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)
new mexico avalanche
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.

avalanche rescue
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.

avalanche education
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.

avalanche course
“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?

avalanche course
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…

avalanche course
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.

avalanche course
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.

avalanche course
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.

avalanche course
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 12/14/18 – 12/16/18

The first avalanche course of the season with Northeast Mountaineering wrapped up yesterday late afternoon after 3 solid days of mixed classroom and field sessions. We have an awesome new classroom venue just minutes from The Bunkhouse and we were stoked to have so much snow on the ground for the first course of our season.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Great new classroom space only minutes from the Bunkhouse

After a morning of classroom on Friday we spent the afternoon outside learning and practicing avalanche rescue skills. On Saturday we spent a little time learning how to PLAN a tour in avalanche terrain before heading up to Hermit Lake on Mount Washington for some practice monitoring conditions along our tour.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Learning about layered snow packs in one of the most beautiful places in the White Mountains

On Sunday we started with a student led trip planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Teamwork makes the dream work!

We then skinned up the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Approaching the Lower Snowfields in Gulf of Slides
AIARE Avalanche Course
Working our way up through the Lower Snowfields before traversing back into the Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Great weather for our full tour day!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Combining modern tech with old school navigation
AIARE Avalanche Course
Found some thin and stubborn pencil hard wind slab on this 37 degree slope at 4,500 feet to lookers left of the Main Gully. You can also see the December 3rd Melt-Freeze crust about 50 cm down here.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Pit location details, courtesy of Theodolite App
AIARE Avalanche Course
Edge-able, ski-able, but we are glad to see more snow in the forecast!

Summary

All in all it was a fantastic start to the avalanche course season with Northeast Mountaineering. The new curriculum rolled out pretty smoothly and I am digging the new “AIARE Framework” that creates a slightly smoother “flow” of decision making then the classic “Decision Making Framework” some of you may be familiar with. The new organization of the Avalanche and Observation Reference Tool is pretty sweet, and I really like the new 2-3 hour pre-course online learning component! If you have been waiting to take an avalanche course I’d say you should wait no longer! Most providers in the area are seeing courses sell out quite regularly! You can see what dates we have left here!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



Weekend Report- AIARE 1 Avalanche Course, Bates Outing Club, Backcountry Ski Festival, 2 Avalanche Accidents

Holy smokes what an amazing last four days and another Nor’Easter, the third one in 10 days, hits tomorrow!


Thursday

I spent Thursday at Wildcat wrapping up a Northeast Mountaineering Guides AIARE 1 Avalanche Course. It was a true powder day and we got in 3 solid laps including Thompson Brook while making snow-pack and weather observations and getting in some Companion Rescue practice.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Checking layers in a wind loaded aspect near the summit of Wildcat
AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Making some turns in Thompson Brook- photo by @cfphotography

Friday

On Friday I met 7 students from the Bates College Outing Club at our classroom space at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center. Due to epic field conditions we focused on covering the majority of classroom on our first day so we could get two full field days in over the weekend.


Saturday

Saturday morning we met at the Northeast Mountaineering Bunkhouse to learn a little about Companion Rescue before working up a trip plan to Hermit Lake and potentially into Hillman’s Highway. The mountain was quite busy with traffic as this weekend was also the 2nd Annual Mt. Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, a killer event hosted by Synnott Mountain Guides and Ragged Mountain Equipment.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Busy day at Pinkham Notch!

As our class arrived at Hermit Lake a member of Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol informed us of two avalanche incidents that had just occurred. A skier in Gulf of Slides had triggered a slab avalanche and been carried in the “middle finger”. No injuries reported but he lost a ski and had a long trip back to Pinkham Notch. The 2nd incident was two skiers getting hit by a natural avalanche in Hillman’s Highway while they were ascending. They reported being carried about a 100 or so feet but were also not injured.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Chatting with Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and Andrew Drummond of Ski The Whites

We decided to head up that way and see if we could spot the avalanche debris. Just past the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s we could see a small debris pile about 100 feet above the dogleg. We climbed up a bit further before transitioning to our descent. We enjoyed some pretty epic powder on the Sherburne Ski Trail, especially when we ducked into the woods on the right side at a few spots!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Hillman’s Highway Tour

After we debriefed our tour at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center I headed to the vendor gathering at Ragged Mountain Equipment and enjoyed a cold one courtesy of event sponsor Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery. I bumped into a few former avalanche course students who were attending the festival and it was great to catch up and see them out there getting after it!

