Posted June 3rd, 2009
I tried it in class the first day back. My students were into it. I narrated it while we all watched the sweep-second hand on the clock:
crack—”I’m riding it down!”
highly focused—ram axes through snow up to elbows—picks grab ice
second avi above me breaks—tons of snow collapse onto me—lifted off mountain—covered by snow
roll onto back—embedded in snow—slow-motion chaos—avi procedures by the book
freight trains aren’t turbulent. swim. head up. fight.
airborne… tick… tick… tick
lose axe, hat, sunglasses.
accelerate—see rocks whip by close to 40mph I think.
roll face down, attempt self-arrest
lose last axe
see Tim’s crampons above me
roll onto back, Tim passes (I don’t see him pass but he somehow got ahead of me), swim, head up, fight
tree plinko: crack thigh, back, arms, feet, head strike (rang like a bell), arms, ribs, hands
grind to a stop, blood spurting
I see Tim! He’s alive.
I’ve done it several times, watching the clock, and I know it plays faster in my head each time. I started telling people, “between 10 and 20 seconds,” but my first guess when I spoke to the snow rangers was 40-45 seconds, but I knew as soon as I said it that there’s no way. I really have no idea, but I’ve finally settled on 15 seconds.
Dodge’s Drop was named after Brooks Dodge, the son of the famous Joe Dodge, who skied it in the 1940s. It’s a beautiful straight-line gully that rises 1,500 feet above the Hermit Lake Cabin on Mount Washington in the White Mountains. It’s the arrow-straight gully to the left of Hillman’s Highway. In fact, you ascend Hillman’s about a quarter of the way and make a hard left up into the rocks, following the avi run-outs. It’s not in Tuckerman Ravine, but you can easily see Lion’s Head and Right Gully from Dodge’s, until you get up into the rocks. While it’s a “no fall” route (fall = die), it’s normally done without protection, since the slope rarely exceeds 60 degrees, and I’ve seen skiers descend it many times.
I’ve climbed it four times, twice with a surface so hard that the top 500 feet was all toe-pointing. There is normally a substantial cornice at the top, and even if conditions are excellent on the ascent, the last 25 vertical feet are always a moment of cautious route decision. The gully widens into a fan, with the edges bounded by a prominent ship’s prow to the left, steep rocks to the right, and a cornice at the top. My first ascent ended by topping out over the cornice with the last 6 feet at almost 80 degrees. The second and third times were just an easy sprint in early April. The fourth time was in January, 2008, when I reached this upper section and moved, climber’s left, into the rocks to avoid a cornice that stretched across the entire top. I crawled up an iced convex spine.
My fifth time, on this fateful day with my climbing partner, Tim, was an easy sprint. I stopped several times to look over my shoulder at the blue sky and the great valley below. The ascent had three types of surface: the old hard base; well-weathered wind-slab in long, lens-shaped swells that blended uniformly with the old base; and gravel-sized ice fragments that had fallen off the brush and rocks above, in loose pockets, and were still constantly falling down the slope onto us like a hissing cascade of broken glass. The wind-slab had been rained on extensively and had a thin crust that reflected light like the old base. We had to actually kick into it to know we were securely in it. We did test traverses left and right the whole way up. We tested snow depth with our axes when we found our kicks sinking in deep enough to make a full step. Everything looked firm and well bonded to the base, and we had no concerns about being anywhere in the gully. In fact, the last 100 meters or so was uniform old base that left no footprints, just toe-points. It wasn’t until we were up in a little fan at the top of the gully that we encountered significant wind slab—a minor cornice, but a huge bulge of snow. We agreed to head hard left into the rocks and as we started moving, the snow let go.
And so we fell. After what seemed like a very long time, I came to a stop with my left leg in the air in the branches of a small, brushy tree, my body stretched across the slope. Tim came to stop against some tree trunks about eight feet from me. I assessed myself, then pulled my leg out of the tree, releasing me and some debris to slide down to Tim. I stopped by jamming the crampon of my sprained foot into a tree (which was how I discovered it was sprained), and tried to assess Tim, who was moaning as he went in and out of consciousness. He seemed stable but complaining that he couldn’t see as he was losing consciousness.
