Emilie Phillips updated June 27, 2019
This story starts long before the three of us stepped into our skis and shouldered our packs Sunday morning at Pinkham Notch. It starts on a brilliant blue Saturday in April, 2017 when Tyson and I skied Hillman’s Highway, a gully just outside Tuckerman’s Ravine. That day, we met a six year old and her father skiing Hillman’s.
“In two years,” Tyson mused, “Isaac could come have fun spring skiing with us.”
Tyson was so eager to share Mount Washington with Isaac that, a few weeks later, we brought Isaac to Hermit Lake even though he didn’t have backcountry equipment. Tyson carried Isaac’s alpine skis and boots, and Isaac hiked. Hundreds of people passed us hiking up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. At Hermit Lake, I kept staring up at Tuckerman’s Ravine, wishing I could go pit myself against the brilliant white steepness. For Isaac though, descending the moguls on the Sherburne was fun enough. For weeks afterwards he told everyone that he had skied Mount Washington.
This Sunday morning, we were headed to the Gulf of Slides, a less traveled destination on Mount Washington. Tyson helped Isaac into his Telemark bindings and I adjusted Isaac’s poles to the right length. A first time split boarder and his two friends set out ahead of us. The weather wasn’t as good as I hoped. Disks of clouds clung to the top of the surrounding mountains.
Isaac first skinned up a trail December 2017 at Cardigan. Tyson had bought Isaac little kid skis, 75mm Telemark GRex boots, and customized G3 Targa bindings for his birthday (through Telemarkdown). My Dad donated his old skins to be cut down to fit Isaac’s skis. Thus equipped, we thought Isaac was ready to tackle the classic AMC introductory trail, Dukes ski trail at Cardigan.
“Skinning is how we get up the big mountains”, Tyson explained, “with the really fun skiing.”
Us adults did several laps on the open slope at the bottom of Dukes before we could even get Isaac to go up once.
“This is no fun,” Isaac retorted, “Skiing with a chairlift is better.”
Tyson and I were frustrated. We needed Isaac to practice ascending on small trips before he could possibly attempt Mount Washington. Yet the smaller the mountain, the less motivated he seemed.
Motivation is still an issue. The night before attempting Gulf of Slides, we let Isaac stay up late to watch the evening program at Joe Dodge Lodge — a video about skiing Tuckerman’s. Isaac set a good pace for the first mile up the Gulf of Slides trail. The people who passed us congratulated Isaac on how well he was doing. Isaac cheered up when we caught back up to a group that had stopped to rest.
About a mile in, Tyson had seen an uphill shortcut. Two other skiers were about to turn onto the shortcut when we arrived.
“How is the shortcut”, I asked them.
“Steep”, one of them said, “and switchbacks”.
I looked at Isaac, “do you want to try it?” I asked.
“Yeah!” he said, his eyes smiling at the idea of a challenge.
Uphill motivation isn’t the only challenge for skiing Mount Washington. It’s also steep to ski down. Not long after our failure to get five year old Isaac to ski uphill, we spent a week at Big Sky in Montana skiing alpine bowls with a chairlift. The very first day, he skied Liberty Bowl from the top of Lone Peak. Sustained 30° ± slope according to https://caltopo.com. Later days he skied steep trees and moguls.
Tyson’s original goal for Mt Washington had been to take Isaac skiing on Hillman’s, but Hillman’s Highway is narrow and sustained 40°. The Gulf of Slides south snow fields are wide open, like Liberty Bowl, and the slope mostly 30 degrees, except for a brief steeper section at the top. I was also quite fed up with trying to get Isaac up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. We had towed Isaac up once when he was five, and failed to get up to Hermit Lake twice already this winter. If we could succeed at Gulf of Slides, we could come back another weekend for Hillman’s Highway. The Gulf of Slides trail has the added benefit that you ski up what you are going to ski back down.
“This is going to be fun to ski down” Isaac said several times pointing to the moguls on the main trail.
After our success at Big Sky, we tried a compromise trip. In March of 2018, we invited a family Tyson knows from his work — Marco, Betsy, and their two younger kids — to ski the back side of Wildcat. For this trip, you take the chair lift up to the top of Wildcat. Then you ski into the woods, down to the Jackson ski area. We paused at the top of Wildcat to point out the ravines on Mount Washington to Isaac and Marco — Gulf of Slides, Tuckerman’s, and Huntington.
