Knocking Off Tuckerman Ravine

For generations, it's been a curious springtime pilgrimage: hiking up, then skiing, boarding, sliding, or crashing down Tuckerman Ravine. But there's a first time for everyone.

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NEXT TIME YOU’RE at a junk store, see if you can find an old-fashioned wide-brimmed chamber pot, the kind your granddad used to call a thunder mug. If you take one home, chainsaw it down the middle (safety goggles, don’t forget!), and hang from the rim some of that icy gunk oozing from your undefrosted freezer, you’ll have a pretty good scale model of Tuckerman Ravine, the snow-filled gorge near the summit of Mount Washington that is one of the shrines of North American skiing. Seen from below the tree line, the ravine really does look like the inside of a giant, steep-sided white bowl—dotted, on most spring weekends, with hundreds and hundreds of unaccountable black specks.

Mount Washington is the windiest place in North America, with notoriously unpredictable weather, so for greater accuracy you might want to train an electric fan on your chamber pot—or maybe a couple of fans, for the scale-model equivalent of 200-mile-an-hour gusts—and periodically you could brush off some of the freezer gunk and watch it crash to the bottom. For the rest, you’ll have to perform a little thought experiment: Imagine an army of trained ants crawling up the slick porcelain sides of your pot and then sliding down again, some of them on skittering legs, some of them tumbling abdomen over thorax. If you do this experiment correctly, your first thought is likely to be the same as it is in real life when you stand there gazing upward in New Hampshire: Those ants must be out of their minds!

In real life, the ants, when you climb up the ravine itself, turn out to be human beings of a varied yet singular sort, all embarked on what has become a curious New England ritual—part Woodstock, part Outward Bound, part spring break. They come from all over the East and from Canada, too, as soon as the weather warms up enough, in April and May, to reduce the risk of avalanche: little kids and geezers and all ages in between; stoners, slackers, hard-chargers, and working stiffs; college dudes and high-school dropouts; gays, straights; huffers and puffers and the preternaturally fit; equipment junkies clad in chartreuse-colored synthetics, guys in cammies, babes in bandannas and tank tops, old guys in blue jeans and ratty turtlenecks; skiers, boarders, snowshoers, and telemarkers; also people carrying inner tubes, snow coasters, and just plain old plastic trash bags—anything that will slide. Their goal is to ascend the ravine, as far as their strength and courage and good sense will take them, and then, God willing, come down again in one piece. On a good weekend a couple of thousand people or more will show up, and you can witness some of the best extreme skiing this side of a Warren Miller video; you can also see some appalling wipeouts.

Some people participate in this ritual for the scary thrill of it; others, for bragging rights—so they can say they’ve done it. People have been known to ski the ravine in costume—tuxedos and Superman suits and the like—and in no costume at all, just their boots and their birthday suits. (A nearly naked turbo-hottie was said to be in evidence the weekend I visited, but, alas, I never saw her.) Some people go just to hang out. They spend the day on the “lunch rocks”—tiers of greenish, lichen-covered boulders at the bottom of the ravine that form a natural grandstand and provide a safe (or sometimes not so safe) refuge from which to watch.

Some people, New Englanders mostly, have been coming to the ravine for so many springs that they probably don’t even know why they do it anymore. But for a lot of people who make the annual trek, the reason is something close to romance. They’re drawn by the stern, forbidding beauty, by a love of skiing itself, and by the purity and simplicity of the Tuckerman ski experience. No tickets, no lifts, no lines, no beginners.

The ravine is an ongoing reminder that skiing, though in some ways very old, is also something quite new. The first chairlift in North America was built in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1936, and not many more went up until after the war. In the beginning, which was barely a lifetime ago, people skied the way they still do at Tuckerman Ravine. They walked up, carrying their own gear, and came back down, savoring every turn. They got in one, two, maybe three runs a day—each more precious and hard-won than the last.

EDWARD TUCKERMAN never skied the ravine that bears his name. He was never there in the winter. He was a botany professor at Amherst College, and in the late 1830s, along with a few other intrepid botanists, he began trekking to the White Mountains in the spring and summer in search of lichens. In the vast semicircular glacial area just below the summit of Mount Washington he discovered some prime habitat: The weather was so severe, the winds so fierce, the snowpack so deep for much of the year, that lichens were about the only thing that grew there.