I was reluctant to start moving either of us right away, so I held onto his hand and we caught our breaths. As the feelings of urgency rapidly waned (“we’re alive!”), the aches and pains began to settle into a set of real, identifiable injuries, and we began to focus on a short-term plan for bleeding, water, shock, possible subsequent avi debris, and hypothermia. We didn’t know if anyone else had seen the accident, and even though I had 10 meters of climbing rope, I began to worry about how I would lower Tim down to Hillman’s Highway, if he or I had internal injuries.
Fortunately, someone did see us. It was Luke, the caretaker at Hermit Lake Cabin. He was on Hillman’s, about 300 meters away from our stopping point, just a bit above us. He skied to us, shouting, and radioed to the snow rangers that we were alive. He did spine tests and checked for fractures and internal organ damage. I put on my beanie to stop my head wound from bleeding, and started pulling clothing out of my pack to stay warm, while Luke checked on Tim, who was struggling with going in and out of consciousness. Tim’s hip had taken a severe blow, and though the stabbing pains were severe, he was quickly coming around. Tim shook off the cobwebs and within five minutes of Luke’s arrival, we stood up and started climbing down. We met up with two snow rangers, Jeff and Kevin, a few minutes later. They dug some seats into the snow, re-examined us for spinal and organ injuries, and lent us each an axe to continue the climb down to Hillman’s. Luke skied away, and though we were rattled, the four of us headed back to the Forest Service cabin.
After a long de-briefing for the incident report (a rare opportunity to interview lucid avi survivors) and some bandages to cover the cuts, we got a ride with Chris to Pinkham Notch in the snowcat, with Cutler the search dog riding in the back with us. We left Tim’s car at Pinkham and I drove us back to St. Johnsbury, where we checked into the ER for a more detailed exam and an x-ray or two. Tim stayed with me at my house for a few days so we could decompress, practice bandaging and retell the story to each other and to anyone who’d listen.
The final agreed-upon version of what happened at the top of Dodge’s was that there were two fracture events. The first was the snow immediately around me. I was above and to the left of Tim, when a canoe-sized chunk cracked loose around me, sending me rocketing past him. The loss of supporting snow caused the entire fan above us—about 30 feet of cornice and all the snow bulge—to slip down, throwing Tim in the air backwards, then head first, right behind me. As the snow compressed in the funnel at the bottom of the fan, it lifted Tim high, and buried me. The snow flowed with little turbulence, and remarkably, very little physical damage was done by the ride except for ice-rash. The cliff we overshot was actually a narrowing of the gully. From a climber’s perspective, the route narrows between large boulders (I call it “the strait”), where there is usually an ice-fall, normally not more than four to six feet tall. The avalanche appears to have encountered the strait, which had been backfilled with debris from previous avalanche activity. We believe we were shot up and over the boulders—blown right over the top and into the air, as the debris overwhelmed the narrow chute. The slope below the cliff was still about 45 degrees, so the landing was smooth and cushioned by the rapidly moving snow. Immediately after landing, the debris split left-and-right between two favored run-outs; we went to skier’s left. The right fork continued on, eventually touching down on Hillman’s Highway. The left lobe of debris drove us into some trees, and a slight change in slope and the trees themselves slowed our descent to a stop, but caused all our lasting injuries.
It is now one month later as I write this. As for injuries, Tim is having his ACL surgically replaced, I’m going to wait a month or two more before making a surgery decision on a torn meniscus in my left knee. My sprained right ankle is healed, and our ice rashes are slowly disappearing… and, now that a month has passed, I can use my broken right pinkie to type.
Next time I’ll bring a helmet.
Dan Zucker and his wife Susan live in Danville in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where they run a custom software and professional coaching and consulting company, parallaxman.com. Dan teaches high school and college physics, and hikes, runs, bikes, skis, and photographs year ’round in the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.