Wed been talking about it for a month and the weather
had finally meshed with everyones schedule- it was time
for another weekender or day trip to ski the backcountry.
So, where do you want to ski this weekend?
I asked Dale on the line from New York.
I want to go for the Gulf, but Rob & Jeremy want
to hit Tucks came the reply.
Tuckerman? Why Tuckernan? Its a weekend, you
know- itll be crowded as hell! Any chance we can twist
their arms a bit?
Naw, nobody in New York has heard of anything up
there but Tuckerman, whats more, Rob & Jeremy are alpine-only
skiers- nobodys skinning up.
OK, Tucks it is then. (sigh)
The Tuckerman Ravine on Mt. Washington is undoubtedly the
best known backcountry skiing venue in New Hampshires White
Mountains. Skiing the steep gullies & headwall of this east
facing glacial cirque has a long skiing history and is considered
by many a Rite of Spring. Ever since the John Sherburne ski trail
leading from the bottom of the bowl to Pinkham Notch was cut
in the 30's, skiers have enjoyed an easy descent after
a day of steep skiing. Its always been popular, but the
past 15 years have seen a real explosion in numbers. Access is
easy, too easy, via the Tuckerman Ravine trail, a well drained
3 mile superhighway. It is a 2200 foot vertical gain
hike from the parking lot of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)
Pinkham Notch Lodge on New Hampshires Rt.16.
Skiing in the ravine is steep by almost anyones standards.
Considered extreme by some (although there is steeper
& less forgiving terrain in the neighborhood), it is a Mecca
for skiers looking for bragging rights, drawing over 1000 riders
on busy spring weekends. It has become a regular circus, complete
with clowns, an audience, and every kind of snow slider. Dangers
abound. Indeed, dozens have been killed over the years, from
avalanches, fierce weather, ice & rock fall, crevasse falls,
and unsuccessful slides for life ending on rock.
But on a calm clear 50F degree Saturday in April the biggest
hazard is dodging falling skiers & climbers!
Friday night was spent in nearby Conway. Rising to a clear,
cold, morning there was no urgency to charge on up only to scrape
around on hardpack. Better to let the morning sun bake it into
creamed corn first. Arriving at Pinkham Notch at 10:00AM the
parking lot was full: not a good omen. A half mile away at the
Wildcat Ski Area, we rigged our packs and started the days
hike on asphalt. The hard blue sky was beginning to show some
warmth in the direct sun. Stopping in the AMC lodge to check
the summit weather, we learned it was 36F with 20mph gusts. Sweet!
The 6288 foot summit of Mt Washington has a permanent manned
weather station proudly boasting the worst weather on earth.
(Indeed, the average winter wind speed is more than 40mph, with
sustained 70-100mph common!) The top of the Tuckerman headwall
is 1300 vertical feet and a half mile below the summit, totally
exposed: nowhere to be when its screaming. This was shaping
up to be an above the headwall day!
It had snowed early in the week, so the trail hike was
on a well-trodden carpet of corn. The posted avalanche had gone
from high to moderate only the day before,
but with the additional freeze/thaw cycle the hazard was falling
fast and posted low on the sign at Pinkham Notch.
The avalanche hazard is assessed by both the Tuckerman Volunteer
Ski Patrol (on the web at: www.tuckerman.org ) and the US Forest
Service (report can be found at www.rsn.com/cams/conway ) While
useful, these reports are by no means a substitute for common
sense and good avalanche assessment skills. People are injured
almost every year by unstable windslabs that can form in only
hours, even when the posted hazard is low. But the
warm temps and light winds rapidly melted even that concern.
Tuckerman Ravine from the deck of "HoJo's"
Hillman's Highway (center)
Arriving at the AMC Hermit Lake hut at the 2.4mile point,
it was standing room only on the deck. Affectionately refered
to as HoJos by Tuckerman regulars, its
a popular place to overnight for skiing Tuckerman. Sporting several
lean-to and Adirondack type shelter bunks in addition to the
small but weather-tight hut, sleeping space is available on a
first-come-first-served basis only. Camping is allowed, but space
is limited. Getting a Friday night berth often requires arriving
at Pinkham Notch no later than noon. From HoJos the Tuckerman
headwall was in full view, and swarming with climbers kicking
steps up the popular ski descents. Also visible from HoJos
is the long 1500 foot vertical, 35-40 degree gully known as Hillmans
Highway . Intensive lobbying failed to convince the NY crew to
ski Hillmans (a great alternative, especially when its
crowded at Tuck's),so a short rocky hike later and we entered
Arriving at Tuck's ....
