The original plan was for Tyson and Nik to lead an AMC trip to Tuckerman Ravine. It was mid April, so should have been warm spring skiing.
Not so much. In the week before the trip, the weather was wintry and the forecast for Sunday hovered between snow and freezing rain. The only warmth was Saturday when it warmed up enough to destabilize the fresh snow and then froze solid again by evening. Almost all the trip participants canceled and Nik had a work emergency. That left Tyson and I and two trip participants we didn’t know, Dan and Mark.
On the drive up, the weather started as rain, transitioned to freezing rain, then sleet, then big snow flakes in the Whites. We didn’t know the avalanche danger for the day yet, but we figured there were two options
- Lots of new snow on top an icy surface in which case it wouldn’t be safe to ski any of the ravines.
- Not enough new snow to cover the ice and so risk of sliding falls on steep slopes.
Furthermore, the day before when the snow was soft, hordes of people skied the Inferno race down the Sherburne trail. Regardless of whether there was high avalanche danger or high sliding risk, we wouldn’t be skiing Tuckerman’s, and the Sherburne might be quite rutted. We decided to ski the Gulf of Slides trail instead. And if the avalanche danger was low we could ski some of the lower angle snow fields at the south end of the Gulf of Slides.
We met Mark and Dan in the boot room. Mark was skiing on AT gear. Dan was brand new to back country skiing. He said he liked hiking and liked skiing, so he wanted to try combining them. His plan was to hike up with his alpine skis in his pack. Hiking up is no problem on the packed Tuckerman Ravine trail. The Gulf of Slides trail is soft enough you need flotation — except today it was ice hard, so hiking boots and microspikes worked out.
The avalanche forecast predicted low danger (and had some snide remarks about dreadful conditions). Off we went to attempt the Gulf of Slides south snowfields. Mark seemed to be in the early phases of discovering back country skiing. He had lots of advice for Dan on how to select AT gear, what equipment progression had taken him from Alpine to AT, and which things to spend money on vs which things to try lots of used options first. Mark even pulled out his ski crampons to try them on the ice. Dan soaked up everything Mark said about equipment and everything Tyson and I said about more general back country travel.
The snow transitioned to frozen pellets that bounced off our hats. The snow was the consistency of thick sand paper. The skis could grip and edge into an inch of gritty pellets and snow. If you pushed too hard, though, that layer separated from the ice sheet below. In the morning, the snow and valley clouds blocked all views. By afternoon, we could see around the mountain’s sides, but the peak was still hidden in clouds.
We reached the main slide around lunch time. Another group was hanging out there with food and at least one beer. A few of them had skied the slide and declared it was worth one run, but no more. The main slide is steeper than the south snowfields. It also appeared to have some nasty ice bulges in the middle. We continue on through the woods to the south snowfields. We ate lunch then headed up with a plan to stop before the skiing got unpleasant.
Snow conditions were similar to in the trees. Now two inches or so of solid rough surface over the ice. I could only bite into the top surface with a millimeter of my edge, not enough to ski diagonally and have my skins grip. So I skinned straight up the hill using my best forward weighting. Most of the time it worked, but then sometimes the top layer let loose from the ice and I slid backwards. Meanwhile, Mark noticed a hissing noise, kind of like a small stream, or a sloughing avalanche. We looks all around and couldn’t see anything. Finally we realized it was the accumulated noise of all the little sleet pellets landing and sliding a little. Mark put his ski crampons on and easily crunched up the hill. Tyson put his skis in his pack and hiked up using microspikes. I, unwisely, continued on my skis, but then frightened myself by sliding several times. Then I switched to boots and microspikes. We climbed about half way up the snowfields and declared it good enough. Tyson shoveled out a nice platform for putting skis back on.
The top part of the snowfields was as I expected, not much grip, but just enough to do turns. Then as it flattened out, I found piles of fresh sleet pellets. It was almost like fresh snow, but also kind of like ball bearings. Then we tucked into the trees and zipped down the hill. Mark and Dan set quite the pace. I heard them up ahead whooping and hollering. There were a few thin spots and a few rocks to avoid. And lower down we had to dodge around open stream crossings. The snow was consistently slightly edgeable all the way down. I was quite tired when we reached the bottom.
The following day, someone actually triggered an avalanche in the accumulated sleet/ball bearings per the #mwacenter Instagram post.