Late Season, Party Atmosphere Draw Skiers to a N.H. Ravine
No Lifts, No Lodge, but Snow Can Last Well Into Summer
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page A03
PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. -- By the time he was ready for his first run, Jeff O'Neil had already suffered through a blown tire on the drive to the mountain, a night sleeping in his car and a two-hour hike through the alpine forest.
He dropped his 40-pound backpack on a rock, grabbed his skis and trudged 100 yards more up the side of the slope, his boots gouging steps into the crust. A minute later he had schussed back down, avoiding boulders jutting from the snow tinged brown with dirt.
Aspen in January it was not. But it was exactly what O'Neil had come for.
"This place really makes you appreciate every turn, because you work for it. It's like going back in time -- there's nowhere else like it," O'Neil, a 35-year-old junior high school teacher from Brookfield, Mass., said as he tore off a bite of beef jerky. "And even when the snow's not that great, it feels like the top of the world."
As hordes of vacationers hit beachfront hot spots for the unofficial start of summer, a few dozen die-hards made a pilgrimage to New Hampshire's White Mountains, in search of the last melting traces of winter and a rare opportunity to ski and be seen.
Memorial Day weekend is Mardi Gras for skiers on Tuckerman Ravine, named for a 19th-century naturalist. It is a throwback to the early days of backcountry skiing in North America, with no chairlift, no snow grooming and nowhere to buy lunch. The season begins in the spring, when most resorts are getting ready to shut down, and can last into August.
The carnival atmosphere starts in the parking lot, where skiers gather to check weather conditions and swap stories. This year, after a mild winter and rainy spring, the mountain was nearly bare by the end of May, but still the skiers came.
"You should have seen the look on the face of the immigration guy when he asked me what was the purpose of my stay and I said, 'To ski Tuckerman Ravine.' He looked at me like I was mental," said Philipp Von Schickfus, 26, an industrial engineer who arrived in Boston from Munich late Friday night and quickly made the 3 1/2-hour drive north.
Located on the southeast face of Mount Washington -- at 6,288 feet, one of the highest peaks in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains -- Tuckerman is shaped like a bowl and collects as much as 80 feet of snow each year, swept into the ravine by strong northwesterly winds blowing over the summit.
Since the turn of the 20th century, ski-toting trekkers have made the winding ascent as exhilarating, and treacherous, as any in the world. Although the altitude does not compare with the Rocky Mountains' bevy of 14,000-plus foot peaks, the weather is extreme and unpredictable.
"It's this little anomalous place that's more like western terrain, above the timberline, loaded up with snow," said Jeffrey R. Leich, who directs the New England Ski Museum in nearby Franconia Notch, N.H. In the 1930s, he said, Olympic trials and popular downhill races called "infernos" were held on Tuckerman. "Before anyone ever thought of snowmaking, this was the one dependable spot," he said. "But it has also been a dangerous place to spend time."
Sitting on a table in the visitor's center is a blue three-ring binder, with cryptic descriptions of how visitors -- 139 since 1849 -- have died here from falls, avalanches and hypothermia. The vast majority of the incidents occurred on Mount Washington, where the highest winds ever recorded, at 231 mph, were measured in 1934 at a weather station on the summit.
"A lot of people have underestimated this mountain and done some crazy things," said Bob Strauten, a member of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, a group of 19 who provide first aid and rescue assistance to an average of 20 skiers and hikers injured in the ravine each year.
One recent winter someone carried a couch up the slopes, stuck skis on the legs and went sliding, out of control, to the bottom. One man carried up a set of bagpipes and played them on the way down. Others forgo skis entirely, using sleds, which are much harder to control, or even simply wrapping themselves in garbage bags and skidding on their backs.
On a sunny weekend day, Tuckerman Ravine can attract more than 1,000 skiers and onlookers. Some said skiing the ravine is something they always wanted to do. Others said they like the encouragement from those watching from the rocks at the bottom, who urge skiers to attempt a run on the section of the ravine called the headwall -- where the incline tops out at a 55-degree grade. (Expert trails at standard ski resorts start at about 25 degrees.)
Those in the know measure runs on Tuckerman by counting the number of turns it takes to get to the bottom. A full complement of snow means 100 turns or more. This weekend, 25 was about all that could be hoped for.
Concern about the impact of overuse led a group called the Friends of Tuckerman to lobby the government for funding to improve facilities and maintenance. Since 2000, they have received more than $500,000 from Congress for a new radio communications system and better parking to provide a source of potable water at the caretaker's hut.
"We want future generations to enjoy it as much as we have," said Al Risch, 71, one of the organization's founders who said he has made 617 trips to Tuckerman since the 1940s, though he is quick to point out, "that's not the record."
Over the weekend, Jason Lightbown, 22, from Brentwood, N.H., skied the ravine for the first time. He had come in February, but the avalanche danger was deemed too high, so he had to wait.
"I would have liked a bit more snow, but it's not bad for summer," he said, as the temperature dipped below 20 degrees, the wind gusted at over 50 mph and a light snow began to fall. "It's certainly something I'll never forget. I feel like I've joined the club."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Jeff O'Neil, left, and Dale Ploski, both from Massachusetts, hike up Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington for their first ski run of the day. The ravine gets as much as 80 feet of snow a year and can attract skiers into August.
(Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)