Andy Politz of Columbus, Ohio, (left.) and his son, J.P. Politz of Brooklyn, N.Y. prepare Thursday to climb Mt. Washington. An avalanche would ruin their plans later that day. in background is climbing team member Jake St. Pierre of Concord. (COURTESY OF THOM POLLARD)
Climber caught in Mount Washington avalanche: 'We're all very fortunate'
That was especially true, he said, of three climbers who bore the brunt of the slide and were carried hundreds of feet down the mountain.
"When it hit, of course I was worried that I might die. But not just me - my whole rope team and the other climbers," said Thom Pollard of Jackson, a photographer and filmmaker.
"We were on the side of the slab that fell down; we got knocked about 40 feet."
Pollard said he yelled across the ravine to other climbers, and they decided to climb back down the mountain. Still, he said, it would be three hours before the team members knew that everyone had survived.
"We're all experience climbers, and we're all very fortunate, he said.
The group - including Keith Zeier, an ex-Marine from Brooklyn, N.Y., who lost a leg from injuries he suffered in Iraq - got together to raise money for the surviving families of service members who died in action. They decided to do that by staging a mid-winter climb up Mount Washington.
But their efforts under frigid, sub-zero conditions on the Northeast's highest peak ended when the avalanche thundered down the ravine's Central Gully, sweeping Zeier and the two climbers to whom he was roped some 800 feet down the mountain.
The 12, divided into four teams of three, were working their way over Pinnacle Valley headed for the summit when the wall of snow and ice let go, according to Scot Henley, executive director of the Mount Washington Observatory.
Zeier and his two immediate climbing partners, Andy Politz and his son, J.P. Politz, were rescued and taken to Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening. The hospital released no information on their conditions as of Friday night, but Pollard said Andy Politz was taken to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon where he was treated for a broken leg.
Zeier was held Friday at Androscoggin for observation, and J.P. Politz was treated there for a twisted ankle.
Zeier, 26, suffered a severe head injury in Iraq 2006 when an IED denotated and blew up the Humvee he was in. Shrapnel wounds resulted in the later amputation of his leg.
Thursday night, the rescue team included four U.S. Forest Service snow rangers, 17 volunteers from North Conway Mountain Rescue, an Appalachian Mountain Club employee, and the caretaker of the Harvard Cabin, according to Tiffany Benna, a White Mountain National Forest spokesman.
She said the first rescuers arrived about 6:45 p.m. Thursday. A U.S. Forest service Sno-Cat carried Zeier and his two companions to the Pinkham Notch parking area at 9:30 p.m. Thursday and waiting ambulances. The nine others were also transported, and reached the parking lot two hours later. The rescue was considered complete by 12:30 a.m. Friday.
"It was a very, very late night for the climbing team and search and rescue," the observatory's Henley said.
The climb was organized with the support of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation for the Ascents of Honor project, and Benna said the group knew of the avalanche warnings in place Thursday because a U.S. Forest Service snow ranger talked with them and made them aware of the hazards.
Since 1956, 12 climbers have died in avalanches in the Presidential Range, including 29-year-old Albert Dow in 1982.
Dow was a member of the Mountain Rescue Service and was in a search party looking for two missing climbers when he was caught in an avalanche on Jan. 25, 1982.
Benna stressed that anyone considering climbing in the Mount Washington area should check the daily reports at mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.