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TO RACE OR NOT TO RACE? AT INFERNO TIME, THAT'S THE ENDURING QUESTION

April 04, 1983
April 04, 1983

Table of Contents
April 4, 1983

Virginia Slims
Baseball 1983
TV
Horse Racing

TO RACE OR NOT TO RACE? AT INFERNO TIME, THAT'S THE ENDURING QUESTION

This is the story of an event that didn't happen. But that isn't to say this is an uneventful story. There were events all right, several of them, and dramatic ones, too, having to do with courage and daring on a dangerous mountain. This is the story of those occurrences, and of one the mountain wouldn't let happen.

This is an article from the April 4, 1983 issue

First there was a geologic event. About 40,000 years ago the glaciers covering the northeast quadrant of what would become North America receded, leaving scarred ridges and valleys in what came to be northern New Hampshire. The White Mountains emerged, of which the highest, at 6,288 feet, is Mount Washington. The east side of the mountain had three deep bowls—glacial cirques—carved into it. They're called Great Gulf, Huntington Ravine and Tuckerman Ravine.

To the delight of the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, the glaciers' handiwork is generally well-suited to tourism: scenic flumes and skiable slopes. But Tucker-man definitely isn't among nature's gifts to tourists. It is deep and steep and hard to reach. Two-and-a-half miles west of the base of the mountain the ravine begins, extending as flat, as a floor toward the mountain for 300 yards and then rising as steeply as 55 degrees in a concave wall. When you're in the ravine, faced with the headwall, neither the summit nor the base of the mountain can be seen. There's only a huge, rocky amphitheater in view. Tuckerman in winter is even more intimidating. It gets an accumulation of 60-65 feet of snow annually, and winter winds often exceed 60 mph.

Among the things most people don't readily do in such a place is ski, but for a daring few the challenge is simply irresistible.

There was a ski trip to the ravine in 1913 by three adventurers from Dartmouth College. But after that, few tried it until the late 1920s. Tuckerman's allure grew in the '30s as equipment improved, and in 1933 the inevitable happened: A bunch of experts assembled at the summit and said, "Let's race." This was no "beat-you-to-the-bottom-for-a-Michelob Light" stuff, this was serious business. The event was called the Inferno after the formidable race course in Mürren, Switzerland. That first Inferno became a marathon of sorts. Once the skiers reached the ravine's floor, they continued down the fire trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club's base camp in Pinkham Notch, a total of more than four miles. The club's Hollis Phillips won in 14:41.3. The next year, America's best skier, Dick Durrance, reduced the mark to 12:35.0.

The Inferno was not raced the next four years because of a lack of cooperation from the mountain. The weather was treacherous—snowy, windy, foggy, icy—and hopes to make the race an annual event faltered and died. But in '39 at Inferno time, the mountain was in a glorious mood not evident before or since. Bright skies, hard snow and cold temperatures beckoned 44 skiers, among them the famed Toni Matt of Austria. He hadn't skied Mount Washington before, and later he would claim that was why he did what he did. There were 4,000 people watching from the sides of Tuckerman's bowl when Matt left the summit. He came hurtling across the upper snow-fields and then, to the horror of the crowd, he went soaring over the lip and took the headwall in an 80-mph schuss: no turns, no edging, no braking. As Matt disappeared down the newly cut Sherburne Trail, the spectators gasped in wonderment. Matt finished in 6:29.2, nearly halving the record. He said, "On the way up, I thought I would make a few turns on the headwall. When I came over the lip, the snow looked so good and smooth that I asked myself, 'Why not?' I just spread my skis and let go."

Traditionalists will claim that Matt's was the first and last true Inferno run, but there have been Infernos since 1939, albeit only two. War, weather and wary organizers caused 13 years to go by after Matt's run without a race, but then, in 1952, the Inferno returned, in a shorter, somewhat more congenial version. The Bobtail Inferno, it was called. It began above the lip and ended on Tuckerman's floor, without the forest run to Pinkham. There was a modified Bobtail in 1969, when Duncan Cullman, from nearby Franconia, beat former Olympian Tyler Palmer by .071 second.