I then made my way over to the Apres party at Beak Peak Base Lodge where Tyler Ray of Granite Backcountry Alliance kicked off the evening where keynote inspirational speaker, The North Face athlete, and professional ski mountaineer Kit DesLauriers, would be presenting. I saw a lot of former students in the crowd here as well! Speaking of GBA I’m excited to announce I’ve joined their “Granbassadors” team! Such an awesome organization to be a part of. If you are reading this you likely ski in the back-country so you should check the mission out and subscribe here!


Sunday

Sunday morning had us planning a Gulf of Slides tour in the pack room at Pinkham Notch (along with quite a few other avalanche courses!). We skinned up into the Gulf by 11 AM and made our way over to the yet-to-be-filled-in South Snowfields. I then navigated us up to a bit of a bench and traversed us back over to the main gully stopping at about 4620 feet. Here we had a great small test slope that allowed us to see some really reactive new wind slab. After practicing some stability tests we used travel techniques to cross the main gully and then descend a smaller finger of amazing powder down to the lower half of the gully. It was by far the best run of my season so far!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Gulf of Slides GPS Track

Fun turns all the way down the Gulf of Slides ski trail saw us back to Pinkham by 2 PM where we squeezed in a little more Companion Rescue practice before reviewing our tour and debriefing the course.


Relive ‘Gulf of Slides’

 

A huge thank you to the Bates Outing Club students who were super motivated to learn through-out the course and brought some endurance and solid skill that allowed us to access quite a bit of terrain over the course of the weekend! And to my former students that came up to me at both Ragged, Bear Peak, and on the mountain thank you for saying hi! So rewarding to see people out there applying skills they acquired in one of my courses years ago! You all rock!


Video Highlights From the Weekend

 

Ok… I’m still feeling the high from the last few days and can not believe we have another foot of snow coming tomorrow!!!


Useful Info

If you are heading up there don’t for get to check both the Avalanche Advisory and the Higher Summits Forecast!

Still need to take your level 1 avalanche class?

We have seats available for this upcoming weekend and the conditions on PRIME!


See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

The 2015/16 Avalanche Course Season has ended!

Yesterday we finished our last avalanche course of the season with an AIARE 2 on Mount Washington. With back to back AIARE 1’s and two AIARE 2’s I fell behind on a bit of blogging so below you’ll find photos from these courses:

AIARE 1 March 4-6

AIARE 2 March 9-10/16-17 (Split Guides Course)

AIARE 2 March 11-14

Despite it being a rough winter snow wise every avalanche course had interesting conditions and productive field sessions. I’m heading back up the hill on Sunday with some clients and with the incoming weather I might get out of the skis a couple more times but I’m definitely thinking about warm sunny rock as well…

A big thank you to all of our avalanche course participants for contributing to another great season.

See you in the mountains!

-NEAlpineStart

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course 2/26/16-2/28/16

Despite it not being the best conditions for skiing this season Mother Nature has provided a complex snow pack to aid with our learning outcomes in each avalanche course. This past weekend was no exception as we wrapped up our 5th AIARE 1 avalanche course of the season.

EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Super top secret field location for Snowpack Observations on Day 2
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Companion Rescue drill on Day 2
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Discussing route option on Day 3
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Some hand shears on our way up to Right Gully
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Just right of Right Gully
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Mike’s group investigating the layering in the “Open Book”
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
End of tour review followed by course debrief

Another course down. Just one more L1 left, this weekend, then 2 more L2’s and we can say goodbye to the 2015/16 avalanche course season. Here’s hoping we get a few more systems so our Spring ski season can survive through April!

See you in the mountains,

NEAlpineStart

 

AIARE 2 Avalanche Course

Yesterday concluded our first AIARE 2 Avalanche Course of the season. Despite less than optimal field conditions the course was super productive in large part to the considerable amount of experience brought to the classroom discussions by the varied participants. We were fortunate to have 8000m veteran expeditionary leader Phil Crampton, owner and operator of Altitude Junkies, in attendance.

