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Meet the Mt. Washington snow rangers whose forecasts save skier lives

  • 6 min to read
Meet the Mt. Washington snow rangers whose forecasts save skier lives

Frank Carus peers through the windshield of the Piston Bully snowcat as it approaches the top of the Hermit Lake caretaker’s cabin near the base of Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine. He notes a small slide near the bottom of the ravine, observes variations of shading in snow color across the wide bowl of Tuck’s, studies the nuances of the terrain from afar.

A light layer of new snow has brightened the mountain to dazzling white. Beyond, the mid-April sky is an impossibly deep blue. The sun is shining, and the temperature hovers just above freezing. It’s the kind of day that draws skiers to this backcountry mecca in droves.

Carus is the lead snow ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s Mount Washington Avalanche Center, the first such forecasting center in the country and the only one east of the Mississippi River. It is his job — and the job of the three other rangers he works with — to try to help those backcountry visitors stay safe.

“We do our best to provide information to help people make good decisions,” said Carus.

Tuckerman Ravine is considered something of a rite of passage in Eastern skiing, and it’s known for drawing big spring-skiing crowds, when frivolity can overshadow the dangers of skiing steep terrain prone to avalanches.

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Snow Ranger Jeff Fongemie, left, checks to make sure his avalanche beacon is transmitting properly before heading into Tuckerman Ravine with Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer, right, to check snow conditions.

Skiing mecca

For as long as skiing has been a winter pastime in New England, skiers have challenged themselves by trying to ski Tuckerman Ravine.

In 1931, New Hampshire ski pioneers — and former Olympians — John Carleton and Charley Proctor made the first decent of the ravine’s steep headwall. Through the 1940s and 1950s, another Olympian, Brooks Dodge, who had grown up on and near Mount Washington, made first descents of several routes in Tuckerman Ravine.

By the 1960s, skiers were hiking into the ravine on spring weekends in droves, and the scene often took on a party atmosphere. Today, Carus said, an estimated 50,000 skiers and hikers visit Tuckerman Ravine during the snowy season.

Carus said federal lands — like the White Mountain National Forest, which comprises Tuckerman Ravine — exist for people to get out and enjoy the natural environment, and to challenge themselves if they choose. But the celebratory scene that often embodies spring skiing at Tuck’s can lend a false sense of safety on a mountain known for its steep terrain and extreme weather.

“There’s a unique culture surrounding Tuckerman Ravine that definitely has some downsides,” he said. “For every 100 people that ski over the headwall successfully, there’s one person who’s terrified and doesn’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into.”

The snow rangers’ job is to forecast avalanche danger on a daily basis, but also to educate backcountry users of the dangers here – and of how to be prepared to handle those dangers.

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The MWAC’s Piston Bully snowcat, used for Search and Rescue operations, sits parked outside the Snow Ranger’s cabin at the base of Tuckerman Ravine.

Anatomy of an avalanche forecast

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center is the oldest backcountry forecasting program in the country. Although Carus isn’t certain when MWAC was formally founded, avalanche forecasting has been happening here since 1954.

Today, MWAC has four snow rangers, whose mission is “to increase visitor safety on Mount Washington during the snow covered months.” To do this, the snow rangers provide a detailed avalanche forecast each day from late fall into May. From December through springtime, the MWAC also acts as the lead Search and Rescue agency for its avalanche forecast area. And they strive to be a resource for people who want to learn more about avalanche safety.

A snow ranger’s day begins before most people have rolled out of bed. They wake around 5 a.m. and check the weather forecast, take a look at overnight weather events — from precipitation to changes in wind speed and direction — and meet at 5:50 to share information. The goal is to get a detailed avalanche forecast out by 7 o’clock.

That forecast will include information about recent precipitation, temperature, and wind, comprehensive details about the snowpack, information from the snow plot below the ravine (where daily readings include snowfall, snow density, and various temperature readings), and a weather forecast for the day. The avalanche forecast also lists daily observations from the previous two weeks and includes suggested equipment backcountry users should have – like crampons and an ice axe on days where long slides over icy terrain are possible.

“There are so many different factors that affect our snowpack,” said Snow Ranger Jeff Fongemie. “You’re sort of 24-hours a day following the weather. It’s the kind of job you can get immersed in.”

The rangers take turns writing the forecast, but they all collaborate to create the finished product, which is posted on the website in full detail and condensed to a one-page report to be tacked to boards at the Tuckerman Ravine trailhead in Pinkham Notch and at the base of the ravine.

Fongemie said the biggest challenge is taking a lot of complicated information and paring it down to make the key points — and do so in a way that readers will understand.

