Avalanche!

April 22, 2019

The December 1978 Appalachia published this story of an avalanche that swept New Hampshire’s Willey Slide in 1970. Excerpts from the story appear below.

Robert D. Hall Jr.Robert D. Hall lay partially covered in this photo he saved of rescuers digging him out of the avalanche on the Willey Slide. The turned boot that appears under the rescuer’s legs at bottom left is that of Hall’s broken leg.

He had just put the bag of gorp back into his pack. A last charge of energy before moving out onto the ice face where Jack was stamping around to get the feel of his crampons. The man did not hear a thing except Jack’s warning shout:
“Avalanche!”

He had always thought that avalanches roared. Instinctively his hand moved toward the ice ax he had stuck in the snow. At the same time he glanced back and saw the avalanching snow wave dash against the prow of a granite outcropping behind and to his right. The ice ax actually belonged to his son. It had been the man’s Christmas gift to his boy a scant six weeks ago.

At first he thought he could stand up against that onrushing silent white wave, so he braced his legs and back against it. (He hadn’t been able to reach the ice ax in time.) The force of the snow mass was incredible. It engulfed him. It plucked him from beside the granite. It encased him in darkness. It started him on an express ride down the mountain.

He seemed to be breathing normally although wrapped completely in that icy blanket. Hadn’t he read somewhere that avalanche victims were suffocated by breathing in snow and ice crystals? (Days later he was to find out that those caught in an avalanche frequently were able to breathe because of air pockets that formed about them.)

It was dark inside the wave. Somehow he expected everything to be white and bright like the surface snow. Instead, it was more like being suspended inside a mass of chocolate ice cream.

It was dark inside the wave. Somehow he expected everything to be white and bright like the surface snow. Instead, it was more like being suspended inside a mass of chocolate ice cream.

He remembered the warning instructions about bending his knees. “Keep your crampons up so they won’t get caught and break your legs.” The Appalachian Mountain Club instructors had been very explicit about the ways to save yourself from harm when ice climbing accidents occurred. When he had first learned the techniques of ice climbing under the tutelage of the AMC two years ago, they made him practice self-arrests for hours. How to stop yourself with your ice ax if you fell on a snow or ice slope and started sliding down on your back, on your front, feet first, head first, sideways. And they always warned about the crampons on your feet: “Keep your knees bent and your feet up!”

He remembered all they had taught him—and he tried—but he could not bend his knees. The chocolate ice cream snow that engulfed him was too thick and heavy for him to move his legs. Its weight was actually pushing his legs down and out. They were thrust forward, straight and brittle, like two wooden matchsticks. He was still the captive of the snowslide, a helpless victim rocketing along with it down the face of the mountain.

Photo by Michael Henry.

He had broken his leg, snapped it in two just like that. The crampon on his left foot had struck against something and stuck. He was held fast against the pressure of the sliding snow. The snow spun him around, and the bones in his foot and leg snapped and popped as he was pulled up to the top of the chocolate mass where it miraculously changed to vanilla and he found himself in the bright daylight again. Just his head was out of the snow. He looked up at the sky as a few last snow trailings skittered across his face. Somewhere down underneath—he did not know quite where—his left leg began an agonizing throb.

The snow spun him around, and the bones in his foot and leg snapped and popped as he was pulled up to the top of the chocolate mass where it miraculously changed to vanilla and he found himself in the bright daylight again.

“Is everybody OK?” . . . “Anybody missing?” . . . “Who got caught?”

The other climbers were shouting as they came down off the ice face and headed in his direction. He found his voice: “Over here! I think I’ve broken my leg!”

They approached him with caution and circled him. The snow where he lay buried could start sliding again, so they moved with great care. They terraced out a platform just below him and braced it with snowshoes. Just like Chinese farmers terracing a hill. Then some of the climbers tramped down the snow to one side of him to make a firm spot on which they could work.

Gear was sticking out of the snow all around the area. Snowshoes. Clothing. Knapsacks. All the things the climbers had left in the supposedly safe bivouac area. Now, together with the man, these were captives of the avalanche.

One of the climbers carefully approached him and asked him to describe the approximate locations of his arms and legs. All the climbers were wearing crampons and if, inadvertently, they stepped on his legs or arms or hands, the trauma to human bone and tissue from crampon spikes would be enormous.

