Eastern Avalanches: Unstable snowpack doesn’t care if you live in the east

Snow on Mt. Washington. [Photo] @Jenn

Snow on Mt. Washington. [Photo] @Jenn on Flikr

Yesterday, David Lottmann, an AIARE instructor based out of Conway, New Hampshire, posted on the blog, North East Alpine Start, about an avalanche incident he witnessed this past Sunday, January 17 on Mt. Washington when five climbers triggered a slide next to where Lottmann was instructing an AIARE class.

Before the side occurred, Lottmann’s group had passed by the area where the climbers chose to ascend called The Chute, and, noticing older avalanche debris, Lottmann decided to traverse with his group farther left, outside of a potential avalanche run-out zone.

“The presence of the debris indicated that it had avalanched naturally in the last 24 hours, and the fact that there was a lack of natural triggers led us to decide that it would be reasonable for us to travel beneath the slide, but that we would limit our exposure,” says Lottmann. “When people climb past you and go above you, that changes things, and we adapted by staying out of the fall line of The Chute when the climbers hiked passed.”

In his report, Lottmann explains that two teams of climbers were affected by the slide. A team of two from Canada were the first to ascend through the choke point of The Chute, followed by the other team of three. A lone skier was within the fall line of the slide, but not yet in the choke point where the climbers had congregated. A few minutes after Lottmann lost sight of both groups, he heard a rumble and the avalanche rushed past his class.

Four out of the five climbers were swept down by the slide along with the solo skier still in the run-out zone. Of those caught in the slide, all escaped with their lives and only three of the victims were swept down through the full extent of the slide. Lottmann reports in his blog post that the skier and one of the climbers received first aid treatment for non-life threatening injuries.

There are a number of take-home points from Lottmann’s assessment of the incident, but a major point Lottmann highlights is that neither the skier nor the climbers were wearing beacons.

“You are really playing a dangerous game not wearing a beacon. Anyone that enters into that terrain should have a beacon, probe and shovel and travel with people who know how to use them.”

On January 16, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center posted a 72-hour bulletin warning that skiers, riders and climbers should “anticipate increasing isolated instabilities to develop through the weekend.” New snow and high winds were the predicted culprits in posing avalanche danger over that two-day time period. The Avalanche Center had not yet posted a 5-scale danger rating, but they warned on their website that “avalanche activity may occur before the issuance of a 5-scale danger rating forecast.”

On advice he would give to future backcountry tourers, Lottman says, “everyone should be following the five steps of the Know Before You Go program when they are in avalanche terrain: get the gear, get the training, get the picture and get out of harm’s way.”

To find out more about Mt. Washington avalanche conditions, visit mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.

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