A Family Adventure


Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Isaac on Hillman’s Highway

March 21, 2021
Emilie Phillips

Isaac skied Hillman’s Highway from top to bottom this weekend. This gully is just outside of Tuckerman Ravine. It is a 1,300 foot drop with 30-40° slope.

The second bridge

Isaac knows the Tuckerman Ravine trail from Pinkham Notch to Hermit Lake. He is starting to recognize landmarks.

“Is that the Sherburne right over there Dad? Let’s go check it out,” at the shortest cross over on the lower zig zags.

“It’s always windy and cold here,” said to a random other skier at the second bridge, “but today it’s so hot and sunny.”

There were some empty stretches where he couldn’t measure his progress and got bored. But we made it up to Hermit Lake in 3 hours — record time. 11AM lunch on the caretaker cabin deck. We pointed Hillman’s out to Isaac, but he didn’t seem impressed. He was relieved we weren’t skiing the icy crack to the right of Duchess.

Hillman’s Highway

At the bottom of Hillman’s, we pulled our skins, strapped our skis to our packs, and put on crampons and microspikes. Tyson carried Isaac’s skis, getting Dad credit from the onlookers. Isaac wanted to bound ahead of us burdened adults. As it got steeper, I insisted he stay between Tyson and I so I could kick footsteps with my crampons. The prior people had set their boot track up the middle of the ravine — which isn’t very polite — and then obliterated it when they skied back down — which was predictable. I started out on climbers left following some old boot track. Then I transitioned to climbers right where we have historically seen people climb. On that traverse, Isaac slipped.

Isaac had no idea you could slide that fast. He was shocked as the snow and ice slid up past him. Then he heard Dad yelling something. Isaac focused to hear what Tyson was saying.

“Kick your feet in!” Tyson hollered from above, “kick your toes in hard.”

Isaac did, and he stopped with a jolt. Tyson descended to retrieve Isaac’s pole, and then kicked steps for him to climb back up.

At first Isaac was all bravado about the slide:

“That was fun sliding that fast.”

“I only went 10 feet down.”

But after a minute or so of describing his slide to me, he started digging into the facts, and decided the slide had been terrifying. What if the snow had been a little harder and he hadn’t been able to kick his toes into the snow? What if there had been a rock below him? What if the snow under his boots right now gave out?

Getting up to the narrow point

From there up to the top he maintained a cheerful monologue about how how petrified and terrified he was.

“Mom, all those pictures you showed me of Hillman’s, I thought they over exaggerated the steepness. They actually way under exaggerated it.”

“Hey Mom, if you turn around and look down the hill it’s terrifying.”

“This part is really scary Mom because it’s too icy for Dad to kick a good boot hole. Be careful.” Tyson and I had swapped leads because my toes were feeling beat up.

“Is the top soon? I’m getting tired of being petrified.”

And, indeed, we finally made it to the top.

Isaac descending Hillman’s Highway

Unfortunately, the afternoon shadows were creeping across the ravine. Tyson and I knew what that meant, but I don’t think Isaac did yet. We ate a quick snack and turned around. Isaac was first into the fan at the top of the ravine, barely patient for Tyson to catch up. I was even farther behind. Isaac’s enjoyed his first turns. Then he got to where it steepened, and narrowed, and became shady.

What Isaac didn’t know, but quickly learned about shade, is that sun softened snow turns ice hard after about 5 minutes in the shade. It doesn’t smooth itself out first. All the lumps and ruts and nodules of spray left by previous skiers were still there. This steep, hard snow, was terrifying for real. No more joking.

Tyson coaxed Isaac downward with the advice that if he could make one turn, then stop, he was making progress. Us parents leap frogged each other. One would stay behind Isaac to reassure him he wasn’t last. The other would ski ahead a little distance as the next goal post. One time, a bit below the 15 foot wide pinch point, Isaac caught up to me for a hug and rest. He was shaking. His voice caught in his throat when he said, “I don’t ever want to do this again.”

My heart plummeted. But he took another turn and headed down towards Tyson. Later, he told us that before every turn, he was thinking to himself, “I can do it.”

Twenty or so other skiers passed us while we descended. They all hollered encouragement to Isaac. A few of them even praised us as awesome parents. Bit by bit Isaac made it down to the bottom third. Then he was in his element. The pitch lessened. The snow was still soft. He says he did an accidental Telemark turn when no one was looking. And he definitely did a 360 pirouette to show off right after Dad fell in front of the gathering at the bottom.

We finished off the day with a run down the Sherburne. Isaac declared it felt as easy as a green run. The skiers in the parking lot relaxing on their tailgates recognized Isaac and hollered “Way to go!” “We knew you could do it!” “Awesome kid!”

And Isaac asked “can we ski Tuckerman’s next weekend?”

More Notes

Isaac’s part of the day was the real highlight, but there are a bunch of other things I want to remember about the day.

