Spring Accident Season Cranks Up

It's all about falls from snow and rock
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It's all about falls from snow and rock

Welcome to spring!...Unless you're currently in Ohio, PA or New York. Everywhere else, it's suddenly t-shirt weather. And that means the accident season is ON, girlfriends.

Every year, there's a distinct and predictable progression of ourdoor accidents: Beginning with New Year, it's avalanches in the West and whitewater kayaking accidents in the East (courtesy of winter rains that make Appalachian creeks boatable). As winter progresses, the snowpack stabilizes, and things quiet usually quiet down for March and early April. Then, as people begin heading onto the AT and into the Southwest Deserts, we see falling deaths and seriously lost hikers. Then, as the mountain snowpacks get harder and people move into the high mountains for late spring climbing, we'll enter another phase of snowslope falls and slush avalanches.

As summer arrives, we'll see a spate of high-water river drownings in the West (where rivers are fueled by snowmelt). Then it'll settle down to the normal summer chaos of broken legs, climbing falls, and terminally disoriented trekkers. Late summer we'll begin to see lightning incidents, hypothermia among the peaks, and heat deaths in the lowlands. As the seasons cool into autumn, news reports will shift to hypothermia deaths and the usual spate of first-powder-of-the-year avalanche fatalities, as anxious boarders and skiers totally forget about hazard. Right now we're in the early-falling-deaths phase of spring, to wit: (more details below the jump)

Injured Solo Hiker Lucks Out in Death Valley

On Monday, April 13th, two Park Service rangers were patrolling popular Darwin Canyon, a short, two-mile round trip hike along Darwin Creek, one of Death Valley's few perennial streams. About 3:30 P.M. they heard screams for help, and found a 58-year-old woman who had fallen from a scramble above the lowest of the canyon's three waterfalls. The victim had a compound fracture (bones poking out) of her right ankle, and a possible tibia fracture of her left leg. Due to twisting and swelling, she had lost circulation and sensation in her right foot.

The deep canyon walls prevented radio contact, so one of the rangers hiked out 1.5 miles to radio for help. Meanwhile, the other ranger managed to restore circulation to the victim's right foot, possibly preventing an eventual amputation. A Highway Patrol helicopter short-hauled her out of the narrow canyon.

The woman was lucky to have been located by competent, radio-toting First Aid providers while there was still time for a fast daytime evacuation. Without that, she may well have lost one leg. If this had turned into an overnight, she probably would have died. The woman had fallen while scrambling up "easy" cliffs toward the upper cascades. Never scramble sketchy cliffs, especially when you're alone, and without any means of signalling for help.

Climbers Survive Tuckerman's Ravine Avalanche on Mount Washington

On Saturday, April 11th, Dan Zucker, 46, of Danville, Vt., and Tim Finocchio, of Holbrook, MA, were climbing a steep gully called Dodge's Drop in the Tuckerman Ravine area of Mt. Washington, just south of Tuckerman's Headwall proper. As they were climbing the 50-degree slopes near ridgetop, a windslab avalanche released about 3 feet deep and several hundred yards across. It tumbled the pair 800 vertical feet (go to the linked page and choose the "annotated photo of Dodges" on left) over snowed-in cliff bands and through scrub timber before depositing them at the bottom with only minor injuries. Since the pair was deposited near the spring skier's observation deck and nearby ranger cabin, they were quickly helped in a walking evacuation.

Steep cirques on the southeast flank of Mt. Washington, like the Gulf of Slides, Tuckerman Ravine, and Huntington Ravine, draw climbers and skiers from all over the northeast, especially in spring as the snow turns hard and weather improves. Sitting on the lee side of Mount Washington, all these gullies get deeply drifted in by hurricane winds that rake the peak's upper plateau.

Glorious weather was undoubtedly a factor in this accident. The pair climbed in t-shirts and full sun. Benign weather conditions often lead to a sense of safety, but when traveling on snow, sudden sunny weather, after a windy streak, usually means avalanche danger. This pair found deep windslab on top of a shiny, melted and re-frozen, surface of old snow....classic conditions for a high-mountain ridgetop avalanche.

Mr. Zuckerman's own blog of the incident (well worth reading) notes "low avi conditions everywhere." However, avalanche forecasts are just general hazard guidelines. There are always spot-traps available for trouble, especially in wind-loaded areas near alpine ridgetops. The pair even encountered continually falling ice shards as they ascended, a sure sign of wind-loading onto the slope, particularly up near the ridgeline cornices.

In reading Mr. Zucker's blog, I'm struck by how he analyzed the slope and the windslab, and came to some very dubious conclusions about its stability. After some ice axe probing during the climb, he even concluded that the slab was probably "low volume." Given the fact that settled windslab might weigh 880 pounds per cubic meter (at 40% water content, without wind-packing), it doesn't take much to start or sustain a slide on such steep slopes.

This is a perfect example of the downside to classic avalanche training, which tends to focus on snow physics and layering rather than safety protocol. It is very easy for skiers and climbers to probe the snow, dig a pit or two and, lacking any gross signs of instability, conclude that the desired slope is "safe" - even when it's wind slab sitting on top of ice. Call it a 'can't-see-the-forest-for-the-expertise...' situation.

So heads up: No matter how many avi courses you've taken, no matter how expert you are, you cannot evaluate avalanche stability based on casual sampling. The professionals who issue hazard forecasts don't rely on spot-analysis; they live at the area they forecast for, all winter long, and follow snowpack and weather changes on an hour-by-hour basis. Their expertise is the result of digging hundreds, or thousands, of snow pits a season, rather than a little probing while climbing a route. Regardless, we're glad both climbers are O.K. They were very lucky.

One Dead, Two Injured after Utah Hiking Group Takes 1,000-foot Snow Slide

On Saturday, April 18th, a five-person hiking group from Salt Lake City decided to trek up Mount Olympus, a popular Wasatch Range peak that looms above Salt Lake City. Several of the party lived immediately below the mountain and had climbed it numerous times.

As the group was nearing the top, Karin Vandenburg, 49, fell several hundred feet down a steep snow chute on the mountain's north face. Two teens, including the grandson of billionaire Earl Holding, attempted to help Vandenburg. All three then fell nearly 1,000 vertical feet down the chute. The two teens sustained head injuries and fractures, Vandenburg was declared dead on the scene.

There's not much information about this incident. Numerous posters on the Salt Lake Tribune's website complained about the poor reporting on this story - unfortunately a common situation whenever the mainsteam media covers outdoor accidents. Consequently little is known about the exact circumstances surrounding this tragedy.

The normal West Face Trail up Mount Olympus is a straightforward hike, although the last several hundred feet involve Class III scrambling on quartzite that becomes super slick when wet. If the party was heading toward Mount Olympus's North Peak, the route would have involved scrambling and exposure in any season. Only the North Peak has north-facing gullies that would allow for the reported thousand-foot fall. The group had no ice axes or self-arrest gear, only trekking poles. The Wasatch Range had been buried by recent snows, and Saturday was bluebird, with rapidly rising temperatures that would have turned steep snow slopes into slush piles where kicked steps could easily collapse, precipitating a fall.

In the absence of further details, this accident serves as just another warning that no hike is ever the same, regardless of how many times you do it. Conditions, especially off-season conditions, can greatly up the ante for the most mundane summer adventures. And if you're on a trip that's normally easy, but conditions are tough, you're no longer on an easy trip.

Stay safe out there. --Steve Howe