decent turns and quite a few groups were appreciated the boot pack we had put in. It was a bit disconcerting to see so many without backpacks on... Where is your shovel & probe?
Pretty decent turns and quite a few groups were appreciated the boot pack we had put in. It was a bit disconcerting to see so many without backpacks on… Where is your shovel & probe? It is still winter up there.

We gathered at the floor then descended Little Headwall to the Cutler River. The Upper Cutler was great. One of our group had skied the Lower Cutler (below the bridge) a week prior and the majority vote was to continue down it. It was the first I had skied below the bridge so with a smidgen of hesitation I followed the group down. I can’t say it was great skiing, a bit to heavy mashed potatoes made for a few of those “must turn now” moments. One actively collapsing snow bridge with quite a bit of water right at the end made me glad to be exiting out along the Huntington Ravine trail to cut back over to the John Sherburne Ski Trail. I would suggest bailing at the bridge for the rest of the season… unless you are into that type of stuff!

Our run out...
Our run out…

The rest of the Sherbi skied great though the warm snow was a bit slow as we got to the bottom. No complaints though, all it all a great run!

Back at the parking lot we spent almost an hour and a half debriefing the day and the course in general. Feedback on the course was solicited and shared, and an honest look at what’s next was provided by recent AIARE 3 Graduate Keith Moon. Many of our guides are on tracks for AMGA certifications that will require an AIARE 3 Certificate, so links & suggestions for future learning were provided.

This was a really fun course for me. Getting to work each day with many co-workers who I don’t often cross paths with was a great boon. I feel like I know each of them quite a bit better. Their feedback will definitely help the AIARE 2 courses I lead next year improve. And despite a bit of rain the weather through out the course was fantastic. While I have the rest of the weekend off I’ll be heading back up the hill on Monday, and again on Friday. Then a short vacation before our first ever Mount Washington Observatory AIARE 1 Course!

Then, and only then, will I let myself start focusing on the upcoming rock season. Winter ain’t over till it’s over!

Spring is here (Not Really)

The equinox has come and gone and other than a bit more daylight to play in I haven’t noticed much of a difference! Yesterday was one of the coldest days I’ve had this season as we concluded another AIARE 1 Avalanche Course but first lets talk about how awesome the ice climbing conditions are!

Last Thursday, March 19th, I took former AIARE 1 student Kurt out for a day of Private Ice Climbing instruction. Kurt had a couple seasons under his belt (or harness) but wanted to get a jump start on his skill set. We headed out to Frankenstein and covered quite a bit of ground and information in a very fun filled day!

We started with a very big & blue Standard Route (Grade 3, 350 feet).

Standard Route at Frankenstein Cliffs
Standard Route at Frankenstein Cliffs

Despite it being a little bit of a PITA stopping in the cave I choose to do so as I think every first timer should see this cool feature. Experienced climbers who have seen it can greatly increase communication by skipping this feature and combining pitch 1 & 2 in a long 190 foot pitch.

Being first on route we see other climbers queuing up for a busy day
Being first on route we see other climbers queuing up for a busy day
Wrapping up pitch 2 of Standard
Wrapping up pitch 2 of Standard

We topped out around 11:30 and made our way back down to the tracks for some lunch, then headed over to the Amphitheater. There Bob’s Delight, (Grade 3+ 100 feet) was still in great shape, though a little soft. After I led the route I lowered off and Kurt took a top-rope lap on it so we could focus on efficiency & technique.

Bob's Delight
Bob’s Delight

One more run up it to clean the anchor and I grabbed a shot of Kurt finishing the route.

Bluebird day!
Bluebird day!

We had just enough time to squeeze in one more route so we hopped over to Cave Route, and finished on that 75 foot Grade 3. Definitely a fun day out I look forward to climbing with Kurt again soon!

The next day began a full AIARE 1 Avalanche Course that ended yesterday. As is becoming custom this winter we had perfect conditions for the course, despite yesterday’s field day being quite arctic we still learned a lot and enjoyed some fresh powder in the Cutler River!

Making some snow pack observations below Hillmans Highway
Making some snow pack observations below Hillmans Highway
Debriefing our Tour Day
Debriefing our Tour Day
My field notes from the day
My field notes from the day

Despite air temps far below 0 and even colder wind chills we had a really good day up there. Today I’ve spent catching up on errands while preparing for an AIARE 2 Course that starts tomorrow.

While the calendar may say Spring I am certainly still in a winter mindset!