A Spring Ritual for the Fearless

When skiers, snowboarders, snowtubers and other thrill-seekers flock to Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine every spring, they follow in the footsteps of skiers who first began to make the two-and-a-half-hour trek from Pinkham Notch in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In those early days, skiers had the ravine’s bowl on the eastern flank of Mt. Washington pretty much to themselves. But skiing increased in popularity and, by the mid-’30s, thousands could be found there on a clear spring weekend.

That growth has continued unabated over the ensuing decades and today, Tuckerman’s allure is stronger than ever. The season’s biggest crowds trek up the Tuckerman Fire Trail during the always-busy Canadian Queen Victoria’s Weekend, set for May 22 through 24.

Tuckerman’s popularity among diehard skiers and boarders creates challenges for those charged with its care, including the U.S. Forest Service, which staffs the ravine every winter and spring with a small team of snow rangers. They post daily snow reports on Tuckerman web site (www.tuckerman.org). The Forest Service is assisted by Mt. Washington Ski Patrol volunteers, and in recent years, by the efforts of the non-profit Friends of Tuckerman organization.

Founded in 2000 by Madison resident and former Mt. Washington guide Al Risch, Friends of Tuckerman is dedicated to preserving the rustic experience that is synonymous with the ravine, including the lack of ski lifts. The first project for the 900-member organization was to obtain federal funding for a potable water study and well. Funds were also raised for improved backcountry radios for patrol and rescue personnel, and a backcountry education program.

Each April, the organization holds its primary fund-raiser: the Tuckerman Pentathlon (which consists of a 7-mile run, 6-mile kayak, 18-mile bicycle race, 3-mile hike and 1-mile ski/snowboard slalom over the Tuckerman Ravine headwall), and the Son of the Inferno Triathlon (10-kilometer run, 6-mile kayak and 33-mile bike race).

Risch first skied Tuckerman as a young man, fresh from serving in the Special Forces in the Korean War. During his first year of ski patrolling at Wildcat Mountain in the late 1950s, he ventured across the street to Tuck’s and has been hooked ever since.

During a recent trek to the ravine, on one of those blue-sky days that Tuckerman enthusiasts live for, Risch talks of the race and the goals of the organization. “People love this mountain, and that’s shown by how our membership is growing in Friends of Tuckerman. It shows me that there are a lot of people out there who enjoy the mystique of that bowl,” he notes. “What we’re trying to do,” says Risch, “is to give future generations what we have now. We don’t want to change anything — we don’t want to make access any easier, and we don’t want the government to put any further restrictions in place, either. We want to be sure the ravine is used properly.”

Tuckerman veterans note that a sunny day of fun there can quickly change to tragedy. Chunks of ice the size of boxcars can break loose from the headwall, and avalanches are a common occurrence. As spring progresses, the snow becomes undermined by the flow of water from the melting snowpack, and crevasses are a real danger.

People have drowned after falling into crevasses, some of which are 80 feet deep.

The following are a few tips for those venturing to the ravine, offered by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the U.S. Forest Service and

Friends of Tuckerman:
• To ski or board Tuckerman Ravine, be advised that you must hike. The 2.4-mile Tuckerman Ravine Trail begins at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on Route 16 and ascends to Hermit Lake. It’s another half-mile to the floor of the bowl from Hermit Lake, another 700 feet higher in elevation.
• Look back occasionally while hiking the 800-foot headwall and chutes — you will have a better chance of not climbing higher than your ability level permits.
• Be alert at all times for falling ice and rocks on warm days. Always have an escape route.
• Always tie skis together securely when climbing.
• Never climb or ski near open crevasses.
• Always ski or ride under control. In falls, point skis across the hill as quickly as possible to arrest movement.
• Never ski when visibility is poor. When shadows appear on a slope, leave at once — the snow starts hardening immediately and often becomes icy.
• Heed the bulletins posted at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitors Center concerning weather and avalanche conditions.

The foremost advice for anyone heading to Tuckerman’s? Know what you are capable of, and don’t get in over your head.

Mt. Washington’s weather is notorious for making quick changes. A rain/wind-proof parka is essential. Always layer clothing (polypros and synthetics are recommended). Climb to the ravine in hiking boots and carry your ski boots attached to your skis. Other essentials: wind pants, sunglasses, suntan lotion and lip balm. NH

Author Tom Eastman is assistant editor of The Mountain Ear in North Conway.