Avalanche Awareness in Mt. Washington's Backcountry

Feb 17, 2020

New Hampshire is seeing a boom in backcountry skiing and mountaineering, and that means more people are venturing into avalanche territory in mid-winter.  We talk with the director of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center about this trend, and how to explore safely. 

This program will be broadcast on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. It was originally broadcast on  Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

GUESTFrank Carus -  Lead Snow Ranger and Director of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center.

Check out the MWAC avalanche forecast for Monday, Jan. 27. Read NHPR reporter Sean Hurley's profile of Mt. Washington's Snow Rangers

    View this post on Instagram         

Rare powder day prior to wind loading tonight. Responded to a knee injury on the Sherburne but people self rescued using one of the cache sleds! (it was a bit cold today, and getting colder, as evidenced by the nosicle) 100+ mph NW winds will radically change east facing terrain with a natural avalanche cycle likely tonight and into tomorrow.

A post shared by Mt Washington Avalanche Center (@mwacenter) on

 

Dec 7, 2019 at 1:40pm PST

Transcript

This is a machine-generated transcript and will contain errors.  

 

Laura Knoy:
I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange.

Laura Knoy:
The fastest growing segment of New Hampshire's ski industry does not involve a chairlift. It's backcountry skiing where people climb up the mountain and then ski or snowboard down. But more people enjoying backcountry winter adventure also means more people heading into avalanche territory. And that's where our guest today comes in. We're talking with Frank Carus, head of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center, which works on avalanche forecasts, education and rescue. LAnd Frank Carus, welcome to Exchange. Nice to meet you. Thanks. Great to be here. So what are you seeing, Frank, in terms of this increased interest in backcountry adventure? What are people setting out to do these days?

Frank Carus:
Well, people are taken their skiing off the resorts and to the back country. And that backcountry in our area can be many of the Glades that have been recently khater open door, just open areas in the forest where people have skied and through time. And they're going into steeper terrain and wanting to pursue skiing that in soft snow and fresh snow, similar to what you might see in Western Mountain Range. Sometimes that that pursuit takes them into avalanche terrain as well. We have a little bit of a from a skiers perspective, a tree density problem here in New England. So to find open slopes that are steep enough for skiing, that often takes you and to prime avalanche terrain.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, I see. That's what makes it attractive. So how is it different today, Frank? Because it's been a long tradition, a long, long tradition here in New Hampshire for people to hike up, you know, to Tuckerman Ravine and either watch everybody ski down or ski down themselves. So what's sort of new about this is that people are going many more places or there's just many more people.

Frank Carus:
I think it's a combination of both of those things. As you mentioned, there is a long history in New Hampshire. You know, since the 30s when the Civilian Conservation Corps and others started cutting these ski trails, you know, that was kind of the start of downhill skiing. People didn't used to have lifts. Right. So people were backcountry skiing from the get go here. And since that time, certain areas have attracted more people to ski on the steep terrain, particularly Tuckerman Ravine, because of the accessibility. And it's just a short hike out of Pinkham Notch, really? Two and a half miles. Three miles. That area has attracted skiers and numbers. You know, we had early ski races there, the inferno. We had a party like atmosphere. They are developing and really taking off in the 60s and 70s where people would camp for the weekend and resembled a big party. People might camp for a week and they'd enjoy spring snow. So, you know, the temperature is much milder. The day is longer as you can get a sunburn, you know, and launch your flannel skiing.

Frank Carus:
So what is this meant for you, Frank? This increased interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding. What does that mean for you guys at the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center?

Frank Carus:
Well, what we're seeing is people are taking skiing from spring months and they're doing it in winter months. So they're seeking fresh snow and fresh turns in January, February, March, which is prime avalanche season.

Laura Knoy:
I see and that used to not be the case. Used to be just go up to Tuckerman's or Huntington in the spring.

Frank Carus:
Yeah. We'd see, you know, a party or two on a Saturday or Sunday in January, 10 years ago, maybe a few more that were poking into that steep avalanche terrain. And these days, not uncommon to see dozens of people on a Saturday and Tuck's on a moderate risk kind of danger day, trying to, you know, link together, turns on prime avalanche terrain. So Gulf of Slides, they're spreading out through the range as well. Anywhere there's those open slopes, which again, are generally avalanche paths. People are, you know, seeking some solitude and trying to get away from the crowds, maybe looking for a slightly lower risk terrain. And, you know, they're finding out and they're they've used our avalanche forecasts are users generally and have extrapolated from what we used to forecast, which was just talking about Huntington Ravine. They would take that forecast and and apply it. To some degree of effectiveness and other areas of the range.

Laura Knoy:
You guys have recently changed the way you do forecast. Yeah, and I definitely want to ask you this, but I'm really interested in what you're saying.

Laura Knoy:
You used to see, you know, one party maybe coming up on a weekend in January. Now you routinely see people in mid-winter up in avalanche territory all the time. You hinted at it, Frank. But I'd like to hear just a little bit more that people are seeking solitude. What else are they seeking up there?

