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March 03. 2013 10:00PM

Rangers warn of avalanche risk after Mount Washington climber killed

SARGENTS PURCHASE - A snow ranger with the White Mountain National Forest is urging climbers to use caution in the area following a fatal avalanche Friday, calling the snow cover in the region "complex and challenging."

White Mountain National Forest Public Affairs Officer Tiffany Benna said a New York ice climber died Friday after being swept away by an avalanche, falling 1,000 feet down a portion of New Hampshire's Mount Washington. Benna said James Watts, 24, of New York was killed Friday in Huntington Ravine while solo ice climbing on Pinnacle Gully. Benna said Watts was climbing without ropes and alone when the avalanche was triggered, which swept him out of the gully. Benna did not know Watts' hometown as of Sunday night.

There were no witnesses to the accident. A hiker who is an emergency room physician discovered Watts' body around 3 p.m., more than 1,000 feet below the gully. The hiker checked for vital signs, Benna reported, but found none.

The body was carried out by four U.S. Forest Service snow rangers, a mountain Rescue Service member, and the caretakers of the Harvard Cabin and Hermit Lake shelters.

"The potential is there for increasing avalanche danger due to new snow and additional wind loading," said White Mountain Snow Ranger Jeff Lane. "Overall, this is a complex snow pack that deserves respect. Remember that the topography of our ravines creates conditions with high variability as you move from one location to another. This phenomenon is heightened when winds have been shifty and the sun is at work."

Both Tuckerman and Huntington ravines had 'moderate to considerable' avalanche levels posted Sunday.

"Our snow pack right now is complex and demands careful evaluation due to continued wind loading in the upper start zones of many gullies," said White Mountain Snow Ranger Frank Carus. "Our danger ratings may increase, as winds slowly increase and shift directions, transporting and depositing snow in areas south through east. Existing wind slabs from previous days still exist as well, so be on the lookout for these slabs which are adhering poorly to the suncrust layers beneath. The avalanche conditions now are pay dirt for avalanche practitioners, guides, and educators due to the length of time since a significant thaw or rain event has "reset" our snow pack to a uniform and stable condition."

The Forest Service issued a safety reminder following the accident.

"The White Mountain National Forest operates the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to provide daily safety information and search and rescue services to the public. Although beautiful, the mountains contain many hazards for visitors to be aware of which are reported on www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org by the Forest Service. Avalanches, ice fall, weather, undermined snow, and crevasses can all become objective mountain hazards that create a level of risk. Knowing where they are and when they may be worse can help visitors make better decisions for their own safety."

pfeely@unionleader.com


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