White Mountains rescue leaders tell of hazards, high points
CONWAY - "We're always thinking of what could happen," White Mountain National Forest lead snow ranger Chris Joosen told a standing-room-only crowd at the Frontside Grind. "We're always learning."
Joosen and snow ranger Joe Klementovich spoke at the Friends of Mount Washington Avalanche Center fundraiser Friday night, giving both a history of snow patrol and avalanche reports in the mountain's skiing and climbing ravines, Tuckerman Ravine and Huntington Ravine. Some of that history goes back at least to the 1930s, when trails cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps throughout the White Mountains boosted the popularity of New England skiing.
Klementovich said rescues have been going on since the days of the Crawfords; it's just that nowadays they're more organized. Among the groups that partner with the Forest Service in the ravines are the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, which focuses on Tuckerman Ravine in the spring, and Mountain Rescue Service.
Among other duties, Joosen and his fellow snow rangers are responsible for the daily avalanche report posted by the center from December until the end of the winter/spring ski and ice climbing season. During that time the Forest Service takes over responsibility from state Fish and Game for search and rescue incidents in the Cutler River Drainage.
That report, Joosen said, has been refined over the years, as the rangers strive to give as much information as possible, as clearly as possible, to those who are considering going up the trails.
Joosen said he believes strongly in the "freedom of the hills," allowing people to make their own decisions for their outdoor recreation. He said those decisions are easier for people to make when the avalanche rating is either very high or very low. "The challenge," he said "is in the middle."
It's further complicated by the great variety of conditions on the Northeast's highest mountain, which records winds of more than 100 mph on about a third of the days in the winter months. That wind, and the topography of the rocky ravines, coupled with upslope snow, complicate forecasting conditions, which can change throughout the day.
"Within a gully, you've got everything," Joosen said. After daily reports are written, they're peer reviewed so there's more than one pair of eyes on them. He said they have to treat each day separately, and not let an incident like the avalanche incident on Jan. 17 make them gun shy.
He did, however, say, "The bigger the group gets, the worse the decision." Of group dynamics, he added, "We spend more and more time on it."
In answer to a question about funding for rescues, Rick Wilcox, president of Mountain Rescue Services since the 1970s, said that he is against any fees, and that after 500 rescues in 40 years, his concern is that people won't call for help soon enough, waiting until the conditions worsen and precious time is lost. As to technology, such as cell phones, he said, "I think technology makes it more dangerous."
On Sunday, the avalanche danger for Tuckerman Ravine was moderate and low, and Huntington was low, but the report still pointed out the need for good decisions. "Good visibility today will allow for navigation and the micro-level route finding necessary to avoid those isolated areas of wind loaded snow and bullet hard old surface on which self-arrest would be essentially impossible."
The Friends organization, Joosen said, helps leverage funds and keep up with the modern world, particularly with the all important technology that can inform people of what they are likely to encounter on the mountain even before they get to the trail head.