Frank Carus:
Well, I think, you know, it's a it's a great challenge to to evaluate risks. And, you know, people are looking for an experience more than just sliding down a grim slope. You know, it's not just about the turns or it's not just about the snow quality.It's it's about, you know, working as a small team and figuring out what the hazards are and mitigating the hazards and then just really savoring that that day. Typically, you know, might just get one run on a day when you're backcountry skiing. That's because you've skinned up, right. You either carried your skis on your feet or your backpack for, you know, three to 4000 vertical feet. So, you know, those first turns, your legs are already tired and you've got a long way to the car with a backpack. And it's just another day, another way to experience the mountains. Besides, you know, typically the more typical mountaineering way of just climbing the mountain and hiking down.Now you're climbing the same mountain, but sliding down.

Laura Knoy:
Has it meant more avalanches, more people in the back country in winter skiing and snowboarding. Because I think most avalanches are triggered by human activity.

Frank Carus:
That's right. 90 percent of people who are caught, carried or buried in an avalanche trigger that avalanche themselves. So we are seeing more human triggered activity, human triggered avalanches, that is. And that's mostly due to that. People moving into the winter months when you have a much more dynamic snowpack that's much more changeable. There's there's more and larger avalanche potential.

Laura Knoy:
Can ice climbers or snow showers or just plain old winter hikers, can they also trigger avalanches?

Frank Carus:
They can, indeed. And most of our fatalities due to avalanches reflect that. In the past most of the people who are being killed by avalanches were in Huntington Ravine or climbing in the range of the 15 avalanche deaths. I believe nine, possibly 10 that have to look at the charts, were climbers, not skiers. That statistic is changing, though, and I think it's changing in recent times. There are more and more close calls. And because we have such a small sample set, you know, we're really just one big incident away from rebalancing that or changing that number. And again, that's just the presidential range.

Laura Knoy:
How common are avalanches in New Hampshire's White Mountains?

Frank Carus:
That's a tricky one to pin down. We live in what's called the direct action avalanche regime. So basically, avalanches occur during the storm or during the wind loading about. It's not like Colorado, where a dormant weak layer in the snow will just wake up on a sunny day, you know, three weeks or five weeks or six weeks after it formed. Many areas in the West are going through that now. Ours are avalanche cycles happen sometimes repeatedly during the storm when there's no one there to see them. So you don't really know. Yeah, we see we see signs of it. We see, you know, the debris. Sometimes we don't see about it. So wind eroded.But, you know, somewhere in the order of probably fifteen avalanche cycles, natural cycles per winter.

Laura Knoy:
So we can't really say but we can surmise just by looking at looking at the evidence. But they happen.I was talking to a an experienced mountain man last night, someone who's been out in the back country for a long time, mostly out west. And he said New Hampshire doesn't have avalanches, does it? And I said, yeah, we do. So, I mean, do people think that avalanches there's something that happens in, you know, in France or in Colorado, but not in New Hampshire? Is that the perception?

Frank Carus:
I think that's part of it. I think when you look around at all the trees in the forest and, you know, you just wouldn't expect an avalanche to occur.

Laura Knoy:
Those trees would block that big slide.

Frank Carus:
Yeah. If it's if it's dense forest, don't get that typically. You know, we've had historical avalanches with, you know, 40 acres of trees taken out like in the winter of '69 on the north side of Mt. Madison. We've had huge avalanches that take out, you know, large sections of just hiking trails. In fact, we had an avalanche, natural avalanche last winter, I think in late March, hit the upper part of the winter Lions Head route, which is typically pretty safe from, it threads the needle through avalanche paths. So. You know, they do happen and skiers, skiers cover more ground when they're skiing and are seeking softer snow. So during the course of that turn, they may be more likely to trigger an avalanche, but an ice climber's feet penetrate the snowpack deeper. So, you know, they certainly trigger their share of avalanches.

Laura Knoy:
It's interesting. So where do these most often occur Frank? Everybody's heard of Tuckerman Ravine, some people have heard of Huntington Ravine, but you just mentioned Mt. Madison. I think that's just a regular old mountain, right? I mean, I know I've hiked it myself, but, you know, that doesn't seem like avalanche territory.

Frank Carus:
It doesn't. And, you know, there's they don't just happen in the whites. They happen on Katahdin and they happen on Smugglers' Notch in Vermont. And I heard through the grapevine that a ski patroller was just carried by an avalanche at a Vermont ski area a couple of weeks ago. Regular ski area, first thing in the morning. And that's not something that, you know, is widely known. But they these in-bounds avalanches happen. And as you know, we had some and in-bounds fatalities out west this year. So avalanches happen all over New England. Typically, you know, 30 to 50 degree slopes is where you're gonna see them most. And typically at higher elevations that accumulate more snow and.

Laura Knoy:
They're getting 50 degrees sorry to interrupt. That means again, that means that the pitch of the mountain, it doesn't talk about temperature. Well, right. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Frank Carus:
Pitch of the mountain, slope angle.

Laura Knoy:
Because something you said earlier caught my interest. You said that winter is prime time for avalanches. I before I start getting ready for the show, I thought spring would be more prime time for avalanches because you have more widely fluctuating temperatures. So explain that to us.

