PINKHAM NOTCH — In two separate incidents, four people climbing Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine last Saturday were caught in high winds and blowing whiteout conditions, according to Frank Carus, lead snow ranger and director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Mount Washington Avalanche Center.
Both incidents had good endings, Carus said, but he cautioned climbers to be aware of hazardous conditions.
“Typical ground conditions in events like these make it hard or impossible to see from one trail-marking cairn to the next. Combined with drifting snow on the ground, normal navigational cues such as rock cairns, turnpiking and crampon scratched ice and rock are lost,” Carus noted.
He said a party of three climbers made a 911 call at 11:50 a.m to say they had lost their way descending from the ravine. The call was relayed to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and to USFS snow rangers at their Hermit Lake cabin below Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington’s eastern flank.
“Coordinates provided by location services from the caller’s phone placed the caller 1/10th of a mile north of the junction of the Lion Head Trail and Alpine Garden Trail,” Carus said. “The caller was calm but concerned that the situation would take a turn for the worse if they couldn’t find the trail.”
He said winds recorded on the 6,288-summit of Mount Washington were 80 mph from the east-southeast with gusts in the 100-110 mph range.
“They did not need a rescue at the time but wanted to share location information to be safe,” Carus said.
About an hour later, another 911 call was routed to the snow rangers, sharing the phone number of a person who had lost the trail near the previous callers’ location.
The caller was a mile from the USFS Hermit Lake cabin but 1,400 feet vertical above. “Winds from the east/southeast were now steady in the 85-mph range and gusting near 110 and likely higher. Snow was falling at a rate of an inch and hour or more, and blowing snow and fog severely limited visibility,” said Carus.
Three snow rangers were dispatched to the location, carrying warming rescue gear and made contact with the hiker not far above Hermit Lake in the switchbacks, Carus reported.
He explained that hikers on the Lion Head Trail are shielded by the summit “cone” along much of that trail above treeline but only from west and northwest wind.
“An east wind strikes this area unmitigated by any terrain features. When wind approaches 50 mph on the ground, walking is exceedingly difficult, and being knocked down is a regular occurrence. ... Stinging needles of snow make functional goggles a requirement,” said Carus.
On Saturday, the first party struggled through these conditions but were relatively well-equipped. But the second caller, travelling solo, was “dressed in clothing appropriate for a September hike in settled weather,” Carus said.
“This avid trail runner found themselves in conditions that led them to believe that they would die of exposure. The panic that accompanied losing the way, combined with reduced visibility, disoriented the runner in the flat area of the alpine plateau.
“They wallowed off trail in the krumholz (wind shaped, stunted fir trees) in chest-deep snow and brush but found some shelter from the wind deep in the snow and bushes. Had they not been able to find the trail, it seems likely they soon would have been immobilized by moderate to severe hypothermia and may even have perished due to low visibility hampering a rescue,” said Carus.
He said the single climber’s decision to leave the deep snow in which he or she was apparently captive most likely saved that person’s life. The running shoes, tights and lightweight insulating jacket and waterproof shell were not enough to allow this person to remain in place until help arrived.
He said several hours in the snow ranger cabin with dry clothing and the Norwegian heater were required to raise the person’s core temperature back to normal. After being fed and rehydrated, the hiker was taken back to Pinkham Notch.
For more, go to mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.