The man indicated that both his arms were pressed alongside his body. His right leg was extended straight out at a right angle from his hip, but he couldn’t quite figure out where his left leg was located. It seemed to be twisted and turned underneath him and yet off to the side. Anatomically, it made no sense. It hurt like a searing fire. They dug him out with their hands and snowshoes. In a few minutes they had freed his entire body from the snow. His right leg was unhurt.

His right leg was extended straight out at a right angle from his hip, but he couldn’t quite figure out where his left leg was located. It seemed to be twisted and turned underneath him and yet off to the side. Anatomically, it made no sense. It hurt like a searing fire.

His left leg was swiveled down from the socket in his pelvis, and his knee was bent. From there, at a level about two feet below his trunk, his lower left leg and then his foot were both twisted about at peculiar angles. It was obvious to the climbers who had dug him out that his left leg was a mass of compound fractures.

Although the man could not see his leg because of his position, he knew it was broken from the throbbing pain he felt. He looked at his watch: 9:40 a.m. It had been less than an hour ago that he and Jack had left the car, strapped on their snowshoes, and begun their hike 2,000 feet up the trail to the bivouac area.

One of the climbers put himself in command of the rescue operation and ordered two men down the mountain to the parking area with instructions to bring up the litter and first-aid kit that had been left there for emergencies. The injured man realized that the trip down and back would take at least an hour. In the meantime he could use the Darvon in his first-aid kit.

“Has anyone found a red Kelty pack yet? I’ve got a first-aid kit in it. So, if you can, find it . . . please.” They found it and gave him two of the three Darvon he had in the kit. He washed the painkillers down with a swig of “Saturday Lunch” tea. The self-appointed leader kept the third capsule to show to the doctors when they finally got the injured man to the hospital. No one knew the exact potency of the drug they had administered him.

Some of the climbers removed their down vests and down jackets and covered the victim. But these failed to warm him and keep him from shivering. He was lying on the wet snow and getting colder by the minute. Because of the condition of his leg, they did not dare to lift his body to put anything under his back. So he shivered. “Shock,” someone said.

While they waited for the litter to come up, they probed for and gathered up the scattered gear. The man’s concern became centered on his son’s ice ax. “Has anyone found an ice ax? It’s an 80-centimeter Stubai. It’s not mine. See if you can find it, please.”

Then someone pulled the tie line he had fashioned to secure the ice ax to his arm when he climbed. They pulled on the cord and unearthed the Stubai several feet down and just off to his right, slightly above the spot where his head rested. The ax had been following right behind him in the snow slide. “Thank God it stopped when I did,” he thought. They stuck the ax in the snow just in front of his left foot as a marker to warn the other climbers of where his broken leg was positioned.

Except for Jack, he didn’t know any of the climbers. They were all young men. “Probably most of them are students,” he thought. “Kind of strange, isn’t it? I’m the only one hurt and obviously the oldest person here. Maybe my wife is right: ‘Climbing is best left to the young.’”

Every once in a while someone would come over to him and ask how he felt, or offer him a piece of orange or a sip of water. As they waited for the litter to be brought up, they milled around him searching for lost equipment. They probed into the snow with ice axes, dug around with snowshoes, kicked with their crampons. All of them darted frequent glances at the injured man shivering under the mound of down clothing.

Except for Jack, he didn’t know any of the climbers. They were all young men. “Probably most of them are students,” he thought. “Kind of strange, isn’t it? I’m the only one hurt and obviously the oldest person here. Maybe my wife is right: ‘Climbing is best left to the young.’”

Eventually, the two climbers came back with a litter and first-aid kit. The leader took the kit and knelt down by the ax marker. The injured man could not see what the leader was doing, but he could feel competent hands at work on his damaged leg. First, his gaiter was unsnapped and pushed up over the top of his boot. Then the crampon was unstrapped and the bootlace untied. As the leader worked, the injured man grimaced and grunted whenever he was hit with the searing pain. It came with every movement of his foot or leg. At last the winter climbing boot was removed from his foot (it had been necessary to cut the laces and then the gaiter to make their removal easier and less painful). His socks were left on. Next an inflatable plastic splint was placed around his leg and zipped up. The leader blew through the valve. Gradually, as the air pressure began to hold and support the broken bones in his leg, the pain abated and the leg was straightened out with a minimum of discomfort and difficulty.