The day before, we had checked out the conditions in Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and Monroe Brook. (Photos here. Post TBA) I had hoped to go explore the East Osceola Slide today, but Isaac’s attitude for more uncertain tromping around wasn’t looking good. The forecast for Sunday was shaping up to be a perfect spring day. We switched to the Sherburne/Hillman’s/Tuckerman Ravine area. There we could get some good skiing even if Isaac dragged his feet. Tyson has wanted to take Isaac to Hillman’s for years. (See the impetus, and the Gulf of Slides trip in preparation.) We told Isaac he had one job in the morning — get out of the hotel room by 6:30AM so we could get to Pinkham Notch by 7:30AM and hopefully get a parking space.

We got to Pinkham at 7:20AM. People were parking (illegally) on the highway by 7:40AM. We didn’t wait for the 8AM avalanche bulletin, but headed straight up the hill.

The crowd headed up the Tuckerman Ravine trail was different than I’ve seen previous years. Was it was earlier in the season than we usually come or something different about this year? We saw 5+ families with kids Isaac’s age or a little older. Were there always 8-10 year olds hiking up and I just didn’t notice because Isaac was 4? Or is this a COVID thing? Regardless, it gave Isaac and I more people to talk to. We even recruited one family to join our AMC ski trip next weekend. I also got advice from parents whose kids have long outgrown them.

A snow ranger who passed us said in past years most people carry their skis. This year almost everyone is skinning. That’s definitely a COVID thing. Back when Isaac was 4, we got to see the whole wave of people hiking up the hill. First the fast ultralight skiers, then the regular back country skiers and the fit alpine skiers, then the infrequent skiers, and finally the really out of shape people huffing and puffing hopelessly. This time, I was pleased to see we settled at the back end of the regular backcountry skiers. It was a mix of average fitness people carrying skis, and AT skiers with older heavier style bindings. I even assisted one Telemark skier who I noted was struggling with 22 Designs Vice binding — a front country binding — “Hey have you pulled the pin”? He said it was much easier once the pins were removed. We still beat him to the top.

On the way up, I picked up bits of the avalanche forecast from the other skiers who left the parking lot later. It seemed the forecast was still moderate despite Saturday’s warming and a warm forecast today. The short snippet of the forecast posted at Hojos didn’t give us much more details. However, the ranger did. They were slightly worried about the south facing slopes which might turn mushy in the sun. Hillman’s would be a perfect objective since it gets less sun throughout the day.

Crampons in action

I mentioned crampons above. This was Tyson’s and my first time using these crampons. We also had new ice axes which we have never used. Tyson bought them after seeing an axe used in a rescue on his last Hillman’s trip. We weren’t sure whether to use the ice axes on the way up, or just use our poles like normal. We used our poles. After the fact, I can say the crampons were great. And we probably should have used the ice axes too for even more security.

I told Isaac’s slide above from his perspective. I was in front, so I didn’t notice him sliding until I heard Tyson’s shouting. By the time I turned around, he was sliding slowly enough (on the scale of sliding falls) and there weren’t any rocks below him, that I was pretty sure he wouldn’t die. Tyson was seeing our skiing day end right there and us having to descend to the bottom to collect a freaked out kid. Luckily it worked out. Isaac only slid about 40 feet. Tyson now has a pair of mini crampons on order.

View back down the ravine

I wish I knew exactly why we ended up at the top too late. Some of it is that us two adults were slow going up. Not enough bicycling recently. Some of it is that we took a lazy hour long lunch at Hojos. Some is probably that we detoured out of the ravine in one section where the ravine looked too firm for Isaac’s micro spikes. Building our own boot ladder was slow. It would have been unequivocally excellent skiing if we had gotten to the top 40 minutes earlier.

Skiing down, Isaac fell a few times. Each time he was very prompt flipping his skis below him and stopping his slide. He sounded proud that he’d learned how to do that.

Chunks of ice piling up on Emilie’s ski

I mentioned the icy nodules in the shade. When we skied on them, or other skiers came from above us, the knobs broke off and went rolling, bouncing, and flying down the hill. They pelted Isaac. I was enough taller so most of them rattled and pinged against my skis and boots. A few flew close to my face. A whole raft of them turned into a mini avalanche near the bottom. Luckily it didn’t go far.

Most of the folks who skied down after us were coming from Left Gully. They said they had climbed up Left Gully, but didn’t like the look of it for skiing back down. Too icy, I think. Then later we met up with someone else who had climbed part way up Left Gully, only to retreat when someone ahead of them took a long sliding fall. The Rangers news bulletin from Sunday mentions several skier falls, and then goes on to describe ice climbers who got into even more trouble.

Links

  • Tyson found the youtube video taken by the person flying the ultralight overhead. If you know what to look for, you can spot Hillman’s at times. And at the end there’s a very good fly over the mass of cars parked on the road.

All Photos

GPS Track

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