Published DateBy Erik Eisele
CONWAY — A team of three ice climbers spent most of Saturday night perched on a ledge on the side of Mount Washington's Huntington Ravine until a team of rescuers descended in the dark to lead them to safety.
The initial call came in around 6:40 p.m. Saturday, according to U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Jeff Lane. Three climbers were stuck on a rock ledge somewhere in the ravine, and they were unable to move either up or down. It was after dark, which increased the difficulty of mounting a rescue, but the increasing snow raised concerns about increasing avalanche danger if the three stayed put until morning.
So despite the darkness and the snow, Lane said, volunteers from several agencies jumped into action. The caretakers from the Appalachian Mountain Club's Hermit Lake Shelters and the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin headed into the base of the ravine to see if they could spot a flashing headlamp the stranded climbers left on, he said, while members of Mountain Rescue Service hopped into a snowcat operated by the Mount Washington Observatory to go up the auto road.
The climbers reported they had been climbing Central Gully when they got stranded on rocky terrain, Lane said, but their description of the terrain they climbed didn't match up with the conditions they would have encountered in Central Gully. "How confident are you that Central is the gully you were climbing?" Lane said he asked. Eventually the rescue team determined the team had in fact climbed Yale Gully, which is several hundred yards to the north. The team eventually began climbing farther and farther right onto the buttress that forms the right-hand wall of Yale, a broken wall called Damnation Buttress.
The caretakers were able to pick out the group's flashing light, Lane said, and they relayed the information to the rescuers on the auto road who were in position to reach the climbers from above. Two MRS volunteers, Mark Synnott and Peter Doucette, both elite mountaineers, rappelled 30 feet down the next gully north from Yale, Damnation Gully, and built an anchor. Doucette said he climbed rocky terrain by headlamp roughly 120 feet to the ledge the stranded climbers were on. "They were just stuck more than anything," he said. No one was injured, and they were warm enough to move under their own power. He secured the rope and escorted the three one at a time to Synnott, who was waiting at the anchor in the gully.
Synnott then climbed back to the top of the ravine and belayed all four climbers out.
"It was as straightforward as it could have been," Doucette said, downplaying the effort required to pluck three climbers off the side of Mount Washington at night in a snowstorm.
Lane was also unassuming when describing the rescue. "A lot of things went well," he said. "It was a late night."
He repeatedly expressed appreciation for the MRS, AMC, observatory and Harvard Mountaineering Club staff and volunteers who helped the four forest service snow rangers in the operation. The whole thing took until 4 a.m., he said, and then the snow rangers came back at 6:30 a.m. to begin their regular Sunday workday.
Lane, like a number of others involved, never spoke face-to-face with the climbers he helped rescue. He did say, however, that the stranded climbers were well-prepared. They had sufficient clothing, and space blankets to help shield themselves from the elements. "They were prepared for ice climbing," he said, and once they got on the rock buttress they were out of their element.
Lane's assessment is the situation was that it was a result of an error in navigation. "It was fairly low visibility around the mountain at the time," he said, which probably contributed to the team climbing a different route than they intended.