Going to the Wall
by L. Librehomme

Tuckerman Ravine is the ultimate. It isn't going to make it in the extreme video category. We're not talking who can land the highest cliff jump or die. We're talking real people, taking it to a real limit - their limit. Were talking ski instructors who just want to push it a bit further. We're talking about us wannabe's who'll never be in a video that anyone will pay money for. Testing your limits, see what you really have but come back alive, thanks. For them, for us Tuckerman is the next step. For us, Tuckerman is the ultimate. Every spring the pilgrimage begins.

In the spring, eastern North American's snow compass swings to the Presidential Range in New England. Every spring for the true believers and those awaiting anointed - Tuckerman is it!

If you haven't been a part of this before, the whole thing makes little sense. If you have been apart of it before, the whole thing makes little sense. So what is it? I guess when ribbons of mud crisscross the local slopes, the beaches are empty and all your friends are driving up to New England for the Memorial Day weekend, with skies strapped to their car, sense or no sense, it's sure hard to pass it all up.

So how did I get myself into this mess? Try it yourself, here's the formula. First you travel for long hours, squeezed into the back of a small car, into what is essentially "nowheresville New Hampshire". Then you get ready for a killer hike up the snow-covered flanks of Mount Washington, the highest damn peak in the northeast. Of course don't even think of doing your homework, thus ensuring you haven't got a place to sleep at the top so you can do another nasty hike back down the mountain, in the dark no less, without a flashlight, cause the lean-tos at the top are always full (and they will be, trust me).

So what the hell would bring you here anyway? Simple, you're getting religion. You're tapping the source. You're tuning in to the higher powers. You becoming one with the mountain. Of course, more than likely you're just one crazy son-of-a-bitch drawn by those endlessly exaggerated tales of glory! You know the story, you've heard the mantra "you're not really a skier until you've done Tucks".

Whoa! No problem! Let's go! The hike will be a cakewalk! The cliff face is easily doable! The return hike, is well… all down hill! Why the hesitation? What me worry!

Now, let's check into the real world. Three middle aged ski instructors, several gung ho offspring. We all meet at the state campground to plan our assault ("assault" - it's already getting weird). We drive to the visitor's center the next day and get the low down on the mountain and the conditions. The weather, the snow, the trail conditions everything seems to be in our favour. Let's do it!

  We started hiking up the trail, which is wide, relatively flat and well traveled. No problems with footing, no problem with the terrain but the crowds are crazy. Yeah, we are talking hoards here. We are taking New York street scenes in the middle of the wilderness. We are talking "Excuse me", "On you're right", "Coming Through" on the slopes of Mount Washington, in the middle of the White Mountains, away up in the northeast hundreds of miles from the nearest big city.

Start thinking pilgrimage, start thinking Mecca, try thinking the wailing wall, now the picture begins to make some sense but it sure isn't an image most people easily entertain when they think skiing.

 
 
On the trail, the groups are made up of collage kids, ski instructors, some old timers and a few groups of teenagers who are almost always first timers. You can tell who's been here before by their gate, their gear and the way they carry their skies. The novices start out way too fast and usually have no packs, or small day packs at best. Their skies are loosely thrown over a shoulder or under an arm. Veterans are more casual in their pace and usually have the larger packs to ensure they can handle any situation. They usually have their skies with the tips bound and projecting several feet above their heads and tightly strapped to each side of the pack. This can give you some clearance problems with a few trees but overall you'll be much better off than the others. Experience dictates that hiking boots are the footwear of choice, extra water and winter clothing in your pack are essential, no matter how nice the day starts out.
  Hour one, hey this isn't so bad the trail isn't that steep. Hour two, where did all this snow come from? It sure makes the hiking tougher. Hour three, if their weren't so many people watching, maybe, just maybe I would head back down the mountain and ski the ravine tomorrow. Wait, the trail is narrowing, we're almost there they tell me. Hey, I can see the head wall, were just about there. Wow, look at that thing!

Now what… who is this clown in the uniform and what's he jawing about. Just as you reach the clearing at the base of the ravine, a ranger grabs everyone coming off the trail and gives you "the speech". Yeah, yeah, yawn the collage kids, we know, we know. The first timers have a hard time staying tuned to the speech but not because their bored, it's cause they're mesmerized by the site of the wall and the small specs, that are the skiers, bulleting down its face.

 
 
But if you listen, and you better, you'll hear something like this. Only climb on the stairs, ski on the left side of the wall and stay away from the right and the rock garden area below it. The right side of the slope has large crevasses, rescue is extremely difficult and if you fall in you're probably going to be dead when we get to you anyway. Stay away from the rock garden below this section, there's a lot of icefall in this area. Pieces of ice that can approach the size of Volkswagens are difficult to dodge.

This stuff starts to spook me, particularly when I have a look over at the verboten areas and see skiers on the wall and people casually having lunch in the deadly rock garden below them. The wardens keep trying but for every one they reach, there are always those who just don't want to hear the word.

