A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Tuckerman Ravine

March 28, 2012
Emilie Phillips

I have not managed to get photos posted unfortunately, so I will just have to describe the trip as well as I can.

This trip was Sunday, a week and a half ago at the beginning of the warm spell. Tyson had gone flying around Mt Washington with friends while I did my cross country. The alpine garden was already snow free. The streams in Amonosuc ravine and Monroe brook had broken through. Tuckerman Ravine and the upper snowfields still looked good. I had been thinking that with the warm weather, it was time to pull the kayaks out. But Tyson convinced me that there was still some good snow on the mountain.

Arriving at the parking lot, it was less crowded than we feared. With the combination of low snow fall amounts, warm weather over the weekend, and summer weather forecast for the week, this weekend was very likely to be the best spring skiing on Mt Washington this year.

We started up the trail with our skis in our packs. Fairly quickly there was packed slush covering the trail. We waited until we got up a little ways, to the first bridge, to switch to skinning. Partly, that gave us a more reliable snow pack, and partly I knew the trail steepens after that. Having my skis on my feet is much easier than hauling them in the pack.

Again, the trail was not too crowded. There were definitely people visible constantly, but it did not feel like standing in line at the mall like it sometimes can. In sunny spots, the snow had turned to slush. Periodically on the uphill side of the trail, water was pouring out from under the snow and making a wet watery mess. It was so far above freezing that I did not worry about ice refreezing on my skis.

We ran into a friend from VT on the way up. We chatted for a while, but then left his group behind. At Hermit lake is the first view up to the mountain and the bowl. There was a lot of exposed rock and trees. The Tuckerman bowl itself was fine, but the ridges coming down on either side were almost bare. Hillmans Highway was skiable, but we wanted to continue all the way up to the upper snowfields. From Hermit Lake up to the bottom of the bowl, the trail had stretches of completely bare rock. The stream in the little headwall was an open waterfall. This is all exceedingly abnormal for mid March. Typically, the whole mountain would have been covered in white. The little head wall would have been filled with snow and easily skiable. And probably there would still have been avalanche danger.

We stopped for lunch at the bottom of the bowl. There was enough breeze that I zipped my pant legs back on and threw a long sleeve shirt over my tank top. From there, we were headed straight up the ravine to reach the upper snowfields on top. This meant booting it up right gully. We were not the only people with this plan. Right gully was in sad enough shape that no one was skiing back down it. We joined the stream of people braving the falling ice danger at the bottom and the small stream and bushes open at the top. This is my second time up Tuckermans, and it still feels really steep climbing up. I believe the guidebook says right gully has a sustained pitch of 35 degrees and max pitch of 40.

In any event, we made it to the top without anything or person falling down. From there we traversed over to the upper snow fields. It was not a straight route. So much of the alpine vegetation was exposed that we stuck to the trails and went out and around. Once we hit the snowfields, we started zig zagging up. Compared to Tuckermans the snowfields are psychologically easier. They are wide open and not as tall. However, they are just about as steep. If we had more energy, we might have done a couple laps, but we did not. So we just did one warm up run.

My technique was not as good as during the lessons, but it was good enough for me to ski it and have fun. Tyson looked like he was having fun too.

Then, of course, we had to get back down Tuckermans. Our plan was to go down left gully. It was the easiest of the options that had decent snow and no crevasses, falling ice, or other issues. The problem was that we had a long traverse to get there. The traverse started on the cone of Mt Washington and descended to follow the ridge around to the other side of Tuckermans. Across the flat ridge, the snow had all melted out. This left the slope above the headwall as the only snow covered route. We debated taking our skis off and hiking the trail. That would have meant a large detour and we decided it was not worth the hassle.

Instead, we took the hair raising traverse above the head wall. The snow there is quite steep. Steep enough that carelessness could lead to slipping and falling. Looking down hill, the horizontal band of snow steepened and then fell off. Tyson, myself, and the other skiers were well aware of the cliffs and crevasses over that edge. Another thing that had Tyson and I somewhat concerned was the shadow that had crept across left gully. If it were closer to freezing, the snow would have solidified into an icy slab. With the warm temperatures, we thought it would still be ok.

Albeit with a bit of tension and worry, we made it over to left gully fine. Ahead of us, another skier sent snow flying behind his skis on his way down. So we knew the snow was still soft. The edge of the gully we approached was reasonably steep. The first place I tried was too steep. Tyson ended up in front and just kept inching forward as he could see more snow in front of his skis. Eventually he committed to the last several feet of drop. Once in the gully, he surveyed his options. The top of the gully is steep and surrounded by rocky buttresses. I could tell he was still tense. So he traversed. Then he got his first turn in. He stopped, reconsidered again with a little more confidence, and did another turn. It took him a few more considered turns before he reached a wider space in the gully. Then he looked back up at me standing still out of the gully and asked what my plan was. I confidently declared I was waiting for him to go down a little farther and then I was going to "just ski it".

Well, I dropped in and stopped. So, just skiing it did not quite work. I readjusted my poles because the ravine steepness seemed to call for a lower more aggressive turn. Then I returned my focus to just skiing the ravine. Unfortunately, my first turn needed to be on my weak side. I was committed to not traversing since that would not improve my situation. In the end, the only turn I could get my legs to do was my fall back turn – a stem christie – one of the least elegant turns. I stopped again facing the other way. I still wanted to "just ski" the gully. Now facing my strong turn, I figured it was now or never, so I summoned up all my faith in my new technique and headed off. I made the turn. That put my weight and confidence in the right place that I was able to link the next turn, the one after, all the way to Tyson, down through the wide area, and to the next narrow neck. I turned around to Tyson to grin.

From there Tyson and I swapped leads and photographer duty on the way down. He was skiing pretty well too. By the bottom, I was nothing but grins. I really had just skied it, enjoying the experience for fun rather than constantly thinking about technique. Tyson, however, arrived at the bottom limping. Towards the end he had done something to his knee to injure it again.

We took a bit of a break. Noted the evidence of wet avalanches during the day. Tyson wrapped his knee and then we started the slow careful hike down. Back at Hermit Lake, we put skis on because Tyson though he would be better off slowly alpine skiing down than trying to hike down. It turned out that his slow alpine skiing was about as fast as I could telemark. As we progressed down the Sherburne, the snow got sloppier and heavier. By the bottom it was a mix of open mud and slush. We had to walk a short bit.

Down at the parking lot we ran into folks again and convinced one of them to join us for dinner. Other than Tyson's knee, it ended up being a great spring skiing trip.