Tackling Tuckerman's Ravine

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of April 16-22, 1998
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Tackling Tuckerman's Ravine

Tackling Tuckerman's Ravine
Question: A few friends and I are interested in hiking/riding Tuckerman's Ravine later this spring, and I was wondering if you knew of any books or brochures on the subject involving where to camp, what to bring, how to plan the trip, etc. Thanks.

Joel Barron
Voorheesville, New York

Use caution on Tuckerman's
avalanche-prone slopes

Adventure Adviser: Tuckerman's steep pitch is legendary, and the ravine has garnered quite a reputation as a late-spring proving ground for thrill-seeking skiers and boarders. It's definitely an excursion for expert skiers only, although strong intermediates can still have fun hiking part way up. Planning a trip to Tuckerman's is serious business and requires thorough preparation. Most springs, a few unlucky people (and dogs) lose their lives on the windswept and avalanche-prone slopes, so be cautious and respectful. That said, people who have experienced Tuckerman's swear by it.

First, some orienting facts. Located in the White Mountain National Forest, Tuckerman's Ravine is sloped on the eastern shoulder of 6288-foot Mt. Washington. As there are no lifts or other means of transport, reaching Tuckerman's involves a two-and-a-half hour hike up from the Pinkham Notch trailhead, followed by a hefty climb up the headwall, where the pitch steepens to 55°. Snow in the ravine can reach depths of 70 feet, and you can usually ski well into June. Tuckerman's is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, with a corps of volunteer ski patrollers and snow rangers. Potential dangers abound, and include: open crevasses; falling ice caused by warming spring temperatures (car-sized chunks have been known to tumble down from the headwall); severe and unpredictable weather; and, most worrisome, avalanches.

Although it is possible to do Tuckerman's in a long day trip from say Boston, I recommend arriving the night before and getting an early start on the hike. If you leave Pinkham Notch in the early am, it is possible to hike up and ski down two or three times. Timing your trip with good, safe conditions is key, so I would suggest calling the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) at 603-466-2721 for recommendations. Then, once you've picked your trip date, check in with them regularly to make sure conditions remain safe.

As for accommodations, you have a few options. By far the most popular choice is lining up a rack at the AMC-managed Pinkham Notch Shelter, located near the trailhead on Route 16 at the foot of Mount Washington. From here, it's roughly a 2.5-mile trek to the base of the ravine. The rustic bunkhouse sleeps over 100 and is equipped with a full-service cafeteria. For a bunk, dinner and breakfast, the rate is $37 per night for AMC members, $42 for non-members. Rates are $10-$12 cheaper without meals. Private rooms cost as much as $65 for non-members, while a room with three beds goes for $72. Call 603-466-2727 for availability and reservations. Overnight shelter is also available at Hermit Lake, near the ravine's base. These AMC-operated lean-tos cost $7 per person/per night, and camping coupons are available at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. The AMC also has other Presidential Range huts suitable for a Tuckerman's expedition, including the nearby Carter and Zealand Falls huts. Both involve hiking in three to five miles and cost $14 a night for members, $18 for non-members. For information on the lean-tos and camping platforms, call the number listed above and talk to the trails information folks at extension 116.

Since there is no shelter on Tuckerman's, coming prepared for all weather is absolutely essential. Don't even consider going without the proper gear, including a fully waterproof shell, a wind-resistant jacket, and a couple of polypro layers (avoid cotton since it dries slowly). For the hike, you'll need a pair of comfortable and sturdy hiking boots. Since it's a challenging trek, dress in layers so you can peel off clothes as you go. According to one recent veteran, the wind picks up quickly and easily on Tuckerman's, and it's very easy to get chilled. You'll want to have additional dry and warm clothes in your pack when you hit the ravine's wind-swept slopes. In addition to extra clothing, carry plenty of water, food, suntan lotion, firstaid supplies and a good pair of protective sun glasses. Bungee cords and packing tape come in handy for strapping your skis/board to your pack. Depending on the forecast, you'll also want to be prepared for snow conditions that can change by the minute. If it's icy, consider brining crampons and an ice ax for the ascent. And if you insist on making the trip despite increased avalanche warnings, carry along a shovel and transceiver for added safety.

Before heading out on the trail, check in at the AMC's Visitor Center at the trailhead for the latest weather forecast and avalanche report. Remember to register at the log book, since the rangers keep close track of who's in the ravine. The trail leading to Tuckerman's is clearly marked and starts just behind the shelter. After a 2.8-mile uphill climb, you'll reach the base of the ravine and the steep, rugged trek to the headwall and summit. Looking up to the right you'll see "Lunch Rocks," the preferred spectator spot, Hillman's Highway to the left, and the main headwall and summit straight ahead. Consider stashing your gear (and lunch) at Lunch Rocks as you pass to lessen your load. About half way up, you'll be above the treeline. As for the best route down, you can choose from one of the headwall's narrow and steep gullies, or the equally as narrow but not-so-steep Hillman's Highway.

The AMC has issued a list of tips for those attempting Tuckerman's this spring. These include: hike up where you plan to ski to learn the terrain; remain alert for falling ice, a constant danger; and keep in mind that new precipitation can increase the avalanche danger. For the current avalanche bulletin, call the US Forest Service at 603-466-2713, or the AMC at 603-466-2721. Last time I checked, avalanche warning was listed as low.

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