Frank Carus:
Sure. That's that's a little tricky. You know, I think statistics by show that there are more avalanches in spring. That's because there's more human contact right, or just more people there. But, yeah, I think in general for us, you know, frequency is just part of the picture. You know, complexity and size as a part of it. So these spring avalanches might be kind of small, smallish. You know, there's plenty just just look in YouTube and you can see Avalanche and Tuckerman Ravine.

Frank Carus:
And they're generally harmless people maybe getting carried or not, but they're there. It's a thin snowpack that's releasing or, you know, the first day of warming and or one of the anomalies we get in Tuckerman Ravine is a waterfall that spills out into the snowpack and can release pretty sizable slides, but they're wet slabs and as such, they tend to move pretty slow. So the more dangerous avalanches, the midwinter dry slab avalanche. So it's faster moving often contains more snow, harder to escape. So those are the ones that do more damage.

Laura Knoy:
We're sitting down this hour with Frank Carus Lead, snow ranger and director of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center. What's your own experience with avalanches, Frank? I'm guessing given your line of work, you've been caught once or twice.

Frank Carus:
Yes. You know, I've had some close calls and I've been caught and carried twice by avalanches.

Laura Knoy:
What's that like, being carried?

Frank Carus:
Horrifying. Yeah, it's I equate it to folks that have been, you know, to the beach and they tangle with the wave that's a little bigger than they expected. And for all of us, you may all of a sudden go from having a good time at the beach swimming to being, you know, washed around in a Maytag and submerged in the water and not really knowing what's coming next. And it's that lack of control and a very deep, visceral feeling that you no longer have any control over the destiny of your life in the next few moments.

Laura Knoy:
And you have skis on your feet.

Frank Carus:
And you have skis on your feet, which you're probably madly trying to kick off of your feet. Hopefully you have an airbag pack and beacon, probe, and shovel in your pack and you're traveling with a group. But in that moment, really feels like, you know, you're at the mercy of a force much larger than you.And in fact, that is exactly what you're at the mercy of.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Were you buried?

Frank Carus:
I was not buried in either case. I fought a little bit and the avalanches were not that big, they were capable just barely maybe not even capable of burying me, but they were large enough that as I said, as I struggled, I I broke my ski to get it off my foot. And then the other one was more recently in Huntington Ravine. And I just sort of the luck of the terrain pattern below me. I was kind of spit out on the side of the flowing debris, came to rest before the debris flowed over into what we call a terrain trap, which is a area, a lower angled area where the snow would accumulate more deeply and to bury you. And that's what's one of two factors that makes our avalanches kind of dangerous here is they may be small. There's lots of things to get flushed over, you know, cliffs or into, like boulders and trees, or a terrain trap where the angle changes to a much flatter surface, where the snow accumulates quickly and deeply.

Laura Knoy:
So there's more things you can bash into. Yep. Trees, boulders, lots of granite, boulders. Yep. Plenty of the Granite State. Is that different from out west?

Frank Carus:
You know, it's been said that it is different. I having spent a fair amount of time out west, there's also plenty of things to hit there. I think again, partly our statistical set is fairly small, so we have a higher frequency of trauma here. And that's partially due to the fact that many of the people previously killed here were ice climbers. So if you're skiing and Tuckerman Ravine and avalanched on the lip, later in the season, which was one of the bigger slopes, you're not likely to hit anything. But as it turns out, not that many people have been skiing the lip in mid-winter over time, but much more many more people have been using Huntington Ravine as a training ground for ice climbing so we can just trigger a small pocket, as a solo climbers have done in Pinnacle Gully and get swept off of a cliff that's 150 feet tall. So, yeah, so size and the statistical set it's really kind of hard to extract that. I think the learning is that, you know, a beacon, probe and shovel or something you should always carry, but you never rely on that to keep you safe. It's just one of many things.

Laura Knoy:
Well, there are still a little bit later, I'll ask you what people should do as they're heading out. But what did you learn yourself? Given this experience that you just described?

Frank Carus:
What I learned more than anything, and I continue to talk about it to people that will listen, is that avalanches don't know you're an expert at all. And and everyone is capable of succumbing to these heuristical traps of thinking either, you know, the excitement of some of the snow kind of overwhelming your better judgment or, you know, thinking that you're very familiar with the terrain so you know that some bit of terrain is probably not going to avalanche some stuff going on your group either. Time pressure to get down. There's a lot of things that can make us make bad decisions.

Laura Knoy:
All right. That is perfect segue to what we're gonna talk about next.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. today. Growing interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding and ice climbing and snowshoeing has meant more people venturing into avalanche territory in mid-winter. And as we're hearing from our guest, that's unusual. We're talking with the director of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center about these trends and how to assess risk. We'd love to hear from you, too, especially if you're a fan of backcountry skiing, boarding, climbing. What experiences do you have with avalanches or just more generally, what questions do you have? Our guest for the hour is Frank Carus, lead snow ranger and director of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center. And Frank, something you said just before the break, you talked about the way people make these decisions and after there's some tragedy, you know, everybody else kind of Monday morning quarterbacks it and says, what was he thinking? How could he be so, so stupid? You said something heuristical trap of thinking. What is sort of the thinking traps that people get into that causes them sometimes to get swept up in avalanches?

