In the summer Tuckerman Ravine looks like an open gash in the
shoulder of Mount Washington. It's a cliff, really, on a scale
both breathtaking and humbling, as if the gods had taken a gouge
out of the mountain's side. The ravine is creased by a cascading
waterfall, the sort of setting masters of the Hudson River school
of art used to paint. Hikers surveying the steep rock face in
July and August find it inconceivable that it could ever be
skied. Belayed, maybe.
In early winter the ravine becomes even more forbidding. Mount
Washington is host to some of the most extreme weather in the
U.S. It is bitterly, inhospitably cold, routinely lashed by
hurricane-force winds (over 74 mph).
The highest wind speed ever recorded, 231 mph, was measured on
Mount Washington's summit, which at 6,288 feet is the highest in
New England. Barren and white, 2,000 feet above the tree line,
the crown jewel of the Presidential Range is a terrible and
unforgiving host when the snow flies. The desolate half-mile
slope between the summit and Tuckerman's lip cannot hold the new
snow, which is blown by the howling winds into the ravine, the
site of frequent avalanches.
Through January and February, the snow in the bowl deepens. It
averages 55 feet in winter and has been measured to a depth of
150 feet. Gradually the sheer cliff, the waterfall and the
massive boulders on the ravine's floor become blanketed in
pristine white. In this garb Tuckerman comes dressed every
spring, transformed into an ivory bowl both beautiful and deadly.
April 25, 2004
And then Tuckerman's faithful arrives. The migration starts in
March, as the days lengthen and the snow softens. In April and
May the Tuckerman frenzy reaches its peak. Skiers, ice climbers,
hikers, campers and revelers come. Fathers and sons. Husbands and
wives. College throngs on spring break.
They come from all over New England, up from New York and New
Jersey, down from Quebec. Their reward? A long climb and a few
turns down one of the steepest, most dangerous faces in the
world. Locals call Tuckerman the birthplace of extreme skiing. A
trip over the lip and down the headwall is one a young man or
woman will never forget. It's more than a rite of spring. For 70
years skiing Tuckerman has been a rite of passage, a place where
New England boys have come to prove their manhood and men have
come to remember their youth.
The tradition dates to the 1930s, the early years of recreational
skiing. Tuckerman pioneers discovered that when ski areas in the
East were beginning to shut down in March, the ravine was just
getting skiable. Club coaches began to organize ski racing there.
(The first giant slalom event in the U.S. was held at Tuckerman
on April 4, 1937.) Special trains were organized from Boston,
some that rented ski equipment to passengers. Thousands made
their way to Pinkham Notch on spring weekends. There were no
lifts or rope tows. (There still aren't.) Skiers had to hike the
four miles from Route 16, up the Fire Trail, along the Cutler
River, to reach the floor of the ravine. The climb, with skis
attached to backpacks and poles used as walking sticks, took
about three hours.
It was more a mountaineering experience than a ski trip. Early
skiers used seven-foot wooden skis with leather bindings, and few
would attempt the headwall of Tuckerman. "Considering the
equipment they used, it was almost suicidal to go over the lip,"
says Nicholas Howe, 71, author of Not Without Peril, a book
chronicling the recreational fatalities in the Presidential
Range. "You were lucky to survive. You had to be either really
brave, really good or really stupid. From the top it looks as if
you're stepping off the roof of a house."
At its steepest Tuckerman's headwall is 55 degrees, and at no
point is the pitch less than 40 degrees. "Put your elbow against
your side," says Howe, who grew up in nearby Jackson, N.H., and
first skied Tuckerman when he was 17. "Now draw an imaginary line
from the tip of your index finger to the arch of your foot.
That's 55 degrees."
Going over the lip of the headwall "is like stepping into an
elevator shaft," says Rosemary Whitney, 55, who annually makes
the trip to Tuckerman from her home in Pownal, Maine. "It's a
complete act of faith."
The first descent over the lip was made on April 11, 1931, by two
Olympic skiers from Dartmouth, John Carleton and Charley Proctor.
A week later three Harvard skiers went from the summit of Mount
Washington, down the headwall and all the way to the visitor's
center at the base of the trail. Roughly that route was used for
the infamous American Inferno races staged at Tuckerman in 1933,
'34 and '39, a four-mile downhill covering 4,200 vertical feet.
No gates. Just a few flags to show entrants where the lip of the
headwall began. In the 1939 race Toni Matt, a 19-year-old
Austrian ski instructor, made history when he schussed
Tuckerman's headwall the first time he saw it. He hadn't meant
to. He'd intended to make a couple of turns above the lip and ski
down in control. But he got stuck on his edge and was carrying
too much speed to turn. He railed it. Matt finished the course in
6:29, cutting the old record nearly in half. The tracks on the
headwall were later described as resembling a giant dollar sign:
S curves of other competitors broken by a straight slash made by
Matt's schuss. Few have schussed the headwall since.
Today, devotees express themselves in other death-defying ways.
Egged on by spectators who picnic on the "lunch rocks" below,
daredevils plummet down the headwall on everything from skis to
inner tubes to anatomically correct dummies. "Girls in bikini
tops and shorts go over the edge on telemark skis," says Howe. "I
cringe. You don't want to fall with any skin showing or you'll
end up looking like raw hamburger."
The dangers are real. Since 1886, 29 people have died in
Tuckerman Ravine. The ski patrol reports an average of 18 serious
injuries a year. Falling chunks of ice, crevasses in the melting
snowpack, rocks, collapsing snow bridges, avalanches and heart
attacks from the exertion of the climb have all claimed victims.
In April 2003 I watched Steve Gifford of Dedham, Mass., a good
friend and my guide, lose his footing while climbing to the top
of a gully on Tuckerman's southern wall. He slid with terrifying
speed on the icy slope, oftentimes head first, some 700 feet,
narrowly missing scrub pines and rocks. Miraculously, he wasn't
hurt. A Tuckerman veteran, Gifford, 52, later said, "Sometimes
you beat the mountain. Days like today, the mountain beats you.
But when you hit it right, when you climb that stairway to heaven
and come over the top, the sun's out and the snow's good and you
get that incredible view, well, it's a gift."
A gift that Tuckerman's faithful never gets out of their blood. I
recently asked Giff if he'd be back this year. "A good New
Englander never looks death in the face and turns away," he said
with a laugh. "I'll be back. Absolutely. Just don't tell my
This is the 40th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Kentucky
For more about sports in New Hampshire and the other 49 states,
go to si.com/50.
For 70 years skiing Tuckerman has been a rite of passage, a place
where boys come to prove their manhood and men come to remember