Gear Review- Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel + Pocket Spike

I carry an avalanche shovel about 3-4 days a week all winter long. For a piece of gear I rely on almost daily throughout the winter I am a bit picky when it comes to what model shovel I will carry. This winter I have been thoroughly testing the latest version of an Ortovox classic, the “Pro Alu III“, and I’ve been quite happy with its performance. Here’s a quick 60 second video review followed by a long detailed review below!

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel- photo from Ortovox.com

Let’s start with a quick look at the manufacturer’s description and specifications then I will get into my personal review of the product.


The best PRO ALU of all time. In this latest iteration of an ORTOVOX classic we’ve used the most innovative materials available and cutting edge production methods to achieve the best weight-to-rigidity ratio possible. Stabilization ribs and high sidewalls give the anodized blade rigidity, while the integrated shaft socket makes it easy to pack. With the new quick-lock, the blade and the fluted telescoping shaft can be put together in one motion. The new T-Grip Pro is revolutionary. It can be inserted for both right and left-handers – and also facilitates economical clearing. One hand grasps the long grip side, which serves as an ergonomic lever, while the other hand has maximum hold on the shaft’s rubber-coated grip zone.

  • Rubberized grip zone

  • T-grip pro with flexible left and right-handed function

  • Rapid locking without pressing a button

  • Oval handle cross section

  • Telescoping handle

  • Non-slip step grooves

  • Sharp, protected edge

  • Pack-friendly

  • 90° clearing function PRO ALU III

  • Rescue sled function

  • Compatible with Pocket Spike

  • Groove-shaped handle cross section


After extensive testing while instructing avalanche safety courses almost every weekend of the winter I’ve formed some opinions on the design of this tool. Here’s my $.02.

Weight

An important consideration of everything I take into the back-country, let’s start by comparing the weights within my current fleet.

Black Diamond Deploy 3 Shovel: 565 grams (1 lb 4 oz)

Ortovox Beast 3.1: 782 grams (1 lb 12 oz)

Ortovox Pro Alu III: 806 grams (1 lb 12.5 oz)

So the Pro Alu is the heaviest shovel in my assortment.While it might weigh 8 ounces more than the Black Diamond Deploy 3 it gains a ton of functionality that I will go into greater detail but for now basically: much better handle, almost a foot in telescoping shaft length, slightly larger and more technical blade, ice axe compatibility.

Pack-ability

Another concern when touring with only a 30 liter pack is how well your avalanche shovel will pack. I’ve been testing the Ortovox Tour Rider 30 (review coming) for most of my day tours this season and the slim design leaves little imagination for where you store your avalanche tools. The blade of the Ortovox Pro Alu III fits snugly in the outer pocket as if they designed the pocket for the exact dimensions of the blade.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Perfect fit for the shovel blade

The shaft and handle fit easily enough in the dedicated shaft slot on the inside of the pack and the handle is less obtrusive than the larger D shaped handle on my Ortovox Beast making it easier to fishing around for my water bottle or some grub.

Durability

The blade is made of a very rugged feeling anodized aluminum. Ribs and raised side walls add overall strength to the material. I’ve probably moved close to 50,000 pounds of plowed up refrozen snow while demonstrating shoveling and rescue techniques during this winter’s avalanche courses and the blade is still looking great.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Just a few small scrapes. Considering the amount of crud I dig through on a regular basis this blade and anodized coating is holding up very well!

Comfort and Convenience

Like most Ortovox shovels a rubberized grip low down on the shaft improves grip as well as provide a little bit of insulation.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Good grip and warmer during extended digging in cold weather!

This second opinion isn’t mentioned anywhere from Ortovox but having dug about a dozen snow-pit demonstrations this season, often in arctic temperatures, I do think that little bit of rubber there feels warmer than grasping straight metal.

The “T-Grip Pro” handle is reinforced with metal for durability but encased in a dense plastic. Having been use to a D-shaped handle for so long I was hesitant to how this style would perform. During my first couple test runs something felt off. I then discovered that the handle could be set for either left hander’s or right hander’s! Once I reset it to the right dominant hand the grip felt much more natural in my hand.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Remove the inner shaft and reinsert based on hand dominance

Quickly assembling an avalanche shovel in an emergency is a skill we encourage students to practice. Ortovox makes it a little bit easier by using “self-feeding” slots that depress and guide the locking button into place. No need to try to push a small button while assembling the shovel. Just line up the grooves and firmly push the shaft into the blade and you are ready to start digging. A tapered and plugged shaft end aid quick assembly and prevent snow from getting jammed up into the shaft.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Well crafted thoughtful design

Bonus Versatility!