Frank Carus:
Well, that's a great question. And it's been studied quite a bit, especially outside the field of avalanches and anywhere, any endeavor that involves risks such as being a pilot or a commercial pilot or driving a U.P.S. truck, there's things that affect our thinking that are that make rational people make decisions that don't appear to be at all rational. Yeah, after the fact. And to know some of those ways of thinking in those mistakes that can go on in a group or by yourself can make your team much stronger in the field and make good decisions. Right. The goal of the end of the day of skiing is to go home at the end of it. And if that means turning around before you complete your objective, that's fine. Right? What we're looking for is a safe ski day.

Laura Knoy:
So give us some examples of heuristic or heuristical thinking when it when it was at play and when it was not.

Frank Carus:
Yeah. So, you know, I think a big, big one is is well, I'll try to go down through the list. There's an acronym for called FACETS and that starts with familiarity. So familiarity with a terrain where you think, you know, I've been coming to Tuckerman Ravine every April, first week of April for 10 years, and there's never been an avalanche.

Right. So why would there be one? Why would there be one now? And I know Tuckerman Ravine like the back of hand. So another one would be acceptance. So that's partly about the this idea that a slope must be fine because other people have skiied already. It's not going to avalanche because I just watched six people go down.

Laura Knoy:
Okay. I would think that, too. Yeah, it's definitely I would say, OK, she made it down. I could make it down too.

Frank Carus:
Yeah, definitely not the case because their trigger points that and that vary. Let's not say that it's completely unsafe, but that's just one data point, in an important constellation of other things to consider. So yeah, there's there are many other, you know, heuristics, traps that lead people down the road to go out of order here because as they come to mind. E is the expert halo. So if you're traveling in a group and this is something we see quite a lot. So if you're traveling a group and there's one person who's perceived to be a better skier. who knows more, or presents himself as knowing more. I'm saying him, to bias that, that's probably usually a male, but, so people put their stock in that person as the one who's gonna make the right decision. So if you don't want to put that expert halo on on somebody in your group, you should have a group discussion. Somebody with a you know, the smallest voice, the most timid person might have a really good point that needs to be made to the group like even if it's just an intuitive feeling like this is a bad idea.

Laura Knoy:
You know, what's interesting is all the advice is do not venture into the back country alone, no matter what you're doing, no matter what time of year. So that's understandable. And I'm going to ask you a couple of minutes about a young man who was very experienced but did go alone and tragically died. But then you read about these group dynamics. And, you know, one or two people saying, I'm not sure. But then other people have this expert halo and they say, no, no, no, no. Or as we see New Hampshire people drive up from Connecticut or Rhode Island or Massachusetts for the day. And this is their long weekend and this is the plan. And they don't want to drive back to Boston. Right. Or Providence for nothing. So there's that push. So there's you know, I understand the risk of going solo, but then there's also sometimes unhelpful group dynamics at work.

Frank Carus:
And I got the other that A wrong the acceptance is actually being accepted by your group. So if everyone's doing it, that's kind of the age old like thing that leaves teenagers to drink or do drugs. Right. They want to be accepted by their group. So. Well, if they're going to do it and they don't feel bad about it, I don't want to say no and turn around. So I want to be accepted by my group. And that's one of the things that really drives our sort of party atmosphere where people are charging up with, you know, five hundred people in Tuckerman Ravine in the spring and one person skis a big steep slope and gets applauded while there is a bunch of other people that want to experience that, too.

Laura Knoy:
I want to go to our listeners and then I've a bunch more questions for you, Frank. Ron from Campton sent us a story. He says, About five years ago I was ice climbing in Smugglers' Notch in Vermont and my climbing partner triggered a small, narrow avalanche that buried me. Wow. Ron, after it passed, Ron says I was able to stand up and walk away. Both of us have had extensive avalanche training, but we never thought you could have avalanches in Vermont. We neglected to carry any kind of avalanche terrain gear. We were very lucky. Ron says, Wow. Ron, thank you for sharing that story. I know you work in New Hampshire, but are Vermont and Maine much different in terms of avalanches than New Hampshire? They don't seem very avalanche prone, just given the different terrain there.

Frank Carus:
They're actually they're different in some ways, but they certainly have avalanches. There's been a fatality on Smugglers Notch, a guy who was in filming for a ski movie years ago and one of the couloirs there, there was a we had some guys from the military who shared an amazing story about their team assessing a slope that slid and carried a number of them. One was hurt really badly.

Laura Knoy:
Tell people what a couloir is.

Frank Carus:
Sorry. A gully. Or basically like drainage. It's like a small version of a ravine. So so basically something, a little slope narrow, typically narrow that's been cleared out by rock or icefall or landslides are another part of the avalanche terrain picture.

Laura Knoy:
Ron mentioned that he didn't expect to get caught in to an avalanche in Vermont, even though he was experienced. What should people bring with them when they venture into avalanche territory, even if they don't expect an avalanche?

