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Mount Washington- A Spring Ritual
By: David Paul
It rises over everything around it, offering a commanding view of the landscapes that define its rugged region. Despite its steep, unforgiving slopes, tourists flock to it year round, ascending to the top by automobile, a special type of rail car, bicycling, and even using their own two feet. Mount Washington’s vistas offer anyone who makes it to its top a sense of accomplishment; it’s a place for families, friends, couples, and individuals to take in one of the best backdrops in the United States and offers a meaningful place for reflection, photographs, and appreciation for the surrounding geography. Situated 517 miles northeast of a hill in Pittsburgh that bears the same name Mount Washington, New Hampshire is a mecca for East Coast sightseeing and outdoor recreation.
Standing 6,289 feet above sea level at its peak, Mount Washington acts as a microclimate similar to arctic regions well north of the Canadian border. It is notoriously home to the “World’s Worst Weather”; strong winds routinely terrorize the weather station housed near its peak, and snow has been known to fall in every month of the year. Luckily for East Coast skiers like me, this deadly weather leads to some of the best backcountry skiing east of the Mississippi River. Every April, when winter starts to loosen its grip on New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, calm, bluebird days can sometimes be enjoyed in conjunction with the dozens of feet of snow covering a particular Mount Washington slope.
The Tuckerman Ravine is a glacial cirque that acts as a natural trap for much of Mount Washington’s snow every winter. Its headwall and nearby slopes offer extreme skiing to those willing to climb it, sometimes into July of a given year. The hike to the top of the ravine is, at least for me, the most physically challenging day of the year. Maybe you’ve heard the skiing cliche “earn your turns”. I would not rule out a ski excursion to the Tuckerman Ravine as the origin of that three-worded phrase.
From the day’s start at the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center until the time you’re ready to actually ski, the combined hike and climb to the top of the Tuckerman Ravine is around three hours. That’s three hours uphill while carrying all of your ski gear plus any and all provisions that you’ll need for the day. The initial two hours is up a snow-covered hiking trail to the base of the ravine. Each “run” of the ravine will require another hour of climbing straight up the bowl itself. While always advantageous but not required, an ice ax and crampons are recommended for the bowl climb. The total hiking and climbing distance to experience that first ski run is about three miles.
The morning’s climb rewards you with stunning views near and far of the peaks and features of the Presidential Range, a full view of the pistes of the Wildcat Mountain Ski Area across the adjacent valley, an intimidating angle of the ravine floor below, and even the low-lying areas of surrounding Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. In 2008 my climb day was clear enough to allow for a view of Atlantic Ocean, no closer than 70 miles away.
You’ll start to question your decision-making skills when the time comes to ski over the lip of the ravine. The steep terrain, body fatigue, unforgiving obstacles, and the pressure to look your best knowing that you’re the moment’s entertainment for all of the watching eyes from the ravine floor are all reasons to make anyone uncomfortable. But Tuckerman Ravine is about leaving your comfort zone and confronting the extreme, even if just for a few moments. There are few places on the east coast that can offer the rush you’ll get from descending the ravine, and after several but too few steep turns you’ll find yourself back on the ravine floor wondering how it took you so long to climb the bowl.
Back on the ravine floor, you’ll find a party atmosphere among your fellow hikers and skiers. On nice, weekend spring days they can number in the hundreds. Groups of people will be clustered at the Lunch Rocks and other hangout spots under the looming watch of the ravine enjoying snacks, exchanging stories, watching for who next skis down the ravine, and preparing to climb the bowl themselves. To be at the Tuckerman Ravine in the spring time is to celebrate the ski season that was with one final tribute to the sport that kept you busy all winter and the perfect transition to the Spring ahead.
The number of ravine laps skied in one day is entirely up to you. Weather, daylight, and fitness will all be factors in this decision. My personal best is “just” two laps. The best part of the day, at least in terms of avenging gravity, is the last leg. Remember that initial two-hour uphill hike to the bowl? Most Aprils, getting back to your car from the ravine floor is going to consist of skiing down a 2.4 mile ski trail that parallels the hiking trail and dumps you back at the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center parking lot. Though not as steep as the Tuckerman Ravine, the John Sherburne ski trail is not without its challenges of moguls, rocks, narrow straits, bare spots, hairpin turns, bridges, and other skiers. This winding ski run is a great cap to the day as your labor from earlier in the day is again paying off.
The pinnacle of east coast backcountry skiing and the ultimate weekend warrior trip are both one in the same. All east coast skiers should experience this adventure at least once; Mount Washington will make you extremely proud to be a member of the left coast. Yes, this trip will be a long distance for some, but remember, it’s only the last three miles that you have to get out of your car.