Every spring tens of thousands of skiers ascend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Their destination is the namesake ravine, a glacially scarped bowl with some of the steepest, yet most accessible backcountry skiing in the east. Despite abundant signage and public information displays, accidents still occur, keeping the US Forest Service Snow Rangers and the volunteer backcountry ski patrol busy. However, with proper preparation and planning, this extreme terrain can be enjoyed by most active people. Here’s the skinny on how to plan for your trip to the birthplace of giant slalom and one of the most historical slopes on the continent.
Seasons: Tuckerman can be skied from late fall into June, however the most popular time is April and May, when the snowpack has stabilized and avalanches, while not nonexistent, are less likely. Travel during winter months is a serious endeavor and proper equipment is critical, as is tack-sharp avalanche and safe travel knowledge. If you’re interested in Tuck’s revered spring skiing party scene, consider a May visit.
Getting there: The ravine rests on the eastern slope of Mount Washington, 20 minutes from North Conway. Park at Pinkham Notch early in the day, as the lot fills up quickly. Hike 2.4 miles and 1,900 vertical feet up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the Hermit Lake shelters. Stop to get up-to-the-minute safety and conditions information from the ski patrol or rangers, then continue another 45 minutes up the trail the floor of the ravine. From there, hike up the line you intend to ski.
The anatomy of the ravine: Glacial erratics rest on the right side of the bowl and are colloquially referred to as Lunch Rocks. This is a popular place to set up for the day, but be very aware that there is icefall risk in this area. Be sure you keep your antennae up and be ready for falling ice, skis, skiers, and other hazards.
The ski lines vary in length and pitch, but most are 35 degrees or steeper. In the center of the bowl is the Headwall, where daredevils pop big air over iridescent icefalls. To the spectator’s right is the Lip, one of the steeper pitches in the ravine. Right of this is Right Gully and others, slightly more reasonable in slope angle. On the spectator’s left of the Headwall is Left Gully, a long stripe of 50-degree snow down a narrow slot. Overall there are a couple dozen independent ski lines; consider orienting yourself at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center so you know what you’re getting into. When your day is done, if snow remains on the Sherburne ski trail, ski this back to your car. The Sherburne parallels the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which is closed to downhill ski traffic.
Safety: This is big mountain terrain and should be taken very seriously, as hazards are abundant. There is significant avalanche risk during much of the winter. If you intend on skiing during this time it is critical to bring avalanche rescue equipment and the knowledge to use it. Reference the avalanche forecast board affront Hermit Lake and do your homework ahead of time by studying www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org. Even in the spring, read the Avalanche Center’s advisory, as this resource shares information about crevasses that form, icefall, general trail conditions, and other helpful tips.
Equipment: It can snow any month of the year on Washington, so pack extra layers and winter clothing regardless of the season. For those with backcountry touring gear or telemark gear, you can skin up the trail to facilitate speed. Hikers will want traction for their boots, like microspikes or crampons. Adjustable poles, a mountaineering ice ax, and of course avalanche beacons, probes, and shovels are not only helpful, but essential much of the time. For those camping, winter-caliber sleeping bags and proper clothing is important, even on nice spring days.
Lodging: There is a set of lean-tos and tent platforms for camping at Hermit Lake. No reservations are accepted, so get there early to ensure a spot, especially on holiday weekends. Register at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center before heading up ($8 per night). At Pinkham Notch, you can stay at the Joe Dodge Lodge. A simple lodge with bunks, reserve at the Appalachian Mountain Club, www.outdoors.org. Camping in the parking lot is not permitted.
Guides: Tuckerman can be enjoyed by unguided parties with proper experience and planning. If you have any doubts, or want to strike out for an adventure that pushes the limits of your skills, consider hiring a guide. International Mountain Climbing School is the most storied outfit in North Conway. www.ime-usa.com/imcs.Brian Irwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.