WORDS: Clare Menzel
My dad whipped his ski up in the air and we leaned in close to inspect the binding.
"Yep, it's broken," he said, fiddling with the decades-old heel piece that was supposed to clamp down on the ledge of the boot heel. Foregoing new gear season after season to make sure his kids were properly outfitted, my dad’s bindings had just seen their last day. Had the timing been better, a little duct tape would have been all we needed for a temporary fix. But as it happened, my dad’s bindings broke on top of Tuckerman Ravine headwall, where duct tape was in short supply. And with our packs stashed among a cluster of boulders at the base of the bowl, there was no other clear MacGyver solution.
The day began at 6 a.m. on an early spring Sunday morning. My father and I drove off into the White Mountain sunrise to hike and ski Tuckerman’s, cursing the incessant dirt road bumps for sloshing dark coffee out of our battered aluminum water bottles. We munched heavily-buttered egg sandwiches, crumpled the tin foil onto the floor, and talked excitedly about the day ahead. We parked the car at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and started our hike up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, an easygoing trek through the woods that, at this time of year, was mostly snowless. About an hour and a half later, we stopped in at HoJo's, the caretaker's cabin, to refill the water bottles that still reeked of coffee. That’s when I took in my first real life view of a place that, as far as I was concerned, was among the best on Earth.
I grew up on stories of Tuckerman’s. A retro black-and-white photograph of the bowl hung across the wall from my childhood bedroom and I saw it every morning after I woke up and every night before I went to sleep. After 17 years of seeing the iconic locale in its diminished 16- by 18-inch form, finally experiencing it in life-size full-color was wild. When we came up on HoJo's and the vast ravine jumped into view, Dad and I whooped, goofy from the sight of the beautiful mountainside and the promise of kickass skiing.
We continued on up the rock steps of the Little Headwall to the base of the bowl, where we took a quick Toblerone break and buckled into our boots. Under the swelling sun, we began the short but steep climb to the headwall. My dad took the lead up the hill, and I shoved my boot into each deep foothold of the ladder-like path as soon as his had stepped up. About halfway up, Dad made a sudden dive to recover a rogue ski careening down the hill that someone somewhere above us had lost. I froze behind him, seeing how quickly the pitch carried it down.
"Dad, I don't know how I feel about this anymore," I ventured, keenly aware of my two freshly healed ACLs and the enormous boulders rising up on either side of us. He stopped and I squinted up at him, leaning onto the hill and nervously poking at the snow around his heels with my gloved thumb. Tuckerman's was in my Menzel blood, but we could just try it next year, right?
"It's going to be work," he said like a wise zen mountain master, "but you'll make it."
His matter-of-fact confidence kept my brewing freak-out at bay, that is, until we reached the top, tried to click in, and found that only three of four bindings were functional.
This was not how my first trip to Tuck's was supposed to go. Dad was going to drop in first and ski the Chute, a route wedged between boulders that widened to spit any still-standing skiers at the base of the bowl. I was supposed to see him vanish into the rocks, then pop out at the end so I could follow his path and know I'd make it down, too.
"What now?" I asked. Dad always knew what to do.
He shrugged, "Walk down, I guess." I gaped, and he rephrased. "Well, I am—you're going to ski."
I sidled forward, trying unsuccessfully to peer over the precipitous edge. I wondered whether or not there was anything below. Blindly teetering there at the top of the chute, it seemed to me like any move off of the snowy cliff would dump me right into the distant New Hampshire panorama that spun out beyond the tips of my skis.
I shrunk into my soggy neckwarmer and looked back over my shoulder. "But I can't see anything…which way do I go?" What I didn't ask out loud was, “If I'm not following you, how will I know how to get down?”
"You just hiked up it. You know exactly what's down there. No problem. You don't need me to go first."
I considered this. The advice itself was pragmatic, but like any kid getting advice from their parents, I didn't really pay attention. What I heard was his confidence. Alright, Dad. You think I got this? OK then, I got this.
So I jumped in. I cut a few quick, neat turns through the narrow portion, and when the chute opened up, took it round and huge, swooping wide across the hill to match my turns with the size of my grin.