Mount Washington Avalanche Center warns of hidden dangers of back country skiing

  • In this Wednesday, May 6, 2015 photo, Charlie Carr of Bristol leads his friend Andy Bell of Thornton up The Sluice, a slope with a 50-degree pitch on Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. There are no lifts at Tuckerman Ravine; to ski it you have to climb it. Robert F. Bukaty

  • FILE - In this March 10, 2015, file photo, Greg George, of Macon, Ga., skis the Lobster Claw, a steep ski route in Tuckerman Ravine on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. Skiers have been hiking up to ski the Northeast's tallest peak for nearly 100 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) Robert F. Bukaty

  • The Tuckerman Ravine headwall. (Wikimedia Commons) Wikimedia Commons

  • FILE - In this April 10, 2016, file photo, a skier drops below the ice-covered headwall of Tuckerman Ravine on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. Thrill-seeking skiers flock to Tuckerman Ravine each spring. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) Robert F. Bukaty

  • In this Monday, April 23, 2018 photo a National Guard helicopter flies over Mount Washington while searching for missing hiker, 70-year-old Christophe Chamley of Massachusetts. New Hampshire Fish and Game officials are calling a search a waste of time, money and resources after he was found at a luxury hotel. A skier is seen climbing in deep snow on the Left Gully of Tuckerman Ravine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

  • In this Sunday, May 3, 2015 photo, Silas Miller, 28, of Conway, N.H. sails more than 50 feet off an ice-covered cliff on the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The steep slopes are considered the birthplace of extreme skiing. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

  • In this Sunday, May 3, 2015 photo, skiers, snowboarders and spectators arrive at base of Tuckerman Ravine, a glacial cirque that attracts thrill seeking skiers and riders on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

  • In this Monday, May 4, 2015 photo, Tuckerman Ravine is seen at the left, about one mile below the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Tuckerman Ravine, the birthplace of extreme skiing in the United States is a bucket-list destination for snow-loving thrill-seekers. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

  • In this Sunday, May 3, 2015 photo, skiers and snowboarders climb up a steep slope that will take them to the top of Tuckerman Ravine, a glacial cirque that attracts thrill seeking skiers and riders on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

  • In this Sunday, May 3, 2015 photo, ice clings to a cliff at Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Avalanches, falling ice, crevasses and undermined snow are some of the dangers faced by backcountry skiers at the birthplace of extreme skiing. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

Monitor Staff
Published: 2/26/2021 3:06:06 PM

Earlier this winter, Frank Carus, lead snow ranger for the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, spoke to two prospective skiers and recommended they choose to descend an area of the mountain with a low angle.

The skiers instead attempted to do a run down one of the steeper trails – Tuckerman Ravine’s Left Gully with a pitch of 45 to 55 degrees. One of the skiers was buried in an avalanche.

There was a successful rescue and both skiers were fine.

“Their enthusiasm really got the better of them,” Carus said, “and that can happen to anybody.”

Mount Washington, and Tuckerman’s Ravine in particular, draw in back country skiers from all over New England looking for a taste of an extreme alpine experience. Trips to the area – hailed as the birthplace of extreme skiing – can be thrilling, or deadly, depending on the weather and condition of the snow.

So far this winter at least two major avalanche events on Mt. Washington have resulted in injuries or casualties. 

Ian Forgays was reported missing the night of Feb. 2 after making plans to ski either Ammonoosuc Ravine or Monroe Brook on the opposite side of the mountain as Tuckerman’s Ravine, according to a press release from New Hampshire Fish and Game about the incident. His body was found on Feb. 3. 

This is the first fatality on Mt. Washington since April 2019, when a lone skier was buried while descending a steep drainage area known as Raymond Cataract.

This week the U.S. Forest Service issued a warning to would-be skiers eyeing New Hampshire’s tallest peak this spring.

“Usually around the end of March we start seeing more of the spring skier crowd,” said U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Jeff Lane. “Slopes finally filled in with snow, the sun higher in the sky, and warmer, longer days can contribute to a more comfortable experience in the ravines.” 

Yet the dangers of avalanches persist throughout the spring. Daily warnings are posted online at mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.

“We see some of the largest and most destructive avalanches of the season in March and early April, and unfortunately, we also see an increase in the number of people traveling in avalanche terrain without the knowledge, skills, and equipment to do so safely,” Lane said. 

Carus said it’s difficult to tell for sure if there has been an uptick in the frequency of avalanches due to the growing popularity of backcountry skiing, but it’s very possible.

“To back up and create a broad stroke, anytime you have increased use in avalanche terrain, you have more avalanches,” ” Carus said. That’s because the majority of people who are caught and buried in avalanches triggered them themselves. As more people are skiing in these areas, it stands to reason avalanches become more common.

Additionally, Carus said, the snow in these areas is weaker this year than it has been in the past, making the area even more dangerous.  

“This is a perfect storm this year, between increased use and a weak snowpack,” Carus said.

Carus said a weak snowpack is “the result of not a lot of snow on the ground combined with consistently cold temperatures,” causing the snow’s crystaline structure to change from “happy, rounded particles of snow that stick well to each other to more square- or cup-shaped crystals that don’t stick well to each other.”

This “sugary” snow, as Carus called it, develops weak layers that can slide apart when triggered, causing avalanches.

Other years have been particularly dangerous as well. In 2018, a single day in April saw seven avalanches in Tuckerman Ravine. Keeping people safe on the mountain, Carus said, is causing growing concern in the rescue community.

“It’s not just rookies with no experience,” Carus said. “It’s veterans going out and getting avalanched.”

The Fish and Game Department, in its press release after the Feb. 1 fatality, warned that backcountry skiing is “a risky venture” that should only be attempted by experienced skiers. Forgays had “years of experience and was prepared” for avalanches, as evidenced by his equipment.

“The group of people who go out there and backcountry ski in these conditions, they’re usually very well prepared, and do the research,” said Lt. Mark Ober with Fish and Game.

“They usually don’t get into these incidents,” Ober said. “This was a tragic accident, a wrong place, wrong time situation.”

Fish and Game was involved with the incident on Ammonoosuc Ravine due to jurisdictional lines. Rscues on the east side of Mt. Washington, including Tuckerman’s Ravine, falls under the purview of Carus’s snow rangers and the U.S. Forest Service.

Carus said that he could only speculate about how such experienced skiers end up in avalanche scenarios but added that there would have to be “some flawed decision-making going on, and it’s usually just when your perception of the problem is different from reality.”

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center recommends that in order to be safe, skiers should keep apprised of the avalanche forecast, have the proper equipment – avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels – and get the training necessary to recognize hidden dangers and red flags, and perform rescues. Additionally, the center strongly recommends skiing in groups.

“I think a good takeaway is when an avalanche hazard is complex, your best solution is finding appropriate terrain, lower angle terrain, that’s not connected to those kinds of slopes that have avalanche concerns,” Carus said,

For more information about avalanche conditions on Mt. Washington or previous incidents on the mountain, visit the center’s website




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