Frank Carus:
Yeah, well, the biggest thing is the most important thing, particularly for climbers, is that awareness that avalanches can and do occur, and taking an avalanche class is a great start. Anybody that has any intention of climbing in the high mountains, alpine climbing or any ice climbing in New England should consider taking a three day avalanche class to know what to look for. Beyond that, you know, there's some fundamental safety gear that we recommend everybody carry that are useful for for lots of things. But a shovel would be the one thing to dig your partner out. Right? You can also dig a shelter with that, if worse, came to worse and you needed to overnight snow shelter. And then you carry a probe. And most importantly for the avalanche scenario, you wear an avalanche beacon. So this is a little device that is used to locate your body with another little device strapped to himself. And it's essentially a way to hone in on their exact location. So these other devices that people carry, satellite communication devices, cell phones, none of those G.P.S. enabled like those E perbs, those really don't work on a fine enough scale to find someone in an avalanche.

Laura Knoy:
Well, plus, if you're stuck in an avalanche, you kind of don't have use of your hands. So so what's the difference doing a probe and a beacon?

Frank Carus:
So the probe is basically a tent pole with a point on it. That's about 10 feet, eight feet long.And once you find someone's rough location within, you know, a meter or two of the snow, you use the probe to find out exactly where they are. You leave that probe in place and then you dig to them. So that essentially the job of moving snow with one of these shovels that you can carry is a is a huge job. An average depth of burial is, you know, someone buried three meters deep. You might move a ton and a half of snow is before you get to them.

Laura Knoy:
That is a terrifying picture. I mean, and this raises a question that may be a dumb question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Do people who venture a lot into avalanche territory where wear equipment or carry equipment that functions like an airbag, like if you get hit, it blows up like an airbag so that it creates at least a space of air around you so you can breathe while people are trying to find you?

Frank Carus:
Well, people are wearing those. Certainly a useful thing. That's an airbag pack and it's deployed by the skier. When they initially get avalanched, they had pull basically a rip cord on their shoulder, strap, yup like parachute, and it works through a process of inverse segregation. So if you shake a bowl of knots, the walnuts rise to the top. Right. And the filberts or hazelnuts go to the bottom. So the idea is that if you're traveling on the avalanche debris, you now take up a lot more volume than you would if you didn't have the airbag pack. So you float to the surface. The trick is, the problem is, is that those airbag packs aren't really going to help you if they if you get slammed into a tree or a boulder or if you're pushed down to one of those flat areas that I mentioned earlier,a terrain trap, the snow can just continue to pile on top of you once you stop. So they're not a magic bullet. They are effective. And I think the last if I can recall the data, if eleven, they could have saved eleven percent of people who are buried by avalanches.

Laura Knoy:
That's helpful, but not super-impressive.

Frank Carus:
Yes. Because people don't practice with them enough so they don't pull the rip cord right. Or they don't pull the rip cord out before they get in the terrain. They don't expose it, they think they're OK.

Laura Knoy:
It's kind of too bad. It's not like an airbag which deploys automatically upright a certain degree of impact.

Laura Knoy:
Peter from New Ipswich asks What is the best thing to do if caught in an avalanche? Never mind what you should have with you, which you talked about, you know, a shovel and a beacon and so forth. But what should you do if all the sudden you find yourself in this situation?

Frank Carus:
Well, there's there's a lot of things you can can do. First of all, like right before you get under the terrain, you would want to not have your wrist in the wristleash of a ski pole. Right. You want to be able to free, you want to be able to free your hands, to swim freely. The idea with, it's a little bit like whitewater, you know, you want to you want to try and get out of the flow so you can roll to the side of the flow once you're captured. In rare cases or certain cases, you could dig down to what's called the bed surface beneath the flowing debris to stop yourself, sort of like a duck dive and in the in the ocean. That's a little difficult because the debris is pretty hard and and fast moving and strong. And the avalanche, the snowy avalanche debris, so quite powerful. So diving down doesn't always work, but diving off to the side, maybe, yeah. Rolling, maybe, that's that's something that's kind of new as a theory. You know, the swimming motion, I know when I was caught, I wasn't in that turbulent flow. So keeping my feet downhill to protect me against objects coming made sounds and doing like a backstroke to try to keep keep my head oriented. So it's not going first down the slope. That was a strategy. And all those things are helpful. Some folks I know recommend if you're crossing a suspect slope, you would take your backpack straps off. I don't know if that's really commonly taught. I think probably it's not a great idea. It's hard to ditch your backpack.

Laura Knoy:
Well, sure.And you may have elements in there that will help you survive.

Frank Carus:
That you would need. Yeah. Right. And you would also have some level of protection, your spine if you have the backpack on.

Laura Knoy:
Billy sent us an e-mail to ask if something goes wrong while in the backwoods would the New Hampshire Hike Safe pass cover any costs of rescue. That's a good question, Billy. And for listeners who don't know what a Hike Safe pass is you pay a set fee every year, and basically then if you do get involved and expensive search and rescue, you know, the cost is covered. If you don't have the pass Fish & Game in the state may ask you, if it seems like you were negligent, to pay for those costs. So can you answer Billy's question about that?

Frank Carus:
Well, I would always suggest people support that Hike Safe program for lots of reasons. It's you know, it's hard to say whether it would be needed for for you in that case. And the avalanche world, you know, you have. You know, if you're buried, you need to be extricated within 15 minutes or you're more than likely kind of die.So it's really about rescue within your group.Well, avoidance first and then self-rescue within your group. If someone has to come from outside like you're more than likely not gonna survive if you've been buried.

