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Climbing team survives avalanche on Mount Washington

By Erik Eisele
CONWAY — An avalanche that slammed into a dozen climbers on Mount Washington Thursday afternoon sent three people for an 800-foot fall, including a former U.S. Marine who lost his leg in Iraq and was there to raise money for veterans and their families.
Keith Zeier, his climbing guide Andy Politz, and Politz son Jonathon were all part of the same rope team climbing Central Gully, according to Jackson videographer Thom Pollard, who was there to shoot the climb, when, at roughly 4:30 p.m. an avalanche swept the gully. Zeier, Politz and Politz fell the length of the gully, roughly 800 feet.
Two other rope teams, each with three people, were also caught by the slide, according to U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Chris Joosen, but one team was able to self-arrest and the rope of the other caught on a rock horn, arresting their fall. "This could have easily turned into nine people cartwheeling into the talus," Joosen said on Friday.
Zeier, Politz and Politz all went to the hospital as a result of injuries sustained in the avalanche and subsequent fall, but first they had to be rescued. Volunteers from the elite Mountain Rescue Service joined forest service snow rangers in the dark and cold to pluck the three off the mountain and assist the other nine down. Andy Politz was airlifted to Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital for a severe lower leg injury, but none of the injuries were life-threatening.
"We're just happy everybody survived," Pollard said. Pollard was there to document Zeier's ascent as part of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which raises money for severely wounded special operations personnel and their families.
All 12 of the climbers were part of the same group, Pollard said. They included Zeier, Politz, Politz, himself and eight others, all there to support Zeier and capture video footage.
They started climbing from the Harvard Mountaineering Cabin around 8:30 a.m., Joosen said, and began climbing the gully itself at 12:30 p.m.
The group was moving slow, Pollard said, but they knew they would be. Zeier was climbing with a prosthetic leg. Everyone was prepared for a long day. Politz, a 53-year-old Ohio-based mountain guide, had led Zeier up Mount Rainier in Washington, Pollard said, and that had been a 19-hour day. Everyone was prepared for the pace.
But as the party climbed higher, snow was blowing in from the Alpine Garden and gathering in slabs around the exit of Central Gully. Pollard was part of the lead team, then came Zeier, Politz and Politz on another rope, then there were two more rope teams behind them. As Pollard's team neared the lip of the ravine the snow let go, pushing Pollard and slamming into everyone below.
Mountain Rescue Service member Joe Lentini, who was one of the first to respond, said Andy Politz told him the slide was waist deep when it hit him. "They went over the ice bulge," Lentini said, referring to a steep section of water ice at the start of the gully, and then stopped before the snow and boulder field known as The Fan.
"When I stood up I knew they were all the way down," Pollard said. "They were gone."
Pollard was worried about his friend Politz, who he'd known for more than a decade and who he'd climbed Everest with. They began downclimbing the gully, slowly catching up with the other rope teams.
Down bottom, meanwhile, Andy Politz was able to call for help using a radio he was carrying, Pollard said.
"The U.S. Forest Service received the call about the incident at 5:30 p.m. and responded," according to a forest service statement. "The first ranger arrived on scene at approximately 6:45 p.m."
Mountain Rescue personnel were close behind. "We sent up 14 guys," MRS president Rick Wilcox said. The first eight went up in the snowcat. They found Zeier, Politz and Politz at the base of The Fan — they had made their way down on their own — but they were still a long way from the snowcat. Rescuers put the three in litters and dragged them to the waiting snowcat. The three were brought to Pinkham Notch, where they were transported by ambulance to Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin because of their injuries. Andy Politz then went by helicopter to Dartmouth Hitchcock.
A second group of MRS members, meanwhile, climbed up to the nine remaining climbers, who were below the technical climbing but still a long way from safety, to assist them down. They made it back to Pinkham Notch by 11:30 p.m., Lentini said.
Throughout this time the temperature on the summit never made it above negative 10 degrees, according to the Mount Washington Observatory. The winds were blowing around 50 mph.
"It was getting cold," Lentini said.
A fourth climber, who was not identified, suffered frostbite, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
In the end, however, everyone made it out alive.
The incident had some asking questions, however. The avalanche forecast, which snow rangers post every day, forecasted "moderate" avalanche danger in Central Gully, where "natural avalanches are unlikely and human triggered avalanches are possible." The posted forecast warned of isolated pockets of unstable snow. "Because of all this you will probably find some slopes on the upper end of the moderate rating in several locales in the Huntington gullies," it said. It specifically mentioned Central Gully.
Pollard said he and the rest of the team expect to hear some criticism. "We felt like we made a good determination up there," he said, even though in retrospect it's clear they were missing part of the picture as they made their way upward. "We made a judgment call that changed during the day," he said. Luckily no one was seriously hurt. "We're very very fortunate."
"The dangers on the mountain change every day," Joosen said. A snow ranger talked to the group before they headed off, but "in the end they had an itinerary they wanted to follow."
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