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  • by Chris Stewart

Incident on the Mountain

A bittersweet rescue on Mt. Washington - Albert Dow story

The harshness of Mt Washington in winter came home to stun people in the White Mountains this week. On Monday afternoon, Albert Dow, a 28-year-old climbing instructor from the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School died from injuries received in an avalanche on the eastern slope of the mountain.

Dow and his climbing companion, Michael Hartrich - both members of the all-volunteer Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) - were descending the mountain after an extensive search for two lost Pennsylvania climbers missing since Saturday. Close to the base of the Lion Head Trail on the northeast wall of Tuckerman Ravine, Dow and Hartrich were overcome by an avalanche which swept down upon them from higher in the mountain. Although almost totally buried, Hartrich managed to free an arm, dig a narrow funnel to the surface of the snow, and alert rescuers with his radio. Dow perished despite comprehensive life-saving efforts by rescuers.

The avalanche apparently occurred between 1:30 and 1:45 Monday afternoon while Dow and Hartrich were hiking downhill through a densely wooded area where such snow slides are extremely rare. According to Joe Lentini of MRS, Hartrich was "amazingly fortunate" to have survived. The avalanche, 300 feet in length, moved through a thicket of birches, four to six inches in diameter, where snow depth reached well over six feet in some spots. Rescuers arrived at the scene and began an immediate search for Dow within 20 minutes of the accident.

Remarkably, the objects of this three-day-long search by members of MRS, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the US Forest Service, the NH Fish and Game Department and others - two ice climbers from Lancaster, Pennsylvania - were found late Tuesday afternoon near the junction of the Madison Gulf and the Great Gulf Trails, several miles north of Huntington Ravine. Although both Jeffrey Batzer, 20, and Hugh Herr, 17, were hypothermic from three days of sub-zero temperatures and high winds, their survival surprised many observers. After being lifted into an Air National Guard helicopter by cable from the ground, both men were flown to the Littleton Hospital where their condition was described as "Satisfactory" on Thursday morning. Both were said to be out of the hospital's intensive care unit and were resting well. The extent of the frostbite on their hands and feet had not and will not be determined for several days. consequently, no release date had been set.

Later in the day, Jeffrey Batzer held a press conference at Littleton Hospital. Commenting on the experience of spending nearly four days in the extreme weather conditions, he noted that he and his companion had almost given up all hope of survival. "We were pretty sure that if we had to spend another night out there, we'd surely die," the climber related, noting that the duo had survived up to that point by curling up and beating one another every half-hour with branches. The prospects for continuing the practice did not look good, however. "We didn't want to die, but at that point, we were both praying that we would die soon if we couldn't be rescued because we were in such pain. We could hardly move," he explained.

Batzer noted that he and his companion cried when they later were informed of rescuer Albert Dow's death while searching for the pair. "I was sitting in the hot tub, trying to warm up my feet when they told me, and I cried about it," he said. "The thought that someone would put his life out on a limb for us was really something that we haven't gotten over. It was wonderful." Both climbers reportedly have stated that they would like to serve on a mountain rescue team should their feet recover.

Rescue efforts for Batzer and Herr began late Saturday evening after the pair failed to return to the Harvard Cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine. Earlier that afternoon, Harvard Cabin caretaker Matt Pierce had become concerned about the climbers who were attempting an ascent up Odell Gully, a 750-foot-high ice and snow filled chute popular with winter mountaineers. After making a quick visual search of the ravine, and being unable to make voice contact, Pierce radioed the AMC's Pinkham Notch headquarters with the news: The climbers were long overdue. In turn, Pinkham alerted members of the Mountain Rescue Service. MRS team members - volunteer experts in rock and ice climbing, search and rescue techniques, and first aid - prepared to begin search and rescue operations early Sunday morning.

According to Bill Kane of International Mountain Equipment, one of MRS's three Team Leaders involved with the rescue, severe weather hampered the rescuers throughout the day. With temperatures hovering around zero and winds gusting between 70 and 75 miles an hour, rescuers efforts were limited. One MRS team, transported to the 4-1/2-mile post on the Auto Road managed to reach the six-mile post before turning back, and a second group of AMC searchers scouted the area around Lion Head, but poor visibility and the potential danger from frostbite forced a cancellation of operations early Sunday afternoon.

Monday morning proved to be colder - temperatures ranged from 10 to 20 below zero - and windier - with gusts in excess of 100 miles an hour - but improved visibility permitted the rescue to resume. Two teams of two climbers - Hartrich and Dow on the left, with Doug Madara and Steve Larson on the right - ascended either side of Odell Gully, reaching the top around noon. MRS team leaders decided against sending a third clinging party up the Escape Hatch (another less steep face where Batzer and Herr might have descended) since the avalanche danger there was high, and since a visual search from the base of the Ravine revealed no sign of the lost climbers.

