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Spring Skiing on Mount Washington

Tuckerman Ravine photo

With spring making its appearance in northern New England, it's the time of year when many experienced skiers start scheduling a trip to Mount Washington for the annual ritual of spring skiing on slopes of the northeast's highest peak. The staff at the Mount Washington Observatory, which for more than 60 years has watched the weather from its perch atop the lofty peak, advises all considering the ski trek to Mount Washington to plan ahead, and to recognize that many weather-related hazards can lie in wait on the mountain.

"A fine spring day on Mount Washington can give an experienced skier an unforgettably enjoyable time," notes Observatory meteorologist Sarah Curtis, "but visitors need to know that dangerous weather or snow and ice conditions can be found here, too. Tuckerman Ravine, for instance, has given thousands of skiers incredibly great ski runs, but it's also been the scene of several tragic accidents, often because some visitors may not be fully aware of the high mountain hazards that lurk here."

Curtis underscores the fact that skiing on Mount Washington is a true backcountry ski adventure. "Even on a busy day in Tuckerman, folks need to remember that this mountain is not a developed ski area. Access is difficult, slopes aren't groomed, and retreat can be very time consuming. There are dangers here - such as from undermined snow, open crevasses, falling ice, and avalanches - which skiers who only are acquainted with developed ski areas need to become more familiar with in order to ski here with reasonable safety. Plus, there's the mountain's notorious weather, which even in springtime can bring temperatures below zero, super-hurricane winds, and whiteout conditions in late season blizzards."

Spring Skiing on Mount Washington

Some Weather Related Hazards and How to Avoid Them

Tuckerman Ravine

When the longer, milder days of springtime return to New England, spring skiers start their annual migration to Mount Washington. The high slopes of the Northeast's highest peak can bring wonderfully warm and sunny days that are a treat for the visitor, but even the finest of days can present hazards that any spring skier must be aware of. Plus, skiers should know that fair-weather days are the exception, since the potential severity of Mount Washington's weather is notorious, with sub-zero temperatures, hurricane force winds, and white-out conditions being possible even in April and May.

The following are a few tips to help make aspiring spring skiers more aware of some of the hazards which can await them on Mount Washington. This information is not meant to be a comprehensive introduction to the many important topics in mountain safety, and no visitor to Mount Washington should ever think that any trip can be entirely without hazard.

Spring Weather

On Mount Washington, spring is sometimes but a late extension of winter. Consider the following statistics: In April, average temperature on the summit is only 22 degrees F., with a typical range seeing a daytime high of about 29 and an overnight low of about 16 degrees. The mercury has dropped as low as -20 and has never climbed above 60. Winds on the summit average 36 miles per hour, so a typical wind-chill equivalent may dip below zero. The highest wind recorded on the surface of the earth, a remarkable 231 miles per hour, was clocked on Mount Washington in April, 1934. New snowfall averages more than 40 inches, with more than 100 inches as a monthly record.

Even May can have a wintry bite on occasion. The average May temperature is slightly above freezing at 35 degrees, with a typical daily range from 29 to 41. Though May has seen a reading as high as 66, the month has also seen a low of -2. (That's right, below zero in May!) Winds average almost 30 miles per hour, with a record monthly gust of 164 miles per hour. While an average May yields 11 inches of snow, almost 100 inches fell in May 1997.

On the average, more than half the days in April or May will give some measurable precipitation. More than 80% of the days of each month will have periods with dense fog, drastically limiting visibility high on the mountain, so good route-finding skills are a necessity.

These figures are for the summit of Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet above sea level. Conditions lower on the mountain are generally somewhat less extreme, but still can prove truly severe, especially for visitors who are insufficiently prepared for cold, wet, and windy conditions, and who expect spring conditions in the mountains to be similar to those at lower elevations.

With cold, wet, and windy weather being so commonplace on the mountain, any visitor should be prepared with plenty of wool or synthetic warm clothing, wind gear, and rain gear. Check the forecast before heading up, and be willing to turn back if conditions dictate.

It's Not Just the Weather...