Phil’s resume of high altitude peaks is amazing and his personal experiences with massive Himalayan avalanches and vibrant story telling ability led to more than one topic derailment. These vivid first hand accounts were more than welcome however for both their educational real-life value and entertainment.

We also had Jerry Isaak, Chair Associate Professor of Expeditionary Studies at the University of Plattsburgh. He has worked as an expedition leader and guide in Canada, the USA, Morocco, Scotland, Austria and the Arctic. Personal climbing and skiing expeditions include journeys in Kenya, Nepal and throughout North America. He was here to observe the course as part of the requirements of becoming an AIARE Course Leader, but he did much more than observe. Throughout both classroom and field session Jerry took advantage of opportunities to share his extensive knowledge and experience and all of his contributions were greatly valued.

A graduate of Jerry’s program, a local professional sailboat racer turned back-country skier/mountaineer, and an EMS Climbing Guide/Electrician/EMT rounded out our class by staying fully engaged and generating thoughtful questions throughout.

EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Pretty shallow snow pack at the top of the Kancamagus Highway but it served its purpose for Full Profile Demo/Practice
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Backside of Wildcat provided over 2 meters of snow for a round of Test Profiles and small & large column tests. We practiced Tilt Tests, Compression Tests, Extended Column Tests, Propagation Saw Tests, and a Rutschblock
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
The results of our investigation
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up below Lunch Rocks
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Boot-packing up towards Sluice
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Jeremy charging with some fractures/crowns that filled in a bit in the Lip area
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Our high point to the left of the mouth of Right Gully. From here we traversed into The Sluice for some decent turns.

There is a lot of information to cover in an AIARE 2 Course. Anyone that thinks an AIARE 1 is information overload will be amazed when they attend an AIARE 2. We managed it fairly well and for the most part stayed out of the weeds. Feedback at the end of the day yesterday seemed consistent that everyone had acquired the skills needed to become an quality avalanche, snow, and weather observer. All that was needed now was practice.

See you in the mountains.

-NEAlpineStart

 

 

Avalanche Awareness/Mountain Skillz Day (2/7/16)

A couple weeks ago I had Suzanne in my most memorable AIARE 1 Avalanche Course to date. She had just entered the floor of the ravine with my co-instructor Mike when we witnessed a climber triggered avalanche that caught 5 people and injured two. As a doctor she was quick to volunteer to help US Forest Service Snow Rangers evacuate one of the victims.

This incident prevented her, and most of the class, from being able to make snow-pack observations and she was keen to return to the ravine for some more experiential learning. Yesterday she returned and this time she brought her energetic 20 year old son Jabus and friend and long time NH climber David to join her in the experience.

Since ski conditions were quite abysmal we opted for mountaineering boots & crampons and brought a little technical gear along to deal with the hard & fast sliding surfaces that make up most of Tuckerman Ravine right now. After a trip planning session we made our way up into the bowl and headed up into Left Gully to investigate some of the wind slab that was mentioned in the morning’s avalanche bulletin.

EMS Climbing School
Making our way up into Left Gully

The climbing conditions were quite firm, and with caution & focus we reached the base of Left of Left (ice climb). After a short break we traversed right into the gully proper and I moved out onto a moderate sized slab that had formed from cross-loading over the last two days while everyone else spotted me. Hand shear tests along the way broke with moderate force and were not very planar so I moved to where the slab felt a little deeper and dug a quick pit.

Finding about 15cms of Pencil hard slab over 15cms of 1-Finger snow, sitting on top of Knife hard concrete we carried out 3 quick sets of tests.

Two Shovel Tilt Tests, one which was “positive” and one that was “inconclusive” at the 15cm interface. For a quick description of the Shovel Tilt Test check out this video from the Utah Avalanche Center:

Two Compression Tests:

CT11, Q2 RP @ 30cm down (interface of 1F & K concrete)

CT11, Q3 BRK @ 30cm down (interface of 1F & K concrete)

Wanna watch some more YouTube on snow pack tests? Here’s one on the Compression Test:


While these failures were on the eye brow raising end of loading steps, the “shear quality” or “fracture character” was not very alarming. None-the-less we decided to carry out an Extended Column Test to increase our confidence in our findings.

