A Guide to the Birthplace of Extreme Skiing
By Jake Risch
Thousands of people make the trek up to the bowl every spring. The gullies, chutes, and snowfields on the eastern flank of Mount Washington are hallowed ground, a sanctuary of steep, where legends are born and history made.
Early spring is often the prime season for Tuckerman Ravine. The warm days and cool nights set up a melt-freeze cycle that cultivates Tuckerman’s staple crop of corn snow. The terrain is unlike any found at ski resorts in the Northeast. The above treeline skiing offers steep big-mountain terrain more commonly found in Europe, South America, and the western U.S. The snowpack in spring is generally stable, with lower risk for avalanches. Choosing the right day is tricky, since temperatures are colder at higher elevations and can turn a fun corn run into a slide for life situation. Tuckerman Ravine on a sunny spring day is as good as it gets for skiing on the East Coast.
There are turns to be found in the winter as well—with avalanche training, backcountry skills, and an understanding of the unique risks associated with Alpine terrain. With over 150 deaths, extreme weather, and relatively easy access, the Presidential Range is among the deadliest in the world. Adventurers should understand the recent weather history and forecast, and plan accordingly.
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center publishes a daily avalanche forecast that details the up-to-date hazards and conditions. The Mount Washington Observatory posts the current and forecasted conditions online in near real-time.
The classic ski line—the route of the famous Toni Matt Schuss—is The Lip. The Lip is a wide snowfield that drops over the looker’s right side of the ravine headwall. Skiing is best early in the season. Access this route by ascending a boot pack up the right side. The steepness of this route increases with elevation. Skiers can choose their own level of adventure by hiking only as high as the pitch they are comfortable skiing back down, though finding a spot to put your skis on can be difficult. Those choosing to climb up and over the headwall can extend the run by continuing up the connecting snowfield on the south-east face of the Mount Washington Summit Cone. The descent from the south-east fields over The Lip is one of the longest in Tuckerman. The relatively moderate pitch and forgiving wide open slopes make this a great option for first turns in the ravine. Later in the spring, snowmelt undermines this zone, forming deep crevasses and eventually opening a terminal waterfall.
Looker’s right of The Lip descending from Lion Head ridge are a series of gullies that get progressively steeper from right to left. The first—named for its shape of the forking gullies at the top—Lobster Claw, offers good early season skiing. It has a shallow snowpack that melts out faster than other routes in the ravine. Right Gully is another great run for first turns in the ravine and is a direct route to ascend to access skiing on the east facing snowfields of the Summit Cone. Right Gully has a dog-leg right-hand turn above the “Lunch Rocks,” a hazard for a long sliding fall. Located Between The Lip and the Right Gully is The Sluice. The Sluice is the steepest run in the ravine and follows a serpentine route down the flank. All three of these runs are south facing. They are the first to receive the warming rays of the sun and are best skied earlier in the day.
To the left of The Lip, extending across to The Chute, is the Headwall. There are numerous lines and variations at different snow levels. Just to the left of The Lip is The Icefall, a series of frozen waterfalls with drops of 10 to 20 feet. Further to the left is the Center Gully. On the Center Gully, there are several steep chutes and routes through a maze of rock outcroppings and ice flows. Access the Icefalls and Center Gully routes by traversing in from above The Lip. Careful route finding is essential to avoid the cliff bands and waterfalls. The traverse into the center wall is “no-fall terrain.”
On the looker’s left side of the bowl is the iconic hourglass-shaped route called The Chute. The Chute is among the steeper lines in the bowl. The route starts off with wide-open turns at the top, funneling down through a narrow choke before opening back up into the lower bowl. There are variations to the north and south for riders looking to test their steep and tight skiing mettle. These variations provide the most technical ski lines in the ravine. They require a confident jump turn to navigate their barely ski-length-wide gullies. Access The Chute by boot-packing up it, traversing in from above The Lip, or traversing in from the top of the Left Gully.
On the far-left side of the bowl is a couloir that almost stands by itself as a separate zone. Once you hike up into the Left Gully, you enter a shear-walled granite cathedral. The crowds of the ravine are left behind as you follow the boot pack up to the top of the route. The fan at the top of the Gully forms a steep near-cornice slope on skiers’ left and a slightly less steep route on skiers’ right. The Left Gully faces northeast; its high walls keep the snow in the shade for most of the day. The Left Gully has the longest season of all the routes in Tuckerman. Its aspect and terrain allow for early season skiing after the first or second big storm. The protected nature of the couloir slows the snowmelt, saving skiable snow late into spring.