While the typically cold, wet, and windy conditions on the mountain can be hazard enough, it's not just the weather that spring skiers need to be wary of - they also need to recognize the dangers that weather can leave behind. Among the dangerous weather-related conditions that spring skiers can find are avalanches, falling ice, crevasses, and undermined snow.

Avalanches

Avalanches are not a hazard unique to the earth's highest peaks, or to the winter months. Mount Washington, though small by global standards, has seen several fatal avalanche accidents, taking the lives of hikers, climbers, and skiers. Avalanche hazard can persist well into the spring, especially on steep and open slopes and chutes - terrain which, in good conditions, is sought after by spring skiers.

Skiers should be aware that avalanche season does not have a closing date. Low avalanche hazard due to very specific conditions on, say, one late March weekend can be replaced by high avalanche hazard after an early April storm. Safe conditions at a particular time in one year is absolutely no guarantee that the same time next year will also be safe.

Backcountry skiers owe it to themselves and their skiing companions to become familiar with avalanche danger, how to assess it, and how to avoid it. There are several good books on the topic, which are a great place to start serious avalanche study; courses taught by mountain guides or other avalanche professionals should be an important part of a backcountry skier's training. An avalanche-aware skier knows that shovels, probes, and transceivers are essential gear for any skiing in avalanche country, especially for those skiing away from the most heavily traveled areas.

On Mount Washington in the spring, the U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers regularly post avalanche advisories for the most heavily skied areas. All skiers should seek out and heed these warnings, and should consult with the Snow Rangers whenever a question on avalanche safety arises.

Check the latest U.S. Forest Service avalanche bulletin.

Falling Ice

photo

On the steep Mount Washington ravine headwalls, huge icicles form through the fall, winter, and early spring. As the spring season progresses, these icicles - some weighing many tons - lose their cover of snow, start to melt and weaken under the sun's rays, and eventually crash down to the floors of the ravines. Any object in their path will be damaged, and any person in their path will be injured, perhaps fatally. Skiers and other visitors to the ravines need to be "ice smart", and to always keep a sharp eye and ear tuned to the possibility of falling ice. Places exposed to ice fall should be avoided if possible, and, when brief exposure cannot easily be prevented, a quick escape route must be plotted ahead of time.

Remember, when a sign warns of falling ice, these are not tiny ice cubes - they may be blocks the size of automobiles! Falling ice kills - stay out of its way!

Crevasses

When the season's snow pack begins to melt and weaken on Mount Washington's ravine headwalls, forces within the snowpack may cause cracks to develop across the slopes. These cracks, called crevasses, may be small or large, shallow or deep, but in any case they should be avoided. Snow around the crevasses may be weak, and a fall into a crevasse could cause a skier to drop a great distance within the snowpack, suffering injury in the fall and landing in a pool of frigid water at the bottom. Rescue from a crevasse fall can be exceptionally time-consuming, difficult, and dangerous for the rescuers. Crevasse falls have proven fatal in Tuckerman Ravine.

Skiers who are descending the slopes and gullies have to exercise special caution, since sometimes the crevasses aren't plainly visible from above. If there is any doubt about what lies below, use exceptional care in the descent.

Undermined Snow

There are many streams which flow down the mountain from natural springs and from spring snowmelt. Some of these streams are open and visible, but others are covered with snow - for a while. Some of the covering snow may be weak, melting from the top and also melting from below thanks to air movement through the stream channel. This undermined snow can give way suddenly under a skier, hiker, or climber, sending him or her plummeting a few or many feet into the cold stream below. Keep alert to the hazards of undermined snow, and use your mountain sense to read the terrain to avoid locations where such conditions are most likely.

And that's Not All!

Only a few of the many hazards in high mountain skiing have been noted here. Experienced skiers know that they assume many other risks, too, such as those found with variable surface conditions of powder snow, corn snow, wind-packed snow, hard and icy snow, and that the run-outs of typical ski terrain may contain sharp drop-offs, rocks, and large chunks of ice.

And on a More Optimistic Note...

Sometimes the sun does shine on Mount Washington, so be sure to bring good sunglasses, sunblock, and drink plenty of water to fight dehydration!

For more information: Those planning a spring trip to Tuckerman Ravine can get other useful information by visiting the official Tuckerman Ravine website.

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