It is spring skiing time, but the popular ravines on Mt Washington have been shut due to overcrowding and COVID-19. We decided to explore Castle Ravine which looked promising when we hiked by it in the summer. Searching online for ski reports, I only found one video and a couple tracks on Strava heat map. It seemed like just the place for socially distant skiing.
In case you arrived here on a web search for information on skiing Castle Ravine, here is a picture of the approach from the bottom. The castle has moats. [Edit summer 2020: We hiked the other route to Castle Ravine and concluded you just can’t get there from the bottom.]
Tyson had first suggested we ski Castle Ravine the week prior. That probably would have been a better weekend. That Wednesday it had snowed, the Mount Washington avalanche forecast center was still issuing forecasts, and on the bluebird Saturday, they declared the danger low. That was the day everyone went to Tuckerman Ravine and got it shut down.
Unfortunately, I had been too tired to pack that Friday evening, so we didn’t get up to Castle Ravine until this weekend following a rain storm. NOAA was still promising a few feet of snow once in the woods. The auto road temperatures I recorded on Friday said the precipitation had been above freezing up to 5,000′. At the parking lot, we found no cars. That was good. The upper ravine looked filled with snow. However, at the trailhead, we found no snow. That was annoying. Nearby Crescent Ridge might have better snow, but might also have more people.
At first the trail seemed promising. In the woods there was snow. Then we got to the Israel River. Where in mid-summer we had easily crossed now had too much snow melt and required a few chancy leaps. None of us wanted to try leaping in ski boots. We bushwhacked up the river a bit, but found no crossings. We retreated all the way back out to the power line, hoping the service road would have a ford. The stream was shallower there, but all the rocks were small and covered by water.
We could turn back, but there was nowhere good to ski, and we hadn’t brought hiking boots for dry land. If we pushed our luck crossing streams, we risked being a burden on emergency services, which we definitely shouldn’t do. We finally made up our minds when we both tacitly agreed that we were unlikely to ever come back and try Castle Ravine again. We already knew why no one else had parked here. So we hiked up the trail again, and then started bushwhacking along the stream. Eventually we found a crossing where the stream forked around an island.
The first mile of the Castle Trail gains little altitude. From the NOAA map, I expected skiable snow by the trail junction with the Israel Ridge Path a mile in. We found patches of snow — one patch with bear tracks. But the farther up we went, the sunnier the beech forest floor became, and the snow went away.
The next stream crossing, on the Israel Ridge Trail, had enough rocks for Tyson and I to hop across. Isaac met his nemesis, the slippery rock, and scooped up a ski boot full of cold water. Being properly prepared for the backcountry, I carried spare socks for him and plastic bags. We replaced his sock and continued on. When we turned off the Israel Ridge Path onto the Castle Ravine Trail, the snow started looking promising. I kept thinking it was about time to stop post holing and put our skis on, only to be disappointed by another bare spot. We crossed the stream the third time without incident. We had been four hours since leaving the parking lot and only made it 2 miles. High time for lunch, and maybe some re-planning.
After lunch, we actually put our skis on. Yay! so much easier and nicer than carrying them. I enjoyed the next 0.2 miles until we got to the next stream crossing. The stream had halved in size since we last crossed it, but now it ran fast and deep through a gorge. Buttresses from old snow bridges reached in from ether side. It was impassible. Maybe we could have bushwhacked more, but it was nigh time to turn around to get back before dark.
Isaac and I stripped our skins and gleefully slipped and slid down the rocky-tree lined trail. I even linked a few turns. Tyson opted to be sensible and kept his skins on. Back at our lunch spot, we stowed the skis, skins, and avalanche beacons back in our packs. The hike out went much the same as the hike in. Isaac slipped on the same slippery rock and filled the other boot with water. Luckily I came prepared with two plastic bags. Both Tyson and I thought the snow had melted in the beech forest since the morning. We found our stream crossing bushwhack from the morning and returned the same way. The water was a little higher, yet we made it back across because we had greater confidence in rock hoping in our plastic ski boots.
Had we come a week earlier, we might have been able to ski the first few miles instead of hiking, but who knows if the river crossings would have been better or worse.