(This is the third installment of a five-part series highlighting some of the most iconic ski lines in the world. These are the classics that skiers claim for decades and talk about over beers during the doldrums of summer. Check out Portillo’s Super C and Central Couloir in Jackson Hole, the first two classic lines.)
The history of Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire’s White Mountains dates back to the Great Depression. Olympic skiers like Dick Durrance raced on the steep slopes of Tucks in the 1930s. Today, every East Coast skier worth their salt makes the trip to Tucks to sample the terrain and get a taste for right coast big-mountain skiing. Tuckerman Ravine has been the east coast’s classic line for decades, a proving ground and a right of passage for the rippers that ski the east.
Sitting on the southeastern side of Mount Washington, Tuckerman Ravine is a 280-degree glacial cirque about a third of the size of Utah’s Wolverine Bowl. The Tuckerman Trail originates in Pinkham Notch, about 30 minutes from North Conway, New Hampshire. The slog to the base of the ravine takes about three hours, so accessing Tucks is an undertaking in itself. After the hike or skin up the Tuckerman Trail proper skiers eventually reach the base of the bowl, which stretches up towards the summit of Mount Washington.
“There are a lot of options up there and when you go up for the first time it can be pretty overwhelming,” says Chris James, co-founder of Burlington, Vermont-based Meathead Films.
“Once you’re at the base of the ravine it’s about a 35 to 40 minute bootpack to the summit,” says Meathead film star and lifelong New Hampshire local Stacey Rachdorf. “It is a pretty short hike, but it’s ultra steep. You can really nail out some stuff if the bootpack is set, but during the winter you’re going to be setting it yourself.” Once you’re on top of Tucks you can access a lot of different zones, but the Headwall is the line to ski. If you’re dropping into the Headwall people are definitely going to pay attention.”
First skied in 1931 by Dartmouth and Olympic skiers John Carleton and Charley Proctor, the Headwall has been the venue for the fabled Harvard-Dartmouth slaloms, Olympic tryouts, and the American Inferno races. No run garnered more hype during the early years of extreme skiing than Toni Matt’s top-to-bottom straightline of the Headwall in the 1939 American Inferno. On a course that historically took racers about 14 minutes to complete, Matt laced a high-speed and puckering descent of the eight-mile course in 6 minutes and 29 seconds, beating Olympic skier and downhill champion Dick Durrance by a full minute.
“Toni Matt’s run on the Headwall is still the talk of skiers whenever racing is discussed,” wrote the late Tuckerman Ravine legend Joe Dodge, who served as Appalachian Mountain Club hut master in the 1920s and prospected a good portion of Tucks, for Ski Magazine in 1951. “He took the Headwall practically straight, with hardly a check at the lip of the ravine. Everyone could hear his skis chatter on the ice on the floor of the ravine before he shot over the Little Headwall and down onto the Sherburne trail.”
“The Headwall down the middle of the ravine is the premier run at Tucks,” says Tim Fater, Senior Editor at Ski the East. “With a variety of frozen waterfalls and cliffs in the Headwall zone, you can string together two or three pretty decent-sized drops with the bottom one being the biggest—up to 20-25-feet. If you’re linking up two mid-stagers on the near vertical wall and finish it off with the big drop at the bottom before the run out you’ll have the whole place going absolutely bonkers.”
“In terms of alpine descents, there are some lines in that relatively small cirque that, ironically, still have never been skied because it’s that steep and the conditions change so much from year to year,” says Rachdorf. “For me, midwinter is where it’s at; that’s the time to go to Tucks. It’s a little more variable as far as avalanche conditions go, but the wind deposits are always blowing from the northwest and we’ll have up to a 90-foot base on an average snow year. It can be as good as skiing gets in December and January.”
For how good Tucks can be in the mid-winter, it’s Mecca during the springtime when as many as 2,500 people make the pilgrimage to the White Mountains.
“There really is this juxtaposition to Tucks,” says Fater. “You can go up there in December through February and ski hefty lines that are a great training ground for big mountains. And, at the same time, you can go up there on a spring weekend with thousands of other people.”
A peanut gallery forms on Lunch Rocks every spring weekend. Imbibing and partying, the raucous crowd won’t hold back from razzing when someone hacks their way through a line, but they’ll definitely celebrate when the Headwall is skied in style.
“The spring break scene where people are hauling up kegs, sleds, and inner tubes is a total shit-show,” says James. “Some people go up there and don’t even ski, they’re just hanging out to watch and rage.”
Whether you get to Tucks in midwinter for some cold, New Hampshire smoke or during the spring for corn snow and beers, there’s no arguing that Tuckerman Ravine is a classic.