And that brings us nearly up to date: 47 years but only five races by 1980. There was to be an Inferno that year. A field of veterans from '69 and tradition-minded newcomers were ready to go; problem was, it didn't snow enough. This seemed the cruelest curve Washington could throw at the skiers—there had always been snow in Tuckerman, usually so much that skiing was discouraged until the avalanche danger lightened in April. But that winter there was nearly none, and so the skis and the dreams were packed away.

They were to be broken out for the sixth Inferno last April 17. The sixth Inferno? Make that the "1982 Tuckerman Ravine Classic Giant Slalom." There were to be approximately 50 gates on a mile-long course, and this altered format prompted the organizers to change the name. Still, throughout the North Country skiers were talking about the upcoming Inferno. "You hold a race on Washington," said a man who was skiing the tough slopes of Cannon Mountain in Franconia, "and it's an Inferno. I don't care how many gates they throw on the hill—it's an Inferno."

"Hard-core." That was the other expression heard around Mount Washington as April 17 approached. You heard it as often as you heard Inferno. This was to be a hard-core event organized by hardcore people, for hard-core competitors. "It's still a kind of marathon," said Chief of Course Sheldon Perry. "To climb from Pinkham with your skis on your back and then ski Tuckerman on Mount Washington—that's pretty hard-core."

Man has put a road and a cog railway up the mountain and has built hotels and a weather observatory on its summit. Washington's winds have given those guys in the observatory plenty to think about: In 1934 they had a 231-mph wind—the strongest ever recorded anywhere on the earth's surface. Early this year the Mount Washington area claimed its 93rd life, the majority of the victims having succumbed to exposure and avalanches. The mountain continually sends the message: You can try what you like with me, but I don't often cooperate. A hard-core mountain. And Tuckerman is anything but the soft core of the mountain; 5 skiers have died in accidents and falls there since 1943.

There were a hundred people entered in the '82 race—men, women, even a few children. One with as hard a core as any was race director Chris McAleer, 36, an insurance broker from Massachusetts. He had wanted to ski in an Inferno. That dream had died: He was on the sidelines with a knee injury. He would still run the show; he'd still go to the summit and judge conditions and work on the course. And because he was no longer a prospective competitor, he concentrated all the harder on being a race director.

McAleer's first duty was to decide whether there would even be a race. "My emphasis from the start has been to hold the race only if the weather allows it to be done safely," he said. On Thursday, April 15, 48 hours before race time, several racers were in the ravine checking the headwall and the snowfields that would hold the gates. There was high avalanche danger, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and the headwall did slide that afternoon, burying five skiers, some up to their chests, and sweeping away the skis and poles left stuck in the snow. "If there's anything but low avalanche danger on Saturday," said McAleer, "I assure you we won't go into the ravine."

The word spread in the mountains Friday—skiers at Wildcat and Cannon were all talking about the slide at Tuckerman. "They'll never hold that race tomorrow," said one, basking in the bright sun that makes spring skiing elsewhere in New Hampshire so delightful. "I don't know," said another. "I hear they have permits for this weekend only."

That was true. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land, had allowed the race committee a three-day window. If Saturday proved unsuitable, the event could still go on Sunday or Monday.

The organizers, trying to put the avalanche out of their minds, met on Friday evening. Saturday's schedule, perhaps the most hopeful document that insurance man McAleer ever photocopied, was passed out. The program was outlined, from the crack-of-dawn departure of the snow cats through the noon race start to the 5 p.m. awards ceremony.

Saturday dawned clear, but before the first cat departed at 7:30 a.m., an overcast had set in. Climbing the fire trail, the cat passed skiers—actually hikers now, with their skis clamped to backpacks. Many were down to T shirts or were going bare-chested and were using their poles to help them climb up the hard-packed trail. As the cat got farther up the mountain and the stream of hikers continued, it became clear that some of them had started out at six, maybe even five in the morning. And there would be no small crowd in the ravine. Competitors were bringing rooting sections, party lovers were bringing provisions and all were packing a load of curiosity. It had been more than a decade between Infernos, and a new generation was anxious to see if it could dominate the mountain.

As the first snow cat came out of the forest at the end of the fire trail, its riders saw a gray fog in Tuckerman's bowl. Hundreds of cheerful skiers were plodding into the ravine, but the mood on the cat turned grim as McAleer and others realized there might be a serious problem with the weather. It was just before 9 a.m.—three hours before race time—and conditions were starting to disintegrate. "The winds are picking up," McAleer observed, peering at the mountain as his cat made its snorting run at the ever-steepening slope.