Results: ECTX (No fractures are initiated in the 30 standard loading steps)

Before you ask here’s a pretty good video of the Extended Column Test:


Before descending I grabbed a quick shot looking up the gully…

EMS Climbing School
Theodolite iPhone App

And down the gully…

EMS Climbing School
I love this app

We descended to Hermit Lake and removed our crampons for a faster hike down to Pinkham Notch.

DCIM100GOPRO
Clearing skies as we get ready to leave

Back at the pack room we debriefed our trip into the alpine and parted ways. It was a pleasure to spend this time in the mountains with Suzanne, Jabus, and David and I’m looking forward to our next trip together.

A quick disclaimer regarding these YouTube videos I’ve posted. These should serve one of two purposes:

  1. Inspire you to take a course to really learn how to perform and interpret these tests.
  2. Refresh what you’ve learned from a formal course

Using YouTube videos to build your base knowledge could lead to… less than ideal results. But they are great for refreshing those skills!

Thanks for reading,

See you in the mountains,

NEAlpineStart

 

Avalanche in The Chute, 1/17/2016

Our last day of our American Institute of Avalanche Research & Education Course ended with one of the most powerful experiences one can experience in avalanche education.

A climber triggered an avalanche that caught and carried 4 climbers and 1 skier 800 feet down a 45 degree slope only a few feet a way from our class. I’m sure I’m still processing the day and while some might suggest I decompress a day or two before digging into the events leading up to the incident I feel the sooner I sit down and write about the incident from my perspective the more accurate that assessment will be. So here we go.

On Friday 1/15/16 we started our second AIARE course of the season. Ironically before our students arrived my co-instructor Mike & I debated the fact that the Mount Washington Avalanche Center had not yet started using the 5-scale Danger Rating system, and on a holiday weekend with a Nor’Easter bearing down I was concerned about mountain travelers without any formal avalanche education assuming “General Advisory = No problem”.

To the MWAC defense, the bold “Please remember that avalanche activity may occur before the issuance of a 5-scale danger rating forecast. As always, make your own snow stability assessments when traveling in avalanche terrain.” disclaimer should be sufficient, but my opinion was that a formal rating for specific terrain features and colored slat boards “might” help those with limited knowledge and mountain sense make better choices. I’ll expand on that at the end of this post…

Our first day was a bit heavy in the classroom with some companion rescue practice outside in the afternoon. While we covered some of the basics of the avalanche phenomenon our first real Nor’Easter of the season was getting ready to help our winter snow pack materialize on our 2nd day:

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Pretty much missed us

We spent some time on the 2nd day (yesterday) up in Crawford Notch previewing avalanche terrain and learning about making quality weather, snow pack, and avalanche observations:

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Mike talks with the group about measuring slope angles and the differences between defined and un-defined avalanche paths.
EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Mike demonstrates a Compression Test

On our 3rd day we met at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Storm totals didn’t quite reach the 6-14 inches forecasted, and we only received 5.2″ at the summit from this system. Regardless of the less than expected snow totals we observed active wind loading on our drive to the trail-head:

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White smoke above the north rim of Huntington Ravine visible from the parking lot

During our trip planning session we identified The Chute & Left Gully as potential field locations, and areas that might also offer a few good turns.

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

AM Trip Planning Session

The USFS Snow Rangers had posted a General Bulletin. Two snippets I’ll highlight here for some foreshadowing:

“Many of you may be searching for these handful of locations to pursue your sport rather than the brush and rock that dominate the Ravines.  If this is you, expect instability until proven otherwise by your stability assessments… recognize this holiday weekend will have many others out and about that could be potential triggers above you.”

We split into two tour groups of 7 each and made our way up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. My group arrived at Hermit Lake at 1050, a bit before our 2nd group. We made a quick weather observation then continued up to the floor of the ravine arriving below Lunch rocks at 1150.