Outside of the ravine, another popular option from Hermit Lake Shelter is the Hillman’s Highway and Lower Snowfields zone. Hillman’s is similar to, but longer than, the Left Gully. The highway is the long diagonal couloir south of Tuckerman Ravine. It offers two steep forks at the top, combining into a long, more moderate grade couloir about a quarter of the way down. At the halfway point, skiers have the option of traversing into the Lower Snowfields for more wide-open turns. To the looker’s left and right of Hillman’s are Dodges Drop and the Duchess, two of Mount Washington’s most technical lines. Access all of the Hillman’s Highway zones by crossing the cutler river south of the Hermit Lake Shelter and climbing up the top of the Sherburne Ski Trail to the foot of Hillman’s Highway. Then ascend the highway boot pack to the top and scramble along the Boot Spur Ridge to your chosen line.
Exiting Tuckerman Ravine is the Little Headwall and Sherburne Ski Trail. In good years, early in the season, skiers and riders can slide all the way from the floor of the bowl to the parking lot in Pinkham Notch. After passing the first-aid cache, the drainage flowing out of the ravine drops over a series of waterfalls called the Little Headwall. When filled in with snow, this area—to the looker’s right of the lower snowfields—offers one last pitch of steep skiing before dropping down the 2.5-mile Sherburne Ski Trail. The Sherburne was cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 30s and retains the character of a classic New England ski trail. It is an excellent stand-alone ski tour mid-winter when the avalanche danger is elevated. In the prime season, be ready for 2.5 miles of moguls, water bars, and exposed rocks or dirt patches.
AVALANCHE COURSES IN THE MT. WASHINGTON VALLEY
A number of avalanche courses are offered in the Valley which climbers, skiers, and hikers who spend time in avalanche terrain are strongly advised to take. Classes tend to fill quickly, but some providers will schedule private courses upon request if time is available. Avalanche course content varies based on the specific curriculum the provider chooses to follow. Be sure you choose the course that best suits your needs.
“You control your own risk by choosing where, when, and how you travel.”
– Mount Washington Avalanche Center
All of the skiing on Mount Washington is prone to avalanches, except for the Sherburne Ski Trail. Near its top, even the Gulf of Slides ski trail is struck by debris from avalanches. Travelers—whether hiking, climbing, or skiing on or below steep, open slopes—should carry basic avalanche safety gear. That includes a beacon, probe, and shovel, as well as getting educated via an avalanche awareness and safety course. A winter snowpack elevates the avalanche risk, but avalanches can certainly occur during “calendar” spring months. Those choosing to ski when a dynamic winter snowpack exists should seek out more avalanche safety and rescue education and travel with experienced companions.
The melt-freeze cycle of spring reduces—but does not eliminate—the avalanche risk. Be aware of recent snowstorms, exceptionally warm days, and periods when the temperatures stay above freezing overnight. Rapid warming can cause wet avalanches as the top layer of the snow turns to slush and runs down the hill. Rapid warming can generate significant snowmelt run-off that can causes sections of the bowl to “blow-out” in large wet slides. The best defense against wet avalanches is terrain awareness. If caught or knocked off your feet, be aware of where you will be swept, and choose terrain that minimizes exposure to cliffs, trees, and hazardous terrain. Additionally, lingering on the floor of the bowl puts you in the crosshairs of these slides, which can sometimes be large enough to bury a person.
Another significant springtime hazard in Tuckerman Ravine is falling ice. On warm spring days, ice exposed by the melting snow breaks off of the ravine walls, tumbling down the steep slopes crashing into rocks and exploding into clouds of shrapnel. The chunks of ice can range from watermelon to pick-up-truck-size and will kill or severely injure anyone they hit. This ice breaks off when the connection to the rock melts out from warm temperatures, or from direct sunlight, or periods of rain. Cold days and periods below freezing reduce this hazard. If there is good spring skiing, there is ice-fall risk.
The best way to avoid being hit by falling ice is to minimize time spent directly under (in the fall line of) ice visible high on the ravine walls. Ice-fall hits the area called “Lunch Rocks” and the area directly below the ice flow in the center headwall every season. Don’t hike up or have lunch in the line of fire for hanging ice. Instead, sit on you pack, lower in the floor of the bowl. The view is still superb, and you reduce your risk to near zero.
Icy Surfaces and Long Sliding Falls
When temperatures drop below freezing, the sweet buttery corn snow locks up into hard, icy, pocketed, surfaces akin to the surface of a golf ball. The freeze-up happens quickly at the end of the day when the slope moves into the shade, overnight, or when the temperatures drop below freezing. Falling under these conditions results in long uncontrollable slides, often causing serious injury and even death. An ice axe and crampons and the skills to use them are your best defense against long sliding falls in steep terrain. Skiers should be wary of dropping into shaded routes late in the afternoon. Sometimes finding an alternate softer or lower-angled route down is safer than testing your edge tune on a steep icy slope.