“Doesn’t that look fun?” Tyson asked Isaac.
“Maybe,” Isaac shrugged. Then he turned back to playing with the kids.
“If you got AT skis and skins”, Tyson ribbed Marco, “you could come with us to Gulf of Slides. Even with your alpine gear, you could hike up to Tuckerman’s.”
The route off the backside of Wildcat is mostly downhill. There are a few places where you have to pole along a traverse, or herringbone up a rise. Isaac loved it and loved skiing with other kids. At the end of the trip, we all agreed to organize a Mount Washington trip that spring.
Then it rained one weekend, making it too miserable to ski. And snowed the next, sending the avalanche danger up to moderate. Until finally it was soccer season for Marco and Betsy’s kids and hiking season for us.
For Gulf of Slides, Sunday, it was just the three of us starting at the parking lot. However, Chris, a participant on Tyson’s AMC trip to Livermore Pass, planned to join us on the trail. He arrived at Pinkham after we had started, but Tyson figured he could easily catch up.
Part way up the shortcut, Tyson realized his mistake.
“I had better ski ahead to the main trail,” he said, “or Chris might pass us while we are still on the shortcut.”
Isaac didn’t try to keep up with Tyson, but he did try to keep up with the other adults on the shortcut. He almost managed too. We came out onto the main trail ahead of the group with the split boarder who had left the parking lot at the same time as us.
Back in February, when we took Isaac to Crescent Ridge — a much shorter mountain with a much easier approach — Isaac hadn’t been so willing to skin up. Both trips he had a temper tantrum 100 yards from the car.
“My skis won’t go!” he had wailed, “I want to go cross country skiing at Jackson.”
He had shoved his poles into the snow to demonstrate he couldn’t even push himself forward, but his alpine baskets just sank into the snow. I finally got him to move after a big fight with Tyson.
Oddly enough, once we got to the steeper trail near the top, Isaac happily climbed straight up.
After the trip, Tyson discussed the ski problem with Isaac.
“We only get to bring one pair of skis on a trip”, Tyson explained, “Would you rather bring your Telemark skis so you can have fun on the downhill, or would you rather bring your cross country skis?”
“Telemark,” Isaac said glumly, “but they won’t slide!”
“Would you like a pair of skins that don’t grip as well but slide better?” Tyson asked.
“Yes!” Isaac thought that was a good idea.
Tyson bought some Black Diamond Glide Light skin material and made Isaac a brand new set of skins. Isaac has twin-tip skis, so Tyson put two rat tails on each skin. The whole setup is lighter than the patched together Ascension STS skins Isaac had been using.
My Dad helped out with the poles. He shortened an old pair of adjustable poles with powder baskets.
Gulf of Slides is Isaac’s first time on the new skins. He said they glide much better and still stick the same amount.
We caught up with the first time split boarder again at a gully across the trail. I skied around the washout. My new tech-toe bindings released as I tried to make the sharp turn. I guess that’s a good thing because I was torquing them hard. In this case, I wanted them to stay put. So I set both skis to non-release mode. I added a mental note to my descent checklist to put the bindings back in releasable mode.
Tyson skied the same route as me and his ski released too. He put his skis back on, but stayed in releasable mode. They popped off two more times before he too changed mode.
Isaac decided to go straight ahead down the gully and back up. The split boarder attempted to go around like Tyson and I had, but fell down to the bottom of the gully with Isaac. Both of them slipped when they tried to climb up. Tyson and I, and the split boarder’s friends, yelled the same instructions:
“Get your skis flat on the snow.”
“Firm pole plant behind you.”
Isaac made it up the hill first.
We found more steep sections farther along the trail. Isaac seemed to get better and better at skinning as we went along.
Even though we failed to ski Mount Washington with Marco and Betsy last year, mid March this year, Marco e-mailed Tyson:
Is there a weekend coming up where you have anything fun planned? We are tentatively trying to get a group together to go up Tuck’s on April 7th (weather permitting, schedules permitting, etc etc…).
