It was 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in early June; I was packing for two days of hiking in the Adirondacks. As my home state of Vermont continued to slowly reopen over coronavirus shutdowns, some restrictions on out-of-state travel began to lift and I was looking forward to a change of scenery.
Then I heard the news.
“They opened it. And there’s still snow! Did you see MWAC’s site?”
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center stopped posting condition reports at the end of March when a closure was placed on the East side of the mountain. Coupled with the closure of the Pinkham Notch parking lot, access to Tuckerman Ravine and the surrounding area was cut off in an effort to reduce unnecessary crowding and risk-taking while COVID-19 infection rates were on the rise in the Northeast.
I assumed the closures marked the end of ski season—no spring corn and sunshine on some of the east coast’s steepest terrain this year. I was wrong.
On June 9, the MWAC website reported significant wind-loading through the winter and consistently below-freezing temperatures, along with storms in late April and May contributing to an unusually deep snowpack for this time of year. In other words, it goes.
My plans changed instantly. I texted two friends. By 9 p.m. it was ski season again.
We arrived at Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center the next morning, threw on our packs, and made the three-mile hike up in trail runners, skis and boots on our packs. Glimpses of the headwall and Hillman’s Highway confirmed what we saw online. There’s still a lot of snow up there.
A few confused looks from passing hikers later and we were at the base of the bowl. We changed from trail shoes to ski boots and start the climb up Left Gully. We were the only three people in the entire ravine.
Zach Masi lead the way, setting the boot pack up the pristine gully. On a normal day in Tuckerman, we’d be joining a conga line of skiers making the slog to the top. The most commonly skied line in the bowl, Left Gully is normally skied off and bumped out. Instead, midday, and there wasn’t a single track.
We found a ledge where the snow ends and take it all in, remarking that it’s always steeper than we remember. Masi dropped first, followed by Andrew Bock. The snow, sun-softened and smooth, couldn’t have been better. I watched as they arced massive turns at speed where hop-turns and bump skiing are usually the norm, then drop in and follow suit. Our shouts echoed down the gully. Some runs are too good to ski in silence.
At the bottom, we found a lone hiker, seemingly unamused by our loud, vocal descent. He probably wished he was having as much fun. We took a quick break to refuel and headed back up Left Gully. Ambitions to ski a different line on the face were deterred by a mandatory gap over a crack that is surely a deep crevasse. Another down Left Gully it is.
The second run was equally as incredible as the first. Is it seriously June? Stoke propelled us right back up the boot pack for the third time. We didn’t stop at the ledge, but instead climbed on past the snow to gain the ridge.
Piles of loose, shifting granite made for an awkward, uncomfortable traverse in ski boots, but after 15 minutes we reached the top of our line.
Aptly named, Hillman’s Highway is long and wide open. Still steep, but mellower than the top of Left Gully. This one was a party lap, the three of us skiing it simultaneously. Halfway down, I started to feel the burn. My legs wanted a break but it was too damn fun to relent. By the bottom of the run, they’d melted to Jell-o. Best run of the day, no question.
There was talk of another lap, but we decided to call it and savor the high we were riding. We traded boots and bibs for trail shoes and shorts and we headed back down to the car. We all called it quits on ski season a month ago and yet… this was the best day of the season. No question.