By Tim Fater
"You're almost there," I offered encouragingly to a young lady who clung to the side of the snow wall beside me. I could sense her longing for the scene below – hundreds of ski bums basking in the spring sunshine, drinking beers, and horsing around. Though so close to the fun, she must've felt as if she were worlds apart. "You're doing great," I said one more time. I could almost hear the doubts rattling through her head as she found herself frozen and high atop the steep backcountry bowl.
Located on the south shoulder of Mount Washington, New England's highest peak, Tuckerman Ravine is a rite of passage for east coast skiers. Accessing the ravine is a test in itself which requires a three hour skin or hike just to get to its base. The weather on Mount Washington is notoriously bad and avalanche danger is nearly always a concern. Snow conditions drastically change from day to day and often from hour to hour. Just what you were expecting to find in New Hampshire, right?
Despite the glaring hazards, a spring day at Tucks, as it's lovingly known, is one of the most quintessential scenes in the skiing world. The entire experience is like none other – big mountain skiing in your backyard, the excitement of being a part of this great ritual, the awesome spectacle that is the ravine, the bragging rights earned. Go just once and you'll be coming back year after year.
While the ravine is skiable all winter, most people aim for a weekend in April or May to make their pilgrimage. By this time of year, the weather has improved and avalanches are less of a concern yet the mountain is still draped in its winter coat. Tucks holds snow for weeks and months after all the New England ski resorts have closed and is often regarded as the last hurrah to the ski season. Depending on what you're looking to get out of your trip, however, there is value in making a push to get there on the heels of winter. An early spring excursion often rewards visitors with a true big mountain skiing experience – a full range of skiable descents, the potential for extreme weather, and a legitimate test of your backcountry prowess. A late spring visit can be diluted by washed-out, mogul-filled lines, and a more – shall we say – recreational crowd.
This past weekend, a few friends and I timed our trip to Tuckerman just right. Mount Washington had received a foot of snow during a storm which began on April Fool's Day and lingered into the weekend. The weather during the days immediately following the storm were cold and dry which helped preserve the new snow and allowed it to settle. The wintery weather began to subside toward the end of the week as high pressure moved into the area. This began a four day stretch of near-perfect weather: bluebird skies, sun, and temperatures that reached the mid 50's by day and cold, clear nights.
I left Boston around 5 am and watched the sunrise in my rearview mirror as I snaked my way north towards New Hampshire's White Mountains. I must've been a little anxious – I noticed my speedometer didn't go much below 90 the whole way. My expedited travels put me at Pinkham Notch, the jump-off spot to Tuckerman Ravine, at around 7:30. The lot was full and cars were already parked for a mile or more down either side of Route 16. There were lots of big smiles seen as people packed up the last of their gear, lathered on sunscreen and hurried towards the trailhead.
I had beaten my group to Pinkham Notch and was debating what to do when I stuck up a conversation with a guy I had just happened to park behind. In typical Tuckerman fashion, after a few minutes of banter and ski small-talk, we had been joined by another and decided to proceed with our impromptu group. We were all heading to the same place so I figured I would be able to catch up with my friends in the bowl. "No friends on a beautiful spring day at Tuckerman Ravine," I guess they'd say.
We slapped our skins on at Pinkham Notch at around 2,000 feet. My partners Scott and Ryan and I traded conversations as we worked our way up the three-mile long Tuckerman Ravine Trail which landed us at the Hermit Lake Shelter at around 4,000 feet. From Hermit Lake, the ravine is in clear view just a quarter mile or so up the Little Headwall to the base of the bowl. Even from a distance we could see a handful of skier's lines etched on the steep walls of the ravine leftover from the previous day. The snow looked as good as we had ever seen it.
After re-fueling at Lunch Rocks, the last of the customary stops, we started our ascent up the headwall of the ravine. The Headwall averages around 50 degrees in slope and maxes out in a nearly vertical pitch at the crest of The Lip, just below the top of the ravine. There are a plenty of descents you can choose from as you traverse along the 200-degree perimeter of the toilet-bowl shaped ravine. I chose a line that I had been eyeing all morning named Center Gully. The snow sloughed alongside of me as I made big, deliberate turns over the roll into the steepest part of the gully. I subtly transitioned into more of a jump-turn style as I began to be able to see the icefall drops and other rocky outcroppings that were scattered below. I gained confidence and speed as I made it through the meat of the gully and reinitiated some big arching turns as the routes converged on the bowl's lower snowfields.
I skied back over to Lunch Rocks where I re-grouped with Scott and Ryan and exchanged some high-fives. At this point in the morning we were joined by about 500 of our closest friends. There were crunchy telemarkers, a guy dressed in a Superman costume, girls in bikini tops, funny glasses and funky hats – each and everyone of them enjoying every second on this treasured ground. The motley crew was draped across the base of the ravine using the rocks as lounge chairs to enjoy the commotion happening above. As you may be able to tell, Tuckerman is famous for attracting a particular cult of free spirits. The scene at Lunch Rocks on a Saturday afternoon is like a rowdy Lansdowne Street pub, a stand-up comedy show, the Blizzard of Ahhhh's, and a Jimmy Buffett tailgate all mashed together into one beautiful mess.
As skiers approached the bigger cliffs on the headwall, the whole crowd would stop and watch. The skiers would often entice the spectators for a more enthusiastic round of applause– swinging their arms up in the air and doing anything else possible to appease the crowd. One young man, who I was told was a scholar at the University of Vermont, skied the entire bowl – including a sizable air – in nothing but what his momma-gave-him. Thank goodness he didn't fall.
The mob cheered and cringed as each skier made their way down the ravine – either on their skis or, just as often, on their asses. I caught up with Meathead Films athlete and accomplished Tuckerman skier Ben Leoni just before he planned to huck the biggest cliff on the headwall. I posted up with my camera and watched him stomp the most cleanly executed air of the day. He received a standing ovation from the judges below.
Ben agreed regarding the caliber of the day we were lucky enough to partake in: "Skiing Tucks on Saturday was one of the few ski days I’ve had in the last three years where I haven’t dwelled on the fact I used to be a ski bum in Alta and now I’m a law student. I’m currently sitting at a desk working on a paper, still glowing from Saturday". It's time for Tuckerman, alright.
Ed. Note: To learn more about Tuckerman Ravine head over to TimeforTuckerman.com.