Laura Knoy:
Because we've done many, many shows on White Mountain Search and Rescue and we've heard dramatic stories of rescue parties going up and so forth. It sounds like it's a little different with an avalanche rescue because time is so very limited.

Frank Carus:
Yeah. So asphyxia is what you're racing against, right? A lack of oxygen. Yep. So you've got about as long as you can hold your breath and then some there's a little bit of air contained in the snowpack, but generally that's going to run out as the snow melts around your face and creates an ice mask. So but most people, you know, many people caught and carried just get an injury so they might break through leg or something. You know, some sort of injury that does require evacuation and again, self-reliance. I always preach because that's your fastest, best bet. You know, whether it's a 5 by 8 tarp and some parachute cord, splint your body. Right. Put them in the tarp, bundle up with their skis like a burrito and start dragging them out. Right. Like, that's gonna be better than waiting three hours for someone to come and get you.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Well, thank you for the email, Billy. It's a good question. John in Springfield wrote in to say, We lost a great friend years ago to an avalanche on Mount Washington. Tom Burke and another person in a separate party died as a result of separate slides that were caused by the same triggering mechanism. John says Tom had decided to turnaround due to changing weather conditions while others continued up. He was still in a slide zone when a slide was triggered by those above him. From all accounts, he survived the first slide and a secondary event took his life. Timing and position are everything with avalanches, John writes I have been in three small slides myself, two in New Hampshire, one in Colorado. Even small ones will unnerve you. Easterners like me are often oblivious to the existence and danger of slides. And they happen here, too. And John, I'm so sorry about your friend. And it sounds like almost he was trying to the right thing. You know, he didn't feel safe, so he started coming down and then, boom, it's a it's a terrible story.

Frank Carus:
Yeah, that is a that's a tough story. And that's one that, you know, is one of the ones that keeps me up at night. Is thinking about those mass casualty potential avalanches? We had a secondary avalanche triggered on a rescue party last year where a person triggered an avalanche. It carried a number of people. In Hillman's Highway that's just outside of Tuckerman Ravine, near Hermit Lake, but very close to Tuckerman Ravine and that person continued hiking up the slope into what we call a hangfire, so the rest of the slope that hadn't avalanched, and triggered another avalanche on the people below. So, you know, so working together, in our crowded mountain range and being good citizens as part of this picture as well.

Laura Knoy:
So the more people, the more possibility for avalanches, because as you said earlier, you know, 90 percent of avalanches are triggered by people walking around on the snow. John, I'm so sorry to hear your story and thank you for contributing to our conversation today.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. This hour, understanding avalanche risk in New Hampshire's back country. We've been talking with Frank Carus, lead snow ranger and director of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center. And Nico's calling from Newbury. Hi, Nico. You're on the air. Welcome. Thanks for being with us.

Caller:
My question is, are crevasses a danger during an avalanche? Like could you fall into one?

Laura Knoy:
Thank you very much, Nico. And for the non-backcountry public, explain what a crevasses, please.

Frank Carus:
So a crevasse technically occurs on a glacier, you know, moving snow that turns into ice on a glacier. In our case, we have, we call them crevasses, technically, they're moats. They're basically big cracks in the snow as it creeps downhill. We have some waterfall holes that open up. And her question, she's exactly right. They are very, very dangerous. They're probably the ultimate terrain trap if you're swept into that and then buried by snow. It's obviously going to be very hard, if not impossible, to dig someone out in time.

Laura Knoy:
I think of those happening in those giant mountains that they have in France since with the. Yeah. The Alps in Switzerland and. But we have them here in New Hampshire?

We do. Yeah. In Tuckerman Ravine, we have such a large snowpack that blows and that's, you know, 40 feet and more feet thick, that that does start to creep downhill.We get these moats next to rocks that can be kind of deep and then the waterfall holes, as I mentioned, and then other cracks adjacent. And we've definitely had at least a couple of fatalities. And I know at least one of those rescue attempts we had to abandon due to the threat of avalanches as it snowed.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Because you're the rescuer. You were you're out there in avalanche territory. You don't know when the next one is going to hit.

Frank Carus:
And even a small avalanche could fill that fill that hole.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Nico, thank you very much for calling. And Allen is calling from Meriden. Hi, Alan. You're on the air. Welcome. Thanks for being with us.

Caller:
Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. My question is and it's more of a statement I know of. I rarely hear discussion of the at least helpful tool of consumer grade two way radios, though their ability to transmit over long distances, very marginal. Within a party, if one skier or skiers in a group first go down a slope, the ability to call back up and indicate what they found within the terrain, or if there is a a separation, the ability to shout in some of our mountain range voices don't travel very far. Could you address that? And I think they're a tool that often gets overlooked. Of course, nothing is a a magic bullet. Thanks so much.

Frank Carus:
Yeah. Thanks, Alan. That's a good question. And communication, like many things, is the root of lots of problems. Poor communication anyway. So radios can be a part of that picture. I know groups can work out hand signals as well or ski poles signals to indicate, you know, don't ski this line or ski to the right of my track or to the left of my track. Interparty communication. that would be a great solution. Communicating with other people outside your party would be kind of a challenge with those because everyone could have their frequencies set differently. But you do raise a good point that communication in your team is very important.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Thank you very much for that call. And let's take another one. Jeff is in Rye. Hi, Jeff. You're on the air with Frank Carus. Go ahead.

