Mt Washington started the week off last Sunday afternoon on a sad note. Let me first explain a little how Search and Rescue (SAR) on Mt Washington works. The 60-acre summit of Mt Washington is a NH State Park. The bulk of the mountain is part of the one million acres of the White Mountain National Forest. The Mt Washington Auto Road and Cog Rail Road are both private companies and each owns a 66′ strip of land from their bases to the summit. These separate companies owned their right-of-ways since the mid-1850’s, well before the National Forest was created in 1911. The heaviest used backcountry recreational areas of the entire White Mountain National Forest are on east side of the mountain, namely Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines, which is under the local management of the Androscoggin District Ranger Station. Tuckerman Ravine which is visited by over 2,000 skiers/hikers on a nice spring day, is specifically managed by this Ranger Districts’ US Forest Service (USFS) Snow Ranger Program. The Snow Rangers provides public information, avalanche forecasting, search and rescue and other recreational management tasks in the ravines. These ravines pose specific mountaineering hazards more common in the higher mountain ranges, which makes Mt Washington unique among the worlds ‘smaller’ mountains due to it’s extremes in wind and weather, avalanches, and other objective hazards.
Our NH Fish & Game Department (NHFG) is the lead state agency responsible for all inland wood and water emergency responses in the backcountry except for Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines on Mt Washington, officially known as the Cutler River Drainage Area, during the winter and spring months of the year. During these months it’s the USFS Snow Rangers who take the lead in SAR on the steep technical terrain on the eastern slopes of Mt Washington. Like NHFG, the USFS do not have the full-time manpower to deal with an entire backcountry rescue effort by themselves as it can take over 18 rescuers to conduct a simple litter evacuation. These lead agencies provide the overhead command, first response and resource management needed to deal with a 911 backcountry call for help. NHFG and USFS both rely heavily on local volunteer SAR teams who can provide trained personnel to assist with lengthy, difficult carry-outs from remote mountainous areas. Some of these teams can also provide specialty skills such as high angle rescue, winter above tree line navigation, advanced emergency medical skills, volunteer ski patrols, etc. On regular carry-outs, all that usually is requested is to send mountain savvy, sure footed, strong backed volunteers to help carry a +225lb stretcher and patient down a rough hiking trail.
A list of the NH’s volunteer SAR teams can be found on the NH Outdoor Council’s (NHOC) website. Mt Washington State Park doesn’t have any legal obligation to provide for SAR outside it’s boundary but some of our staff do respond to mountain rescues as volunteer such as Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR) who I respond with when not on the summit.
At the Park, we do maintain an un-official list of fatalities in the Presidential Range which are the mountains contained within the NH Highway Routes 302, 115, 16 and 2 corridors.
The “list” is not meant as a morbid curiosity but as a reminder that these peaks can be dangerous and should not be taken for granted even though it can be climbed by a 6-year old with experienced guides. Unfortunately, park staff will soon be adding two more names to the “list,” number 146 is Patrick Scott Powers, 46, from Mansfield Mass died from a long fall into the “Lunch Rocks” while attempting to descend the icy Tuckerman Ravine Headwall at night on January 9, 2012. Number 147 was on April 1, 2012, Norman Priebatsch, 67, from Boston Mass, died from injuries sustained from a fall into an open crevasse that led into an under snow waterfall.
With the case of Mr. Priebatsch his body is still under the snows of Tuckerman Ravine. Many people wonder why the Snow Rangers couldn’t just simply rappel down the snow hole to him and pull him up to the surface? The problem is Mr. Priebatsch fell several hundred feet from high up on the Headwall, over a rock band then into a hole that holds the Cutler River which contains even bigger unseen hazards. This snow hole or “killer crevasse” is located above the top of a rock formation locally known as the “open book” which with heavy spring snow melt is a near vertical 10-story Niagara type waterfall.
Rangers suspect his remains are somewhere in the boulders of the stream bed below the bottom of this open-book waterfall. This waterfall is currently within a narrow ice tunnel covered above by 20-40′ of snow and ice. In order for this ice tunnel to naturally melt and widen enough to safely recover Mr. Priebatsh’s body it will take many weeks, by my guess, given the amount of ice and snow that remains in this area of the ravine. The abnormally rapid snow melt of March has halted and has been replaced with cooler more seasonable weather. Our thoughts, prayers and condolences go out to the family and friends of Mr. Priebatsh and Mr. Powers. I think Ed Whymper says it best in this quote about the joys and sadness of mountaineering: