Record Avalanche on East Coast

Slide on New Hampshire's Mount Washington propagates 650 feet across with 20 people on slope, but no one was caught

Looking up at 6,288-foot Mount Washington from the toe of the debris. PHOTO: White Mountain National Forest

Looking up at 6,288-foot Mount Washington from the toe of the debris. PHOTO: White Mountain National Forest

WORDS: Brian Irwin

On Saturday, March 29, a large avalanche swept the southeast section of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington’s summit cone. According to U.S.F.S. Snow Ranger Chris Joosen, “A slide of this magnitude has never been recorded on this particular slope.” Suspected to be skier triggered, this aspect of 6,288-foot Mount Washington rarely avalanches and is a moderate slope popular for backcountry skiers. Roughly 20 individuals were on the slope when the avalanche occurred at approximately 1 p.m. No one was caught in the slide.

Mount Washington is perhaps best known for its venerable Tuckerman Ravine, an area that draws thousands of visitors on spring weekends. The U.S.F.S. Mount Washington Avalanche Center forecasts this area, but not the summit cone, an area that is largely considered less prone to avalanches than the steep gullies of Tuckerman and neighboring Huntington Ravine.

Joosen estimates the slide meets criteria for a D3 avalanche, which means it has the potential to destroy a wood-frame house. Field analysis revealed the crown face was three feet deep and 650 feet across. The avalanche ran 385 vertical feet. It was thought to have occurred when a weak layer of facets beneath an ice lens collapsed, allowing the overlaying hard slab to run.

The slide in motion. Note the group on the left and right skinning up the mountain. Twenty backcountry travelers were on slope when the slide was triggered by one of them. PHOTO: White Mountain Avalanche Center

The slide in motion. Note the group on the left and right skinning up the mountain. Twenty backcountry travelers were on slope when the slide was triggered by one of them. PHOTO: White Mountain Avalanche Center

The slide was first reported by Harvard Cabin caretaker Rich Palatino. U.S.F.S. Snow Rangers responded immediately. After a three-hour avalanche dog and beacon search, extensive interview of witnesses, and evaluation of the pile, which was 20 feet deep in places, it was determined that there were no casualties.

Avalanches are not uncommon on Mount Washington and in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. However, in that region, larger slab avalanches most frequently occur during or after a storm. On the day of the incident, skies were fair and avalanche conditions in Tuckerman were rated at moderate, “with the primary concern being wet slabs.” Joosen explained that this slide was unique in that “warm weather and free water did not appear to be a causative factor in triggering this event.”

Mount Washington is situated only three hours from Boston and is frequented by experienced and inexperienced backcountry enthusiasts alike. Despite the fact that the summit cone is not forecasted, this event is a powerful reminder of the need to be vigilant when using the backcountry.

Be sure to read your local avalanche report from an avalanche center near you.

Add a comment

  • nemoh2o

    FYI – The second photo in the article above was taken by a volunteer from the non-profit Mount Washington Observatory.

  • Ralph

    I’m no avalanche expert, but it seems like the steeper parts of the ravine will naturally sluff and slide as they need to, while this lower angle slope was probably holding this load of snow for way too long.

  • Mark

    What was the slope angle?

    • jimmy

      I spend a lot of time in the ravines and in this area. The area is around a 25 degree pitch. This would have caught me off guard.

      • Mike A

        You have to remember though it’s not always about the pitch but whether or not it’s open enough or not. In this instance, it couldn’t have been more wide open. Glad nobody was hurt though!

  • Shredthegnarpow

    Funny, I was told avalanche danger was not an issue in the East.

    • mntowle

      Who told you that? Very false information indeed. While this size is uncommon, it is not uncommon for slides to occur – please do research and check the U.S.F.S. / W.M.N.F. avalanche reports before going into the backcountry. Don’t be one of the one’s that have to be carried out (or the cause of someone else having to be carried out).

Updates and Social Media

Latest News Facebook
Twitter Mtnadvisor