Skiing Mount Washington's Gulf of Slides

A day spent in the backcountry skiing Mt. Washington's Gulf of Slides
Beginning the ascent of the final pitch of the Gulf of Slides

On a balmy April morning, we trudged up the southern side of Mt. Washington like pack mules, avoiding steaming craters of exposed dirt in the melting trail. Fifteen minutes into the slow climb, our bodies were soaked with sweat. We wondered if the Gulf of Slides, roughly four hours ahead, had thawed as much as we had.

The Gulf of Slides is Tuckerman Ravine’s mysterious younger brother. Accessed by a 2.6-mile winding trail, the backcountry ski route is more remote and far less traveled. On a typical spring weekend, thousands of people might ski Tuckerman, according to the US Forest Service, but that day, on the Gulf of Slides Trail, we didn’t see more than 30.

“On the Gulf of Slides, you’re dealing with a more serious backcountry outing,” says Joe Klementovich, vice president of the Mountain Rescue Service (and frequent contributor to this magazine). “If someone falls in Tuckerman Ravine and splits their head on a rock, there are people right there to respond and assist.”

The Gulf of Slides Trail begins in Pinkham Notch at 2,050 feet and quickly breaks south from the popular Shelburne Trail, which accesses Tuckerman. The trail meanders up to the base of the Gulf of Slides, which is at 4,100 feet. A steep boot-packed trail then ascends to the top of the main gully and primary ski route, reaching around 5,000 feet.

White Mountain National forest ranger, Justin Preisendorfer, says that while “the history and the mystique make Tuckerman more popular,” the presence of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center, which generates daily avalanche forecasts in the Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines, might be the biggest reason people more frequently descend the legendary ski run. Skiers in the Gulf of Slides are left to make their own snow assessments. 

“Avalanches happen every storm cycle in the Gulf of Slides,” says Klementovich. “In mid-winter and early spring, you have to be really dialed into your personal avalanche forecasting.”

Our group of five did its homework. Peter Shepard, David Boyce and my father, Jeff Rawlins, had embarked on countless backcountry ski tours over the past 10 years together. Each of them studied snow reports from Washington during the weeks leading up to our trip. I had spent the last three winters exploring the backcountry around Jackson Hole, where the fifth member of our group, Anthony Sardo, had visited me twice.

 Two weeks earlier, we canceled our trip because of reported slides and variable snow on similar pitches in Tuckerman. But due to warmer weather, positive online reports and less snowfall, we decided conditions warranted a safer attempt at the Gulf of Slides on this day.

The four skiers in our group used classic touring setups. Our hybrid boots clipped into alpine touring bindings mounted on our skis. Adhesive strips of directionally haired nylon “skins” allowed the skis to slide forward on the snow without slipping backward, essentially converting our alpine skis into cross-country skis for the ascent. Sardo hiked with snowshoes and a snowboard strapped to his back.

My pack weighed just under 20 pounds, containing a down jacket, heavy shell, micro-fleece, dry base layer, dry socks, avalanche beacon, shovel, probe, goggles, lightweight gloves, heavy gloves, a winter hat, a headband, 1 liter of water, a sandwich and two granola bars. While most of that gear might seem unnecessary for an April tour on the East Coast, the variable weather of Mt. Washington requires skiers to prepare for all extremes.

“You sweat so much on the way up, if it does get cold up there, you’re screwed,” says my father.

According to Klementovich, weather most commonly rolls into the Presidential Range from the northwest or west, making skiers in the Gulf of Slides, which faces the southeast, particularly vulnerable to unexpected extreme weather.

“You end up blocked from seeing any kind of oncoming weather,” he says. “It rolls over the ridge and is on top of you before you can see it coming.” 

We were lucky. Today was the sunniest day of the month, with 843 minutes of sunshine, according to the Mt. Washington Observatory’s weather log. Temperatures reached the high 50s on the trail, and a gentle northwest wind cooled us as we climbed.

We reached the base of the gully in almost three hours, crossing streams, shouldering our skis over sections of dirt, and shedding a few pounds in sweat along the way. The trail ended in a plateau of avalanche-bent saplings and a blast of white light. 

“It’s called Gulf of Slides for a reason,” says Boyce.

A plaque posted at the base of the drainage celebrated the lives of two men, Todd Crumbaker and John Wald, who had perished together in the Gulf of Slides in March 1996. According to Klementovich, there has been a handful of fatalities. Today, we felt great about our chances.

Two groups climbed up the steep slope above — some of the first people we’d encountered all day. Over the ridge to the north, thousands of people ate lunch at the base of Tuckerman.

“It would be like a rumba line going up,” say Boyce. “People want that Tuckerman experience. Me, this is what I want.”

Skis now rested on our shoulders and our knees scraping the steep slope with each step, we boot-packed up the main gully in a single-file formation, pointing to the lines we would soon descend. At the top, we looked out at Attitash Mountain Resort and Crawford Notch. 

I clipped into my skis and traversed to the right of the slope, where the snow looked pristine and untouched.  My father, Shepard and Boyce dropped in with pretty S-turns, disappearing over the horizon.

“Party wave?” I asked Sardo, a surf term for riding the same wave together.

“Let’s do it.”

We let gravity do much of the work as we weaved flowing turns like a braid, descending the steep slope in an improvised dance. The slushy spring snow sprayed with every dig, and I hooted and hollered under the bluebird sky. Sardo just grinned.  

About the Author

Originally from the North Shore of Massachusetts, William Campbell Rawlins spent many childhood weekends skiing and hiking around New Hampshire. Following graduation from the University of Vermont, he moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he spent free time fly fishing, skiing, touring, hiking and mountain biking. He is now a writer based in Washington, DC.

Categories: Winter Sports