Why Tuckerman Ravine Lures Skiers

Why Tuckerman Ravine Lures Skiers

Published by Brion O'Connor

A Massive Adrenaline Rush.

Tuckerman Ravine on the eastern flank of New Hampshire's Mount Washington is an enormous theater of doubts and dreams. It inspires fear, awe, and even a certain level of reverence. To ski or snowboard down this gaping granite maw is to achieve a certain sense of immortality.

"I've been to the ravine nearly every spring since college," said Lafe Low, a self-described “Raviniac” from Massachusetts who graduated in 1984. "To call it a 'rite of passage' seems trite. It's more like a religious experience."

That sense of admiration is commonplace here. Tuck's, as the ravine is known locally, is a place where legends – either private, or in the court of public opinion – take wing. Yet none of those legends rival Anton "Toni" Matt.

On April 16, 1939, the 19-year-old Matt surged toward the edge of ravine's Headwall, the third competitor in the third running of the famed American Inferno ski race. The Austrian, who had arrived in the States just five months earlier to instruct at Hannes Schneider's ski school at Mount Cranmore, launched into the 4.2-mile course from the summit, with suspect visibility and winds gusting at 60 miles an hour.

"Going over the lip is a terrifying experience," Matt told Skiing magazine in 1964. "Remember, I had schussed from the very top of the mountain, which is at least a thousand feet higher than the lip, and then made only one turn into the headwall.
"I was coming into the sudden drop-off at 40, 45 miles an hour," he said. "That's not at all like coming in from a dead standstill. It's more like jumping into a 600-foot deep hole from a speeding car."

Matt flew over the lip and pointed his boards directly downhill, hitting estimated top speeds in excess of 80 miles an hour.

"I had figured on making at least two or three turns while going over the lip, which, even at slow speeds, feels like going down an elevator shaft," he told Skiing. "When I got to the top of the Headwall I was moving much faster than I had expected. I knew the lip was fast and treacherous, and if I made a false move I would take a terrible fall. I figured it would be safer actually to run straight than to turn. So on the spur of the moment, I decided to go all out – to schuss the Headwall."

Matt's audacious line was as "extreme" as any ripped by modern-day daredevils Scot Schmidt, Seth Morrison, Mike Hattrup, or the late Shane McConkey. He completed the Inferno in 6½ minutes, a full minute faster than the second-place finisher, Olympian Dick Durrance.

"Toni Matt's run on the Headwall is still the talk of skiers whenever racing is discussed," wrote Joe Dodge in the March, 1951, issue of Ski magazine. "He took the Headwall practically straight, with hardly a check at the lip of the Ravine. Everyone could hear his skis chatter on the ice on the floor of the Ravine before he shot over the Little Headwall and down onto the Sherburne Trail."

Matt shrugged off the performance, saying he was fortunate to be "19, stupid, and have strong legs." And while Dodge, a Mount Washington legend in his own right, predicted in 1951 that more Infernos would be held, the race never returned.

Skiers and snowboarders, however, make the trek back to "Tucks" every year.

"I think most extreme skiers find themselves in Matt's boots eventually, just to a smaller degree," said Peter Tamposi, a New Hampshire lawyer and longtime Tuckerman addict. "Word is Matt didn't exactly plan his epic run as it went, but he brilliantly improvised on the fly and let them ride. That's the hallmark of extreme skiing – try to make it look like you planned it that way, and keep smiling."

Which, of course, is the draw.

"Anyone skiing over the lip has to have thought about what that must feel like to straight-line over and just keep going, especially on 1939 gear," said Bruce Hardy, a ski patroller from Wildcat Mountain, which looks out on Tuckerman from across Pinkham Notch. "I've always assumed he didn't know what was in front of him, and once the bottom dropped out, it was just time to tuck and go. That takes some super-human cojones."

New England can never lay claim to the biggest, baddest ski terrain on the planet. Not when you've got places like Chamonix or Denali or Portillo. Not when your highest peak – the hardscrabble 6,288-foot Mount Washington, AKA Agiocochook– is dwarfed by the 14,000-foot behemoths to the west.

But if you're in Aspen, amid Colorado's magnificent Rockies, stop by a favorite local hangout, New York Pizza. Check out the walls decorated with classic ski destinations. There, in a singular tribute to New England, hangs a poster of Tuckerman Ravine.
"The ravine is basically a sheer rock cliff," said Low. "It's worth seeing the ravine in the summer. It will make you wonder how anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to ski up there. But it is. It's a great idea."

