6 Ill-Equipped US Soldiers Were Injured After Avalanche Warning Signs Were Ignored

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Soldiers participate in the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School training in Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont. Credit: Program Executive Office Soldier

The Army Mountain Warfare School knew that conditions meant a slide was likely but pushed ahead with training exercises anyway, according to an Army accident report on a Vermont avalanche that sent five soldiers to the hospital in March. VTDigger obtained a heavily redacted version of the report through a Freedom of Information Act request. The analysis of what caused the accident, for example, goes on for eight and a half pages and is entirely redacted.

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A photo of the scene taken from the report.

6 US soldiers were injured in an avalanche while performing advanced mountain warfare training today in the backcountry near Stowe ski resort in Vermont in March of this year. They were swept 1,000′ downhill in the avalanche.

A chronological version of events and summaries of the interviews with those involved point to inadequate risk assessment protocols, a lack of preparedness and a failure to respond to conditions on Smugglers Notch before sending a squad of soldiers up a notorious stretch of the mountain without even basic avalanche safety tools.

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An instructor with the U.S. Army’s Mountain Warfare School leads soldiers on an ascent through a ravine at Smugglers Notch in February 2013. Credit: VTDigger

An interview summary says a non-commissioned officer in the Vermont Army National Guard:

“…told a student on the drive up that these were some of the most classic avalanche conditions he had ever seen and expect to see a slide.”

Another of the instructors, a sergeant first class with 14 years of service in the military, said that if he were climbing the mountain on a day off, he probably would not have continued up the mountain given the conditions:

“He reported that despite observations that supported an avalanche risk, they continued up the mountain by either rationalizing what they were seeing or not taking the time to process it,” the summary of his interview says.

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A soldier’s helmet damaged in the slide. Credit: VTDigger

The report also adds that none of the squad members on the day were carrying a beacon, shovel or probe, all basic avalanche safety tools, although according to accident checklists they were all wearing a helmet, goggles, gloves and mountain boots.

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Scene of the slide.

Five of the six members of the squad were injured, though none were buried in the slide. Two students traveled approximately 500 feet over large rocks. Three others traveled approximately 1,000 feet, and fell 50 feet off a large rock during the descent, the report says.

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