Ok so let’s get to the coolest thing about this shovel! Like a Transformer there is more than meets the eye here! With the addition of the Ortovox Pocket Spike you can convert this shovel into a substantial mountaineering axe!

Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Ortovox Pocket Spike

Let’s take a quick look at the manufacturer description:


Our new POCKET SPIKE is simply ingenious! Although usually tucked away in your backpack or pants pocket (hence the name), the POCKET SPIKE can quickly be retrieved in tense situations, for instance, when you’ve only got a few feet to the summit or if you have to cross a steep slope. In two steps, you can mount it on to the PRO ALU III shovel handle for added protection. The POCKET SPIKE has two parts: the tough axe blade made from AL 7075 T6 and the spike, which is attached in place of the shovel blade. The two parts snap together to form a single piece with no sharp edges and weighing just 95 grams. This tool is perfect for tours where you are happy about some additional support when you’ve only got a few feet left to the summit.


Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Carrying case included

THIS is what I’m talking about! I can think of far to many times I’ve been kicking steps up steep terrain in Tuckerman Ravine wondering why I didn’t bring an ice axe that day.

“Conditions will soften up early”

“There will probably be a well established boot ladder”

You’ve been there too perhaps and justified leaving the mountaineering axe at home to save a pound or two. Well this thing only weighs 95 grams (or 4 ounces with the included carrying case). Combined with this shovel it feels like a super solid self arrest tool. The T-shaped handle makes it feel like you could easily bear down and slow or halt a slide before things got ugly. The over all ruggedness of the whole design inspires more confidence to me then a Black Diamond Whippet. I still think the Whippet is a great”better than nothing” option but this Pocket Spike option is as solid feeling as a real mountaineering axe.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Solid protection in steep terrain!

This can be used as a short axe at about 48 cms or fully extended to 68 cms! Here it is next to my 70 cm Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe at both lengths for comparison.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Crushing Mode
Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Cruising Mode

Summary

Ortovox is an industry leader when it comes to innovative snow safety products. This fully functional avalanche shovel that transforms into a solid alpine axe is a great example of careful design and thought. Taken on its own the Ortovox Pro Alu III is an excellent if somewhat heavier avalanche shovel choice. When you consider the increased efficiency and functionality from a telescoping shaft, trenching mode, and the ability to quickly convert it to an effective self arrest tool it is a phenomenal choice for those who spend a lot of time in steep snowy places.

Like the review? Have a favorite avy shovel? Please leave a comment below!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimers: Climbing and skiing in the back-country is inherently dangerous. Seek qualified instruction from certified guides and instructors in the use of the above tools. Attempting to use anything described in this review in any situation could result in injury or death. Recreate in the mountains at your own risk. I received this product from Ortovox as part of their Ambassador program but the opinions I’ve stated here were not influenced in any way. Affiliate links help support this blog. 

Eastern Snow Avalanche Workshop

A couple weeks ago I attended the sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop and wrote a brief summary of the event with a few photos. Here, with permission, is a special sneak preview of the more detailed report my friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz has written for The Avalanche Review before it goes to print! Enjoy!

6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop
6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop

Sixth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)

by Jonathan S. Shefftz

The sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 5 attracted approximately 150 attendees at Fryeburg Academy, just across the state border from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range.

This year’s ESAW was as always a collaborative effort.  The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center (“MWAC”) and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (“MWVSP”).  ESAW once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), to be led here soon by Eastern Representative-elect Mark Renson, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative.  Additional support came from our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research.  Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefitted the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.

ESAW kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of MWAC and fueled by Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service.  Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at Fryeburg Academy.

Chris Joosen, MWAC former Lead Snow Ranger (only the third since its 1951 formation) and outgoing AAA Eastern Representative, flew back East from his new Oregon home to serve yet again as our MC.  Also flying out East was our first presenter, Simon Trautman of the National Avalanche Center (“NAC”), who introduced us to “Avalanche Danger Scales and How Forecasters Use Them” including data to compare/contrast ratings distributions across the forecast centers of different nations.

