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Opening Closed Terrain

I’ve been sitting on this trip report for a couple weeks and am super sphyced to be posting about it! Standing on top of “Double Barrel” a line in the Oakes Gulf on Mt. Washington with one of my ski partners we decided the snow was too wind scoured to ski the line. We walked away from it and as I was making my way back up on to the peninsula I got a quick glance at Franklin and immediately saw two lines on the south east face. Both steep, one being as long gully and the second being a couloir. What seemed to be a disappointing day had quickly became a sweet recon mission. We descended off the west facing side of Washington; down Monroe Brook that day and scheming began immediately. 

Within hours I had a Cal Topo map under way and started hunting for any beta I could find. Luckily a few friends had been over to the area and had some photos to share. Knowing from the google earth images I had looked at in the slides I knew there was a chance of rappels being involved and decided to get a team of climbers together for this mission. From the second I had mentioned it was probably going to be a suffer fest all 4 I had asked to join just got more and more stoked. Our team consisted of Sean Berry, Joe Miller, Kellen Busby, and Kyle Huston. We planned on March 9th for the attempt.

6 AM Ammo Ravine lot. We crammed down a breakfast with elevated excitement, got skins on skis/splitboards and reassessed our plan; laid out the extra gear that wasn’t in our typical backcountry ski packs. Ice screws, rappel rings, webbing, potentially pickets? We were going in blind to a fairly remote zone. Not knowing what to expect. 

We skinned up Monroe brook until it was too steep. Threw on crampons and began motoring up the steeper slope until we crested over the lip of Mount Monroe. We were immediately being sand blasted by 50 mph winds, it was a struggle to stand at times. We still had at least a mile of traversing. We all locked down our shells and were silent for a few minutes until we finally got a chance to find shelter behind a rock out crop. We put down as much food as we could while getting our first look at the couloir and continued on skins to Franklin.   

We topped out on Franklin and began the hunt for the top of the couloir. Sean Descended into some variable snow showing potential for wind slabs. We moved one at a time down to him as he found the route. He noted the variable wind slabs to us and we did a new hand shear test every 75 feet. The wind slab we were dealing with was not your typical white mountain wind slab that feels like styrofoam but was soft and powdery. After slowly descending into the couloir we started digging pits.


This is where I’m going to be a snow nerd for a minute because I already know I’m going to be getting asked for this. Sean and I dug a pit then Kellen and Joe dug a second pit. On our compression test the wind slab we had been observing had a Q1 fracture on CT1. Yes CT1. For the people that are less of snow nerds, that is not a good sign, in fact that basically means thew slope we were standing on could potentially rip out from underneath us at any moment. This immediately closed the route for us. We decided to turn it into a snow science day. Kellen and Joe did an ECT which told us this slab was not propagating until a moderate number of taps. I then did a propagation saw test on Sean and I’s pit. The column did not drop until I had sawed through 95 of the 100 cm column. This gave us hope for actually getting to ride this route on that day.

(Phone video from me of Sean’s CT Test)

We decided to do a roped skier cut. We buried Kyles skis in our pit and built and anchor off of them and had a bomb proof dead mans anchor. Ive been skiing with Sean for 2 seasons now. I have never seen him jump so fast to volunteer to do the skier cut. He tied in and Joe put him on belay. He cut the slope, jump turned cut the slope the other direction and nothing moved. We immediately felt okay with skiing the line. This was our first mistake. We had just opened up closed terrain.

(Video from Kyle)

Sean untied and skied down into the choke. I followed, braiding Seans turns in the oh so sweet powder and joined him at the bottom of the choke and we waited for the rest of our team. This is where things went south and we instantly were unsure of our decision making.

“Kyle is dropping”. Seconds later over the radio all we heard was “SLIDE”. Kyle was being carried by an avalanche down towards the choke. Sean and I backed ourselves as far out of the path as we could, Within seconds we heard the wumpf and watched the avalanche funnel through the choke. I had never seen snow move so fast within feet of me Adrenaline was though the roof, The 4 of us were safe, but our friend was being carried and rescue mode had turned on.

(Helmet cam from Kyle during the slide)

Kyle had gotten 1 ski out of the slide and on to the flank. He was safe. Re evaluation began immediately. Sean and I did not feel comfortable climbing up the choke and wanted to finish the line and climb a parallel treed slope.  With hesitation Kellen and Joe side slipped down the bed surface. We made the group decision to have everyone come down to us in the choke. The couloir opened up into a wide lower angle line after the choke. Yes, we skied it. Should we have? Maybe not after just having a team member pulled by a slide. We did it anyways. We used the treed slope on our ascent back up and did not rip any more of the wind slab apart.

Why did the slope rip when Kyle went? Why didn’t Sean get caught? Why didn’t I get caught? It was not until after we had ascended back up the line and observed the crown and Joe and Kellen Had mentioned how it started to crack. I braided Seans Line. We had chopped the slope into smaller wind slabs. When Kyle skied he had pushed Sean and I’s smaller wind slabs into each other and as they gained momentum they grabbed the rest of the wind slab and pulled the entire upper slope out from under him.

We got out and everyone was okay. We skinned back to Mount Monroe and descended Monroe Brook all the way back to the vans. We were all okay, we were all safe. The beer came out and the debriefing started. We all knew what went wrong. We knew we should not have skied the line that day and did it anyways. We were blinded by what seemed like a promising skier cut. We ignored our compression test that told us the slab would trigger with the slightest effort. Sometimes the mountains tells us no, we were stubborn, and we didn’t listen that day. As a group we decided to keep this slide to ourselves for some time. We wanted to sit on it. That day I was part of the most in depth debrief I had ever been a part of. This was the strongest crew I had ever entered avalanche terrain with. The most knowledgeable team I had ever been a part of. We made one mistake that could have drastically effected one of my best friends lives had he been pulled through the rock choke. But we were all safe. Theres a lot more to this story that were factors in the event that happened. Kyle was the only one there without avalanche training. He was not at fault by any means. He asked all the right questions when digging pits and doing hand shears. He was not afraid to voice his opinions in what I would find to be an intimidating situation with our team. This day was a prime example of a halo effect.
We survived on March 9th. We skied what we now call Kite String Couloir on Mount Franklin. We learned. We had a discussion a few days ago about finally letting the cat out of the bag on what had happened on March 9th. The team, Sean, Joe, Kellen, Kyle and I, all hope that others will learn from our experience on Mount Franklin that day. Dont open closed terrain.

   (Last two photos: Joe Miller)

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