A letter to the Editor:

(Sent to the Conway Daily Sun):

As the leader of the team that rode an avalanche down Central Gully, on Mt. Washington, January 17, 2013, I would like to express our sincere thanks to the Mountain Rescue Service (MRS), U.S. Forest Service (USFS) rangers, and the kind people at the Androscoggin Valley Hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and in the Mount Washington Valley.

The response we received from the MRS team and USFS rangers was extremely professional, kind, thorough, intelligent, skilled, and wise. You are all a special breed who are willing to set aside your plans, invest your own time and equipment, and put yourselves through significant hardship and risk for others. Your example to those around you is in the realm of the heroic and helps to forge a strong community.


Photo by Dan Sohner

The goal of this trip was to introduce Keith, a Special Forces Marine veteran, who was wounded in Iraq, to the North Conway area, its people, and the climbing here, as I consider it to be one of the finest climbing environments in the country. Keith and I both enjoy mountaineering and adventure and have built a strong friendship through our common interests.

In high school, I spent a month of each winter climbing in the North Conway area. I don’t ever recall anything but a supportive encounter during my many formative climbing experiences here. I have tried to return to the area each winter because of the exceptional value it provides. It does not surprise me that after 30+ years the experience is still the same.

A few reflections about our day may be in order:

  • Having accommodations to stay at the Observatory overnight provided a unique element to the decision making process. Combined with the goals of Ascents of Honor and the support we received from the community to make this climb a success, this led to a level of commitment not commonly found on regular climbing trips.
  • Horizontal ground is the tough part for Keith to negotiate. High up in the gully, we looked often at the prospect of bailing out on the ascent; but turning around was not a decision without consequence, either. We fully expected our slow progress would improve on the steeper ground and windswept slopes, that were only 100 feet above us when the avalanche occurred.
  • In retrospect, on a tough day such that it was, we should have been more conservative and shifted to a simpler route. Because of the slow going, we tried to keep the route moving forward. One result of this line of thought was that we did not get the opportunity to gather the team together at a break to take advantage of the group’s collective wisdom and assess the day’s big picture as it was unfolding.

Adventure is a high-risk activity, and, winter mountaineering is at the higher end of the spectrum. A defining element of adventure is the unknown. There are few adventures we would not manage differently the next time. Many times, we can slip through the gap of a few marginal calls. On this day, we were caught. We triggered the avalanche that caught us. We had been watching the new snow closely all day and testing its stability. With the extremely thin snowpack, we felt it unlikely any slide would make it to any terrain traps below the gully. High up in the gully, we would have been much better to bring the whole group up high, anchor in solidly and then proceed to address the exit of the gully (with a new aspect, angle, and potential snow loading) . I am confident, had we done that, the slide would have been without consequence. But, we didn’t and are extremely lucky to have only been injured.

As we continue to recover from the experience, we have all concluded that the commitment to our veterans remains. There is still a need for community support to help these men and women recover and rebuild their lives, and it is likely that this need will only increase. As civilians, one element we need to keep in mind is the essential need for long term relationships with returning combat vets. Embracing them back into their communities may help to ease their world and will definitely strengthen the greater community at large.


Andy Politz (Ascents of Honor)