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Mount Washington Avalanche | Nightmare on Mount Washington

Mount Washington Avalanche | Nightmare on Mount Washington
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Mount Washington Avalanche | Nightmare on Mount Washington
Photo/Art by Yankee Magazine

Yankee Magazine March 1993

Jamie Huntsman never saw the avalanche that rumbled down Mount Washington, sweeping him and his climbing partner off the highest mountain in New England. But strangely, he could see himself falling, heading downward, and knew that if he didn’t get himself turned around, he was going to die.

The afternoon of February 24, 1991, blew in cold and gusty, and Vermonters Tom Smith and Jamie Huntsman felt all of its bluster. By 2:00 P.M. the two avid climbers stood high up in Odell Gully, a steep, icy gash in Huntington Ravine, just a couple of hundred feet below the summit shoulder of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the Northeast’s tallest peak.

Though nearly at the end of their climb, Jamie, a tall, athletic 36-year-old from Montpelier, was growing anxious. He and Tom, 41, a lean former nationally ranked bicycle racer, had started that morning under starry skies. But the weather had deteriorated all day and now they were wrapped in clouds dense with snow flurries.

Roped together for safety, they had been leapfrogging each other up the gully, cautiously taking turns climbing, then digging in to provide security in case the other slipped or fell — a basic mountaineering technique called belaying. Jamie was leading now, with Tom below providing the belay, and he was encountering loose patches of snow. He thought, “This doesn’t feel good.”

The avalanche danger that morning had been rated low to moderate at the Appalachian Mountain Club Lodge in Pinkham Notch when they started. But Mount Washington is notorious for its changing weather, and Jamie wondered how much snow had fallen in the past few hours.

Jamie carefully worked his way up the narrow, V -shaped sluiceway they had entered after leaving the broad face of ice and rocks in the main gully. He crested a small ice bulge and, once secure on top, dug in a little seat. Sticking his ice ax solidly behind him as an anchor, he roped himself into it and turned to face downhill, setting his crampons in the ice. “Belay on,” he yelled to his partner. “Climb.”

“Climbing,” Tom’s voice echoed up.

Tom, a tall man with an irrepressible sense of humor and remarkable athletic skills, had plunged into ice climbing the last two years with his characteristic enthusiasm. The two had spent the winter practicing on ice all over Vermont, and Tom had twice come to Mount Washington to take ice-climbing lessons. They had been eager to tackle this longer, more challenging climb together.

As Tom worked his way up, Jamie took in the slack line. Suddenly, the world around Jamie went completely white.

“Hold on, snow coming,” he yelled, bracing himself against the startling pressure of a snow slide. Though spooked by the hissing snow, he and Tom had practiced self-arrest techniques and were climbing by the book, so he figured they were OK. When the snow relented, Jamie thought with relief, “We’re holding.”

That was when he heard a roar. Jamie never saw what hit him next. The avalanche blew him off the bulge of ice like a piece of dust, launching him into the air and deep into the heart of a climber’s worst nightmare.

In that instant, Jamie quickly and coolly calculated his options. He was schussing down the gully on his rear, a feet-first human sled out of control. With his ice ax gone, he had only the crampons on his feet to dig in and try to arrest himself He recalled stories of climbers doing that only to snap their ankles, or worse, somersault down the mountain. But as he picked up speed, he knew he had to do something. His best chance was to dig in his crampons when he felt the tug of the rope that tied him to Tom. Even as he thought it, Jamie shot past his climbing partner. Tom was dug in, holding with his toes and ice ax on the steep slope, an indescribable look on his face.

Desperately Jamie slammed his crampons into the ice. They were torn off his feet. No tug of the rope ever came, and with dread and amazement, Jamie realized he was irrevocably plunging to the base of the mountain.

Updated Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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