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Avalanche country: Assessing the risk

By Erik Eisele
MOUNT WASHINGTON — When a 24-year-old New York man triggered the avalanche that swept him down Pinnacle Gully last week, he became the latest victim of sliding snow, a force that weighs heavy on Mount Washington in winter.
The same day James Watts died of his injuries in Huntington Ravine, a skier triggered a slide in Tuckerman Ravine that caught the skier's guide, who was lower down the gully they were skiing. No one was hurt, but the slide carried the guide roughly 10 feet.
Two victims in one day may seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to two months ago, when the lead party of a 12-person team set off a slide that caught nine climbers in Huntington Ravine. Three climbers fell the full distance of the gully they were climbing. One suffered a serious leg injury, and the other two were also hospitalized.
3-8 courtesy-photo 2008-02-The aftermath of an avalanche on Hillman’s Highway on Mount Washington. (COURTESY PHOTO)And two years ago Michael Nadeau, another solo climber, triggered a slide while climbing the same gully as Watts. He took a similar fall, breaking his femur, hip, knee and wrist, but he survived.
Such incidents involve only a small percentage of the thousands of climbers and skiers who flock to Mount Washington each winter, but for the professionals who make their living in avalanche terrain every day, the slides that catch people loom large.
"It's the same issues time and again," said Chris Joosen, the lead snow ranger for the U.S. Forest Service on Mount Washington. Joosen has been working on the mountain for more than a quarter century. He's seen Washington's compact terrain and low snowpack combine to catch people, particularly those with limited experience in avalanche terrain.
"There are more people [here] who don't have avalanches on their radar at all," he said, and there aren't a lot of places to ski or climb up high that aren't subject to avalanche hazard.
Mount Washington is the only place east of the Mississippi that has dedicated forecasters, and their approach is in some ways different than that of colleagues out west.
"We're the only place in the country that does micro-scale forecasting," Joosen said. "We focus on gully by gully."
That specificity creates the potential for people to over-rely on the daily advisory, he said, which should only be one tool for assessing the avalanche hazard.
That is a sentiment shared by Marc Chauvin, an internationally certified mountain guide who teaches avalanche courses on Mount Washington.
"Forecasts seldom define the individual person's risk very well," Chauvin said, and similar slides in different terrain can have different consequences. In Huntington, for example, an avalanche could send a solo climber 1,000 feet to the floor of the ravine, he said, but a roped climber out with a partner might come out fine.
The two slides last week provide another example, he said: "Those two avalanches were nearly identical, but the consequences were severely different."
"The potential for fatality is really high if you're at the top of Pinnacle and you're soloing," he said. A fall down a snow gully is much less likely to be fatal. "I want people to look at the risk, not just the chance."
And people can't just rely on the forecast, according to Chauvin. "Generally speaking, they're pretty good," he said, but "the more you know snow, the more you realize it's complex." One important thing to teach new backcountry users, he said, is, "It's never inappropriate to be more conservative than the [avalanche] forecast."
Joosen echoed Chauvin's comments on risk: "You never want to get caught in an avalanche, but here it's all that much more critical," he said. "When you get avalanched in the East you have more chance of getting swept in the trees or through the rock," versus in other places burials are more common. In Huntington Ravine, he said, every fatality has been due to trauma, not to getting stuck under the snow and suffocating.
There have, however, been instances of burials, particularly in the Gulf of Slides, which is outside the forecasting zone but is a common destination for backcountry skiers.
When someone gets buried, according to Dave Lottmann, the lead avalanche instructor for Eastern Mountain Sports, time is of the essence. "I've got 15 minutes to get down that gully," he said, 15 minutes to find and uncover the victims, 15 minutes to secure their airway.
But like Chauvin, Lottmann's courses focus on more than just what to do after an avalanche happens. Decision-making is a big part of his classes, he said, "specifically risk assessment in small groups."
"The level one course is entitled decision-making in avalanche terrain," said Mark Synnott, another Mount Washington Valley guide who teaches avalanche courses on Mount Washington. He teaches students to evaluate the conditions, the terrain, the strength of their group and other factors. "You take all that and use it to travel wisely," he said.
"The catch phrase is 'eyes on, one at a time,'" Synnott said, meaning when traveling through avalanche terrain you watch your partner or partners, and expose yourself to the hazard one at a time. "We can't ski good stuff without accepting a little bit of risk," he said, but the trick is learning how to mitigate that risk.
That assessment, however, is something people have trouble with, according to Chauvin. When accidents happen "you can almost always see it in hindsight," but it can be hard for people to understand the risk they are accepting "in the context of what they're doing."
Joosen sees the same thing all the time.
"Generally I think people are biased the second they park their cars," Joosen said. They come to Mount Washington to ski or climb, and they have plans in their heads before they start up the trail. That plan needs to be flexible, he said, to take into account ever-changing conditions. People need to "play in the mountains on the mountain's terms," he said.
"Usually when it's low [avalanche danger], skiing isn't that fun," Joosen said, so there are more and more visitors in mid-winter when the snowpack is more prone to instability but there is powder.
Last weekend, Joosen said, he saw 75 skiers heading up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, whereas a decade ago the skiers came in April and May. "That trend is increasing," he said. "We're just seeing more winter use in general."
Visitors need to be honest with their assessment of their skill and abilities and the level of risk they are willing to accept, he said. They need to read the avalanche forecast, but they also need to realize "any avalanche forecast anywhere is one tool." Conditions change, and people need to be able to make their own assessments.
Also important is "to remember that hauling all those safety items" like avalanche beacons, shovels and probes, all used if a skier gets buried, "should not change your decision-making," he said. Safe travel techniques are at least as important as being good with a rescue beacon. The equipment works, he said, but "that's your last backup."
"Taking a course is just the absolute best thing," said Lottmann. In the last decade, he said, the curriculum has come a long way. "We're not just sitting there digging pits," he said, but discussing real world strategies for handling the risks. "That's the best foundation."
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