This past Saturday around 1 pm history was being made on Angel Slides in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. Two skiers triggered a large avalanche that partially buried one and completely buried the other. As luck would have it one of the skiers was able to free himself from the snow in about 5 minutes. Using their avalanche transceiver they located their partner, buried nearby under 4 to 5 feet of snow. Unconscious and faintly breathing he regained consciousness while his rescuer continued to extract him from the snow. Ultimately they were both uninjured and they made their way back to the trailhead under their own power and reported the incident to a park employee.
And with that the first ever avalanche accident “save” was made in the Eastern US.
I use the word “save” to describe an incident where an avalanche victim is completly buried by an avalanche and recovered alive (and survives). This has never happened in the East, but I knew it was coming. Before 2019 I would often point out to my avalanche course students the interesting fact that no one had ever been buried in an avalanche in the East while wearing an avalanche transceiver. I would suggest that trend would change as more backcountry travelers were carrying the right equipment and it would only be some time before one of us found ourselves in the dark under the snow. Would we have a partner nearby who would be able to get to us in time?
The first person to be fully buried in the East with a transceiver on was Nicholas Benedix on April 11th, 2019. Nicholas survived for over two hours buried in Raymond Cataract on Mount Washington, but ultimately succumbed to hypothermia, a tragic and unique part of the history of avalanche accidents in the East. It would take less than two years before we would have a second person fully buried in an avalanche with a transceiver on. On February 1st, 2021 Ian Forgays was buried by a wind slab he triggered in Ammonoosuc Ravine, also on Mount Washington. Neither of these victims suffered trauma in their avalanches, but like Nicholas, Ian was traveling alone and therefore had no one near him to make the “save”.
With these two recent full burial accidents I’ve been suggesting to my students it is only a matter of time before we have a save. I would have put my money on the first East Coast save occurring on Mount Washington given the terrain and amount of visitation, but this moment in avalanche education goes to Wright Peak, in the Adirondacks.
Angel Slides, Wright Peak, Adirondack Mountains, New York
The Angel Slides are a series of three slides on the eastern flanks of Wright Peak, elevation 4,587 feet. According to The Adirondack Slide Guide: An Aerial View of The High Peaks Region, 2nd Edition by Drew Hass, Tropical Storm Irene (2011) created the far looker’s right slide path which was the path triggered during this accident. According to CalTopo.com the path is about 1,100 feet long, 170 wide, drops 608 feet with an average angle of 31 degrees and a max angle of 43 degrees, and is a North East aspect.
It should be noted that the only avalanche fatality known in the Adirondacks occurred on these slides, specifically the widest of the three, during February 2000, when Toma Vracarich and three friends were caught and carried. According to the Adirondack Almanac, all three of his friends were injured in the slide. He died beneath the snow and the slides were subsequently named the “Angel” slides. He was 27 years old.
Another reference of this accident from the American Alpine Clubs publication
Unlike the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire the High Peaks of the Adirondacks do not have an avalanche forecasting center. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation sometimes issues an early season “avalanche warning” but it is basically just an awareness statement with some links to learning about avalanches. Occasionally the National Weather Service issues an avalanche warning for the White Mountains Region. These warnings usually occur during obvious signs of danger like huge storms that dump two to three feet of snow in a short period of time but I haven’t heard if the NWS has ever done that for the Adirondack Region. Regardless these warnings don’t take the place of mid-season monitoring of the snowpack that occurs in a forecasted area like the one covered by the Mount Washington Avalanche Center.
To help with this information gap a couple community minded backcountry enthusiast’s have created the Adirondack Community Avalanche Observations website where backcountry travelers can submit observations made while out recreating. This is a great resource for the Adirondack community and it was just started about a month ago!
Another contributing factor to this accident is the type of avalanche they were dealing with. The followup investigation conducted by members of the Adirondack Community Avalanche Observations Team indicate that this was a Persistent Slab avalanche problem. This type of avalanche problem is not as common in our Maritime climate as it is in our Transitional (Utah) or Continental (Colorado) climates. When you have early season snow that is exposed to prolonged cold temperatures it can become very loose, “faceted”, and basically weak in structure. Then, as winter really arrives and subsequent snow storms bury that “rotten” layer of snow it can lie in waiting for weeks, sometimes months, for a trigger (us) to come and collapse that weak layer. We’ve been hearing this happen in this season’s snowpack in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. It’s the awe inspiring “whumpf” heard when the layer collapses. In a flat field it’s a cool part of snow science to observe. On a slope approaching 30 degrees in steepness it’s a dreaded warning, like the shrill rattle produced by a threatened rattlesnake, it is the mountain telling us it’s about to bite.
History has been made in the East in regards to avalanche incidents. With no one else in the area two skiers survived a near death experience. The second hand account I received of the first skier, Bryan, regaining consciousness while choking on snow and partially, or fully buried just under the surface of the snow, conjured up an image in my head of an angel reaching down and brushing just enough snow away from his face for him to regain awareness, rescue himself, and then go on to rescue his partner. Remarkably and with out injury, these two survived an experience that could have easily gone south. Angel Slides was given its name after the passing of Toma Vracarich there in 2000. Maybe Toma was the one who brushed the snow away from Bryan and gave him a second chance? Or maybe it was just luck. Either way this is a story that could not have had a better ending, and I’m grateful it’s being told.
Disclaimer: All information above was gathered from reports the victims submitted themselves and the report linked below. I have not spoken with either of the victims so there could be errors in my reporting. If I’m able to talk with with them I will update this post with more information.
Angel Slides 2/12/2022 Incident Report prepared by Nate Trachte and Caitlin Kelly, of Adirondack Community Avalanche Observations
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