Caller:
Hi, good morning. Good morning. Thanks so much for taking my call. And Frank, thanks so much for all your work. I'm a long time backcountry snowboarder. It all started back in the late 80s, early 90s, just taking up Tuck like everybody else. As a I think elder in the snowboarding community at this point. Snowboard ambassador for backcountry alliance. And also two separate snowboard companies. And I just want to again, thanks again for all the work and education that you all have been doing. And just sort of looking at it from the point of view over the history of watching the snowboarding community. We tend to like to think of ourselves as mavericks. And, you know, we're not going to do what the man tells us to do. We're going to go no matter what. And I can't tell you how many times I've walked up to a hiked up or skinned up recently in the slickwater to Hermit Lake and seen the avalanche danger signs and watching a bunch of, in my dotage now, all the younger snowboarders look at the avalanche danger. Then either make a decision and go down or just say the heck with it and keep going up. Just watching the ground swell, I think of education and the mindshift both within the industry. I work for care Corum Bindings and Western snowboards and just in the industry itself and with backcountry alliance. It's just really increasing awareness and education and people seeming to embrace that more.

Laura Knoy:
So the mind shift is good, Jeff. People are understanding the risks even as they are going out more. Is that what you're saying?

Caller:
Yeah, I think so. And maybe I don't know the numbers if there are if there's that kind of data and metrics popping up there. But looking at the younger and younger folks, I think they're they're just coming into it with more eyes wide open.And it looks like folks like Mt. Washington and other organizations that are doing more on social media and there's more of a presence where they're making the resources more readily available.It's it's becoming like a source of pride for folks like I'm not even going to go into backcountry and until I take a backcountry survival course.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So that So all the information that people have is helping them make better choices. And you guys at the Mount Washington Avalanche Center put out a lot of information on social media. Your forecasts, your descriptions are incredibly detailed. Go ahead, Frank. I'd love your thoughts. And Jeff, thank you very much. It's good to hear from you.

Frank Carus:
Yeah, those are great, great points. And I think since he's in the industry, he knows better than anyone the numbers, our ranks are swelling in a huge way. And there's a paper written recently that was debunked that, you know, there are more avalanches or more avalanche fatalities. And that wasn't really the case over time. If you compare it to the number of participants. So the reality is, if you look at percentages that. Yeah, so avalanche forecasting and avalanche education, not necessarily in that order are, you know, assumed to be a big part of that equation. So we're happy to to try to reach out to people through new venues. There's amazing, you know, people who don't know their avalanches, as you suggested, Diane, as you know, they're not going to know to look for an avalanche forecast. So if we can bump into those people or they can see a post on Instagram, you know, where the fracture line or, you know, a dog searching or anything that indicates that raises their awareness that there's a there are avalanches, then that's going to help.

Laura Knoy:
It's really interesting to hear you and Jeff say that you're using social media and other tools of communication. And people seem to be getting the message, you know, don't do it that day. We've done whole shows on tech in the back country. And there's another sort of counter-narrative that people want that awesome video to share or that awesome picture to share and that it pushes them to take risks that they might not have taken. So I just wonder where you fall down on that.

Frank Carus:
Yeah, I would think that's a, you know, an age old ego-driven decision-making problem. We used to call it Kodak courage, from the days of print film right? People doing stupid things for the camera. But, you know, that's part of the sort of consistency, commitment heuristic. Like, I gotta go get that shot and I'm going to I'm going to just, you know, abandon all well make that poorly valued decision, you know, and end up getting avalanche.

Laura Knoy:
So Kodak courage. So this is not really a new.

Frank Carus:
It's not new. It's just more prevalent, I think. And, you know, these tools make it very convenient to post photos. You know, it's a double edged sword. We love seeing information. We get information about the snowpack around the range from people's Instagram posts and their hashtags at the avalanche center.

Laura Knoy:
You guys use social media input from people who are out there. To improve your own information.

Frank Carus:
And we have an observation page on our website, which we really encourage people to look because it's a continuous record that's easier to search, takes a little bit more effort, but people can provide information about what they saw some other place on the range. And that is super helpful because there's, you know, a limited number of snow rangers and we have a limited amount of time so we can't get everywhere. So people posting short videos or little pictures with a snow pit or just the terrain is super helpful. And, you know, back to that social media, it's just great that, you know, we have friends, groups that are supporting us, friends of Tuckerman Ravine. The White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation. So they own these Web sites and these social media platforms and allow us as government employees to post that information and also interact with the public.

Laura Knoy:
And let's just say the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center is sort of up. It's led by the U.S. Forest Service, right, Frank? But it's in partnership with many other organizations.

Frank Carus:
Yeah, that's correct. So the Forest Service has operated all the avalanche centers outside the state of Colorado through time. And it's a really unique thing that the federal government does these backcountry avalanche forecasts, and they also run the military artillery program. Okay.