Before our arrival USFS Snow Rangers had made some observations in the ravine and posted an update in “The Pit” that I wouldn’t see until later. A pic from their blog post:

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Early morning wind loading in the ravine- pic from USFS

In their update they reported a small skier triggered avalanche to the right of our intended destination:

“a report of another small avalanche triggered by a skier. This was in the area we call “Chicken Rock Gully,”…The party triggered the slide near the rocks at the top of this slope. They reported that it was about 4-6″ deep, 40′ wide x 50′ long, and ran down to the bottom of Lunch Rocks.”

This was prior to our arrival at 1150 and we were not aware of it until much later in the day. We observed a few snowboarders ascending and descending the snowfield in The Sluice in the vicinity of the Summer Hiking Trail. Seeing debris below The Chute (and no one in the area) we decided to set a skin track up towards that area.

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Spread out as we work out way up to The Chute

Our climbers traveled on consolidated surfaces and got to see some of the intact blocks of wind slab from yesterdays natural avalanche cycle:

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Large intact blocks of wind slab

Our estimated skin track:

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Photo from earlier in the AM during active loading- by MWAC

Right before we took our skis off to kick steps up the final stretch to our destination a student asked if it was ok we had 3 of our group in the direct line of the obvious avalanche path with a pilllow of wind slab just above us. We discussed how the lack of a natural or human trigger made our position a reasonable choice. No one was above us and we could see all active loading had ceased.

After a hand shear at the yellow dot I committed us to the small 43 degree slope to climbers left of the choke on The Chute (pink line below small crown line). A 2 person Canadian party (represented in orange) punched through. A party of 3, represented in green, held back a minute before two started climbing up through the choke point.

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
An estimation of position. Pink was our class. Green was the party of 3 (one, Ben, was a former student), Orange was the 2 person Canadian team.

The two Canadians pushed through the choke. Two of the three party team fell in behind them. I had just finished measuring the slope angle at our intended pit location:

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A climber from the 3 person team is almost out of sight heading into “the choke”- photo by D. Tower

A minute or two later I heard a rumble and glanced up to the choke to see a size-able amount of snow come flying by. I yelled “Avalanche” multiple times as I tried to keep a visual on the 2 climbers I was able to make out in the fast moving slide. I had two students to my right, who were still 10-15 feet from the mass of snow that had just came blasting down the gully. As much as I’ve practiced this over the last 14 years I can say there is a lot of truth in the statement “practice never ends”.

My class was safe, positioned outside the fall line of this avalanche, but having just noted a solo skier approaching from below, I was sure at least 4 people had taken a ride, and as the powder cloud settled my biggest fear was someone had been buried with no beacon on (not wearing beacons in avalanche terrain on Mount Washington is an issue I won’t get into here, but needs addressing).

I radioed Mike who had just passed Connection Cache. After conveying some of my first impressions he continued up with his portion of the class to provide assistance. Ben, a former student and the only person not caught from the party of 3, indicated he would respond with us, and we all switched to “search mode” on our beacons. A visual search quickly located 4 people on the surface, and a 5th moments later as we made our descent. Uncertain if only 5 were caught we carried out a quick signal search on the debris field, which I estimated was 40 meters wide by 100 meters long.

As we reached the toe of the debris it was only slightly comforting that we hadn’t picked up any signals. None of the 5 people carried by the avalanche had beacons on. The two climbers from the party of 3 had ended up high in the debris and not taken the full ride. While they reported fruitless attempts at self-arrest and escape they were lucky to be pushed off to the skier’s right of the main slide. The other three ended up very low in the debris, carried pretty far down into the bushes that hadn’t been reached yet by the avalanche cycle yesterday.

The first two we reached was one of the French Canadians and Androscroggin Search and Rescue Member Corey Swartz (who was caught & carried but uninjured). Corey was providing first aid and my student Joe contributed some first aid supplies.

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Joe provides one of the victims with some gauze while ASVAR member Corey, who was one of the climbers caught in the avalanche, provides first aid.

I made contact with the far left victim, the solo skier who was hit far down in the run out by the avalanche, who was being assisted by the other Canadian. He had an obvious leg injury but with the help of a partner was trying to exit the debris field. We advised that stabilization would be best as USFS Rangers were in route, and they elected to crawl/drag down to flatter terrain.

