Extreme Skiing

Long before it was called “extreme,” people were doing it in New Hampshire

Ask Jeffrey Leich if he’s scared when he skis the headwall of Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine and he says, “Only every year I go, especially on the first run.” He says when you walk to the top (and that’s the only way to get there), halfway up the 800-vertical-foot headwall the snow is right in your face. That’s what happens when the pitch of the slope is as much as 45 degrees. Leich, who’s director of the New England Ski Museum, and other hardy souls who ski “Tucks,” as it’s affectionately called, have to do very tight jump turns to stay upright.

Would he ever think of skiing straight down, or schussing it, as the skiers say? “Never,” says Leich firmly. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

But some have done it. One was Toni Matt, a young Austrian ski instructor who was taking part in a race on Tuckerman in 1939 when he misjudged when to turn and went over the lip of the headwall with little option other than skiing straight down. Leich says observers could hear from a distance Matt’s baggy ski pants flapping in the wind created by his speed. He set a record that day.

Leich says the best time for the non-expert to ski Tuckerman is on a warm sunny day in April, when the corn snow makes it easy to stop. But he cautions people always need to be respectful of the dangers the slope presents – avalanches (more than anywhere else in the East), crevasses, falling ice and even falling people.

But Leich says skiing Tuckerman is worth the risk: “You have to face your fear and then it’s exhilarating. You get a great feeling of accomplishment.”