Crevasses are holes in the snow, often large enough for a person to fall into. The snowpack gliding or creeping downslope will crack, creating a crevasse. When crevasses form over undermined snow, they create deep, inescapable holes with cold water flowing through them. The Lip and the Center Bowl have the largest and most dangerous crevasses. The Chute and Hillman’s can also develop crevasses. This hazard develops later in the spring after an extended warm period. The crevasses increase in size and danger as the season progresses.
Undermined snow is caused by snowmelt flowing under the surface of the snow. Hikers and skiers can break through areas of undermined snow and fall into the river flowing underneath. Undermined snow is found on warm days in terrain that naturally collects and channelizes the flow, commonly found in the brook bed between Tuckerman Ravine and Hermit Lake Shelter, the Little Headwall, Lobster Claw, Right Gully, and Hillman’s Highway.
Skiers and riders can avoid crevasses and undermined snow by learning how to identify each hazard and avoiding the areas where they are present. The Snow Rangers and Mount Washington Ski Patrol are great resources to find out where these hazards are developing.
Mount Washington is the Home of the “World’s Worst Weather.” The summit sits on the convergence of major storm tracks for the Northeast. The world record for the fastest wind speed recorded by a human (231 mph) occurred on the peak in April 1934. Rain, snow, sleet, thick fog, high winds, blowing snow are all common occurrences, often on the same day.
Unprepared travelers can quickly get into trouble as conditions deteriorate. The weather acts as a complicating factor and can turn what would be a minor injury in the frontcountry into a life or death situation. The weather changes quickly. Travelers should understand the forecast before heading out for the day, and maintain situational awareness as the weather changes throughout the day. A puffy coat, water and windproof layer, and an extra set of gloves could be lifesaving pieces of kit, and are worth the weight. The ability to recognize deteriorating weather to decide when to turn around and head down are critical skills for traveling on Mount Washington.
The best source for weather info for the region and higher summits is the Mount Washington Observatory website, www.mountwashington.org. Photos and videos are updated frequently at www.instagram.com/mwacenter.
How to Get There
The Tuckerman Ravine Trail leaves the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (PNVC) on Route 16, south of Gorham, NH. On busy weekends, this parking lot fills up quickly, so get an early start. There is additional parking in off-highway lots south of the visitor center. Parking is not allowed along Route 16 when snow banks prohibit vehicles from being completely off the pavement. NH State Troopers will ticket cars parked in the emergency/breakdown lane.
From the PNVC, after checking the latest weather and avalanche conditions, it is 2.4 miles and 1,800 feet up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Hermit Lake Shelter. Early in the season, it’s easiest to skin up this trail using alpine touring, splitboard, or telemark equipment. Later in the season, as the snow melts in Pinkham Notch, travelers strap their ski/board to their pack and hike up to the snow line. It is possible and common for those with traditional alpine skis or snowboards to hike all the way to Hermit Lake with hiking boots and traction devices like micro spikes.
The Hermit Lake Shelter
The Hermit Lake Shelter is the last outpost before heading up into the Alpine terrain. In elevated avalanche danger, it is also the starting point for a run down the Sherburne Ski Trail. At Hermit Lake, skiers, climbers, and boarders stop on the deck to visually recon the Tuckerman Ravine and Hillman’s Highway zones, grab a snack, and check the latest weather and avalanche forecast. The AMC Caretaker, Mount Washington Ski Patrol, and Snow Rangers are available to provide updates on the conditions and hazards. The Hermit Lake deck is a great spot to change your layering and footwear and prepare for travel in Alpine terrain. If they are not beeping already, avalanche beacons should be turned on and be transmitting above Hermit Lake. Potable water and pit toilets are available at the Hermit Lake Shelter. There is a hand-pump well 100 yards up the Tuckerman Ravine trail on the left. Pit toilets are 50 yards down-hill from the deck towards the lean-to shelters.
From Hermit Lake, skiers and riders headed to the Hillman’s zone will head left, over the brook bed, and up the top of the Sherburne Ski Trail to the foot of Hillman’s Highway. Travelers headed to Tuckerman Ravine Trail will exit the courtyard to the right and boot or skin up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail into Tuckerman Ravine.