The crowds didn’t show up until the next century, after the arrival of the Atlantic and Saint Lawrence railroad had made New Hampshire’s Presidential Range a popular tourist destination. The ravine soon became a favorite and picturesque spot for adventurous campers and climbers, but the first skier didn’t appear until April 1914. He was John Apperson, a famous Adirondack explorer from Schenectady, New York, and it’s doubtful that he knew how to make a downhill turn. Nobody in America did back then. The way you made a descent was by picking up speed until you fell down; then you brushed yourself off and repeated the process.

In the 1920s, after the highway department began wintertime plowing of the road from Jackson, New Hampshire, to Pinkham Notch, at the base of Mount Washington, skiers found it easier to get to the ravine and more of them began turning up. The pioneers were Joe Dodge, the legendary huts manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and, a few years later, the early members of the Dartmouth Outing Club, those hardy and intrepid young men, bright-eyed, square-jawed, who did so much to further skiing as a sport in this country. In 1931, two Dartmouth skiers, John Carleton and Charley Proctor (who had skied in the 1924 and 1928 Winter Olympics, respectively), were the first to go over the ravine’s headwall. To understand what this means, let’s go back to our model. Before Carleton and Proctor, skiers had stopped well short of the chamber pot’s steep-sided rim. Carleton and Proctor climbed up and over this rim—or the headwall, as it’s called, a 45-degree slope—and then skied all the way back down, which is considerably harder and a great deal scarier. When you come over the lip, the snow seems to fall away beneath your feet and all you see is sky.

In 1933, Carleton also skied in the first of the three American Infernos—races, modeled on a famous Swiss competition, that went from the summit of Mount Washington, over the headwall and through the ravine, and then down a newly created fire trail to just above Pinkham Notch, a distance of almost four miles. The third and most famous Inferno took place in April 1939. Forty-two skiers competed, but the one people still remember was Toni Matt, a 19-year-old Austrian. Matt, who had been to the ravine only once before, planned to make three turns as he came through the steepest part of the bowl and then to straighten out for the run down to Pinkham. But he made his three turns on the snowfields above the headwall and was already bombing over the lip when he realized his mistake. He schussed the whole thing, reaching a speed of 85 miles per hour. Afterward, all Matt said was that he was lucky to be 19 and stupid, and to have strong legs.

MY MOTHER SKIED the ravine in the early forties—or at least she said she did. She claimed to have done it on the Fourth of July, which, though technically possible, is a little bit of a stretch. Without a doubt, though, both my parents were enthusiastic members of the pioneering generation of New England skiers. Her letters to my father during the war, when she was working in Boston and he was in Hawaii with the Navy, drove him crazy. They were full of accounts of winter Sundays at a nearby country club that had just installed a rope tow and, even more maddening, of weekend ski trips to New Hampshire. My mother and her friends would take the train from Boston after work on Friday, and before mid-night they’d be in Franconia or Jackson. Logging trucks would meet them at the station and drive them to local inns that had been turned into dormitories. They’d ski all day Saturday, squeeze in a run the next morning, and then take the train back through the Sunday twilight. Somebody might break out a “jug,” and there would be jitterbugging in the aisles. When the war was over and my parents finally married, they spent their honeymoon skiing in North Conway and brought back a little booklet of snapshots, which years later I used to pore over. They looked young and glamorous, like John Payne and Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade.

And then they never skied again. Kids, illness, money problems. But their stuff lingered in the basement and cast a kind of spell—the bamboo poles with leather-wrapped handles, the long, heavy wooden skis with spring bindings, the boxy, square-toed leather boots with a groove around the backs of the wooden heels. When I was growing up outside Boston, I used to wear these boots—first my mother’s and then, as my feet grew, my father’s—to school on snowy days.

