Saturday, April 22, 2017 - 11:30am
Estimated R2-3, D2 avalanche in the initial gully of the mountaineers route up mt Whitney. Location 1.3 miles from trailhead parking, elevation 9300 ft. We encountered several groups who had been partially buried in the slide. Large 2 ft deep by 25 ft square ice boulders carried by slide. Several injuries, one requiring helicopter evacuation (lower leg injury). Cause determined to be warning rock and running water at the base of the snowpack creating a perfect bed surface. Extremely warm conditions at around noon; guess of around 50-55 F air temps when we got there.
Added details form forecaster after speaking with Stella: Slide appears to have occurd slightly before noon. Stella's party left tailhead about 11:30am, hiked on dirt for about 1mi, when they got to snow and tried skinning, snow was already unsupportable. The person with the leg injury was part of a party of 4 men in their 60s, all without avalache safety gear. The avalanche appeared to be composed mainly of large ice blocks that released ontop of warming rock slabs, and the impact of these ice blocks seem to be responsible for the leg injury. The slide filled the gully down atleast 500' below where the parties' were struck.
Discussion: This avalanche occured in a potentially very dangerous area of the approach to Iceberge Lake which most people use to access the Mountaineers route and many other objectives on Mt. Whitney and sourounding mountains. TIming is everything. Avalanche and icefall danger would be minimized in this area by travelling MUCH earlier in the day before significant warming occured. Wet unsupportable snow is a sure sign that slopes steep enough to slide are unstable and travel on or bekow such slopes should be avoided. This incident shows how important it is to consider the timing of all aspects of mountain travel including approaches and exits, not just the "main objective" such as the mountaineers route proper directly on the slope of Mt. Whitney. Also this incident shows just how important it is to be aware of what lurks above you ... potentially WAY above you. The injured party was lucky to not have been buried, as a lack of any avalanche safety gear would likely have resulted in an inability to locate the victim before he died. Early morning travel would have been prudent in order to get beyond all exposure to avalanche terrain before it warmed and became unstable, even if that means getting to a base camp before noon and having to hang out for most the day before sleeping and waking up early the next morning in order to climb and descend the "main objective" during safe avalanche conditions. Also, to complete this mission safely during the given weather conditions, another night would have to be spent after coimpleting the "main objective" before another early morning of travel to descend thru the dangerous approach terrain below before it warmed again. This is especially evident as a party the following day after this incident reported much more slide activity occuring jst above where this slide occured. In summary, it is important to carefully consider ALL snowy mountain terrain that one travels thru, carry basic avalanche safety gear, and get avalanche educated!
Super warm and sunny