According to New England Ski Museum director Jeffrey Leich, the first person to ski on Mount Washington was a Dr. Wiskott from Germany in 1899. The first person to ski Tuckerman is believed to be John Apperson of New York, an accomplished climber, skier, and environmentalist from the Adirondack Mountains who visited the ravine in April 1914.

Apperson's foray was the start of something big. The first descent over the lip was made in 1931 by John Carleton and Charley Proctor, a pair of Olympic skiers from Dartmouth (followed a week later by a group from Harvard, naturally). Shortly afterward, members of the venerable Ski Club Hochgebirge (a German expression for "high mountain") developed a daring summit-to-base race that they dubbed the American Inferno. Skiing legends such as Durrance and Brooks Dodge made their names in these hell-bent-for-leather competitions.

But Tuckerman is known less as a race venue than a place where skiers and snowboarders come of age.

"I first skied the ravine when I was 12, in 1975, and from that time I've witnessed avalanches, participated in winter rescues, and experienced epic descents in all sorts of conditions," said extreme skier Dan Egan, who was recently inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. "Tuckerman Ravine is a testing ground for skiing the steeps of the world.

"It's a place that requires respect," said Egan. "When you hike all the way up to the snowfields and then ski down and approach the headwall, route finding and decision making all add up to the difference between a disaster or an amazing experience."

Today, this massive glacial cirque, at 4,430 feet above sea level and roughly 800 feet of vertical, is the unrivaled "Holy Grail" of New England spring skiing. Starting in March, and gaining momentum through April, Tuckerman calls out to hundreds, if not thousands, of adventure junkies looking to extend their ski season. Thrill-seekers bring skis, poles, boots, snowboards, food, flasks, even the occasional keg to the ravine floor and Lunch Rocks before tackling the final grunt to Tuckerman's lip.
"Tucks has an amazing pitch, and offers a wide variety of lines," said Chris Gibson, a New Jersey native now living outside Boston. "But in the end it really is just a day of hiking with a massive 3-minute adrenaline rush."

Skiing any of the 10 major routes that line the Tuckerman's major bowl and the seven routes along neighboring Hillman's Highway – many featuring pitches between 40 and 55 degrees – can be a heart-pounding experience.

"Spring skiers in the bowl generally talk of the soft corn snow, but the conditions vary wildly and change every hour," said Hardy. "It helps to think about that before you pick your route. I'd been in the bowl many times before as a hiker, and it's always breathtaking, like a half-empty stadium looming in front of you."

Folks simply don't forget their first date with Tuck's.

"I considered myself an expert skier and capable of running anything in the East," said Tamposi, who first skied the ravine three decades ago as a college freshman. "Then I found myself standing on an 18-inch ledge carved out of a seemingly vertical wall and trying like hell to get my skis on.

"I wasn't sure if the shaking in my legs was fatigue from the 3-hour hike getting there, or from fear," he said.

In an area that doesn't suffer fools or mistakes – more than 100 hikers and skiers have met untimely ends on Mount Washington – Tuckerman Ravine can be ruthlessly unforgiving, especially for the uninitiated and unprepared. Every year, US Forest Service rangers and volunteers respond to dozens of search and rescue incidents resulting from poor planning, improper skills and equipment, or bad judgment.

Much like hikers who need to be cognizant of inclement weather, skiers and snowboarders need to be keenly aware of ravine conditions. Avalanche dangers are a very real and ever-present danger.

"The climb is unnerving, exposed; you can't mess up," said Tamposi. "Generally the mountain won't tolerate mistakes. It's that last bit, the closeness of the edge that keeps me going back."

Clearly, the sublime combination of fear and exhilaration is as intoxicating today as it was the day of Matt's mad dash.

"Tuckerman's was the most terrifying fall I ever had skiing," says David Gillis of Massachusetts. "In fact, I wasn't skiing at all. I was trying to put on my skis when I slipped."

Long slides are the reality of a 50-degree slope and a surface with all the traction of Teflon. Still, even those who've had the misfortune of taking a ravine ride on their backside know that mishaps often make for the best stories. No one visits Tuckerman with the intent of getting hurt. But appreciating the ravine's checkered history serves as a cautionary tale. Accepting its risks opens the door to its unique rewards. Standing at Lunch Rocks, looking up at the Ravine's gaping maw, the place seems full of possibilities.

"The Left Gully is my favorite ski run in New England," says Low. "It is deceptively steep, even near the bottom. It's best when there’s snow all the way up and over the top.

"Those first few turns dropping in at the top of the Left Gully are like flying," he says. "You drop down over the bumps and ridges about 10 or 15 feet with each turn. You're really kind of screwed if you fall up there; you will slide the whole way down. So don't fall."

For more details on Tuckerman Ravine, visit the U.S. Forest Service.

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