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Mount Washington Avalanche | Nightmare on Mount Washington

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.

From its base, Huntington Ravine rises before the eye in a grand and desolate semicircle of steep rock. Odell Gully is on the left, its narrow entrance marked by the distinctive spire of Pinnacle Buttress and by the long, steep, fan-shaped wedge of hard packed snow that leads to the opening. Hiking up the wooded access trail to Odell, with darkness falling and fatigue setting in, Roger and Jack came to an emergency first aid cache. They hollered up the mountain to see if anyone needed help. They heard someone call back.

During a previous climb that winter, Tom and Jamie had scaled an icy cliff in Vermont and had indulged in some black humor. Tom had joked that a fall would be like playing “human pinball with stone flippers.” He couldn’t have been more prophetic.

The avalanche ripped the two climbers off their perch and poured them down the top chute into the maw of the near-vertical gully. Ricocheting off rocks and ice, Jamie slammed into a huge, scoured, stone slab with his shoulder, bounced off, and then felt himself airborne. “This is taking a long time,” he thought.

He suddenly had the strangest experience of being out of his body. He looked over at himself and saw he was falling head downward. If I want to survive, he thought, I’d better turn myself around. Then he blacked out.

Jamie landed, apparently feet first, on the steep fan of snow at the bottom of Odell, where the slope probably absorbed some impact by sliding him downhill. The rope that tied him to Tom snagged on a treetop sticking out of the snow and prevented the two men from tumbling into the rocks below. In all, they had fallen 1,400 feet, a distance greater than the height of the Empire State Building.

When he came to, Jamie could not believe he was back at the bottom of the climb. Stunned, he took an inventory of his body. His shoulder ached, his rear hurt, he saw blood on his hands and clothes, but he was alive, and no bones seemed to be broken. He heard Tom groaning nearby. He tried to go to him, but intense pain forced him to sit back down. Through the fog of shock, he tried to think what to do. After a moment’s hesitation emergency first aid cache he had never had to call for help before emergency first aid cache Jamie yelled with all his strength.

When Roger and Jack heard the calls, they had no idea who it was. Jack ran toward the gully. Roger ran down nearly a mile to call for help from the radio-phone at Harvard Cabin, an overnight bunkhouse for climbers. Then he headed back up as fast as he could.

Jack gasped for air as he rushed uphill in the direction of the voice. Emerging into the open, he looked up the steep snow slope and saw someone sitting with his head down. The man’s metal-frame pack was shredded like coleslaw, and he looked a mess. As he approached in the fading daylight, Jack was stunned to realize it was Jamie. “Are you OK?” he yelled. “I’m hurt, but I think I’m OK,” Jamie replied.

Jack saw Jamie was in shock and bleeding. He dug a seat in the snow for him so he wouldn’t tumble further and gave him a jacket. Then he located Tom about 25 yards away.

Tom was alive, but had suffered severe internal and head injuries despite wearing a climbing helmet. Jack gingerly moved Tom to make him more comfortable. Then he sat and cradled him waiting for help to come. As he waited, he looked at the mountain in sadness and frustration. He knew he would never look at a mountain in the same way again. “It was the longest hour and a half I ever spent in my life,” Jack later said. “There was nothing I could do.”

Updated Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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