But I didn’t seriously take up skiing until I was a grown-up, with kids of my own, and by then it was too late for me ever to become really good at the extreme stuff. After helicopter-skiing in Idaho a couple of years ago, I decided that I no longer had anything to prove—to myself or anyone else—and I resigned myself to a sensible life of happily cruising the blues. But for some reason, the idea of the ravine would never go away, and after having heard about it all through college and from friends in the seventies and eighties, I began to think about skiing it myself. I put it off two years in a row—because it would take too much time away from golf, or so I said—and then last spring I finally took the plunge.

MY COLD-WEATHER friend Dave Marsh was my guide and companion. I e-mailed him beforehand and asked what I needed to bring. He e-mailed back one word: “Pampers.” It’s also customary for Dave to bring along a special kind of trail sausage that his friends call (for obvious reasons) “the horse wang.” Every winter for the past 20 years, Dave, a former coach and now a school administrator, and I have skied and hiked and played countless hours of pond hockey together. Sometimes he doesn’t even call; he simply shows up at my house when the mercury plummets and in his booming voice yells for me to get a move on.

It was early spring when we left my house in Allendale, New Jersey. In northern New Hampshire it was still the back end of winter. The deciduous trees were just barely in bud; the aspens were as bare as whisk brooms. The mountains, now coming into view around every bend, looked gray and flinty.

The gloom lifted later that evening at the Red Parka, a local pub in Glen, where we hooked up with the rest of our party: Adam and George, Dave’s two sons; Dave’s old friend Gus, a Hanover, New Hampshire, native who has been skiing the ravine since he was a teenager; and Gus’s son, Jeff, and his friend Mike. We enacted a ritual that was no doubt taking place in other roadhouses and in campsites and motel rooms for miles around. Dozens of Long Trail beers (the vin du pays) were drunk, old times remembered, and various Tuckerman horror stories retold. We heard about the guy who was propelled from the lunch rocks a hundred feet in the air by a cannonball of ice (miraculously, he survived), and about the girl who missed a turn up top, slipped through a crevasse carved by a waterfall, and was never seen again. Toni Matt was invoked more than once. Gus recalled a Harvard-Dartmouth race in 1947, when, still a high-school student, he went down as a forerunner and, turning around at the bottom, saw the entire course get wiped out by an avalanche.

THE NEXT MORNING we headed up the mountain. (We did this twice, actually—once on a Friday, when the ravine is usually less crowded, and again on Saturday, to get the full, festival-like experience.) The 3.1-mile hike from Pinkham Notch to the ravine is an arduous climb in itself. The trail starts gently enough, easing up through the hardwood forest and switchbacking over the swollen Cutler River, but it gets steeper as it ascends. About a mile up, toothpaste-squirts of snow started to appear under my feet. The last third or so was completely paved in snow and ice. You can make it in sneakers (if you don’t mind wet feet), but most people prefer sturdy boots, and even nonskiers tend to carry ski poles for leverage and balance.

The trip typically takes two hours. I went up “like a scalded dog,” in Dave’s words, and made it in half that time. I wasn’t showing off. Having taken rueful note of a memorial in the trailside lodge listing the 126 people who have died in the Presidential Range since they started keeping count in the mid-19th century, I was propelled by anxiety. I was also unused to lugging a 30-pound pack, with my skis sticking up like antennas overhead, and was afraid that if I stopped for very long I might never get started again. Even in my haste, though, I was startled by the fierce and dramatic landscape, and I marveled at my fellow hikers. Snaking up the mountainside, we climbed in purposeful procession, like medieval pilgrims on our way to Canterbury or Santiago de Compostela.

I passed a pair of orthopedic surgeons talking about hip replacements—other people’s, not their own. I overheard two guys planning to climb Aconcagua, in the Andes, and two others talking about skiing the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. I declined a swig offered by a bunch of college kids who were starting in early on the wineskins—”lightening the load,” as one of them put it. And I chatted briefly with a Massachusetts schoolteacher and self-proclaimed “medical and biological miracle.” At age 44, still recovering from knee surgery and carrying some extra weight, she was determined to make it up in shorts, sweatshirt, and plastic-bagged running shoes. She made it, too. I talked to her again on the way down, and though she had turned her ankle and cut her knee, she whizzed right by me, sliding on one of those little plastic snow seats.