Photo by Jeremy Ward
It was time to take in the view and figure out where to
drop the packs for a warm-up run. The Lunch Rocks were already
crowded, with most people carefreely exposing their backs to
the very high potential of ice and rock releases off the sun-baked
headwall. The shaded rocks on the southern end of the bowl, with
no visible overhanging ice seemed safer, we geared up there.
The warmup du jour was a short sweet run from the large overhanging
rock that forms the south edge of the 50+ degree line called
the Chute. From that starting point the first turns were onto
a mere 40 degree steep, well within the comfort zone of the group.
An almost aerial view of the lower bowl with Lunch Rocks
in the middle.
Photo by Jeremy Ward
Jeremy led off with a set of power parallels, polishing
off the scant 250 of vertical to the bottom with relish
and abandon, like an alcoholics first drink of the day.
It had obviously been awhile! Dale followed making more leisurely
freeheel parallels, telemarking the last few turns, followed
quickly by Rob. I took up sweep, pulling hopnstop
teles, pushing the pack a bit, seeing what itd take. The
substrate was still pretty firm, with a sugar coating of 2-3
of fine corn. Overall it seemed pretty bomb-proof. It was sure
to be softer on the sunnier side of the bowl, and it was time
to find out!
Crossing over to the Lunch Rocks we ran through the what
ifs, a verbal self-arrest primer to get the newbies at
least thinking about how to avoid cartwheeling into a
rag-doll descent. Looking up, the Right Gully was already lousy
with skiers- not the best situation. The run out isnt good
(onto the lunch rocks) and the likelihood of collisions is high.
Although steeper, the wider headwall descent on the Lip seemed
a better bet. Several dozen people were climbing single file
in a boot ladder on the north edge of the route, but traffic
on the headwall itself was pretty low given the crowd. A biff
there would end in the center of the bowl, missing the rocks.
Looking across the head wall from the south (skiers right).
Photo by: Jeremy Ward
Near the ascending line a USFS guy asked us our our intended
route down. Warning that the southern limb of the Lip was severely
undercut, that running water could be heard
about where that skier is standing. Dont go there- hang
to the north side if you can! he said. Great! A 50 foot
boulevard just became a 20 foot lane with an indeterminate edge!
Oh well, ya pays ya money
Rob & Jeremy were both very nervous on the way up.
At one point a falling skier plowed into the line, taking three
climbers on slides for life. Every fall was greeted
with howls from the crowd, and every recovery elicited cheers.
Several times, as the line halted, Rob bumped into me as he was
looking down, transfixed by the steep drop to the bottom, instead
of looking ahead into the real danger zone.
Near the top of the steepest point (about 50 degrees, maybe
a hair more) we encountered a woman with snowshoes on her pack,
descending the kicked steps of the boot ladder in floppy Sorels.
What was she thinking, I had to know. Well, I was going
to snowshoe down, but when I got up here it looked too steep.
She was a disaster in the making! Without climbing gear or at
least decent boots for kicking steps this route was extremely
difficult, with no safe retreat from her position.
Breaking out over the 5000 foot point, the grade eases
considerably. In cool weather and high winds the Upper Snowfields
are often icy, rocky crust, with a thin coat of sastrugi, but
on this glorious warm day it was well worth hiking the extra
500-600 of vertical to where the snow thinned out. Pausing
for lunch on a ledge it was time to drink in the scene and ponder
A view from above the headwall. The entrance to the Left
Gully is visible (center) as well as where it enters the bowl
(lower left). Often the entrance is a 4 cornice drop onto
a 55 degree slope!
Photo by Jeremy Ward
Well into the afternoon, the sun wasnt going to wait.
