Tackling Diagonal Gully, Mount Washington.
For decades, Nike promoted sneaker sales with its wildly popular slogan, “Just do it!” But mountaineers and backcountry skiers know better. Any attempt to ski a backcountry line requires thorough planning and an unvarnished sense of self-awareness. Because the wilderness doesn’t suffer fools kindly.
And that wilderness is much closer than you think. You don’t need to travel to Nepal, the Alps, or Alaska to find yourself in the midst of incredibly challenging backcountry.
“In our backyard here in New England, we have extreme terrain,” said Kulkea ambassador Dr. Brian Irwin, medical director for the U.S. Forest Service’s Mount Washington Avalanche Center in northern New Hampshire. “A lot of people don’t really understand that.
“People think skiing on Mount Washington is really limited to Tuckerman Ravine and Gulf of Slides,” he said. “But more advanced skiers and ski mountaineers, those with more honed skills, often will ski the couloirs in Huntington Ravine. This is an example of the more extreme terrain that we have, three hours from Boston.”
Later this month, Irwin, Hall of Fame freeskier John Egan, and videographer Kevin Joudrey will join forces on the flanks of Mount Washington, in Huntington Ravine, to record a skiing descent of the 1,100-foot Diagonal Gully on film. The challenging couloir spans 10-30 feet in width with an average pitch of approximately 45 degrees. Often touted as having the “World’s Worst Weather,” Mount Washington, affectionately known as “The Rockpile” because of its hardscrabble granite dome, is legendary for high winds and unpredictable conditions.
“What I’m hoping is, we’ll have a reasonable wind, that’s always a gamble on Mount Washington,” said Irwin. “If you get a calm day, you’re very lucky. It’s almost a given that it will be windy.”
Over the course of his breathtaking career, John Egan has also learned to respect the weather, the elements, and the trail conditions. He said the group plans to carefully inspect the route as they hike, skin, scramble, and climb to the top of Diagonal Gully.
“That’s my favorite thing to do. I’ve always done that,” said Egan. “I learned that years ago from Patrice Vallencant in Chamonix, France.
“There was a snowboarder, Bruno Gouvy, who got very good,” he said. “He took a helicopter ride up there one day, got a look at the snow, jumped in, made one turn, and slid to his death. That really solidified the fact that if you don’t know what that snow is like, you shouldn’t jump onto it.”
Gouvy was only 27 when died in 1990, on the Aiguille Verte of Mont Blanc. Shortly after he started his descent, he went into an uncontrolled, 3,000-foot skid and fell into a crevasse. The lessons learned by Gouvy’s death have stayed with Egan.
“That’s how we’ve made it this far, figuring out where you’re going to ski, what the line is,” said Egan, now 59. “I like to say it’s about the ABCs of skiing. Point ‘A’ is where you start, point ‘B’ is where you finish, and then ‘C’ is seeing the run. You’ve got to see it. And that’s really important for it to happen.”
Egan’s global skiing exploits, along with his brother Dan, made him a natural choice for Irwin and his plans to photograph a ski descent down Diagonal Gully.
“John’s a well-known, well-respected, world-traveled extremes skier who essentially put professional extreme skiing on the map,” said Irwin. “As one of the founding members of the North Face Extreme Team, along with his brother, he’s left a mark on mountaineering and extreme skiing that has allowed other people to follow in his footsteps.
“The profession wouldn’t exist if not for him, and the pursuit wouldn’t be where it is if it weren’t for his and his brother’s adventures,” he said. “So when you take a personality like that, who has the experience, and you bring it home, and you take him to a local hill, it strikes a chord with folks.”
However, Irwin said that “local hill” – in this case Mount Washington – is still fraught with peril, and is a worthy challenge to any hard-core outdoorsman. As a result, a bevy of world-class climbers and mountaineers, including Mark Synnott, Fred Wilkinson, Bayard Russell, Mark Richey, and Rick Wilcox, call the Mount Washington Valley home.
“So many of the world’s best climbers, and I say that without hyperbole, train on that mountain,” said Irwin. “North Conway is a bastion of alpinism and ski alpinism excellence.
“We’re talking about extreme terrain, and it’s really easy to think such terrain doesn’t exist so close to the road, but it really does here in New England,” he said. “We’re going to take advantage of that, and get in there and actually show this on film, to try and demonstrate what it actually looks like.”
