This weekend, two Canadians in Tuckerman Ravine triggered an avalanche, which swept them and two others 500 feet down to the bottom of the bowl. None of those affected suffered serious injuries, but it highlights a growing trend in the White Mountains: more skiers getting themselves into avalanche terrain earlier in the year.
Avalanches are scary.
“You’re at its mercy, an easy way to describe it is it’s like having a six-hundred pound gorillas trying to drag you downhill,” explains Jeff Lane, a snow ranger with the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, during an avalanche safety seminar in November. Last year he accidentally triggered an avalanche, in the Tuckerman bowl, in front of a few hundred people on a Sunday morning.
“You know you think, in advance, I can fight it, I can do this I can do that... I’m good enough,” Lane says, “but when that gorilla has got its arms around you, you’re going to do what it wants you to do.”
Avalanches can also seem fickle.
You might see a slope where a half-dozen skiers have already made some turns and think ‘oh, that’s safe’ only to find yourself wrestling with that gorilla moments later.
It might seem like chance, but snow conditions load the dice. Predicting avalanches is a complicated science, but a big dump of heavy snow on top of some sort of a weak layer (perhaps hoar frost or faceted snow) is the basic recipe for disaster.
In the Northeast, there aren’t a ton of places steep enough for avalanches, but they do happen… and the Mount Washington snow rangers only put out a forecast for Huntington and Tuckerman Ravine on the East side of the mountain.
Rick Wilcox, veteran mountaineer and president of Mountain Rescue Service, says he’s always amazed how many people will go climb or ski on days with avalanche danger rated as “considerable” or higher.
“It’s like saying you’re going to walk through a minefield... what are the chances you’re going to step on a mine?” he explains, “A lot of people go right through the minefield and they don’t blow up. Every now and then it blows up. I don’t know how else to describe it!”
And the number of people willing to go into that minefield seems to be rising.
Into the Minefield
It used to be the back-country scene in the White Mountains was focused almost exclusively on Tuckerman Ravine in the spring. But Lane says people are now coming earlier: January, February, and March.
“On any given day in the middle of winter we’re seeing more and more people coming up and looking to go higher than our Hermit Lake Shelter site to go ski something,” he observes.
There are plenty of possible reasons for this: the gear is getting better, and amateur videos of skiers in knee or waist-deep powder in the backcountry are all over social media. Whatever the reason, more folks heading out into really gnarly terrain in midwinter will mean more people stepping on those land-mines.
At least nine people have been killed in avalanches on Mount Washington, and many more have been injured. But also, New Englanders without much experience with avalanche danger can get themselves into trouble in other parts of the world.
Ronnie Berlack, a twenty-year-old member of the US ski team, was killed in an avalanche in Tyrol, Austria last year.
“We had a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He got up in the morning and got a ride to the airport with my husband and that was the last we saw of him,” says his mother Cindy Berlack, who teamed up to help organize this year’s Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop
Berlack says she thinks it will take education at every level of the skiing community to start shifting the culture of backcountry skiers, and just trying to get a conference together was a struggle.
“You know it drove me crazy in some ways, just trying to get ahold of people, nobody really cares about avalanches in New England.”
In the mountains where Ronnie Berlack was killed, it’s another story. There, there are about 100 to 150 avalanche accidents every year and dozen or more people killed in avalanches every winter, but considering that on some weekend days there are perhaps thousands of people skiing in avalanche country, it could be worse.
According to Rudi Mair, head of the Avalanche Warning Service in Tyrol, Austria, decades of outreach have led to a more informed backcountry community.
“The backcountry skiers, they are aware of what they are doing,” Mair says, and guesses 90 to 95 percent of the skiers carry basic avalanche gear.
Basic safety equipment is pretty basic: a beacon, so that if you’re buried you can be located; a probe, so if a friend is buried you can poke into the snow looking for where to dig; and a shovel to dig your friend out. Of course, you can also buy an expensive backpack with a built in airbag to try to keep you on top of the snow.
Lane says that not nearly enough of backcountry skiers in New Hampshire carry the basic gear.
But Lane is also optimistic, and says there are 30 avalanche safety classes a year happening in New Hampshire. He hopes slowly, unprepared skiers surrounded by safety-conscious folks will start to feel unprepared.
“People that come in without those prerequisites are going to be in the minority and those social pressures are going to steer us in a more safe direction,”
But being ready to dig somebody out is really only a half-measure: most often, skiers caught in avalanches in the east are killed by hitting rocks or trees. And if you are buried, your chances of survival decline dramatically after 15 minutes of being beneath the snow.
The best protection, if you ask the snow rangers, is to check their forecast and don’t get caught in an avalanche in the first place.