Skiing the Sherburne Ski Trail
If the Little Headwall is filled in, skiers and riders can exit the ravine, ski over the Little Headwall, and down the Sherburne Ski Trail to Pinkham Notch. When the Little Headwall waterfall blows out, skiers and riders are asked to hike down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and cross over to the Sherburne Ski Trail at Hermit Lake. The ski lines of the Hillman’s zone exit directly into the Sherburne Ski Trail. An option at the end of the day is to stop back into the shelter and take a rest on the deck, enjoy your refreshment of choice, and swap stories of your day’s adventure.
Head down to Pinkham by skiing the Sherburne Ski Trail as far as the snow lasts. Once the snow runs out, cross over to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at the nearest cutover and hike down to Pinkham.
Keep in mind that the Sherburne is for skiing and the Tucks trail is for hiking. Don’t ski down the hiking trail or hike up or down the skiing trail. Skiing down the hiking trail is dangerous for those coming up. Hiking on the ski trail leaves post holes, which ruin the skiing.
The Snow Rangers will close the Sherburne Ski Trail at the last cutover before the snow runs out. It’s often tempting to duck the rope and keep skiing, but rarely worth it.
Catch this article in the 2018 SPRING printed edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe available at any of these locations around the region
Friends of Tuckerman Ravine
Do you hike or ski the Ravine?
Please consider supporting Friends of Tuckerman Ravine
Friends of Tuckerman Ravine (FOTR) is a non-profit that works in close partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to sustain the traditional recreational uses of this distinctive and historically significant area. Their mission is to preserve and protect the unique alpine and sub-alpine eastern slopes of Mount Washington, NH with special focus on Tuckerman Ravine, Huntington Ravine, and the Gulf of Slides areas.
The primary fund-raising event of FOTR is the Annual Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon held in early April. Donations and contributions are appreciated and critical to the success of the FOTR mission.
The latest key fundraising project involves implementing new high-speed wireless internet capabilities at the USFS Hermit Lake shelter in support of USFS Snow Ranger operations and to serve as a critical communications link during emergency situations. In 2015, FOTR, working in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, organized the rebuilding of the iconic outdoor deck structure, located at Hermit Lake Shelter, just below Tuckerman Ravine.
Volunteers interested in helping out with this year’s Friends of Tuckerman Ravine Inferno Pentathlon or any trail maintenance days are encouraged to visit www.friendsoftuckermanravine.org.
Skiing with Dogs in Steep Terrain
Skiing with Dogs in Steep Terrain
By Frank Carus, Director, Mount Washington Avalanche Center
Dogs are faithful companions, and owners want to have fun with them in the outdoors. I’ve learned that most dogs get much more than they bargain for when they go with their master for a ski day in the Ravine. Here are a few of the issues that we’ve seen over time.
• Dogs sometimes follow closely and seek relief from the effort of walking in deep snow by stepping on the tails of your skis. A nasty cut, which has even been known to cut tendons, can result when you stride forward and a sharp burr cuts their leg.
• Dogs get REALLY excited when running downhill and often get too close running alongside. This is where some cuts occur with lasting injury to the dog’s deeper connective tissue. Additionally, dogs in Tucks can fall into moats, undermined streams, and crevasses and don’t have the foresight to avoid them.
• Long-haired breeds can get snow balled up in their fur and particularly between their pads. It’s a nuisance and may make them give up on a hike.
• Long-term studies show that dogs receive damage to their retina’s from exposure to UV rays. The intense rays of the sun are magnified by snow, particularly in the bowl of the Ravine. This exposure worsens cataracts as a dog ages.
• Perhaps most seriously, dogs can pretty easily ascend steep icy slopes, but freak out on the way down or skid out of control. Dog’s claws enable them to use “studded, four wheel drive” on the way up but are virtually useless on the way down.
• Dogs can overheat in temperatures down to 20F when running in deep snow and quickly cool down when they stop. Cuts to their pads, puncture wounds from broken trees under the snow (which can be fatal) frostbite and hypothermia can all affect canines. They’ll go all day until they give up unexpectedly.
These issues have resulted in some significant carry-outs which can really be tough with large breeds. And the USFS and NHF&G have strict rules against pet rescues. If you have an issue, you are on your own! While the Snow Ranger team has had an avalanche rescue dog on duty for decades now, you will seldom see them skiing with the dog unless they are responding to an avalanche or are in training. The stakes are simply too high so the team rewards the dog with other fun activities that don’t involve all of the above hazards. Our dogs’ life, or high veterinary bills, simply aren’t worth it!
Mount Washington Avalanche Center MAPS
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center publishes a daily avalanche advisory with route-specific forecasts, usually by 8 a.m.
The Snow Rangers post the advisory online at www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org, and on avalanche information kiosks (donated by the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine) located at the Tuckerman Ravine Trailhead, Harvard Cabin, and Hermit Lake Shelter.