Monday, February 1, 2010

A Short History of Adirondack Avalanches

You can see the Angel Slides from Marcy Dam: two adjoining bedrock scars—one wide, one thin—on the southeastern slopes of Wright Peak. They are a well-known destination for expert backcountry skiers.

The slides got their nickname following the death of Toma Vracarich. Ten years ago this month, Vracarich and three other skiers were caught in an avalanche on the wider slide. Vracarich died under the snow. He was twenty-seven. The other skiers were injured.

It remains the only avalanche fatality in the Adirondacks, but it put people on notice that the avalanche risk here is real.

Several years ago, I wrote an article on the history of Adirondack avalanches for the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine. I came up with a list of fourteen. Most were triggered by skiers, snowshoers, or ice climbers, usually on steep, open terrain such as a cliff or a slide.

Here are some examples of what I found:

On March 8, 1975, three ice climbers suffered severe injuries when they were caught in an avalanche on a cliff near Chapel Pond. They would have fallen to the bottom if their rope did not get entangled in the rope of a party below them.

A week later, a snowshoer named Roger Harris was on a slide path on Macomb Mountain when an avalanche swept him five hundred feet. He was nearly buried alive. “I was unable to take in a breath due to the snow jammed in my throat and filling my mouth,” he told me, “but I was able to stick two fingers into my mouth and clear the plug.”

In April 1990, Mark Meschinelli, a veteran ice climber, was standing at the bottom of the North Face of Gothics when it avalanched. “I heard this low rumbling,hissing sound,” he said. “I looked up, and the whole face is moving toward me. There was nothing I could do, no place to go. I got buried up to my waist.” Meschinelli dug himself out and climbed the slope.

In March 1997, an avalanche swept two backcountry skiers down a steep slide on Mount Colden. They might have plummeted to the bottom if trees had not stopped their descent. The skiers were bruised but able to ski out.

Avalanches occur most often on slopes between 30 and 50 degrees, and many occur during or soon after a big snowfall. But the business of assessing the risk of an avalanche is complicated. You can find more information online from the American Avalanche Association as well as other websites.

And if you do spend time in avalanche terrain, you should carry the three essentials: beacon, probe, and shovel.

You might also take an avalanche-safety class. The Mountaineer in Keene Valley will teach avalanche safety at the Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival in March. The Mountaineer also offers avalanche instruction at its Mountainfest each January.

Photo of Angel Slides on Wright Peak from Wikipedia.


Phil Brown

Since 1999, Phil Brown has been Editor of the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




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