On Washington, wind is to be expected, and this breeze seemed unexceptional at first. It gusted to 50 mph in the bowl; several hikers were knocked down by the suddenness of it. Still, it wasn't the wind in the bowl that was cause for worry. The summit was the problem. The word from above Tuckerman's lip was that it was blowing steadily at 70-plus. That was a daunting fact, but even at that the wind was within limits—barely.

To see just how tough the conditions were. Perry got out of the cat and hiked up the north side of Tuckerman's bowl, past Lunch Rocks, where the early competitors were awaiting orders to ascend to the summit. He continued on and over the lip, and then his spirits sank. The snowfields and summit cone of the mountain were a white moonscape aswirl in heavy gray fog. Perry started across the mountain, figuring that if his summit starting point was being wracked by the wind, perhaps he could find a more sheltered one in the snowfields. He knew that if they couldn't ski up here, there would be no Inferno today. Three-fourths of the race was to take place before the skiers shot over the lip and into Tuckerman; a few gates on the headwall just would not do.

Perry wandered on the cone for 20 minutes, becoming increasingly glum. Finally, at 10:30 a.m., he radioed the base camp, saying, "It's off for today."

Competitors stayed in the bowl that afternoon and skied the headwall. Spectators, though they were told that the Inferno was postponed until Monday because of the day's winds and a gloomy forecast for Sunday, hiked up anyway. By noon there were perhaps 5,000 people in and around Tuckerman, as many as anyone could remember ever having been there. The champagne corks popped; lunches were eaten on Lunch Rocks. Many of the people who had hiked in were disappointed that there would be no race that day, but aware of the dangers of running an Inferno in bad weather, none complained about the decision to postpone.

The party and skiing continued until rain started in midafternoon. Then most people headed back down the fire trail, while others began to set up camps. They would camp two days and two harsh nights on Washington and be ready for the Inferno on Monday.

Down in the valley the weekend dragged on for McAleer. "The meetings—they just never end, but they're needed if we're to stay ready for this thing," he said. What was needed was sun to loosen up the frozen snow and raise the temperature on top above Tuckerman, and diminished wind.

Early on Monday, to those in the valley conditions seemed ideal: It was clear and not too cold, and there was little wind. But the important information was being gathered on the summit. McAleer had set a 7 a.m. deadline for decision-making, and the time was very near. On the summit there was sun, yes, and an acceptable temperature in the 20s, but there was that damned wind. At 7 a.m. the prediction was for 80-mph gusts during the day. Some committee members urged McAleer to say "Let's go." But at 7:02 Perry and McAleer decided: no race. "We said we wouldn't take chances," McAleer said sadly. "We swore we'd never run a race that would put anyone in unnecessary jeopardy. The headwall will be superb today, but above the bowl it might never soften up. I'm going to be second-guessing myself all day long."

He didn't mean that, of course. There's no reason to tell someone who knows Mount Washington well that he needn't second-guess a prudent decision.

McAleer sat in the Pinkham Camp later that Monday, explaining quietly why he had done all the work that he had, seemingly for nothing, when Arthur Doucette, the man who organized the 1969 race, walked over and patted him on the back. "Good job, old man," Doucette said. McAleer smiled. Doucette walked away and McAleer leaned on the table and spoke slowly. "Every year people talk about Washington and Tuckerman, and usually the ideas aren't terribly original. But the thought I had is that the ongoing nature of the mountain—the fact that it has always been tough—is the news. It should be talked about. Washington will be tough forever—that's why we go after it.

"There was some objection to our having a giant slalom and calling it the Inferno, but my idea is that a race on this mountain is the Inferno—always has been, always will be no matter what we call it. And even this year, we brought the whole history of the race to a new generation, and I'm happy about that. We had an Inferno at Mount Washington this weekend; it's just that the mountain didn't let us hold the race."

ILLUSTRATIONDON MOSSMAPDON MOSSCarriage Road
Cog Railway
MOUNT WASHINGTON Elev. 6288
Headwall
TUCKERMAN RAVINE
Sherburne Trail
AMC Base Camp
Toni Matt's Inferno Route