re: Adirondack Avalanches

It may seem ironic, given that this year we’ve had the lowest amount of snowfall I can remember, but I want to mention this avalanche article written by my good friend, erstwhile climbing partner, and Adirondack historian extraordinaire Dick Tucker. The article covers both the conditions that cause avalanches and a long list of recorded avalanches that have occurred here in the Adirondacks. It’s a good, thorough read for anyone who gets out in these mountains during the winter, climbing, hiking, skiing, or what-have-you.

I can add to the list at least two avalanches I’ve witnessed on Crane Mountain. The first was in 2000, at about the same time the skier was killed on Angel Slide. I recall the snowpack was heavy under a crust that had an additional several inches of surface snow. Walking through level woods would frequently elicit those scary “whoomphs” of snowpack, radiating unusually far from me. During one hike, I walked up the southeast flank of the mountain, reached a bench running along the top of a steep slab, and began walking along the top of the slab. In short order, my steps initiated that snow-settling sound, which triggered a small avalanche on the slab, about 7′ below me. About 25′ of the slab’s snowcover peeled away and swept down the hillside, plenty enough to injure anyone under it.

The second was last year, while guiding a client on the Waterfall Wall. I was at the top of the first pitch, when I heard a noise to my (climber’s) left. A small slough avalanche slid off the slab, dropped into the walk-up gully, and triggered a massive release down the entire chute. Once again, there was plenty enough to injure someone had they been in that gully.

Having one good friend miraculously survive an avalanche (once again, at Angel Slide on Wright Peak), I think it’s important to know that avalanches can and do happen in the Adirondacks. Often, the classic signs are all there, but the feeling that we’re in the East and things like that don’t happen lull us into a false sense of safety. With the burgeoning numbers of both backcountry skiing and ice climbing, that misconception can kill.

I would also add that the avalanches here in the East occasionally confound established wisdom. I know that my friend and his partner dug a classic snowpit and studied the snow structure before moving on and into danger. What deceived them was a relatively solid snowpack – albeit extremely deep one – on a lubricated rock slab. The entire snowpack released. Avalanche lessons cover the contact zone of snowpack to surface, but the bulk of these courses emphasizes discontinuities between layers of snow. The former is often the case here.

So wander over to Drew Haas’ blog and give Dick’s article a careful read.

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