By Noah Howell
Of course, I'd seen images of the party scene, the famously steep headwall, and knew a little of the history behind Tuckerman Ravine. Located on Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the Northeast at 6,289 feet, Tuckerman is the most famous backcountry ski descent in New England, and listed as one of the "50 Classic Ski Descents in North America," according to the 2010 book of the same name.
I figured it might be fun to ski there, but living in Utah I never thought I would actually get the chance. It's hard to pass up the Sierra, Tetons, and volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest (not to mention the Wasatch in my very backyard) for a mountain that's about the same elevation as my house in Salt Lake City--and 2,500 miles away. However, a few weeks ago, a promising forecast emerged and I used my Skymiles for a ticket to go "Ski the East" (as per the bumper sticker's request) for the first time.
There were at least a dozen other skiers sleeping in their cars at the Mount Washington trailhead in early May. The two- to three-hour drive from most larger towns and cities make it preferable to get an early start. New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts plates dominated the parking lot.
The approach to Tuckerman started out patchy, but in less than a half mile we were skinning on snow up the old road cut through dense un-skiable forest. We passed all manner of snow-sliding enthusiasts sporting every known skiing and snowboarding option available.
Some folks asked us what kind of boots we were on (standard alpine touring) and others asked how our touring setups worked. It was clear most of these people only skied outside of a resort on the rare occasion, and that rare occasion is “Tucks” in the spring, as the locals call it.
We encountered people who lashed skis to packs with car straps, used heavily padded snowboard travel bags as backpacks, ski boots without tour mode (blasphemy) and even jackets and pants without venting! This Mad Max approach to skiing was amusing to my Western eyes, but also refreshing. I imagine this free-for-all was what skiing was like at the old sno-parks before chairlifts, heated walkways, and expensive $100 lift tickets.
Many of these folks were not backcountry skiers under what you might call my elitist definition. Backcountry skiers these days have read the same books, taken standardized avalanche courses, all carry similar gear, and layers of clothing. Even if our space-age outerwear crinkles and sashays so loudly it scatters birds, we try really hard to have our shit dialed, which is what you want for safety and efficiency. The crew I met to ski with on Mount Washington was the prime example of the modern, experienced backcountry skier and we moved quickly and safely through the mountains.
Arriving at the upper cirque was more impressive than I had imagined. The headwall itself varies from 800 to 1000 feet in vertical. Skiing from the summit through the ravine all the way to the trailhead is close to 4,000 feet. The steep slope kicks up abruptly and there are plenty of good skiing options. We took a lap while we watched skiers trigger wet avalanches that slid to within feet of other parties just chillin' in the run-out. One skier traversed the entire face before skiing down to us. He was incredibly thrilled with his run and we couldn't help but smile with him.
Mount Washington is no joke, though. Summit winds have been recorded up to 231 miles per hour and the White Mountains have seen over 150 deaths since 1950, most of those occurring from exposure, falls, and avalanches. On this sunny day we sat for hours drinking beers and watching the circus where both clowns and the skilled took the stage. Some artfully ripped down the 50-degree slope in a few turns, others sent it off the ice cliffs while one fell and slid down a runnel. Yet another skier tomahawked onto the apron. I've skied all over the world and had never seen anything like it.
The ridiculousness and joy of sliding on snow is undeniable and universal, whether by the advanced degree or elementary means. The goal at Tuckerman Ravine is to have fun (and maybe drinking alcoholic beverages). And by God, that is what happens here.
A huge thanks to Ben Leoni, Brian Dupee, Andrew Drummond and Jerimy Arnold for showing me around.
Utah native Noah Howell suffers from obsessive compulsive ski disorder. He's currently attempting to ski the "50 Classic Ski Descents of North America" and managed to tick off number 23, Huntington Ravine and number 24, Tuckerman Ravine, on his trip to Mount Washington.