MOUNT WASHINGTON — Authorities say two men are lucky to be alive after they survived falls of more than 500 feet down the rock- and snow-covered face of the Tuckerman Ravine headwall early Saturday afternoon.
Of the two, lead USFS Snow Ranger Frank Carus, director of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, said Monday: “I can’t believe they didn’t sustain any life-threatening injuries."
The identities of the two men were not made available as of press time despite requests for information from the Forest Service.
Reached at home, Carus said the two were believed to be from Connecticut and in their early 20s.
“They were hikers trying to go up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail — I know one was wearing just MICROspikes and soft boots like wayward hikers," Carus said. "I am not sure if they had helmets. They were traversing over the top of the Lip (on the Tuckerman headwall) going over the waterfall, and they fell over those areas."
He described the men as hikers, not climbers, and said they were not wearing crampons nor equipped with ice axes.
“One of the guys went over the cliff (on the headwall) and the other guy was stranded above the Open Book, which is that ice climb area at the bottom which on that day was like a 40-foot fall or more," Carus said.
"The first guy went the full distance of 500, 600 feet from the top of the Lip while the other guy went part of that distance to the Open Book, which is that part where you really start free falling (due to the steep pitch),” said Carus.
He said the outcome could have been far worse if there was less snow and they had struck the rocks head-on.
“They were unbelievably lucky,” said Carus, who noted that snow rangers were able to go up to the second man with ropes to help him down.
Carus said the two men walked down to Hermit Lake assisted by the four snow rangers and intern snow rangers and were snowmobiled down to the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center parking lot, where they refused medical attention.
Carus said at the time of the incident, the snow rangers and intern had been participating in a snow safety workshop at Hermit Lake.
Asked about conditions, Carus said the ravine has been getting “little nickel and dime amounts of snow, a few centimeters here and there.
“Conditions have been horrible on the Sherburne Trail (a backcountry, Civilian Conservation Corps-built trail from the Hermit Lake shelter down to Pinkham Notch), but people have been coming to the ravine because there is no other place to go (for backcountry skiing),” said Carus.
He estimated there were “dozens of people in the ravine” Saturday, noting it has been “three or four times busier” than what rangers normally see this time of year.
One of the those who witnessed much of the incident Saturday was Doug Dobkowski, 37, of North Conway, who serves as a guide for REI and an instructor for Summit Achievement wilderness school in Stow, Maine.
When he saw the two men falling, he called 911 to report it and was told that someone else had already called about the incident.
He said he was waiting in line preparing to take a run from the area known as the Chute on the headwall at about 1:30 p.m. on what he described as a “beautiful day in the ravine."
According to Dobkowski: "I had not gone all the way to the top — I had stopped at a ledge and was getting ready when I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye and I turned to see someone tumbling down the headwall,” said Dobkowski.
”I screamed out to him to try and stop but he couldn’t — he went over the cliff," he said. "I did not see where their fall had started, but I saw him come to a stop at the bottom of the bowl, and he waved his arms to signal that he was OK. That’s when people started walking toward him."
Dobkowski said a few minutes later, the second man "came down in pretty much the same area, but he was able to stop himself before going over the Open Book (cliff), about 150 feet above the floor of the ravine. It’s unbelievable that they did not get hurt."
Asked if he had any advice for others thinking of tackling the mountains at this time of year, he agreed with Carus that an ice ax, crampons and helmets are advisable.
“Instead of going up the headwall, they could take Lion’s Head or explore the other side of the mountain on the Ammonoosuc or Jewell Trail. And you should have an ice ax because you never know what you’re going to run into: there are places you can slip and fall with bad consequences," the experienced guide said.
To get information about conditions in Tuckerman Ravine and surrounding areas, go to mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.