Saturday April 6th, Tyson was scheduled to lead an AMC trip to Amonoosuc Ravine. Tyson’s parents had said they would watch Isaac Saturday so I could ski Amonoosuc Ravine too, but they are in southern NH. By the time everyone sorted out logistics and schedules, we had reservations at Joe Dodge Lodge for Saturday evening, I had bowed out of the Saturday AMC trip to watch Isaac, and Marco and crew couldn’t make it because of soccer.
Worse, bad weather moved in and it snowed Friday night, bringing the avalanche danger back up to Moderate. We hoped the partial sun and warm temperatures forecast for Saturday afternoon would stabilize the new wind slabs.
Tyson took his group to Livermore pass. His day in the southern Whites was warm and sunny. So he was optimistic. A couple of his participants asked if they could come with us to Gulf of Slides on Sunday.
Isaac and I went lift serve skiing at Cannon. We never saw the sun. The top of the mountain stayed buried in a cloud all day. I was pretty sure the snow on Mount Washington couldn’t have stabilized. I didn’t want to enter avalanche terrain unless the Snow Rangers forecast 100% stable snow. I have taken one avalanche course, and that was enough to convince me to stay away from any avalanche risk.
Sunday morning during breakfast, the avalanche forecast came out. Low danger. There had been less snow Friday night than forecast, and enough warmth Saturday to penetrate the new snow. Warming throughout today should soften the old icy surfaces. Later in the day, as it got sunnier, there was a low chance of small wet sluffs.
Tyson said “great!” and started texting his participants from Saturday.
“But”, I said, “Isaac is small and low, shouldn’t we worry about the afternoon sluffs?”
Isaac looked worried.
“It’ll be fine,” Tyson said, “The snow rangers are talking to front-country skiers who haven’t a clue. And besides, there will be plenty of triggers skiing the snowfields before we arrive.”
“Are we going to lunch rocks?” Isaac asked, still concerned, “I don’t want ice to fall on me like they said in the video.”
Mid-morning, the sun came out from the clouds over the Wildcats, which made me smile. The lenticulars hanging over the valley started to dissipate. Unfortunately, Isaac’s motivation was also giving out. We had climbed for a long time and yet, we were still on the same trail winding through the woods.
“Can we turn around now?” Isaac asked several times, “It’ll be fun enough to ski down the trail.”
I knew Isaac could hike up to the south snowfields. Tyson was getting increasingly frustrated because he knew it too. But Isaac had begun to doubt himself. Better, it seemed to Isaac, to turn around now and enjoy the fun skiing below us, than to toil on endlessly for a goal he couldn’t reach.
Tyson and I had some practice getting Isaac up a long steep climb. In February, shortly after the Crescent Ridge trips, we took Isaac up the Cog Railway. That time my parents and Cheri came along to help. Isaac’s goal was to reach Jacob’s ladder, but about half way up, he had been ready to give up. My Dad had helped him break the remaining climb into achievable mini-goals. Cheri had chatted with him and distracted him from the climb. Tyson kept him company for the early climb, but got too frustrated later. I practiced patience, but firmly insisted we keep going. We had reached Jacob’s ladder at 4pm and skied down in no time.
This time we only had Chris to help, and he did chat with Isaac for a while. Tyson tried harder to be patient.
“Is that lunch rocks?” Isaac asked on our first view of rocky Boott Spur. “We can turn around now. I don’t want to go to lunch rocks where ice might fall on me.”
“Are you sure there are no avalanches today?” he tried for another excuse when we turned a corner for our first view of the slides.
I convinced Isaac to make up knock knock jokes with me.
“Knock Knock”, I said.
“Who’s there?” asked Isaac.
“Woo”, I said.
“Woo who?” asked Isaac.
“Woohoo skiing is fun!” I answered.
We only came up with a few knock knock jokes before it devolved into “Banana who?”
Tyson and I were feeling the itch to just go! At adult speed, we were almost to the first slide. But Isaac was now stopping and moping every few steps. Isaac made a rule that if Tyson stopped, Isaac could come get a hug. Isaac got about four hugs before he went back to moping.
It was past noon by this point. Isaac said he wasn’t hungry, but I decided to try a food game. Every time he caught up to me, he could try to snag a bit of dried apple or jerky from my hand. That carried us to the main slide.
“I don’t think there has been a major avalanche this year”, Tyson remarked, “the trees aren’t bent over or snapped off.”