We then retreated well below treeline as Tyler Ray of the newly formed Granite Backcountry Alliance (i.e., for the “Granite State” of New Hampshire) joined MWAC Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer for “Backcountry Skiing on Public Lands: The Creation of Legitimate and Sustainable Glades.”  Although New England backcountry skiing guidebooks reference only official ski trails (many cut by the famed Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression) plus the avalanche terrain at and above treeline, much of the backcountry skiing here actually takes place on the “down low”:  glades illicitly cut on public lands for “forest fire prevention” and other in-the-know euphemisms.  This was brought into the open in 2007 when two would-be Vermont backcountry skiers were criminally charged with felony-level violations for chainsawing a prominent line (aka “Jailhouse Chute”).  But recent collaboration in Vermont with the USFS between non-profit groups has created glades that are both nicely skiable and legitimately accessible.  The increasing availability of such terrain can offer a safe alternative to skiing at and above treeline when avalanche danger is elevated.  And fortuitously for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, the off-season position for Snow Ranger Hoffer is the USFS Trails Manager for much of the Presidentials Range.

Next, AAA’s Executive Director Jaime Musnicki returned to her native New England to make good on her plan to attend as many regional SAWs as possible, and also to present on “Personal Reflections:  Making Sense of Our Own Close Calls in Avalanche Terrain.” As if the incident she described in detail weren’t already harrowing enough, her partner had been her new boyfriend at the time, out on their first ski tour together.  And not only did Jaime come out on top of the debris, four years later the two of them are still together.

On a similar note, Jon Miller, of Dogy Down Films, although unable to attend in person, presented to us on “Risk, Rewards, and the Balancing of Mountain Experiences and Goals” via a tailored video introduction and debriefing for us to sandwich his film “Season on the Brink.”  His life-threatening fall this past spring in a Mount Washington couloir was extensively written up at the time, but the video footage he showed us — from both a partner and his own helmet cam — was especially terrifying.  Just as memorable were the assessments from the party members of “What really sticks with me is that we just shouldn’t have been there” and “A series of little details and little errors that added up.”  After a helicopter airlift, Jon spent a month in hospital care before regaining the ability to talk and walk normally.

Dallas Glass, our fourth Western presenter of the morning, here to lead the avalanche instructor training the following day for the American Avalanche Institute for Research and Education (“AIARE”), presented on “Blue Skies, Powder Days, and Las Vegas: Minimizing the Role of Luck in Avalanche Terrain.”  For ESAW regulars over the years, Dallas’s presentation was the perfect follow-up to the 2012 presentation to us by Blase Reardon (then of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, and now of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center).  Back then, Blase had emphasized that the backcountry snowpack does not provide a consistent environment with regular feedback, but rather its feedback is inconsistent and often fatal.  (Remember Bruce Tremper’s analogy of playing soccer in a mine field.)  “Experts” are often just those who have gotten lucky over time, like many stock pickers who have beaten the market over a selected time period.  This year, Dallas explained how debriefing your day is the feedback loop that completes the risk management process.  Professional guides always hold a debriefing as part of their standard operating procedures.  To help recreationalists aspire toward this goal, Dallas quoted an incentivizing line from his fellow Pacific Northwest guide Larry Goldie:  “Why having a beer at the end of the day could save your life.”  It (the debriefing, not necessarily the alcoholic content!) allows us to identify when we got lucky and thereby recalibrate, so that on future trips we aren’t relying on “luck” to stay safe.  We have all gotten lucky in the mountains, but we need to recognize when that occurs so that we don’t need an incident to provide us feedback, and instead we can use “no event” days to learn from and grow as backcounty travelers.

After lunch, Jaime Musnicki explained the upcoming split between recreational versus professional tracks in U.S. avalanche training.  Fortunately the details need not be reiterated here, since you the dear reader have of course already carefully read every single prior TAR article on this subject.  (Right?)  This fed into a panel discussion on avalanche education with Jaime Musnicki, Jeff Lane (previously a MWAC Snow Ranger for ten years), Simon Trautman, and Dallas Glass, moderated by MWAC Snow Ranger Frank Carus.

Thus far we had been getting off lightly on the technical side.  To ratchet everything up several notches, as always we could rely on Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships.  In his fifth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained “Why Skis Slide on Snow.”  The answer is not simply “because it’s fun” since that’s why we use skis to slide on snow, as opposed to why they are actually able to slide so well.

