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Search suspended for body of man who fell into crevasse in Tuckerman Ravine

PINKHAM NOTCH — Unsafe conditions have forced rescuers to put on hold the search for the body of a Boston man who slid into a crevasse in Tuckerman Ravine on Sunday.
Norman Priebatsch was descending Tuckerman Ravine on foot, according to a U.S. Forest Service statement, when "he fell, slid over a rock band, and continued downslope before falling into a deep crevasse at about 3:30 p.m."
Rescuers see no chance that Priebatsch is still alive.
Several skiers and other members of Priebatsch's party witnessed the fall. They tried shouting down into the hole but heard no response, prompting them to call for a rescue.
U.S. Forest Service snow rangers, assisted by several other agencies and volunteers, tried late into the night to locate Priebatsch. One snow ranger was "lowered with lights and rescue equipment approximately 50 feet into the crevasse," according to the forest service statement. "Visibility was restricted to about 80 feet. The crevasse, filled with hanging ice, running water and undermined snow, narrowed below that point. It was determined that lowering further into the crevasse was not possible due to significant safety concerns for rescuers."
It was 11 p.m. by the time the effort was over, and there was still no sign of Priebatsch. The search was put on hold at that point, according to the statement. "The accident site will be constantly monitored for changing conditions to allow resumption of recovery efforts."
"As of today the snow conditions remain pretty dangerous," said Tiffany Benna, a forest service spokesman. "Efforts are still suspended."
Other rescuers involved in the effort, however, suggest that suspension will last for a while.
"There is no plan right now to retrieve him until the snow melts," Rick Wilcox, president of Mountain Rescue Service, one of the agencies called to assist the forest service, said on Tuesday.
The rescuer who lowered into the crevasse was able to see a hole at the bottom, Wilcox said, and "all he could see down the hole was water rushing."
Those conditions, he said, make it very dangerous for rescuers.
"You might get in and you might not get out," he said. "The risk to the rescue personnel isn't justified."
This is not the first time the headwall crevasse has caught unsuspecting hikers or skiers. Last year, according to Wilcox, a snowboarder fell in. Two professional climbing guides who are members of Mountain Rescue Service were nearby, and they were able to extricate the snowboarder from before he succumbed to hypothermia.
Freezing water from the waterfall had the victim shivering in seconds, Wilcox said. "You don't last long down in there."
In 2001 two hikers went in. The snow rangers, assisted by the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, were able to get both of them out, although both suffered injuries. An Associated Press story of that rescue described it as similar to what rescuers tried to do this weekend: an effort involving ropes and harnesses.
Perhaps the most famous example of such an accident occurred in May 1994 and is described in "Not Without Peril," the book about deaths on Mount Washington that was published in 2000.
That rescue ended when a New Hampshire Fish and Game diver wearing a drysuit got lowered into the crevasse. At the bottom he found the body of Cheryl Wiengarten, a college student, who had fallen in the day before.
That incident eventually led to a lawsuit where Weingarten's family sued to recover damages from the U.S. Forest Service. The suit alleged the forest service should have marked the crevasse as a hazard in a similar way to the way ski areas mark hazards.
A judge threw out the case, pointing out that there are numerous hazards in a back-country area like Tuckerman Ravine. It would be impossible for the government to mark them all.
Wilcox was on that rescue. It was similar to this weekend's, he said, but there are some key differences.
First, he said, no one was sure Wiengarten went into the hole. It was cloudy, so while people saw her fall no one saw where she ended up. Rescuers figured out eventually after searching the ravine that she must have been in the crevasse, but there were no eyewitnesses.
That's different than with Priebatsch.
"We know he's in there," Wilcox said. People watched him fall into the crevasse. "It's not an if."
Hence the difference in the rescue effort, he said. In 1994 a rescuer went in the following day, he said, but this time there was no question so a rescuer went in right away.
The other difference? Wiengarten was found at the bottom of the crevasse, unlike Priebatsch.
"He is further down," Wilcox said.

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