Despite no evidence of avalanches, there was plenty of snow. Isaac skied over the top of the lower first aid cache, wondering why they built it so low. We chatted with a few folks at the bottom of the main chute. They said conditions were great, nice and soft. The bottom of the main chute had grown in. We crossed it and bushwhacked through the woods to the south snowfields.
“Are we going” Isaac asked, “to the top of the fun skiing?” He had just caught his first glimpse of the south snow fields and was smiling.
“Yep!” I grinned.
We ate lunch tucked into the trees to stay out of the wind. By the end of lunch Isaac was grumpy again. Why wasn’t there anywhere to sit? Did he have to put his rain paints on? Couldn’t we just go home now? Even with all his jackets on, he complained he was cold.
Since I had watched Isaac Saturday (and was still a bit grumpy about missing out on Livermore Pass), Tyson suggested I do a lap on my own, then meet him and Isaac as they climbed up slower. I was unsure of my route finding and my ability to identity unstable snow, so at first I stayed with them. Eventually, Tyson convinced me I would be safe on my own, so I set off.
I climbed as fast as I could, and my body felt great. The wind wasn’t cold any more. Such a big view and warm bright sun. All during my climb, there was no one else on the snowfields, but there were tracks from previous skiers. I followed a skin track that zig-zagged up a middle ridge, and then traversed to a slope of krumholtz below the Glen Boulder Trail. Traversing across the open snowfield, I felt the softness of the fresh windslab turning mushy in the sun. I slipped a little. Some of the ski tracks had small sluffs underneath of them, and I saw fist size roller balls. All of these are signs of instability, but everything was very small. Small even compared to Isaac.
I looked back down. Tyson and Isaac had barely moved. The small spec that I guessed was Isaac seemed to be lying on the ground, tangled up in a tree. Even Chris had given up waiting for them and was making his own way up.
I had my eyes on an untracked steeper bulge in the middle of the snowfields. I broke off from the established skin track in the trees and set a fresh diagonal across the bowl up to Glen Boulder Trail and the bulge. I had to be careful with my edging. If I edged too much, my skins slipped. If I edged too little, I sheared the fresh snow off the firmer layer underneath. At the top of the ridge it was windy, and most of the ridge was still hidden in clouds. I didn’t pause long enough to need a jacket, but just quickly ran through my descent checklist. Then I took one last look at the infinite view and slid over the edge of the bulge.
I found Tyson and Isaac on the middle ridge where I had skinned. Isaac was lying on the snow a bit below the skin track.
“He won’t go”, Tyson grumped, “he just flails and throws himself on the ground. I’m about to give up and go home.”
Tyson was in a sour mood. So close to the top of the Gulf of Slides, and yet so far from his goal of a fun day spring skiing with Isaac.
“I can’t do it,” Isaac protested, “my skis keep slipping.”
As if to demonstrate how much he couldn’t do, he made a halfhearted attempt to get up and rolled himself farther down the hill.
First, I gave Tyson a hug. “I’ll help you get him up”, I reassured Tyson.
“If you come back up to the skin track,” I then told Isaac, “I’ll give you a hug too.”
Isaac grudgingly climbed back up to the skin track. We had a long discussion about how I was sure he could make it to the top, that I would stay with him and Dad this time, that Dad really wanted to ski with Isaac, and everything else I could think of to cheer him up.
While we were talking, some skiers zipped down the snowfields. We heard them hooting and hollering well above us, “woohoo!”
“That’s the woohoo zone up there,” Tyson told Isaac, “I want to go ski the woohoo zone.”
The skiers were silent for a bit as they traversed our ridge, then they let out a few more exclamations of “woo!” in the flatter snow below us.
“But we are already in the woohoo zone”, Isaac objected, “we could ski down from here.”
“No, we are just in the woo zone”, Tyson countered. “Come on please.”
Isaac agreed to try again. He and Tyson started up the skin track. Isaac immediately slipped sideways.
“See Mom,” Isaac complained, “I keep slipping.”
“That’s because your skis aren’t in the tracks”, I explained, “if you really want to get up, you have to place your skis exactly in the track.”
He aimed his skis more carefully, and then started making good progress. I put my skins back on and followed after. The skin track switch backed at a steep spot.
“Emilie, can you stand below Isaac?”, Tyson asked me, “to make sure he doesn’t slip on this turn.”