As Carus puts it, “It’s a little like writing a weather forecast — when the weather could kill you every day.”

Although the snow rangers have traditionally forecasted only for Tuckerman and Huntington ravines, this year they’ve added the northern Presidential mountains to their forecast area, which now covers 106 square miles.

They rate daily avalanche danger on a scale: low, moderate, considerable, high, extreme.

“Most avalanche fatalities occur on moderate to considerable days,” Carus said.

That’s partly because fewer people will head out on days where the danger is high, and partly because a day like this one, with a bluebird sky, spring-like temperatures, barely a trace of wind — and a rating of “Moderate” — is what many skiers consider perfect Tuckerman conditions.

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Lead Snow Ranger Frank Carus uses high-powered binoculars to study the conditions on Tuckerman Ravine.

More than ‘Snow Cops’

Once the forecast is posted, the rangers head out from their “International Headquarters” — a tidy maintenance shed that houses the snowcat, a snowmobile and other equipment in Pinkham Notch — to the Hermit Lake area, about 2½ miles up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. They’ll spend a good portion of the day checking the conditions, looking for signs of slides and talking with skiers.

All four snow rangers — Carus and Fongemie, plus Helon Hoffer and Ryan Matz — have extensive backcountry experience, including as climbing and ski mountaineering guides. They know the terrain on and around Mount Washington intimately and refer to each chute, gully, and rock outcropping by name.

On this day, Fongemie and Hoffer click into their skis to skin up to the small avalanche Carus noted on the way in. They’ll take measurements, check out the slide path, and relay the information back to Carus by radio.

Meanwhile, Carus and his avalanche rescue dog, Lily, a charismatic chocolate lab, linger near the deck at the Hermit Lake caretaker’s cabin. This is a place where skiers congregate to refuel after the uphill trek, check out the conditions and simply bask in the sun. While Lily makes the rounds, looking for neglected sandwich crusts and occasionally filching a glove, Carus talks to skiers and hikers.

Some he engages in conversation, asking if they have questions about the route or the snow. Others approach him seeking information about the snowpack and their best options for a safe run in or near the ravine. Part of the job of keeping backcountry users safe is being accessible to them.

“We don’t want to be seen as the snow cops,” Carus said. “We’re all avid skiers and climbers. We want people to come to us for information.”

Every few minutes, Carus pulls his avalanche beacon out to see if anyone is “beeping.” That’s snow ranger parlance for whether or not people are carrying avalanche beacons. These pocket-sized devices can transmit and receive signals. Backcountry skiers slip them into a pocket set to transmit. If someone is buried by an avalanche, other skiers or rescuers switch to receive mode to detect the buried person’s beacon signal: a high, steady beep.

“Everyone should have a beacon, probe and shovel” when skiing in the backcountry, Carus said.

But he rarely picks up other beacon signals, despite the small crowd of skiers on the deck. And he noted on the way up that few skiers were carrying probes or shovels.

“This is avalanche terrain with significant hazards,” he said. “This is not a groomed ski area. It’s an entirely different experience.”

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Avalanche dog Lily is an important part of the MWAC crew. She is trained to detect people buried under snow and to help dig them out.

Backcountry use rising

Education is a key ingredient to helping backcountry users stay safe. The boom in backcountry skiing beyond Tuckerman Ravine in recent years may be inspiring more skiers to seek out that education.

“Backcountry skiing is growing exponentially across the country,” Carus said. “But our rate of fatalities due to avalanches is mostly flat. The assumption is that a combination of avalanche education and access to avalanche forecasts is contributing to that trend.”

Some 90,000 unique users visit the MWAC website during each ski season, and Carus said many skiers read the avalanche forecast daily. That allows them to become familiar with the conditions through a season, which can help skiers to make good decisions about when — and if — to get into the backcountry.

The snow rangers can include every detail they know into an avalanche forecast, but that won’t help if people don’t read the report or if they don’t understand the warnings within the report.

Carus figures fewer than 10 percent of springtime skiers in Tucks carry beacons or have any avalanche training.

The snow rangers urge all backcountry skiers to have some avalanche training, to carry and know how to use beacons, and to ski with knowledgeable partners. Avalanche safety courses are available through several places in New Hampshire, including Eastern Mountain Sports, the International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, Synnott Mountain Guides, and Northeast Mountaineering. These outfits, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, also offer guided backcountry ski outings at various locations throughout the winter.

Carus said the snowpack in Tuckerman Ravine this year seems to be near historic levels. That likely means plenty more skiing to come. The snow rangers hope skiers use the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to make good decisions and stay safe.

“We want people to find good snow and have a good time,” he said. “But we also want them to go home at the end of the day.”