The chamber pot was shrouded in fog when I began to look for it, and then, as the wind blew stronger, it hove into view. A Pampers moment. The ravine is bigger and steeper and more forbidding than even your most careful imagining and model-building will have led you to believe; it’s some 800 feet tall, with 45- and 50-degree slopes in places, and stretches roughly half a mile across—a huge hollow gouged into the side of the mountain. The summit, a few hundred feet up to the right, sits amid some snowfields that pour down into the ravine.

I saw some people hauling up inner tubes, and I asked a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, “Do you really encourage that?”

“We don’t encourage anything,” he said. “Or discourage it, either.” Then he pointed directly overhead, to the left of the ravine, where the slope was even more sheer and more perilous. “Last year a guy went up there with an air mattress,” the ranger said. “God must have been watching, because a gust of wind came along and blew it out of his hands. Otherwise that guy would be dead.”

In general, the Forest Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club, which runs the base lodge and a shelter farther up, take a fairly hands-off approach to skiing (or sliding) the ravine. On our second day, a volunteer at the bottom of the slopes was gently warning people of falling ice. (Remember our freezer gunk? The big danger in spring is that ice that has formed high up on the headwall comes crashing down in chunks that, as the locals take great delight in pointing out, are often as big as cars. I didn’t see any sedans, or even any compacts as it happens, but I did spot some tumbling chunks the size of home entertainment centers.) Even in spring, avalanche is a real and ever-present danger in the ravine, and every now and then somebody dies in one.

Climbing the ravine is a chastening experience. The surface is mushy in places, icy and unyielding in others, and higher up there are rock chutes and faces protruding through the snowpack. Step by step, you’ve got to get yourself up there and then figure out a line coming down. I saw one guy with a pair of kitchen knives duct-taped to his mittens; he was pulling himself up hand over hand. For much of the way, the ravine is probably no steeper than your average double-diamond slope, but it feels steeper because you are doing the work, not the chairlift, and the slope is at times literally in your face, your ski tips digging into the snow overhead.

On my first trip up I was not encouraged by the sight of a solitary ski descending on its own. A little while later a snowboarder came flying down and wiped out in spectacular rag-doll fashion. At the bottom he jumped up and raised both arms to acknowledge the cheers coming from the lunch rocks; only after a minute did he seem to notice that his right hand was hanging from his wrist at a completely unnatural angle. Most serious falls at the ravine are caused by overaggressiveness; in places the terrain is wide enough that, if you’re so inclined, you can traverse in gentle swooping arcs. One guy made it down, for example, with only two turns—one less, as Gus pointed out, than even Toni Matt, though Matt’s weren’t half a mile apart.

The hardest thing is finding a place flat enough to let you put on your skis, and after that the secret is to take a deep breath and not think too much. If you really contemplate what you’re about to do, you can hang up there for hours. You make a turn—and wish that you had practiced a little more during the winter. You make another—so far, so good. And another, and before you know it your held-in breath comes whooshing out. You’re going to live after all!

How high did I go? Well, not as high as Gus, but then he was so bushed from his ascent that he called it quits after a single run. “That’s it,” he said. “You don’t come here to get a lot of skiing in.” And I certainly didn’t go as high as Adam, George, Jeff, and Mike, superb skiers all, who went up so far it hurt my neck to look at them and then came down through chutes requiring heart-stoppingly narrow turns. But on three runs I went high enough to get the pump racing, the palms sweating, and the nerves jumping; high enough that when I fell once, I had a nice long time to savor my missile-like descent (and to appreciate those woolen ski clothes my mother and father wore, which gave the snow something to grab onto); high enough that when I got to the bottom I felt great. I wasn’t out of my mind, exactly, but I was still a little bit out of my body, and I had that dumb but profound thought you have at moments like this—that just to be alive is indescribably sweet. I wasn’t all that unhappy at how I had skied, but I was already thinking about how much better I could do, and before I knew it I was making plans with myself to come back next year. I also found myself wishing something I hadn’t wished in years. I wanted to call my parents and tell them where I was and what I had done.

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