They lined the bottom of the litter with some of the down jackets. Four men were positioned on each side of him and at a signal from the leader, they smartly lifted him up from the snow then slowly and carefully lowered him into the litter.

They lined the bottom of the litter with some of the down jackets. Four men were positioned on each side of him and at a signal from the leader, they smartly lifted him up from the snow then slowly and carefully lowered him into the litter.

He had practiced this rescue routine three or four times with the Appalachian Mountain Club, so he followed their actions with professional interest. “Strap the head so it cannot move. Strap each foot, but be gentle with the left one. Tie down the legs, the arms, the torso. Make certain the victim is totally immobile.” At those AMC practice sessions, the classic demonstration was to turn the litter on end with the “victim” trussed inside, feet up and head down. As the instructors had said, “You just don’t go no place, even if we drop you.” He had a gag snapshot Jack had taken of Mike and him during one of the practice sessions. The boy was upside down in the litter. The man stood beside it with a silly grin on his face, looking for all the world like a fisherman standing beside a sailfish which had been trussed up by its tail.

Thoughtfully, these climbers did not test their ties by turning his litter on end. They organized themselves into four three-man teams. Two teams got on opposite sides of the litter and lifted it. One team led off in front to guide and break the trail down. The other team walked behind, ready to relieve when needed. As one team tired of carrying and put the litter down, the men shifted positions with either the front or rear group, then they all went on. The man in the litter did not know how many times they shifted this way. He did know that it took them well over an hour to get down the mountain, while the usual trip with just a backpack to carry took about fifteen or twenty minutes. But they were hampered severely by the weight of the litter and the fact that they couldn’t wear their snowshoes, which would have kept them on top of the snow. Instead, they had to wear crampons to keep themselves from slipping on the downslope. Also, had they worn snowshoes, they would have been stepping all over each other as they carried the litter. Consequently, every bearer found himself frequently sinking into snow up to his knees or hips. Yet the litter seldom pitched, despite the sinkings, because the other bearers immediately took up the slack.

He wished he knew the names of these young men, where they were from. He wanted to thank each for his help and concern. Physically they were knocking themselves out to help someone they did not even know. “How do you say ‘Thanks’?” he wondered.

He wished he knew the names of these young men, where they were from. He wanted to thank each for his help and concern. Physically they were knocking themselves out to help someone they did not even know. “How do you say ‘Thanks’?” he wondered. “Maybe Jack can get their names and addresses so I can write each of them a letter and tell them how much I appreciate what they’re doing for me. Wonder where Jack is.”

He had glimpsed Jack gathering up equipment while he was still lying on the snow awaiting the arrival of the litter. At one point during that long wait, Jack at last had approached him and, after inquiring how he felt, asked for the car key, which the man gave him. At that point, he spoke a few brief words with Jack, asking him to be sure to take charge of Mike’s ice ax and to be sure that the boy got it back when Jack returned home.

They finally got down the mountainside and out to the road. A yellow Ford Econoline van which had been converted into a camper had been pulled up beside a snowbank at the bottom of the trail. They opened its door and carefully slid him inside. In addition to the driver and the leader who sat in front, there were two other young men in the back of the van with him. He did not know them either. They immediately began tending to him. One brewed hot cocoa while the other covered him with blankets to replace the down jackets that had covered him on the trip down the mountain. He complained that his right foot was cold. It had lost its circulation and grown numb. They stripped off his boot and socks and massaged his foot until the circulation returned. Then they eased his foot into a down bootie.

“Leave his goggles on,” the leader said as he looked back. “He looks more like a mountaineer that way.” A mountaineer with a borrowed ice ax.

He was feeling drowsy. The van owner had tied slings attached to carabiners to the roof struts so they resembled subway straps. As they drove, the straps rocked rhythmically back and forth. He dozed.

As they pulled into the hospital grounds, one of the climbers removed the Joe Brown climbing helmet from the sleeping man’s head. Then they started to take off the snow goggles which sat on the beak of his woolen balaclava. “Leave his goggles on,” the leader said as he looked back. “He looks more like a mountaineer that way.” A mountaineer with a borrowed ice ax.

Special thanks to Mr. Hall for his donation of the image in this book to the Appalachian Mountain Club Library & Archives.

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Nina Paus-Weiler

AMC Digital Media Associate