Skier ID’d in first avalanche fatality on Mount Washington this year; danger remains

  • 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

  • The site of a fatal avalanche in an area known as Raymond Cataract on Mount Washington.

  • The site of a fatal avalanche in an area known as Raymond Cataract on Mount Washington.

Monitor staff
Published: 4/12/2019 2:18:06 PM

The calendar says its prime time for spring backcountry skiing on Mount Washington, but wintry conditions on the state’s highest mountain are proving dangerous and deadly.

On Thursday, Nicholas Benedix, 32, of Campton was skiing alone, descending an area known as Raymond Cataract when he triggered a slab of snow above a series of frozen waterfalls that act as a drainage area in warmer months.

He was buried under 3 to 4 feet of snow for 90 minutes to two hours by the time he was located by rescuers. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center said he was still breathing when rescuers dug him out, but his heart stopped beating shortly after. CPR proved unsuccessful.

Avalanche danger is typically greatest from December to March, but perilous conditions can linger well into spring.

“The bottom line is avalanches can happen at any time if the conditions are right and the conditions are right, right now,” said Evan Burks, spokesman for the White Mountain National Forest Service. “Just because it’s spring skiing time, it doesn’t mean the hazard doesn’t exist.”

Avalanches have killed at least 10 people in Tuckerman Ravine since the 1960s, according to Time For Tuckerman, a guide for skiing the mountain and its renowned ravine.

On Thursday, avalanche danger on Mount Washington was considered “moderate.” That might sound mild to someone unfamiliar with avalanche terms. But “moderate” includes conditions ripe for human-triggered avalanches, Burks said.

Wind-blown slabs on top of a hard icy snowpack have the chance to give way as they warm up, and skiers go over them.

“Wet loose sluffs are one sign that the snowpack is transitioning to a wet slab problem,” the Mount Washington Avalanche Center posted on its website Friday. These sluffs also have the potential to magnify a skiers weight and become the tipping point that could initiate a slab avalanche.

Thursday’s death was the first fatality from an avalanche on Mount Washington this year, Burks said.

Frank Carus, lead snow ranger for the avalanche center, called the area where the skier died a “classic terrain trap.”

A slab about 75 feet across and 16 to 36 inches thick gave way, tumbling the skier down the natural drainage area for the ravine, Carus said in a video posted on Instagram.

“It doesn’t have to be a massive avalanche to hurt or kill you,” Carus said.

Raymond Cataract is a gully located between Tuckerman and Huntington ravines, just north of Lion’s Head.

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