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Alexander Cohn: Six hours till avalanche

  • Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

  • Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

  • Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

  • Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

  • Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

There are no photographs of last Thursday’s avalanche in Mount Washington’s Huntington ravine. A team of 12 climbers the Monitor was profiling was caught in the slide near the top of Central Gully late that afternoon. But I did not make any photos of it. I had left the ravine six hours before the avalanche happened.

One of the realities of photojournalism is that to get a moving photograph, shooters often have to be in the thick of it. If you start thinking about where the photographer had to be standing to get the image from whatever conflict is featured on the world news pages, it can leave you rattled. For an assignment like last week’s, following climbers above tree line in January, the need to stay safe was important. My job was to make photographs that told the story of the ascent. The logistics of getting those images took a lot of energy on my part. Reporters often ask for a description of what happened to help readers imagine the scene, but photographers have no such luxury. We have to be there.

At the Monitor, we thought the story of a former Marine climbing on a prosthetic to raise awareness and money for a cause was an interesting story. For me, it was an opportunity to blend my love of the mountains with my work at the Monitor. But I was anxious about the assignment as the day approached. Any time spent above tree line is a risk. Humans were not supposed to live in that environment, after all. But the thousands of people who head up the Presidentials every year can tell you how exciting it is. Even those who do it in the middle of winter.

I met the Ascents of Honor climbers on Wednesday as they got their equipment ready in

the lower level of the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center. I then hiked up with them to the Harvard Cabin, where we spent the night. My plan on the day of their climb up Huntington Ravine was to head up with them to where they would put on crampons or tie in to their climbing ropes, take some shots and turn back. If the weather was nice, I might head to the north wall of the ravine and take some photos with a long lens as they inched their way up the ice-choked gullies. But in January the chances of a sunny, wind-free day are slim.

Why risk it?

I would like to think I could have stood in that cold, windy environment for another six hours, but that’s pretty ludicrous. Hypothermia is just one of the possible side effects of exposure to those conditions. Why risk it? Was this a story to push myself to get that fantastic shot? Not this time.

So I left. Looking at the time stamp on my camera, the last frame I shot was at 10:42 a.m. It was getting steep and crowded as places to move around grew few. I felt like I was getting in the way as the climbers were trying to make images to document the trip for themselves. Blowing snow was caking my camera, and it was starting to flash error signs. The wind was picking up. So, I turned around and went down. Twenty minutes later, I was back at the Harvard Cabin, where I went in for a bite of lunch and a chance to thaw out before heading down to my car in Pinkham Notch.

I got to a point where it was no longer productive to keep making pictures of the climbers. I knew that the higher I got, the greater risk I took. It is not my place to say who can climb a mountain and when. Each of us has our own strengths, skills and abilities. But others with more experience on the mountain voiced their concerns.

“In four years I have told people they should do something else that day only twice,” Rich Palatino said last Sunday when I talked with him. Palatino is the caretaker at the Harvard Cabin, where the Ascent of Honor team spent Wednesday night. He is often the last person to see climbers before they head into the ravine and, due to the cabin’s proximity to the ravine, the first to see them if they run into trouble.

I turned back before the climbing started and well before things got out of control. Talking to climbers around the area after the avalanche, one theme emerged: The avalanche probably saved their life. There is no way of knowing this, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest it. Summitting Mount Washington is a goal for many, but few climbers ascending the technical routes in Huntington Ravine choose that destination in mid-winter. The difference for the Ascents of Honor climbers is that they were trying to stick to a fixed schedule, and there was a promise of beds at the Mount Washington Observatory on the summit.

Strong winds ahead

Had the climbers not run into an avalanche, they would have emerged into the Alpine Gardens at sunset to strong winds after nine hours of moving slowly in the cold. They would have started heading for a summit more than a mile away and 800 feet higher. The temperature was predicted to be -10 degrees that night. More than one authority on the mountain tried to dissuade them from climbing that route on that day, but they chose to pursue it anyway, trusting their experience on other peaks in other parts of the world.

The American Alpine Club compiles a list of climbing mishaps going back to the 1950s. The annual list of such accidents, Accidents in North American Mountaineering, is edited in Lyme and a great resource for those who are trying to avoid inclusion in its pages. There were a number of interesting choices made by the Ascents of Honor team, some of which contributed to their being in a spot with heightened avalanche danger, some of which did not. The large group was working in a relatively narrow gully. It was made up of climbers of mixed abilities with little direct knowledge of the mountain and they were trying to stick to a fixed schedule.

Next year, when the accidents of 2013 are published, I am curious what details will be included. As much as the climbers say it was just bad luck, a number of choices put them in that position. The mountains are exciting – but more enjoyable if things don’t get too exciting.

(Alexander Cohn of Concord is the Monitor photo editor.)

Writing that the avalanche probably saved their lives is irresponsible and dangerous! This group ignored all of the warnings from multiple experts and local avalanche reports. As RobMeans commented, the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center’s report is quite detailed. It says: “The avalanche was a soft slab, artificially triggered by foot penetration, which in the professional avalanche lexicon means that it was triggered by a person climbing or hiking”. Also, “avalanches are a common natural phenomenon in Huntington Ravine and this event became an incident because the group made decisions and took actions that placed them in a precarious position”. The bottom portion of the report is very well done, including motivation and commitment. In essence, this accident was not simply bad luck. Members of this group were almost killed because of bad judgment and poor decisions, especially from their lead guide.

It took a week for the media gloss of Honor to fall away from this Ascent: “they chose to pursue it anyway, trusting their experience on other peaks in other parts of the world.” Anyone claiming to have any real experience would know there is a reason the Presidentials are considered uniquely suited to test climbers’ and equipment’s preparedness for the Himalayas: They have the worst weather in the world. These vain fools are very lucky an avalanche saved what was left of their “honor’”.

Hi Alex, Nice piece, difficult matters, well detailed. THanks. Did you read CJ's report? "http://www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org/search-rescue/2012-2013-summaries/01-17-2013-avalanche-accident-in-central-gully/" Have a great season, Rob

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