Laura Knoy:
So in lots of links on our Web site as well, including obviously to the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center. You can see the forecast and look at the detailed descriptions that Frank and his team post there. Thank you so much for that call, Jeff. Here's an email from Douglas in Pike. I've been skiing and Tuck and ice climbing in Huntington since the 1960s. I've always been grateful for the great info from the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center. Douglas says due to that good information and a certain degree of cautiousness and also luck. I have never been in an avalanche. I recall hiking up to Huntington and looking up and thinking no way and bailing out which people sometimes need to do. Douglas says I was in Tuck last spring and witnessed my first ever helicopter rescue. It was a coolish day, but people were pushing it up the chute and somebody had a major fall. Douglas says people are definitely pushing the limits. Notably, many more people are skiing in winter when used to just be a spring thing. But we always need to be prepared, he says, especially mentally. Douglas concludes by saying It is so beautiful up there, so special, just amazing. But we all need to constantly use our heads. Douglas, thank you so much for that. Doug in Windsor, Vermont, says, Are there good resources to learn more about avalanches, online videos, articles, Web sites? If I just watch all of Andrew Drummond's Ski the Whites videos, am I good to go? And by the way, we had Andrew on our show about two winters ago to talk about backcountry skiing. Doug, thank you very much for asking about resources in education and for I ask you that. Frank, another e-mail has a similar question. Carl in Rumney says, I've a very eager 12 year old backcountry skier and mountaineer. We have up to now avoided avalanche terrain in our winter trips, but I am aware that soon we will be heading into those areas. What courses and education opportunities Frank recommend for teens and or other novice White Mountain adventurers? So both Carl and Doug wanting to know where they can learn more?

Frank Carus:
Yep. So we've got a list of avalanche education providers that are in the valley and Mount Washington Valley. And I think also we have some list in Vermont where people can go and sign up for those three day avalanche level 1 classes, which are a great place to start. You can check our events calendar on Mt. Washington Avalanche Center dot org for upcoming talks, though most of those of passed right now. But we're trying to get out in the community increasingly and given an hour and half or so avalanche awareness talk, which is a one place to start.

Frank Carus:
You can talk to if you visit us, if you come to Tucker or intervene, you can talk to one of our awesome ski patrollers and Mount Washington volunteer ski patrol has been helping us do what we do for decades now.

Frank Carus:
And many of those folks have have skis or climbed all over the mountains and can help you come up with a strategy to to get the goods, have a good ski run ins and stay safe. Think to one of the earlier points. There are great online resources, definitely be careful. Many of those ski videos that are just look so awesome and dramatic. What you're not seeing is the safety things that are going on in the backcountry. You know, those guys triggering these avalanches and riding them out. For every one of those. You know, there's one out there where someone gets caught, carried or injured or buried.

Frank Carus:
And what you also don't see in those videos is there's a team of guides or avalanche professionals and rescuers that are tucked just behind the ridge, ready to swoop in and save this person. It's not just a solo skier doing this rad thing.

Laura Knoy:
How many snow rangers are there on your team?

Frank Carus:
There are four, four snow rangers and we have about 20 people on our ski patrol. So those the Snow Rangers are our forecast team and they you know, we lead rescues in the Cutler River drainage for six months of the year. We take that over from the state and the ski patrol comes in in March to help us with the large numbers when the crowds really start to fall and the nurses and EMT.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, wow. Yeah. Four doesn't sound like very many people.

Frank Carus:
No, it's it's. We'd like to have more people. I'd love to have at least another person to help with our avalanche education outreach.

Laura Knoy:
Because you're doing education and outreach and forecasting and you're going out there and trying to grab people when they get in trouble. Any women among your Snow Rangers?

Frank Carus:
No, not on the snow ranger team. This year we had an emergency hire. We've had a couple of emergency hires in the past who were on the snow ranger team. And we have, I think, five of our snow ranger, sorry, ski patrollers are women who are awesome and bring up a great depth of experience and perspective to the ski patrol and to the team.

Laura Knoy:
So I was looking a lot at your forecasts yesterday, Frank. And the avalanche danger today is considerable. That's the term that you use. And there's two more degrees of danger after that. Right. What are those?

Frank Carus:
High and extreme.

Laura Knoy:
So here's the thing. If the avalanche danger is extreme or even high, why doesn't the Forest Service just shut those areas down?

Frank Carus:
Well, we feel that, you know, recreation is by choice and it's public land. And we just do our best to inform people as much as we possibly can to reach those folks. There's pinch points where, you know, there's signage and, you know, there's plenty of places out there where it's not so obvious that aren't forecasted and to not have a sign on it. So it's really up to people to be aware of the fact that snow is a dynamic thing. And, you know, people can get buried - there were two fatalities from roof avalanches in the country last year. So anywhere there's snow on a steep slope, you should be thinking avalanches. And if it's really, really snowing hard or blowing hard, you should think twice, look for some information before you head into the back country.

Laura Knoy:
If you could just wave a magic wand. Frank, what's one thing you would change about this whole line of work that you do?

Frank Carus:
Oh, I would love to have much greater awareness about in the public about the the risk of avalanches and the fun that can be had an avalanche terrain as well safely.

Laura Knoy:
It's been really good to talk to you. Thank you so much for coming in. That's Frank Carus again. He's the lead snow ranger and director of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center. And you're listening to The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.