Climbing in what Bill Kane described as "the most severe conditions we can remember," Hartrich and Dow did see footprints near the top of the Gully. Using his two-way radio, Hartrich reported to the MRS support team in Huntington that he and Dow planned to follow the footprints which disappeared in the direction of the Lion Head Trail - one of the safest routes for winter descent from the mile-high plateau around Mount Washington.

While Hartrich and Dow made their way across the exposed above-treeline "Alpine Garden" to the Lion Head Trail, other members of the MRS team regrouped in Huntington Ravine near the Harvard Cabin. Between 1:30 and 1:45, as this group headed toward the base of the Lion Head Trail to meet Hartrich and Dow, they learned of the avalanche. They then headed, post-haste, to the accident scene, arriving approximately 20 minutes later (thanks largely to Hartrich's ability to pinpoint the exact spot of the avalanche).

As soon as rescuers arrived and located Hartrich, they organized "hasty search" for Dow. while some team members helped to dig Hartrich free from the snow, the other members of MRS along with AMC Tuckerman Ravine caretaker Joe Gill and United States Forest Service Rangers Brad Ray and Rene LaRoche began a quick random search of the area for Dow. Then, still following recommended technique, a more thorough "fine search" began. Using 12-foot-long avalanche probes, the rescuers systematically felt through the avalanche area beginning at the base of the 300-foot-long avalanche. About an hour later, Dow's body was found in two to four feet of snow. Attempts to revive him with them simultaneous administering of CPR and mouth-to-nose resuscitation techniques were not successful. His body was transported down the mountain that evening.

Despite this tragedy, the rescue efforts did prove fruitful the following day. Tuesday afternoon, AMC nightwatch Cam Bradshaw discovered the two climbers near the junction of the Great Gulf and Madison Gulf Trails - a spot about five miles to the north of Huntington Ravine. As search coordinator David Warren of the AMC explained, Batzer and Herr were found together under a rock ledge which apparently served as a shelter; pine boughs were placed around the base and side of the ledge. Both men were "definitely hypodermic."

Upon discovering the men Bradshaw alerted two nearby hikers - well equipped with winter equipment - to lend what assistance they could. She then snowshoed back to the Auto Road where she happened to meet two other AMC employees who were cross-country skiing. These two people immediately skied to the highway and flagged down a car, arriving at the Pinkham Notch Camp at 3:00 pm with news of the climbers' whereabouts.

Transported by Air National Guard helicopter, and lowered by cable to the site, paramedics Misha Kirk and Jim Holab arrived to give first aid to the climbers. Early reports indicated that Batzer was ambulatory and talking while Herr appeared less active. Near sunset, Batzer and Herr were lifted by cable into the helicopter and taken to the Littleton Hospital.

Summing up what many felt, search co-ordinator Dave Warren noted that the experience was "bittersweet." One man is dead and two were found alive," he said. "A lot of man-hours were invested and a lot of compassion was shown, but it's hard to find the words to express what you feel. How do you account for the past three days? The feelings are happy and sad all at once."

Warren did have high praise for all those involved including the Mountain Rescue Service, Fish and Game, the Air National Guard, the Forest Service, AMC personnel as well as the many individuals who participated. "There were many other rescue organizations from throughout the area and New England who let us know about their concern and willingness to help." Warren added, "and we're grateful. The cooperation in this effort was outstanding; I feel we did the best we could with the information we had."

For members of the Mountain Rescue Service - a volunteer group whose work is supported almost entirely by contributions - the past few days haven't been easy. "All the people on our team are competent and experienced climbers," Bill Kane said. "If you're a climber, you realize that there are certain risks and dangers which you off-set with experience, expertise and sound judgement. We look at all the accidents that happen and try to understand why, but in this case Michael and Albert didn't do anything wrong - they made no mistakes. It was just tragic luck to be in that place at that time: it could have been anyone." Those who wish to contribute to the work of MRS are encouraged to contact people at Eastern Mountain Sports or International Mountain Equipment in North Conway.

Joe Lentini, a man who worked with Albert in MRS and the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School for the past three and a half years called Albert "one of the more dedicated members of MRS who made climbing very much a part of his life. He was aware of the risks," Lentini continued, "but he was also aware that someone had to go out on the rescue. On his own, he would never have been out there under those conditions, but people were out there he did what had to be done."

Funeral services for Dow, a native of Tuftonboro, were held Thursday in Melvin Village.


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