By Vince Winkel
I was 12 when I first did Tuckerman.
It was summer, and we were heading to the summit of Mt. Washington on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail.
It was a great hike, and went off without a hitch.
Some 15 years later I was back at Tuckerman, in the spring, to ski. It was a different story …
Tuckerman Ravine, is a rite of passage for skiers in New England. No ski lift, no rope tow, no T-bar. A three-hour hike to the base of the ravine, then almost an hour of steep hoofing to the top, for a brisk shot down.
Tucks, as experienced skiers refer to it, is a glacial cirque sloping eastward on the southeast face of Mt. Washington, skirting the Appalachian Trail. It’s the most popular bowl to ski or snowboard in the Presidential Range.
It is best known for the many spring skiers who ascend it on foot and ski down the steep slope from early April into July. In this period, the temperatures are relatively mild but the natural snowpack — which averages up to 55 feet — is still adequate to ski most seasons. The record-setting high winds atop Mount Washington scour a massive amount of snow from the surrounding highlands and drop it here.
Thousands of people will ski Tuckerman in a single spring weekend. Skiing is not limited to this time, but the avalanchedanger, peaking from December to early March, requires special training and experience to assess and navigate the ravine safely during the winter. Avalanches have killed at least 15 people in the ravine since the 1960s.
For me, it was 1988. I thought I was ready. I had skied all the slopes of New Hampshire and Maine. Surely, thought I, I was ready.
It was a glorious June day and the hike was easy.
There were around 200 people at the base of the Ravine. It was a huge party atmosphere, and honestly it was a blast.
And then, it was time to strap the skis on my back and hike to the top of Tuckerman Ravine.
It took me an hour to reach the top of the headwall.
I had been told “once you’re on top of Tucks you can access a lot of different zones, but the Headwall is the line to ski. If you’re dropping into the Headwall people are definitely going to pay attention.”
Okay, I was a fool for attention. So despite how steep it was, I launched off into the warm New England air. I skied off “The Lip.”
“The Lip” was skied heroically by daredevil Anton (Toni) Matt in 1939.
The young Austrian skied an unplanned route when he entered Tuckerman Ravine during the “American Inferno,” a top-to-bottom race of Mount Washington.
The story goes that Matt had planned to take a few turns and then tuck to the bottom once he was past the 50-degree pitch. Due to poor visibility, he didn’t realize he was still above “The Lip,” the steepest part of the headwall, and when he realized his real location, it was too late to attempt to turn. He got in a power stance on his wooden skis and leather boots and blasted past the spectators, somehow staying on his feet through the run out.
I had no such luck.
About 100 feet from the lip, I hit a rock. I went down, broke a ski, and my legendary run on Tuckerman ended a few seconds after it began.
I hiked back down.
Today, every East Coast skier worth their salt makes the trip to Tucks to sample the terrain and get a taste for big-mountain skiing. Tuckerman Ravine has been the east coast’s classic line for decades, a proving ground for all the folks that ski the east.
It’s 4.1 miles, one way, to the summit of Mt. Washington. A bit less if you are skiing the ravine. .
The trail begins behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, which is owned and operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. It’s just north of North Conway, New Hampshire, on New Hampshire Route 16. North Conway, by the way, is a great town to gear up, have some dinner, or a night on the (small) town.
The Tuckerman Ravine Trail starts behind the visitor center, and is clearly marked.
Soon there’s a bridge crossing the Cutler River, followed further along by a decent river viewing spot at a 90 degree bend in the trail. To stay on track simply follow the wide, rocky road
The first 2.4 miles are fairly easy, with just a gradual climb. The sweating starts with the final mile of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, where it gets challenging and steep. This is where all the rocks are loose and accidents can happen.
There are many routes within the bowl, and they’re all steep, getting steeper as you move from skier’s right to skier’s left. I suggest starting with the easier runs, but that’s just me.
On spring weekends with good weather, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of skiers flock to Tuckerman Ravine, so plan accordingly.
In good snow years, skiers hike and ski the Ravine from April to July when the snowpack is more stable.
For more information, check out http://www.friendsoftuckermanravine.org