 
  The sermon is re-enforced when we over hear two of the rescue team discussing how difficult it was to take the last person out with a broken back, an occurrence that is unfortunately, not uncommon.     Getting an adult with a serious back injury, strapped to a backboard, down that trail is extremely difficult and for the victim, an excruciatingly painful experience.  
 
Now we've spent about a half-hour having lunch and sizing up the head wall. From a distance, the string of skiers climbing the stairs hacked into the wall is reminiscent of the Stampeders on the Chilkoot Pass, trying desperately to make their way to the gold fields of the Yukon. Now it's our turn and the perspective changes dramatically as we are amongst the climbers. The crowd is bottlenecked here, since there is only room for one person at a time. The stairs are little more than small holes kicked into the ice face, just big enough for your boots to find some purchase. It's so steep you have to use you hands all the way up. The climbing is slow and tiring. As you climb you get a better idea of the headwalls height, and when you reach the top you get a feel for just how damn steep it really is (50-55 degrees - commercial terrain rarely exceeds 40 degrees).

 

Strapping on your skies, getting ready to drop over that lip onto terrain that's too steep to even see from the top, you begin to wonder - have I finally reached the gates of hell. But forget your trepidation, there's no time for that now, since everyone's waiting for you to make the drop. Have no doubt, all those skiers at the bottom of the wall have a bead on you, know it, it's you that they're watching. Nobody shoulders their skies now. It's your time. There's no way out but down.

Oh Shit! Here I go! Too much speed! I have to turn but it just seems impossible on this steep a pitch. Got to get an edge, but not too much or you may end up in a top to bottom tumble. That's it you've got the first one! Now another, and another, and another, and the whole damn thing is over in an instant. Somebody pry my heart out of my mouth. Somebody call my mother. That's bad! That's crazy!

O.K. now, regain you composure, smile for the audience, be cool and let everyone know that you sat in the snow way too long at lunch, and that's why your pants are wet. Compare notes with you're friends. Which is the best line? Who linked the most turns? Remember, no matter how scared you were, act like it was nothing. Now hold that thought, cause you're going to have to do it go again, and again, and then just one more time, since you guys spent sooo much time getting up here.

 
  It's during your third hairy run that it happens. All of a sudden you feel like you're having an out of body experience, like your watching yourself ski rather than doing it.     You're feeling stoned, but you haven't smoked anything, honest, but you must be stoned… why, cause you're beginning to like this shit!  
 

Back up the stairs, back on the wall, pull some more tight turns and hey… you've passed through, you're on the other side, you're a made man.

Sorry time to break it up! Great party but remember, while it may be spring you're a way up in the mountains. The sun will disappear fast and it's going to get real cold and dark, so it's half passed time to head back down. During the first forty five minutes of the hike out there's so many runs to replay, that everyone is bouncing down the path like it was the beginning of the day. After another forty-five minutes you're up against another wall, but this one's inside you. Recounting the runs no longer works, cause there's just no more adrenaline to go with the stories. Everybody's really fading fast. Come on guys, this is all down hill, it can't be that hard. How come I'm so sore, I wasn't sore twenty minutes ago. Did we take the wrong trail? This can't be the trail we came up on, it was much shorter than this. Right about now you're sure there's no end to this damn mountain and you're just about ready to give up and lay down in the snow to die from hypothermia, when unbelievably, you make the parking lot. It's dark. It's cold. You still have a long, long way to drive if you're going to make it home tonight. Hey, wait a minute, maybe another night in the campground would be cool. Yeah, how about some chili, a couple of hot dogs, some beer, a big fire and then we'll really start to party. I'll chop the wood, you get the beer, who's got the dogs, lets go!

You reach the campsite. You almost pitch your tent. You slip under the picnic table and pass out, and you build that fire - in your dreams.

 
All web site contents copyright 1995-2005 by White Cat Media
 
 
Resources

If you are thinking of skiing Tuckerman you should be an expert skier in good physical condition. The hike into the Ravine from the Notch takes several hours depending on conditions. The headwall at Tuckerman is between 45-55 degrees and the vertical drop is approximately 1200 ft. The only way to the top is by climbing the headwall. Each year there are over 70,000 visitors to Tuckerman and nearby Huntington Ravine.

Access

Access to Tuckerman is from Pinkham Notch on the 16 north of North Conway in New Hampshire. From the Canadian border in Quebec take the 91 south to the 93, then the 302 to the 115 and then the 2 which will bring you to the 16. Head south on the 16 to Pinkham Notch.

Location Map

Tuckerman Ravine

Camping

Tuckerman Area

Weather - They say Mount Washington has the worlds worst weather - believe it, and make sure you come prepared.

Tuckerman and Mount Washington

Avalanche Info - Don't go without reading this first.

Mount Washington Avalanche Information

Travel and Tourism

Links of Interest

 

All contents copyright © 1995 - 2005 White Cat Media

 

Click on the logo if you have arrived on this page without
the black navigation bar on the left