I thought Chris Joosen, the snow ranger in the Ravine, did a great job discussing the incident without being judgmental. Here's his report for what it's worth.
Temperatures on the summit climbed very quickly this morning above the freezing point changing all precipitation to rain in avalanche terrain. Short duration bursts of heavy rain occurred this morning saturating the upper snowpack very quickly. In the high mountains liquid precip should come to an end tonight as temperatures drop allowing for a change over to snow. Free water in the snowpack will begin locking up, creating yet another crust! Hooray!! This will likely be the bed surface and a contributing factor to any avalanche activity that may occur Saturday and Sunday. Snow showers are expected tomorrow with snow likely Saturday night. Winds will shift overnight from the S to the SW and to the W tomorrow. West winds on Saturday between 45 and 60 mph would load any new snow on a probable slick crust. You will very likely see avalanche danger drop from High for the weekend but I would expect some Moderate and Considerable ratings particularly in Tuckerman. Temperatures will stay cold progressively falling through the weekend.
I mentioned in the advisory this morning that I would review the avalanche accident that occurred in Pinnacle Gully yesterday a bit. We are still doing some follow up and may be able to say more about crown size, distance relative to path “R”, destructive force “D”, etc. later. Because so few accidents have occurred since our new website has been active we don’t have the accident page on our website dialed in yet. Until then I decided the Weekend Update would be a good way to get this information out until it can be posted on the appropriate page at a later time.
A number of questions often arise after any accident, mountaineering incidents included, but the answers are rarely clear and absolute. Saying this, it is often helpful to take a look at the event and draw out some elements that the majority of like users can benefit from typically referred to as “Lessons Learned” or a “Learning Analysis”. In examining the incident one’s choices may be deemed acceptable by one and mistakes by someone else. It is important to remember that often the choices are subjective and open to interpretation with each person coming to a different conclusion. When we analyze accidents it is to bring out some things most people can learn from and to recall when they are in similar situations so they may choose a different outcome. Each individual has a different risk tolerance, but to make quality choices it is important to make an honest objective assessment of the hazards. The decision to push on in the mountains is based on many different factors such as personal experience, skill, equipment, weather, other options, etc. Rarely is it a one size fits all situation and I am often reminded that Monday quarterbacking is easy, being the quarterback on game day is not.
A solo climber who had climbed Pinnacle a number of times set out to do it again. He was familiar with the terrain and was well equipped with modern tools, crampons, harness, helmet, etc. The avalanche advisory was posted at the Harvard Mountaineering Club (HMC) Cabin Avalanche Board for Huntington Ravine at +/-730am. Fresh snow began at 2am and there were no foot prints above the cabin when Jeff Lane, US Forest Service Snow Ranger, left the HMC Cabin and headed over to Tuckerman Ravine where fellow Ranger Chris Joosen was finishing the web version of the advisory. Sometime over the next couple of hours the climber passed the HMC Cabin and headed into Huntington Ravine.
The previous day 2 climbers ascended Pinnacle and found the crust from last weekend’s rain event as the dominant surface on the approach and climb. New snowfall began between 1 and 2 am with 1-3” expected for the day. Jeff observed 5.5cm (2.2”) around 7am at our Huntington manual snowplot. It seemed likely that the mountain would surpass the accumulation expectations as precipitation was expected through the day. Based on S winds between 45 and 55 mph and snow exceeding 3” we issued a “Considerable” avalanche danger rating for the Escape Hatch, South, Odell, Pinnacle, and Central gullies. This definition means that natural avalanches are possible and human triggered avalanches are likely. Sometime around 10:30am the climber was in the upper half of the climb when he became uneasy about the snow stability and began down climbing. Just as he did this the slope failed and avalanched carrying him with it. He ended up on low angle terrain at the base of the Ravine. He sustained significant injuries and showed intense fortitude to dig out his phone and make the 911 calls which led to his rescue by Jeff, Rich the HMC Caretaker, a skier-good Samaritan, and me.
We haven’t been able to speak with him since to discuss his plan, day, actions, and decision making so I won’t comment on that but will throw out a few general thoughts on being in the mountains alone. Being alone in the hills is freedom, yet presents a limited margin for error- a yin and yang relationship. You are responsible for yourself and not one half of a team which can be liberating, fast, and at times safer due to speed and ability to cover terrain before nightfall, etc. The flipside is that you can be more exposed without a safety net which can require conservative decision making. You can’t fall… ever… because you have no rope or belay (rarely do people rope solo in moderate alpine terrain), if buried in avalanche terrain there is no partner with a beacon to find you, and when injured without communications you are on your own. In this case a skier came on the scene 15 minutes after the 911 calls were made so eventually we would likely have been notified albeit much, much later. Safety nets and personal protective equipment such as cell phones, avalanche beacons, helmets, etc. should not affect your decision to accept more risk. In this case the cell call worked. There are many, many, many locations in the Presidential Range where they do not. Fate, luck, and perhaps a snow cushion were all smiling on the Ravine yesterday. Travelling in avalanche terrain alone with new snow instabilities is filled with risk. It is a risk tolerance I am not willing to make and would not recommend otherwise. But risk is a personal choice when it does not affect others, just be sure to assess the risk and mitigate, mitigate, mitigate. Do not take risk without a cost-benefit analysis and weighing all the consequences. I hope this sparked a little introspection in all of us. We’ll pass along more info on this incident if it becomes available and is valuable. I’ll see you in the mountains. Chris