I stood below Isaac, but there was no need. He executed the step turn perfectly. When we crossed the open bowl, I showed him where I had slipped. Isaac didn’t slip. That made him smile. Then we saw a group below catching up to us. One of them messed up the steep turn and slid down on his belly. That made Isaac smile even more. By the time we were zig-zagging up through the krumholtz, Isaac’s confidence was back in full force. Chris passed us on his first run down. He said he would climb back up and catch us at the top.
“I want to ski the steepest part over there”, Isaac told me, “near where you skied.”
Even a happy Isaac gets distracted. We stopped so he could admire the rime ice melting off the krummholz and falling tinkling onto the snow. Then he got the idea to knock more ice off with his pole to watch it fall.
“Isaac,” I said, trying to keep my patience, “do you see how many trees there are with rime ice?”
“Yeah, lots”, he answered, “so no one will mind if I knock the ice off them.”
“Do you know how long,” I continued, “it would take you to knock the ice off all these trees? We would be here until summer!”
“Oh”, he thought about it, “ok.”
In the time since my first lap, the wind on the ridge had died down and the clouds had entirely lifted. Perfect day.
6 hours after we left the parking lot, Isaac arrived at the top of the Gulf of Slides south snowfields. And he was happy. Chris passed around celebratory chocolate.
Now that Isaac was at the top and looking down over the edge, he changed his mind and wanted the easiest line down. For those of you who haven’t skied steep open bowls, as you look down, you see the snow getting steeper and steeper, and then it drops away and you can’t see anything but the valley below. This is part of why you should skin up what you plan to ski down.
Tyson and I agreed on a plan. I would ski ahead with my big camera lens, and Tyson would coach Isaac down. They picked the wide ravine north of the bulge. Chris headed off at his own speed. I skied down the bulge again. As I had feared, the bulge was now in late afternoon shadow and the snow was starting to get crusty. Tyson and Isaac’s chosen route was still in the sun.
At first, Isaac made nice, short radius turns. Then he found the hill was getting much steeper, and in fact still disappeared from view. That was too scary for him, so he traversed to his left. Eventually, Tyson convinced him to do a stationary turn and traverse back. The two long traverses got Isaac down over the apex. Now he could see the snow all the way to the bottom. He tried skiing one hesitant turn. That worked. Then another. Then a few all together. Tyson followed after. They both fell, about even with me and my camera. Then they discussed routes again. Behind me looked easier than continuing where they were.
I repositioned myself farther back and lower to get more photos. We regrouped two thirds of the way down.
“At first it was really scary”, Isaac told me as soon as I caught up, “but then I got used to it and I started doing turns, and now it’s fun.”
I wanted another lap of fun. Isaac was happy to go down and Chris was already at the bottom. So Tyson, Isaac, and Chris went back via the bushwhack. They had to put their skins on to navigate the woods. Meanwhile, I headed up full speed for a final run down the main chute. I knew I didn’t have time to climb to the top, so I aimed for two thirds of the way up. At first I followed existing skin tracks in the sun, but I made a last long diagonal on my own in the shade. I had to be extra careful setting my skis into the crusty snow. I hoped the main gully would still be sunny when I got there, but to my dismay it was completely shaded.
I stripped my skins and clicked into downhill mode as fast as I could to beat the solidifying snow. On the ridge where I stood, the snow was crunchy but skiable. I decided to stay out on the ridge rather than ski into the unknown conditions in the main gully. Farther down where the main gully flattens out, I would enter it. Not two minutes after I had charged my way up the hill, I headed down.
My legs didn’t do anything. The skis just went straight. So I stopped for a minute to give my legs a pep-talk and hopefully get them some oxygen. Then I continued down. My legs skied some nice turns for a bit, but then I had to give them another pep talk.
The other three arrived at the bottom of the main gully as I started down. Isaac wondered why I kept stopping. I enjoyed my solo lap. Three laps was enough and it was time to head home.
We let Isaac lead the rest of the way down, provided he agreed to wait occasionally for the adults. Isaac zipped off ahead. The moguls and trees were as good as they had looked on the way up. Tyson and Chris took up the rear with legs burning and needed ever more frequent rest stops.
45 minutes after we left the top of the south snowfields, we were back at the parking lot.
Tyson was so proud he scooped Isaac up in a big hug. Then Isaac lay on the snow grinning at the world.