With the steepest descent before us, the headwall would soon
be in shadow and firming up. It was as sweet as it was going
to get right now: time to go! The group spread out and let the
skis run on the 15 degree slopes of the Upper Snowfield, eventually
converging near the top of the Lip where a dozen people waited
their turn. Milling around for several minutes eventually it
was my turn, with a lone snowboarder ahead. I let him get 3-4
turns ahead of me before starting off.
It begins mildly enough- a 30 degree pitch that develops
grade at 10 degrees-a-turn so that by the 3rd turn I was step-telemarking
into the fall-line looking straight down the abyss. The snowboarder
ahead then suddenly stopped cold in the middle of the steeps!
Gulp! Whoa! I could have gone around him by skirting to the south,
over the undercut section but I balked. I pulled up and waited
. listening to the muffled sound of the waterfall beneath
Looking up I could see Jeremy stopped, frozen 50 feet above
me. Rob was nowhere to be seen, but Dale was beginning his descent.
Not the best timing! Jump-turning parallels past Jeremy he oversteered
and biffed! Passing by at 25mph on a carpet of death-cookies,
spread-eagle, both of his Black Diamond Whippets slicing futilely
through the soft snow. Some 200 below on firmer snow he
self arrested on a 40 degree grade, gathered himself and traversed
the bowl to his pack. Tucks-1, Dale-0. Bummer!
The snowboarder finally gathered his nerve, made a turn,
then another, then stopped. Kick turning to face the open slope
I swung out (not too far), turning to get below the probable
fracture zone, should the undercut snow open up. No sooner than
Id stopped, a guy launched from the top of the center headwall
with a rebel yell, sticking the landing some 50+ feet below to
the roar of the crowd! He schussed to the south side of the bowl
in one wide super-G, coming to a stop well above the apex of
his turn. As the applause died a lone voice from the crowd cried
Thats my grandma- hey Nanna! to a roar of laughter.
As the laughter faded a second skier catapulted on the
same track as the first, exploding on landing. One of his skis
rebounded, helicoptering in the air for a full 3 count before
sticking tail-first on the headwall. He tried to get up and run
uphill to get it, but it was clear his knees werent working
any better than his brain, which hadnt registered the pain
Looking across the bowl from Lunch rocks
Photo by Jeremy Ward
The snowboarder ahead finally sucked it in, made one turn,
biffed head first with a loud Oh no!!! and ate snow
for 200 vertical feet. People were passing me, skiing into the
undercut zone. Time to vacate! A kick-turn and a couple hop-teles
later I traversed out to the center headwall, shagged the jumpers
ski for him (he was feeling the pain by then) and cut south for
my pack. Jeremy & Rob were hot on my heels.
Both jumpers were later loaded into Volunteer Ski Patrol
sleds for the bumpy trip down to Pinkham Notch, complaining of
severe knee pain.
Gathering by the packs, preparing to ski out Rob &
Jeremy were ecstatic. I cant believe we just did
that! It was so stupid! I cant
believe how steep that was! Can you believe those
guys who jumped? What were they thinking? Too
many hours of watching movies in ski area bars, was the consensus.
Tuckerman Ravine is not the snowy Sierra. Its not a good
place to huck big air. The snowpack is 99% wind deposited snow,
saturated from behind and below from seepage on the headwall.
Its hard, glacial, and unforgiving, even on a corn snow
Packed, rested and ready, our group skied out the bottom
of the bowl, over the Lower Headwall and out onto the Sherburne
trail. Mogully in places its a sweet, if sometimes narrow
route. Near the bottom of the trail it was fenced off. A short
bushwhack over to the Tuckerman Ravine hiking trail and the skis
were shed for the final ¼ mile into Pinkham Notch.
No injuries in the party, plenty of stories for the folks
back home, it was as good as it gets! A good time was had by
all! Wanna do it again tomorrow? Please! Spare me!
Above left: Skiers lining up for a turn at turns on the
headwall. Above Right: The author in a low snow year photo, note
the ice track on the right where a car sized chunk rolled down
onto the Lunch Rocks area. Left photo by Jeremy
About the Author
Dana Dorsett lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.
An engineer by vocation, skier by avocation he prefers to ski
in the uncrowded backcountry.
You can contact Dana Dorsett at: Dana@telemarktips.com
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