And those skis slide especially well on very steep terrain with lots of blown-in snow, which was the focus of the presentation by Frank Carus on “Forecasting Avalanche Danger in Inherently Dangerous Terrain” regarding the couloirs in the at-treeline glacial cirques on our Mount Washingon.  Next, Simon Trautman presented on “What are we doing now?” at the NAC, following up on the presentation at the 2014 ESAW by the NAC’s Director Karl Birkeland.

And finally, Chris Joosen wrapped up with “Reflecting on a Life with Avalanches” incorporating his 26 years working on Mount Washington.  His conclusion was followed by a standing ovation from all attendees.  And from all us who have depended for so many years on Chris’s work and his direction of the MWAC Snow Rangers, thank you!

We concluded with our annual expo, including rep displays for AAA, AIARE, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Safety & Security (“BRASS”) Foundation, DPS Skis, Friends of MWAC, Granite Backcountry Alliance, La Sportiva, Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, Mammut / Barryvox, MWVSP, Mount Washington Weather Observatory, Petzl & Adventure Medical, Salomon, Northeast Mountaineering guides, Ortovox / Deuter, and Outdoor Research.  Throughout the day we had raffled off and auctioned donations from these sponsors plus ARVA, Dynafit, Hagan, MSR, Pomoca, Ski the East, and Toko.  

Jonathan Shefftz patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and daughter (who notched her first-ever October ski outing this season). He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at JShefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.

 

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
061
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
063
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

 

 

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course 1/30/16-2/1/16

Last weekend we conducted our 3rd AIARE 1 Avalanche Course of the season. While it wasn’t as intense as our course two weeks ago it was a very productive 3 days. We were lucky to have high altitude climber and expedition organizer Phil Crampton, of Altitude Junkies, participating in our course.

What is someone who has led 40+ expeditions to 8000m peaks doing in an entry level avalanche course? Phil wants to work on designing an avalanche awareness program focused specifically on Sherpas, of which he admits there are multiple cultural challenges to hurdle. Gaining some exposure to AIARE’s approach to avalanche education in the US will hopefully give him some ideas of how to best move forward in his endeavor.

Having someone of Phil’s experience in the course certainly made it a rich course. His stories of surviving multiple massive avalanches, participating in some dismal recoveries, and over-all demeanor were appreciated by all.

Conditions for the course were less than optimal. This El Nino is becoming a curse word within my circles but we were able to sniff out some decent conditions to meet our objectives. A 48 hour thaw led to Considerable avalanche danger on our 3rd day.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Avalanche Information board at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center

Our class had decided on either Left Gully or Right Gully as potential field locations. Both were rated “Moderate” but avoiding the run outs of “The Chute” and “Sluice”, both rated Considerable, was definitely part of our travel plan.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Looks more like December than February to me but I’ll take it

We decided to head up towards Right Gully following a skin track from another avalanche course.

AIARE Avalanche Course
The other course investigates The Sluice

We held up to the Right of Right Gully and set up shop to make some snow-pack observations in over 3 meters of snow.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Digging in

The snow-pack on this 38 degree slope was quite bomber now that the temperatures had fallen below freezing. Some interesting “veins” of melt water could be found in spots along with some centimeter thick melt-freeze ice crusts. We practiced Compression Tests with unsurprising results.

Only two of us were on skis for this course given the challenging snow conditions and horrible shape of the Sherburne Ski Trail. A few turns were made descending the lower half of The Sluice before walking back to Hermit Lake and taking the very beat up Sherburne back to Pinkham. Without a doubt the trail was in rough shape and I was ready to by a ticket to Durango when I reached the lot. Type 2 fun would be a stretch…

We reviewed our day before debriefing the course and went our separate ways.

AIARE Avalanche Course
My tour plan and field notes from the day

The next day I had a Private Ice Climbing day at Cathedral Ledge I’ll share in a new post.

As I finish this I must say I’m really glad to be looking out the window at some consistent snowfall. NWS is calling for 2-4 inches and I’d say I’ve hit the low end of that already in Conway. If you haven’t heard, the MWV Ice Fest is happening now. I might make it to some of the festivities tonight at Theatre in The Woods in Intervale, NH. Starts at 7pm. Maybe see you there.

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:

097
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.

100
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:

IMG_6134
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:

104
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