Skiing Tuckerman Ravine: What you can expect when visiting the backcountry bowl
For many skiers and snowboarders in the Northeast, the advent of spring means a trip to Tuckerman Ravine in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Sporting some of the steepest backcountry terrain in the country, "Tuck's" is the East Coast's answer to extreme skiing.
Usually beginning in late March and often lasting well into June, throngs of ambitious skiers flock to its base for a taste of skiing in its most pure form: The area is undeveloped with no ski lift, for example, so getting to the top requires the same amount of strategy and effort as getting down. It also means being in good physical condition to meet the challenge of the three-mile hike to the top. On a sunny day you'll witness everything from downhill skiing and snowboarding to inner tube sliding and sledding. Experiencing Tuck's in any fashion has come to symbolize a rite of passage for many.
Without fail however, each year many of these seekers of backcountry bliss arrive unprepared for a day at Tuck's. The unpredictability of Mount Washington's weather, combined with the inexperience of some of its visitors, results in broken limbs, gouged body parts, even lost lives.
Simply put, Tuckerman Ravine isn't for everyone, and planning a trip requires some serious thought. So if you're hoping to enjoy Tuck's this year, we've got some background on skiing in the ravine, as well as what to keep in mind for a successful and safe trip.How It All Began
A glacial cirque located in the eastern shoulder of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, Tuckerman Ravine was named for the botanist Edward Tuckerman who spent two decades exploring the White Mountains in the mid 1800s. A three-mile hike from AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, getting to Tuck's requires some skill and preparation. Its bowl-like shape holds snow late into the season, reaching depths up to 75 feet in places — hence its popularity in spring.
Although the first recorded skier in the bowl was in 1914, the ravine's full potential wasn't skied until the 1920s. Joe Dodge, AMC hutmaster at the time, lured a few friends into exploring it and its most distinctive feature, the Headwall (an 800-foot vertical drop from the lip to the bottom). This small group spread the word of its pristine and challenging terrain like wildfire, and soon traffic increased significantly. By 1932 the AMC and the U.S. Forest Service constructed the Fire Trail from the AMC's facility at Pinkham Notch to Hermit Lake Hut, now known as the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and still the main trail used today.
Yet mastering the bowl wasn't enough for these ambitious ski pioneers, and soon the first of three American Inferno Races was established in 1933. A group of Boston ski enthusiasts with a penchant for racing formed the ski club Hochgebrige with a "top to bottom" race in mind. This summit to base race that plunged its competitors 4,200 feet in four miles is still impressive by today's standards. AMC member Hollis Phillips was the Inferno's first winner with a time just under 14 minutes. The second race held the following year saw Dartmouth skiing sensation Dick Durrance win with a time 12 minutes, 35 seconds.But it is the third American Inferno Race that brought in the most impressive time. On April 16, 1939, Toni Matt, a 19-year-old Austrian, stunned spectators by blowing through the course in just six minutes and 29 seconds, less than half the time of Durrance in '34. The large crowds that assemble at Tuck's today make an organized race impossible, and so 1939 marked the last American Inferno Race.
The ravine experienced another burst of exploration in the late 1940s with the arrival of Brooks Dodge, son of Joe Dodge. Intent on discovering as many routes as possible that led from summit to bottom, Dodge introduced a dozen new trails to the ravine, including: Hillman's Highway, Lion Head, the Sluice, and Boott Spur. Today there are roughly 20 different routes to take in the ravine, but their conditions vary with the weather. (See also safety tips for Tuckerman Ravine.)
This history of Tuckerman Ravine, combined with its extreme ski conditions make it easy to understand why it has been granted mecca-like ski status by its frequenters. And although the scene awaiting skiers these days is staunchly different from the remote wilderness Joe Dodge and his cronies experienced, the thrill of leaping over its lip remains the same.
Photo: Robert J. Kozlow