Active Outdoors: Important to find proper balance with risk

  • This photo clearly shows where the Raymond Cataract avalanche that killed Nicholas Benedix started and where he was buried. Courtesy of Mount Washington Avalanche Center

  • When the path of an avalanche funnels down into a narrow gulley like this, it’s called a “terrain trap.” The potential danger increases exponentially – even a “small” avalanche can kill an adventurer in a place like this. Courtesy of Mount Washington Avalanche Center

  • Tuckerman Ravine and the other gulfs and gullies on Mount Washington are places of great beauty and significant danger when the snow is deep. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

For the Monitor
Published: 4/27/2019 4:29:26 PM

In my last column I wrote about the booby traps awaiting the unaware in a New England spring. They are everywhere – especially in the higher mountains following a winter to remember with lots and lots of snow.

I meant that column as a general warning to be aware of what could happen if you venture out into the mountains or onto the water at this time of year when winter hasn’t completely let go.

It’s more than slightly disconcerting then, that, at the exact moment I was writing that column, around noon on April 11, backcountry skier Nicholas Benedix, 32, of Campton, triggered an avalanche, which buried him. Though he was eventually found and dug out alive by a team of highly skilled rescuers, he died before reaching the hospital. The accident happened in Raymond Cascade, a rarely skied gully on Mount Washington. Most years, there isn’t enough snow to ski there, let alone get caught in an avalanche.

The avalanche danger in the area that day was rated moderate. Big, frequent avalanches triggering naturally were unlikely. But the day’s avalanche warning noted the possibility of human-triggered slides of small wind slabs formed by fresh snow.

You can read the entire report on Nicholas’s death. It and other similar incident reports should be required reading for anyone who ventures into the steep backcountry on skis or snowshoes when the snow is deep next winter.

One part of the report, written by Snow Ranger Frank Carus, who actually dug Benedix out of the avalanche debris struck me as particularly poignant and relevant:

Carus wrote: “Stability tests performed on the crown [where the avalanche began] the day following the accident, including at the assumed point of avalanche initiation, yielded moderate but variable results like we find much of the winter. Wind slabs, like some other avalanche problems, are characteristically variable in thickness, distribution, and sensitivity. This complexity is compounded by the fact that any skiing in our alpine and treeline areas necessarily takes you into open terrain that is often ripe with the necessary ingredients to avalanche ... a steep slope, a wind slab, followed by a trigger. Due to these wind slabs in our terrain, skiing a steep slope on a wind slab is the norm all winter. Unless you wait for isothermal conditions to develop in the spring, it’s hard to avoid the uncertainty that comes with skiing on these wind slabs. The mitigation for these uncertain risks comes in terrain choices and safe travel techniques. In this case, Nicholas tried for several regular partners, all of whom were either busy or did not like the combination of wind slabs and icy slopes.

“Anyone with a bit of avalanche education may question the terrain selection that Nicholas made that day, but many more would admit to making similar choices in similar conditions. The fateful mistakes that Nicholas made were skiing alone and skiing above a terrain trap that carried significant consequence. The slope which released contained a slab just barely large enough to bury a person; add a funnel and a narrow stream bed to this and the avalanche debris became more than enough to bury Nicholas. Though surviving an avalanche on that day above that terrain trap is far from certain, having a partner skilled in companion rescue may have saved Nicholas in this case, assuming effective companion rescue occurred immediately after the avalanche.

“As backcountry skiing, and more specifically steep skiing in avalanche terrain, continues to grow in popularity, we at MWAC (Mount Washington Avalanche Center) continue to hope that people will get educated by taking avalanche courses as well as bring a partner and the appropriate skills and equipment into the terrain. For many of us, Nicholas’ death gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own risky behaviors. Nicholas, like many of us in the ski community, loved to ski and had taken many of the steps necessary to stay safe while doing it. He had avalanche education under his belt, he carried a ski repair kit, extra layers, plenty of water, and a first aid and survival kit. He was wearing a beacon and carrying a probe and shovel. Unfortunately, no one was watching from a safe location while he skied the slope, ready to rescue him before time ran out.”

Some people will say that Benedix shouldn’t have been skiing there or skiing alone, but, when you come right down to it, there’s no way to absolutely guarantee safety anywhere at any time. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center does its best to educate people and help them stay safe. I think it’s entirely appropriate that Benedix’s family asked that donations in his name be made to the Avalanche Center in lieu of flowers.

Life constantly offers us opportunities for mishaps. But if we are aware of risks, we can choose to plunge in anyway, we can choose to mitigate the risks as much as we can, or we can choose to avoid certain risks altogether. The trick is to find the proper balance for you. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

More traps

■The avalanche that killed Benedix was not the only one on Mount Washington that day. There were at least three other avalanches that day in Oakes Gulf, a south-facing bowl at the head of the Dry River. One of them caught and partially buried another backcountry skier.

■A few days later (April 22), another skier fell, slid down the Headwall and into a waterfall hole in Tuckerman Ravine. Rescue efforts got underway immediately but he was able to extract himself and, with help, get to safety.

We all live with some risk every day. ... Isn’t that part of the fun?

(Tim Jones is the Executive Editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. He can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)




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