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The injured skier being attended to by the other Canadian climber.

I sent Joe to the floor of the ravine to communicate with the rest of our class and assist with the initial packaging of the injured climber then returned back to my group who had been standing by with shovels & probes in case an extrication was required.

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Looking back up the debris where my students were waiting

We returned to our high point to collect our skis and I grabbed a shot of the crown from the right side of “the choke”.

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
The crown was about 3 feet deep on the left and tapered quite far to looker’s right. The climber who triggered it thought it broke just above him but later analysis makes it seem much higher, perhaps 50-100 feet above.

The Canadians had climbed through the fresh crown line from yesterday’s cycle and had climbed about 15 feet higher on the “hang fire” from the wind slab before the remaining slab released and dragged them down, catching the 2 climbers from the 3 person team that had just entered the choke point.

We descended to the floor just as the more seriously injured patient was littered down the Tuck’s trail with two of my students and my co-instructor Mike, eventually to be evacuated by USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane by snowmobile.

After a bit of discussion at the floor of the ravine we descended to Hermit Lake to regroup with the two who assisted with the patient transfer to Hermit Lake and we descend the Sherburne ski trail together.

We then debriefed the course and incident before parting ways. And then I got to spend some solo time thinking about our day.

So what happened? Well, the first thing is recognizing we have the advantage of hind-sight. We could Monday morning quarter-back the Patriots close win last night as well as this incident. Knowing almost nothing about football, and a bit about snow, I’ll take a stab at what happened here based on everything I heard, saw, and assumed, today (corrections from witnesses welcome).

Ben reported talking to the Canadians earlier in the day and that they said their intention was to summit Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. This is disturbing, as this was clear in the bulletin that had been posted yesterday:

“There may also be a small number of you that plan on trying to follow the Tuckerman and Huntington summer trails through each Ravine.  This is not a good idea as they both run through some snowfields that harbor potential hazards.  Save the summer trails for summer.” -MWAC

I would like to say that everyone knows that the Summer/Winter Lionshead Trail is the preferred method of ascending Mount Washington from the east in the Winter.

I would like to say that.

Human Factors…

“Blue Sky Syndrome”

It was absolutely bluebird up there today. While temps in the ravine were around -9c (16F) there was almost no wind, so it was a really enjoyable place to be…

“Herd-Mentality”

At this point I am convinced the two who triggered the avalanche, who had stated they had planned to climb up the ravine via the “trail” decided to follow my group, and the group of three, because;

A) It looked like we knew what we were doing

B) It looked like a fun ascent line

I can’t think of any other reason why they would have deviated from their previously stated intention.

“Familiarity” and “Experienced”

Ben’s group, having talked with USFS Snow Rangers, had decided they would investigate the crown from yesterdays natural avalanche but not travel above it. They recognized the risk, to an extent. Members of that party had stated earlier in the AM that avalanche gear would not be needed as it was “early season/general bulletin”.

This did not sit well, rightfully so, with Ben, who was the only member wearing a beacon and carrying rescue gear when his two partners were swept past him in a size-able avalanche.

I estimated the avalanche to be R3 (40-60% of path) and D2.5 (easily bury or kill a person). It’s remarkable to me that out of 5 people carried only 1 was partially buried and only two received notable injuries. Had anyone been buried under the snow without a beacon on it would have been likely for this to have been an avalanche fatality, and not an “incident”.

This incident, as most “first of the season” incidents usually are, should serve as a wake up call to both those with considerable snow sense, and those who know they need to gain some. Winter came a bit late, but avalanche season has arrived.

Some recent media coverage:

http://www.necn.com/news/new-england/Surviving-an-Avalanche-365828621.html

http://www.conwaydailysun.com/newsx/local-news/124195-avalanche-injures-2-at-tuckerman-ravine

http://www.wmur.com/news/avalanche-survivor-describes-being-swept-down-tuckerman-ravine/37499750

http://backcountrymagazine.com/stories/eastern-avalanve-in-the-east/

-NEAlpineStart

 

 

 

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.

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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!