Avalanche hits climbers on charity project, injuring three

Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013
The worst moment of the avalanche that slammed a team of climbers on Mount Washington on Thursday came after the snow had settled. Three of the 12 were missing, and their gear was scattered in the avalanche’s path.

“I thought the worst. I thought they were dead,” said Jake St. Pierre, 34, of Concord. As he and the others turned back to search for their friends, St. Pierre collected two of their ice axes and a helmet. He was digging in the snow, in search of a body, when word came that the missing climbers were injured, but alive.

Seven hours later, just before midnight, the last of the team came off the mountain with the help of rescuers. By the time the climbers gathered for breakfast yesterday morning in North Conway, they were making plans for another ascent.

St. Pierre, one of only two New Hampshirites in the group, may return next weekend. “If these guys were here, they’d come back up, too,” said St. Pierre, a Bow police officer who’s made the same climb many times before. “I just happen to live the closest.”

This climb was a project of Ascents of Honor, a charity Andy Politz, a 53-year-old climbing guide from Ohio, and Keith Zeier, a 26-year old retired Marine sergeant from Brooklyn, N.Y., formed this summer to raise money for families of wounded veterans. Zeier lost his left leg in 2010 to an Iraq war injury and hikes with a prosthesis. This was his second big climb with Politz. The two summited Washington’s Mount Ranier, 14,411 feet, this summer.

Zeier, Politz and Politz’s son, JP Politz of New York City, were injured and initially missing after the avalanche passed at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Zeier and Andy Politz remained hospitalized yesterday, Politz with a broken leg and Zeier with shoulder and back pain. JP Politz was treated for an ankle injury and released. They could not be reached for comment.

The crew, which included climbers with a range of experience, started its climb Wednesday from Pinkham Notch. They spent Wednesday night at Harvard Cabin, a heated but rustic hut 1.8 miles from the trail head. The next morning, they planned to follow Odell Gully, a grueling, icy climb through Huntington Ravine, to the top of Mt. Washington, where they would stay the night at the observatory.

But they changed plans Thursday morning after hearing weather reports calling for colder temperatures and higher winds. They opted instead for Central Gully, a slightly easier route, believing it would get them to the top faster. The avalanche threat was moderate for both passes that morning.

“We were monitoring and measuring the conditions as we were climbing,” said Scott Blanchard of Columbus, Ohio. “We were taking in the weather conditions, our party’s condition, our rate of ascent, the time of day and other variables with the intent of choosing the safest line of ascent.”

The climb from Harvard cabin to the top of the gully isn’t especially long – about 1¼ miles. But the gully is steep and challenging, making the team’s ascent slow.

The party entered the gully at 12:30 p.m., according to Chris Joosen, a lead snow ranger with the U.S. Forest Service who responded after the avalanche. The 12 climbers were roped together in groups of three for safety. By 4:30 p.m., as it was getting dark, they hadn’t reached the top of the gully, and had another 1½ miles beyond that to the Mount Washington Observatory.

Steph White, an experienced climber from Michigan, said the group remained in constant contact with the observatory and decided it was safest to continue its ascent rather than turn back and return to the hut, even though it was getting dark.

Andy Politz, his son and Zeier were at the front of the group, near the top of the gully, just before the avalanche. St. Pierre was behind Politz and Zeier, roped together with Blanchard and Thom Pollard, a Jackson climber who was filming the expedition for Ascents of Honor.

Politz asked St. Pierre and Pollard to move ahead and get over the top of the gully first so Pollard could get footage of Zeier as he cleared the gully.

The snow was deep – up to St. Pierre’s waist – and it was sitting on top of hard packed, slippery ice. A perfect condition for an avalanche, the U.S. Forest Service said. As St. Pierre moved ahead of Politz and Zeier, a large slab of snow broke from the ice beneath it and came at them.

St. Pierre and Pollard yelled “Avalanche” at the same time but didn’t have time to do much else beside brace themselves as the snow covered all of them.

“It got dark a couple of times,” said St. Pierre, who like the others was wearing crampons on his boots for traction. “I was on my back. I dug my ice ax into the side of the mountain and tried to dig my heels in.” It helped.

He, Pollard and Blanchard slid about 40 feet before being able to “self-arrest” and stop.

Zeier, Andy Politz and Politz’s son, all roped together, couldn’t stop. They fell the farthest, about 800 feet, to the bottom of the gully, the U.S. Forest Service said.

When the climbers had regained their footing, they did a head count and became worried when they only heard nine team members respond. White saw three headlamps, lights on, at the bottom of the gully. She tried to reach Andy Politz over the radios each were carrying but didn’t get a response.

“Our decision was immediate,” Blanchard said. “We decided to turn and go back down to do a hasty avalanche search.”

What they didn’t know was that Andy Politz had managed to reach the attendant at the Harvard Cabin, who radioed the U.S. Forest Service for help. Zeier, Andy Politz and his son began crawling toward the cabin, in spite of their injuries.

Four snow rangers from the U.S Forest Service and several volunteers from the North Conway Mountain Rescue Service responded to the call. Joe Lentini, the team leader for the rescue service, said volunteers helped the three injured climbers off the trail to a rescue vehicle that was able to drive close to the cabin.

They were taken by ambulance to the hospital in Berlin around 9:30 p.m.

The other climbers made their way back to the Harvard cabin on their own but were driven out the last mile by volunteers. They didn’t make it back to the Pinkham Notch parking lot until nearly 11:30 p.m.

Lentini said it was not a particularly difficult rescue because all the climbers had made it out of the most rugged terrain, either as result of the avalanche or on their own. The only real challenge, he said, was the late hour and the cold, biting temperatures.

By early yesterday morning, some people began questioning the wisdom of the team’s decision to continue on given the late hour, the slow pace and the weather.

“Any professionally guided group in this valley . . . would have a turn-around time of 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. in January,” said Rick Wilcox, a guide and owner of International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. He said guides from his store won’t keep going if they can’t see the Mt. Washington Observatory by that time of day because they consider it too dangerous to risk losing daylight in winter conditions.

Wilcox said had the climbing team made it out of the gully, they would have encountered more wind and colder temperatures for the last 1½ miles to the observatory. “That would have been absolutely disastrous I think,” he said.

Joosen, of the U.S. Forest Service, calls Wilcox every morning to relay the weather and climbing conditions so he can pass it on to customers, especially those renting climbing equipment, and the rescue volunteers. Joosen expressed concern about the safety of the climbing team this week during a morning call, Wilcox said.

Reached yesterday, Joosen said the size of the crew concerned him because that many people means moving slowly. That’s dangerous in bitterly cold conditions, he said. It can also be dangerous to remain roped together in avalanche conditions, especially when no one is using ice or snow anchors secure themselves.

“If you don’t have experience and skill, if one person falls, you all fall,” Joosen said. “That’s where this can be a questionable technique for certain levels of skill.” Yet using anchors and climbing one at a time slows the pace considerably, and that can present its own risks, he said.

But he was reluctant to draw too many conclusions before his agency finishes talking to the climbers. “It think it’s really easy to pick an incident apart,” Joosen said. “We are usually trying to make a risk assessment and all of us make that based on the hazards presented by the mountain, an evaluation of our personal skills, the equipment we have and what time of day it is. Based on all of these factors, what can be a reasonably good choice for one group can be a bad choice for a different group.”

The climbers were aware yesterday morning that their approach was being critiqued. As they exchanged thoughts over breakfast yesterday, they said they weren’t second-guessing themselves.

“Had the avalanche not hit, we would have gotten up there around 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m.,” Blanchard said. “We would have been up there in early evening. We knew it was going to be after dark.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)