The Gladiators Of Tuckerman

Searching for the edge of sport on Mount Washington

In the Coliseum. PHOTO: TIM FATER

A relatively small pocket chiseled from the southeastern side of New Hampshire's 6,288-foot Mount Washington, Tuckerman Ravine is modest in size. Yet the ravine's walls are home to some of the steepest established backcountry skiing in the country. It's the coliseum of East Coast skiing. Ever since Toni Matt accidentally straight-lined the 55-degree Headwall during the third and final iteration of the American Inferno race in 1939, reaching almost 85 miles per hour on wooden skis, it is where the East Coast skier, usually resigned to mechanically groomed trails between dense hardwoods, proves their mettle.

From the base of the ravine, lines like Left Gully, Chute, Sluice, and Lobster Claw dominate the horizon for 180 degrees. In a sport where there are no front-row seats, this is the front row seat. And plenty have come to sit in it and watch the gladiators battle against the mountains. There are overweight dads with their trembling kids, gearheads from the flatlands with ice axes, old-timers in jeans with racing skis lashed to ancient frame backpacks, and kids with little more than goggles, a snowboard, and a beer in hand. And while the spectating crowd is usually absent in the world of skiing, here it is very much present, and it has real power, heckling skiers onto lines they wouldn't otherwise ski, desperate to please and to be praised. The crowd sits on Lunch Rocks, cutting up sausages and cheese and cooling beers in the snow, waiting to be entertained.

As the day goes on, the crowd gets more of what it desires. Skiers venture farther out onto the Headwall, they start dropping little airs, start going faster, making fewer turns. One drops a ten-footer into a chute and doesn't make a single turn until the bottom. The crowd erupts in applause and whistles, its volume increasing to match the difficulty of the stunt. Then another, approaching the mid-section of Right Gully, loses a ski and begins tumbling. The other ski remains fixed as he rolls and bounces down the 45-degree slope, his legs slapping the snow in a brutal fashion. He slides to a stop by Lunch Rocks facing uphill, barely moving except to clutch his thigh.

Not two minutes later, another man hiking over to the same line missteps above a cliff band and is soon engulfed by gravity. He falls over one five-foot drop, spinning head over heels down the 50-degree fall line, and hits his head on the takeoff of the next cliff. He slams into the snow below, leaving behind a line of bloodstains on the white surface as he tumbles down. The crowd turns pale despite the spring sun. They are paralyzed. The spectacle, so enthralling when it was on the safe side of the edge, has become too violent for them now. Somehow, the man sits up, and the nearest people in the crowd stand up to help.

Blood on the tracks. PHOTO: TIM FATER

No one knows how to react. There is a sick taste in the back of the crowd's mouth, an uncomfortable unease. Pretty soon, everyone in our group who had plans for a second run decide against it. Things are too eerie, too uncomfortable. While we watch the rescue crews, a mix of professionals and do-gooding volunteers, do their work, someone with binoculars notices a man at the top of the Sluice reaching in to a crevasse with a pole. By the way he's acting, we can tell someone has fallen in.

Whatever jovial momentum this crowd had has been dashed away by some force of reality with cruel timing. Things stay quiet and weird. Everyone who didn't run down to the scene of the victims feels slightly remorseful for not having done so. People make weak attempts to crack a joke, or simply focus the attention elsewhere.

A few minutes after the rescue crews have begun their journey out of the ravine, a skier with blue pants and a red jacket appears above the center of the Headwall. Stacey Rachdorf, a Meathead Films fixture with over 70 days of experience at Tuckerman's, was mid-way up his climb when the two accidents happened. He was boxed in by two older, slower climbers above him and a skier suffering from vertigo below. His skis had continued to hit Rackdorf in the back as he climbed, being too nervous to stop and risk being overcome by his surroundings. He had kept going back to the accidents. "Did you see that guy bust his head?!?" he said as they inched their way up the 50-degree slope. "It was like a piƱata!"

Rachdorf scoots into a 12-foot wide traverse above 90 or so feet of icefall, and stops above a bulging icy windlip. The crowd refocuses up the hill, mouths agape above inflatable pool floats and beers, all marked with that same look of bewilderment poisoned with the pessimism of today's history. No one is heckling or hollering. The uncomfortable air has not stirred, and it still seems out of place to make anything other than quiet conversation, but there is the feeling that everyone is looking in the same direction. Seven-hundred feet above, Stacey releases his edges, points it straight, and shoots off the cliff, airing out deep into quiet, lofty space. Thirty-five feet below, his feet smack the transition. He stands it up and proceeds to rail five huge turns toward the heart of the mob.

Stacy Rachdorf sending. PHOTO: TIM FATER

The crowd, as they say, goes wild. It takes everyone a second to release the weight of those dark thoughts incurred not 30f minutes prior, but soon enough the mass is clapping and howling and hollering and smiling. As Stacey slows to a stop along the side of the great screaming masses, the bloody streaks on the Sluice are already melting into the snow below, much as the harena sand absorbed fallen gladiators' bloodspill two millennia ago. That ugly memory fades and a new, triumphal one replaces it. It's how the story goes in those fairy tales and movies. It's the way it's supposed to go. Satisfied, the crowd begins its slow lumber to the valley.

POWDER Magazine would like to thank the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service for doing a great job of rescuing and assisting the 25 or so annual victims of climbing, skiing, and mountaineering accidents on the Northeast's crown jewel, including the two we witnessed this past weekend.