PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. — The Iraq war had taken his leg. And it had taken four of his buddies.
On Thursday, as US Marine veteran Keith Zeier slowly made his way to the summit of Mount Washington — an effort to honor the former sergeant’s fallen colleagues and raise money for their families billed as Ascents of Honor — an avalanche nearly took his life.
Zeier and two other members of his climbing party were swept 800 feet down Huntington Ravine by a wall of snow, leaving the other nine members of the team — all experienced climbers who had assembled to help Zeier achieve his goal — to think the worst.
A moderate avalanche warning had been issued for the area, and Thom Pollard, a filmmaker and experienced mountaineer who was on the expedition to make a documentary about Zeier’s effort, said the group had modified its route after being briefed on the situation by a ranger with the US Forest Service before departing from the Harvard Mountaineering Club Cabin at the base of the ravine, where the group had spent the night.
But as the group climbed, snow fell, the wind picked up, and the conditions closed in on them. There was concern that they could trigger an avalanche, but Pollard said it was decided that it would be safer to continue to the summit, where they planned to spend the night at the Mount Washington Observatory, than to retreat.
As they traveled through the Central Gully of Huntington Ravine at 4:30 p.m., with the sun setting and the temperature nearing zero, the crack came.
“I yelled ‘Avalanche,’ and then I braced myself,” Pollard recalled.
One of the climbers, Stephanie White, an experienced climber from Michigan, was just behind Pollard, and heard him shout.
“Next thing I know I was hit by a wall of snow,” White said. “I lost grip of my tools and got launched backward. The whole thing going through my head was, ‘Huh, this could be it.’ ”
The 12 climbers were divided into four groups of three whose members were tethered by rope. Three of the teams were swept away. One was able to stop its own slide. Another’s rope got caught up on a large rock, keeping it from plunging. White said she was trying to swim out of the snow when she felt a sharp jerk at her hips and was pulled out of the slide by other members of her group. The top group was largely unaffected by the avalanche, which was measured by the Forest Service to be 25 feet across and eight inches deep.
Zeier’s group, which included team leader Andy Politz, who has summited Mt. Everest, and Politz’s adult son, J.P., were carried down the ravine and out of sight. “We saw three very dull headlamps,” White said. “It was earlier, right at dusk when this happened. I did think I saw three figures down below, but we couldn’t think about the what if’s — we had to get everyone down the mountain.”
Pollard said, “We were fearing the worst. It’s not easy to fall that distance, and we were concerned that lives were probably lost. We made the decision to down climb and take care of ourselves, because there was nothing we could really do for the guys below.”
Amazingly, the group that plunged down the ravine suffered only minor injuries, and was not buried by the snow. According to Pollard, Andy Politz fractured his ankle, his son twisted his ankle, and Zeier strained his shoulder and had bumps and bruises, but was otherwise OK. Approximately one hour after the incident, Andy Politz was able to radio for help. All three were transported to Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, which had mobilized additional staff, but the hospital declined to release information on the condition of the patients.
Chris Joosen, the lead snow ranger for the US Forest Service, led the rescue effort, which included three other rangers, volunteers from the North Conway Mountain Rescue Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club, as well as the caretaker for the Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin. The first rescuers were able to reach the injured party at 6:45 p.m., by 9:30, they had been transported to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s visitor center at Pinkham Notch, where ambulances were waiting.
Joosen said the rescue itself was fairly routine, and he did not feel any of the rescuers were in danger. The climbers will not be billed for the rescue, which is an increasingly common practice of the New Hampshire Department of Game, which handles rescues everywhere else in the state.
As for whether the team made a mistake by setting out despite avalanche warnings, Joosen said it was difficult to say. “Worldwide, there are more people killed under ‘moderate’ and ‘considerable’ avalanche warnings, than ‘high’ or ‘extreme,’ ” he said. “Every group of winter climbers needs to do an assessment based on the skill of the group and the objective information they receive. For one group, their actions may seem foolhardy, but for another, they’re reasonable.”
Aaron Gorban, the director of outdoor leadership training for the Appalachian Mountain Club, said with a “moderate” warning, it’s possible for people to get lulled into a false sense of security. “Mount Washington is renowned for what they refer to as ‘the world’s worst weather,’ so a relatively minor injury up there can become a fatal injury because of the weather. You break your ankle, and that could be it.”
Zeier, 26, of Brooklyn, was injured in Iraq in 2006 when an explosive struck his Humvee, leaving him with a severe head injury and damage to his left leg that would lead to amputation. The other four men in the vehicle were killed, and Zeier has since pushed himself through extreme physical challenges — such as running the New York City Marathon with a 50-pound pack and scaling Mount Rainier — for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which raises money for special operations veterans and their families. Pollard said Zeier had vowed to pay for the children of his fallen colleagues to go to college, and has raised $100,000 to date.
According to a profile published in the Conway Daily Sun this week, Zeier enlisted in the Marines after his best friend lost his father, a New York City fireman, in the Sept. 11 attacks.