Backcountry Skiing – Epic Trip To Mt. Washington

Tuckerman Ravine, NH
Family Friendly?:  Yes
Age Range:  Pre-teens and up
Recommendations:  This place can be scary if you climb or ski in the wrong place, but the nice thing about it is you can usually see what you are getting into.  The upper snowfields are intermediate cruisers but then you still have to negotiate some double black diamond terrain on the way down.  The lower reaches of the bowl and the area between the bowl and the shelters can be skied by just about all abilities. On the steeper sections be aware of the people above you.  Sliders are common and they won’t be able to avoid you. 

A few years ago a good friend and I decided it was time for a pilgrimage to Tuckerman Ravine on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. Both of us were visiting the east coast after a great winter in California and we needed a fix of backcountry skiing. Unfortunately the weather forecast was calling for rain, skiing in the ravine had been closed for a few days and we were about an 8 hour drive away. Being the optimistic knuckleheads that we are, we decided to go anyway.

The ride was long and wet but uneventful. During a stop in North Conway for some soup and a couple of well deserved beverages, our waitress shared that there were avalanches, packs of hungry wolves and an outbreak of the black plague up there (she was probably exaggerating) – but nothing was going to deny our quest.

Being on a tight budget, lodging meant a two person tent on a free patch of very soggy ground. We set up the tent and fell asleep immediately to the sound of the sloshing water under the ground sheet and the beating rain on the tent.

The next thing we knew it was light out and there was some sort of large animal right outside the tent making sure we got an early start. As soon as we moved the animal took off but the muddy bear prints on the car hood confirmed our suspicions. Happily, the weather had broken and the sky was a brilliant blue.  We got packed up and headed for Pinkham Notch, noting that we had camped about 6 feet from a “No Camping” sign. Luckily the bad weather had probably saved us from a stern lecture from the law.

The parking lot was already pretty full but we were able to snag the last two spaces in the Hermit Lake shelters. Our luck was changing. After a brief stop to photograph the sign at the bottom of the trail that tells you all the ways you might die up there, we started up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The hike went quickly and before we knew it we were dropping our packs at the shelter and heading up for a couple of runs.  Since it was already getting late, we settled for a couple of runs in good corn snow on Hillman Highway, had dinner and got to sleep early.  The plan was for a pre-sunrise climb to the summit to watch the sun come up and enjoy what might be the first tracks from the summit that season.

The climb to the summit was uneventful except for one tense moment. We had decided to climb the right gully for some reason and about half way up my foot broke through the snow and into running water. We realized that we were climbing on a snow bridge over the water so we quickly moved to a new line.

For those of you who have climbed Mt. Washington in the summer, you know that there are few sights more disturbing than approaching the summit only to find a parking lot full of tourists eating corn dogs or whatever. Now I have nothing against tourists in their proper habitat, but when you just spent hours climbing thousands of vertical feet it really blows the whole wilderness vibe. I am happy to report that in late winter, that scene is but a memory. You might as well be in Antarctica as the place is deserted and covered in an amazing coating of rime ice. We had a seat against a rock and watched the sun come up over half of New England – a magnificent sight!

Well, all I can say is that the upper snow fields were amazing. The snow quickly softened in the sunlight to a nice soft corn surface and we enjoyed huge, fast turns all the way to the lip of the headwall. Being as I had just started telemarking that winter, the headwall was a pretty scary sight from the top. I am happy to report that after a few tentative turns, the headwall run went really well with only one “heart skipped a beat” moment.

The lunch rocks at the base of the headwall are the social center of the ravine.  We met everything from ukulele playing granola crunchers to fraternity yahoos who had carried a keg all the way up for the day.  It was a weird crowd, but everyone was friendly and having a great time.  After spending an awesome day climbing, skiing and watching people take horrendous falls down the headwall, we skied back to the shelter thinking our day was about as good as it gets. Little did we know, the best was yet to come!

Around 10 pm, someone came to the shelter and said the Northern Lights were shining bright. Of course we didn’t believe him at first but curiosity got the best of us so we took a look (our shelter was one of the few that had a front on it so we couldn’t see out easily). Sure enough, there they were in all of their glory. Bright green sheets waving in the solar winds, it was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. The show lasted well over an hour and afterward the people in all the shelters couldn’t help but roaming around and sharing stories. Before it was all said and done, just about everyone up there knew each other and had shared some of whatever special treat they had brought along for the trip with everyone else.  It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Unfortunately by morning the place was socked in again so we packed up and skied as far down as we could. After a short hike and a quick shower at the visitor’s center we were on our way with many memories that we will never forget.

This story shows that you never know when or where an exceptional outdoor adventure will present itself. By persisting through all of the negative news, we had a truly excellent experience.

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