Steepest beast in the East
Tucking into the most wicked spring backcountry experience on the East Coast.
While early April coddled the East Coast with balmy 80-degree temperatures, mid-April saw flurries in Jackson, N.H.. Jackson is a half-hour drive from Pinkham Notch, the staging area for the White Mountain National Forest -- home to 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. On the day our crew went, wind gusts were reported to be hitting 70 mph, and temperatures were well below freezing -- not exactly the sunny spring day session we were hoping for.
Regardless, the Pinkham Notch parking lot was packed to the point of overflow, requiring NYC-style vigilance to secure a spot. What, you might wonder, were all these people doing here on a day when the weather was so obviously foul?
Hiking Tucks, of course. It's a logic that is undeniable to any hardcore skier or snowboarder. Three miles up Mount Washington, through mud, slush, and sweat-freezing temps, lays the most infamous backcountry destination on the Eastern Seaboard: Tuckerman Ravine.
Tuckerman is one of just a few cirques this side of the Rockies, its u-shaped ravine carved out long ago by a retreating alpine glacier. And it didn't take long for the budding sport of skiing to tackle its fierce descents. According to Jeffrey R. Leich, author of Over the Headwall: Nine Decades of Skiing in Tuckerman Ravine, the ravine was first skied in 1914. In the 1930s, it gained international attention with the American Inferno summit-to-base races. These races culminated with Austrian racer Toni Matt's unbelievable 1939 straight-line down the headwall, en route to greasing all 4,256 vertical feet in a mind-boggling 6 minutes and 29 seconds, and on wooden skis without edges, none the less.
Fast foward 71 years and you'll find that, while there might be more Gore-Tex than wool in the parking lot, the fervor that Tucks inspires hasn't changed a bit.
"It's bragging rights to say you went up and did it," said Brendan Young, who woke up at 6 a.m. to make the hike. "You can find days when its 80 degrees in the bowl, the snow is nice and soft, people are partying and you'll probably see some b--bs ... Or you might have a day like today -- nasty walking conditions, hardpacked to ride."
You can find days when its 80 degrees in the bowl, the snow is nice and soft, people are partying and you'll probably see some b--bs ... Or you might have a day like today -- nasty walking conditions, hardpacked to ride.
Our 12-person group packed up our gear and hit the trail. Young's sentiment was repeated by most of the hikers that passed us on their way down. Discouraging, maybe, but Mt. Washington is no place to hold hard onto expectations: home to the highest recorded surface wind speed (231 mph), the weather here is typically a mash-up of three different systems, each vying for dominance. The result, according to volunteer ski patroller Ed Roy is, "very exciting weather patterns."
Conditions can flip fast, turning blue skies into thunderheads. Or, as we hoped, grey clouds into sunshine.
After 2.4 miles of mud-cum-slush-cum-ice and snow up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, we reached the Tuckerman Ravine Shelter where we found at least one satisfied shredder. Mason Axford of Westborough, Mass., made it up and down the headwall on his inaugural visit to Tucks. As for what brought him here, Axford broke off some succinct wisdom: "Look at it. There you go."
I tried my best to follow Axford's advice, the clouds socking in the ravine flitting in and out, teasing at views of the panoramic vista awaiting us just .7 more miles up the trail. Switching out hiking boots for snowboard boots, dropping packs and grabbing boards, we pushed on up into the murk. Buffeted by wind we clambered over snow-covered boulders past chains of jean-wearing hikers. All eyes were on the trail.
So, it was that much more of a rush when we crested the final pitch onto the ravine floor, and just as predicted, the weather blew off. Clouds parted to reveal the alpine amphitheatre that's captured the imagination of winter sports enthusiasts for nearly 100 years. Flanked on 270 degrees by steeply pitched, rocky, snowy and ice-covered ravine walls, the terrain is so wildly out of proportion by East Coast standards that it felt like hiking into the maw of some wild and untamed beast.
We vowed to return with crampons.
Surveying the scene, we watched, and listened, to a pair of skiers scrape down the main slope. I was reminded of what Roy the patroller had enjoined earlier: "Our concerns today with the ravine are weather, visibility, and long slides into nasty terrain."
Spotting a lone pocket of soft snow, Dave Finger, Tracy Anderson, Mark Kohlman, Lukas Huffman and myself decided to follow the skiers' route up the Chute, a pitch that reaches 50 degrees at its steepest. Kicking boots into crunchy, stiff ice, we made our way to the point of no return, digging in a board edge uphill for traction, with just an inch of toehold keeping us from skittering down the sheer, stiff slope. Until one of us did.
My brother Lukas, some 30 feet in the lead, lost his grip and went sliding down the face, the look on his face more one of dejection than terror. His run was fast, but not out of control. Luckily he made it into a patch of shrubs, avoided some rocks and the result was only a sore bum and a serious scare. The rest of our group remained stapled to the hill in anxiety, not able to turn around or strap in without suffering a similar fate. With only two options available, Finger and Anderson pressed on, while Kohlman and myself edged slowly toward a rock that offered actual snow and a bit of purchase to strap in on.
We all made our ways carefully down the slope, seeking out patches of remarkably soft snow in between sheets of boilerplate ice. Safely at the ravine floor we agreed the glory was not worth getting gory for, and opted for a few closer patches of powder. We vowed to return with crampons.
After getting in our licks, we made our way back downhill, reveling in the sunny skies and the view of Wildcat Mountain's trails across the way. We happily schussed the slushy and mud-strewn ski trail from the Tuckerman Ravine shelter more than halfway back to the lodge.
Brow-beaten by the wind, a stiff climb, a brush with mountaineering mishaps, and a leg-burner of a backcountry ski club, the experience was nearly complete. Following a few adult beverages, burgers and a good night's rest, we took the party over to Wildcat Mountain, just across the road from Pinkham Notch. Privy to all that high-elevation snow (a 4,062-foot summit, meow), Wildcat was still running strong, and we luxuriated in the comforts of a good old chairlift ride and subsequent trailside jibbing and shredding.
The only letdown for this writer was the lack of a peanut gallery at Tucks proper. Growing up in Vermont, I'd heard a lot about the scene up there and it was a reputation Roy the patroller happily confirmed: "You can bring whatever you want. It's carry in, carry out. We've seen everything from canoes to kegs to saxophones. You name it, people bring it up here."
Rest assured, I'll be back next year. And I'm bringing my tuba.