On Saturday, April 15, 2023, a snowboarder attempting to descend the Tuckerman Ravine Headwall lost control resulting in a fall into one of the deep, open waterfall holes that form each year from water runoff and melting. After about ten minutes, the person ultimately was uninjured and able to extract themselves from the hole. This incident and near-miss highlight a dangerous and high-consequence springtime hazard that has injured and killed visitors in past years.
Saturday, April 15, 2023, was a classically busy spring day in Tuckerman Ravine, full of skiers, snowboarders, and hikers. An estimated 3000 people visited Tuckerman Ravine throughout the course of the day. Mostly, skiers and riders were enjoying warm temperatures, soft snow conditions, and plenty of sunshine.
Throughout the day, a handful of aggressive skiers were descending over the Tuckerman Ravine Center Headwall, which at the time was one of the most technical and hazardous features in the ravine. The people descending in this area encountered mandatory drops over cliffs, ice flows, and open waterfall holes in the snowpack. Knowingly or not, descending this area means accepting very high levels of risk.
In this instance, a snowboarder began descending one of these “lines” before losing control in the incredibly technical terrain, falling past a couple of ledges, and ultimately into one of the main open waterfall holes in the snowpack. You can see the full video of this incident above.
Luckily, the snowboarder landed on a rock ledge about 15 feet into this large hole and was able to stop himself from falling further down into the hole, which extended well out of view to an unknown depth. Uninjured, he was able to remove the snowboard and use an ice ax to climb up out of the hole.
At a distance, the takeaways from this incident seem relatively obvious – traveling above large open holes in the snowpack in highly technical terrain has extremely high consequences and little margin for error. However, there are several nuances to this hazard and this location that are worth pointing out for the goal of education and preventing these accidents in the future.
Spatial reference and perspective:
In steep backcountry terrain, especially if unfamiliar, awareness of where you are in relation to certain terrain features can be very challenging. Referencing a terrain feature on the way up and scouting a route can be helpful, but when the perspective completely flips looking down the fall line, and it’s easy to lose spatial reference. This phenomenon is compounded by steep convexities, where “blind” entrances are common. The Tuckerman Headwall is a great example of terrain where spatial reference is challenging without an intimate knowledge of the terrain.
Risk and margin for error:
Remember: You control your own level of risk by choosing when, where, and how you travel in the mountains. Think critically about route choices and the potential consequences of each option. Fully understanding the consequences of a hazard and the ability to maintain control over your exposure to that hazard will help maintain your acceptable margin of error when taking on risk in the mountains.
Waterfall holes and glide cracks:
As warm temperatures, rain, and water runoff continuously melt snow during spring, it is common for large, deep holes and cracks to form in the snowpack. There are a few mechanisms of formation, including concentrated water runoff falling onto the snowpack, snow becoming undermined from water runoff below the snow surface, and from snowpack movement (also called creep) and separation. Sometimes, these cracks and holes are reminiscent of a crevasse, which are formations specific to glaciers. These openings in the snowpack can be very deep (over 50 feet) and large enough for a person to fall into. In most cases, these openings have no reasonable exit until the snow completely finishes melting. Here are a couple of key points about this hazard:
- Glide cracks can be seen as horizontal lines in the snowpack from a distance. It is best to distance yourself from these features because the surrounding snow can be weak, undermined, and connected to the same crack.
- Deep holes often appear as depressions in the snowpack from a distance. They are often found next to or below rock buttresses and boulders where water collects and melts the snow from the surface.
- In the route planning process, it is important to identify where these could be found and ensure there is a way to avoid them.
- Traveling above these features increases the consequences of a fall.
- Fresh unsupportive snow can mask the openings.
Read more about the many other springtime mountain hazards here.
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3 thoughts on “Mount Washington Avalanche Center Releases Report on Snowboarder That Fell into Tuckerman Ravine Waterfall Hole”
No ski patrol – Tuckerman Ravine is a state park. Backcountry skiing.
Maybe the ski patrol should temporarily rope it off if it’s that dangerous? Isn’t that what they usually do? Am I missing something here?
I once got spread-eagled on Right Gully headwall by a glide crack and had to undo my long thongs to get out of it. (Had 220 Dynamics)