Mount Washington Avalanche | Nightmare on Mount Washington
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.
Nearby, atop another route up Odell Gully, Roger Hirt, a 41-year-old auto mechanic from Barre, Vernont, and his climbing partner Jack Pickett, 38, a well-known chef in Stowe, had finished their climb and were waiting to meet up with their friends Jamie and Tom.
Jack and Roger had opted to take a more difficult route than Tom and Jamie, who were soon out of sight to their left. As they climbed, Roger and Jack talked, enjoying the ascent up the ravine, a place Roger felt was “as close to the Alps as you can get.”
But Roger had also grown uneasy about the deteriorating conditions, which cut visibility to one “pitch” of rope — about 150 feet. Roger respected Mount Washington’s dangerous reputation — it had claimed more than 100 lives — and its notorious weather. But by 2:30, the two men reached the summit shoulder. They sat above the gully to eat and await their rendezvous.
After an hour, Roger wondered if their companions had already come up, gone back, and were now sipping hot tea as he and Jack froze at the top. With the whipping snow making it increasingly difficult to see, they decided to descend. They returned via South Gully, one over from Odell.
As they descended, something moved in Jack’s peripheral vision, something falling. His gut feeling was that something was wrong. When they reached the bottom, he and Roger decided not to go down to their car at Pinkham Notch, but back up to the start of Odell Gully in case something was wrong. The two worked their way back around.