Why Huntington’s Diagonal?
After a protracted, 9-month permitting process, Irwin secured Forest Service permission to film in the Huntington Ravine for a single day, April 13. The group targeted Huntington’s Diagonal Gully for several crucial reasons.
“It’s the best combination of position, snow stability, aesthetics, reasonability, and length,” said Irwin. “O’Dell’s Gully is steeper but shorter. It’s got a big ice bulge, and is used for ice climbing. Central Gully has a rappel in the middle, and that detracts from the continuity of the descent. Damnation Gully is a very tight, technical descent, but it’s so narrow in spots that it’s difficult to ski. North Gully is not skiable, and the southern gullies are not as spectacular on camera as I’m hoping.
“So Diagonal Gully was really the most logical choice,” he said. “This is a slot in the granite. It’s a gash that slices the face of Huntington.”
However, “most logical choice” doesn’t mean the line that Egan will attempt isn’t risky.
“We’re talking about no-fall terrain. That’s really the key point,” Irwin said. “At the bottom of this gully is a cliff. And if you fall, you’re going over it. So we may have to factor in time for a snow-pit analysis, and snow stability testing. John as a lot of experience, and I have a lot of experience, in that. So we’ll play that one by ear, depending on what we see.”
Irwin said the crew – fully equipped with beacons, probes, satellite phones, and ice-climbing gear – plans to skin to the base of The Fan, and then rope up for the climb to the top of the Diagonal Gully, at almost 5,400 feet.
“It is northeastern-striking couloir, so its aspect is heading northeast from the Alpine Garden,” said Irwin. “That aspect allows the gully to get cross-loaded from snow that gets deposited on the Alpine Garden when these high winds hit Mount Washington.
“That cross-loading fills it in, and that creates a significant avalanche risk,” he said. “However, the slope angle of that couloir does not propagate natural avalanches. Skier-triggered avalanches are certainly a risk, and natural avalanches are always a possibility there. But it is one of the more reasonable slopes in the northern half of that ravine.”
Throughout Irwin’s detailed explanation of the planned ascent, and descent, of the Diagonal Gully, commitment to caution and preparation are consistent themes.
“This is a tentative plan,” he said. “Risk conditions are key, and if conditions are hazardous, and we find that the Gully is unstable and other options are more logical or more reasonable, we’ll put safety first. We’re not committing to a ‘summit or plummet’ kind of thing.”
There are potential avalanche conditions that need to be constantly assessed with an unblinking eye. More importantly, said Irwin, team members must avoid falling into “Heuristic Traps, or human factors, that can add to the risk in avalanche terrain.” The concept of the Heuristic Trap is that “you’re one shortcut, one subconscious dismissal of a risk to achieve a set of pre-desired or pre-conceived goals,” from disaster, he said.
“The components of that are usually familiarity of terrain – ‘I’ve done it before, I can do it again.’ – social encouragement – ‘Others have done it; I can do it.’ – and over-commitment to a goal,” he said. “All of those factors lead parties to often disregard red flags, and they get into dangerous situations because of commitment.
“Those are the traps that kill people, in climbing and in avalanches,” said Irwin. “So when I approach an objective, whether it’s climbing or skiing, I have to keep that in the back of my mind. That’s really priority Numero Uno.”
In late March, Irwin explained that the team was planning an early start – probably in the 3 a.m. range – with the goal of reaching the base of the ravine before sunrise. That will provide Irwin and Joudrey the best available light for filming.
“The truth is you can’t really plan many of these details until you get closer to the date,” he said. “What we need to know is, what are the temps, what is the wind down in the base prior, and what’s the precipitation? That lays the foundation for the snowpack that we’re going to be relying on.
“We have to keep in mind: Has there been recent snow activity? Has there been recent avalanche activity? Have we had multiple freeze/thaw cycles?” Irwin said. “That’s what we really need to do this in good style and safely, without too much risk.”
The early start will increase the odds of good snow stability, he said.
“My hope is that we can climb the entire gully, and then I can shoot John dropping in from the top of the gully,” said Irwin. “There is a little rock pinch that he’ll have to navigate.
“My plan as the photographer is to shoot him descending,” he said. “If we have enough time, I’d love to shoot him descending the whole Gully, and have him climb it again. I would descend to the halfway point, and I’d shoot him coming down.”
Egan said he’s game.
Photo: courtesy of famousinternetskiers.com