WORDS: Tim Fater
“Unprepared on Mount Washington again, sweet,” muttered my ski mate, Jeff Oliveira, as we gazed out of the car window on Saturday, May 17, near the summit into zero visibility and 40 mph winds.
Jeff and I know firsthand the mountain’s drastic weather from past experiences. We thought this time would be different. The summit forecast the night before called for high pressure, blue skies, light winds, and temperatures in the mid 50s. But from the comfort of my car as we ascended the Mount Washington Auto Road, it appeared the forecast had changed.
The Auto Road, which recently opened for its 154th season, climbs to the highest point in the Northeast, the summit of Mount Washington, an elevation of 6,288 feet. From the road, skiers can easily access the Great Gulf, a large glacial cirque on the northern face of Mount Washington. Thanks to the gulf’s north-facing aspect and steep rock walls, one or more of the ravine’s chutes are skiable long after the snow has melted in other places. Skiers are able to park a few hundred yards from the summit and traverse a mile along a ridge to some of the biggest, steepest lines in the East.
Despite the conditions that welcomed our arrival at the summit, we kept to our plans and set out to ski one of Mount Washington’s most remote ravines. Banking on the promise of improved weather for the rest of the day, we were able to piece together enough gear from the bottom of our packs to permit the relatively short jaunt into the Great Gulf. We stumbled away from the car amidst the thick clouds and whipping winds in search of the trailhead.
A half hour later, we arrived at the top of Airplane Gully, a prominent chute that descends 1,200 vertical feet to the valley floor. As we switched from hiking to ski boots, the sky around us alternated from thick clouds to vibrant flashes of sun. We approached the snow platform above the chute and stomped our skis in anticipation. After a few pole taps and hollers, one-by-one we dropped the cornice and sunk our skis into the soft corn snow to check our speed on a near 50-degree pitch. Jump turns gradually transitioned to big arcs, and we gained speed as the slope widened.
After a slack morning, it was time to earn our turns and go back up the old fashioned way, following the steep boot pack up towards the ridgeline above. Returning to the cornice at the top of the gully a second time, our morning frustrations were nowhere in sight as we were greeted by bright sunshine and a crowd of sunglass-donning spring skiers preparing for liftoff.