Tuckerman Ravine is one of those sublime accidents of nature. A steep-sided cirque carved by Ice Age glaciers on the southeast flank of New Hampshire's Mt. Washington, it acts as an enormous depository for the snow scoured from the summit by prevailing nor'westerly gales. In winter, Mt. Washington is as forbidding as a place can be, known for the "world's worst weather," including the highest wind speed ever recorded-231 mph. But in spring, when the weather breaks, Tuckerman's slopes are a sun-splashed playground. Skiers have been making the arduous trek from the valley since before World War I, drawn by snows that can measure well over 100 feet in depth and steeps that surpass 50 degrees. Nowhere in America is skiing's tradition richer than it is on the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine.
Long popular in the summer, Mt. Washington begins to emerge as a winter playground, especially for students of nearby Dartmouth College. Dartmouth man Fred Harris and two schoolmates make the first ascent of the mountain on skis, using what is now the Auto Road. But it is a New Yorker who makes what is thought to be the first ski trip into Tuckerman Ravine. John Apperson, a noted environmentalist of the day, skis through it in 1914.
As winter visitors anoint Tuckerman Ravine as the best place to ski on the mountain, they begin to push the limits of downhill skiing, climbing up a little ways from the floor of the ravine and using rudimentary technique to hurtle down. About 1928, a wonderful thing happens: State trucks begin plowing the road into Pinkham Notch, shortening the trip to the slopes by nine miles.
No longer the sole province of the wealthy, skiing enjoys a popularity boom. Ski trains from Boston and New York bring masses of middle-class enthusiasts to the mountain, where Depression-era locals embrace the new fad as an economic boon. The decade begins with the first descents of the Headwall by Dartmouth alums John Carleton and Charles Proctor, who master its steeps on April 11, 1931. In ensuing years, numerous races are held, including the legendary American Infernos. A decade of extraordinary activity is fittingly capped by Toni Matt's mad straight-lining of the Headwall during the 1939 Inferno. The young Austrian, unfamiliar with the terrain and thinking the steepest is behind him, lets his skis run over the Lip. He rattles down the Headwall at a terrifying velocity-still the fastest descent on record-but rides it out to win by a huge margin.
With America's young off at war, the slopes grow quiet, but a boy comes of age in Tuckerman Ravine. Brooks Dodge is the son of hut caretaker Joe Dodge. The elder Dodge is lord of the Tuckerman domain: a master with the new radio technology, wise in the ways of the mountain and its weather, affable and in charge, and, by all accounts, no stranger to a well-turned cuss-phrase. Son Brooks inherits his mountain wisdom, plus uncommon strength borne of summers lugging 100-pound supply packs to huts on the mountain. During winter, using increasingly sophisticated equipment, he develops a technique that allows him to ski ever-narrower chutes and gullies. As the decade closes, Brooks Dodge is methodically notching first descents of terrain that remains demanding even by today's standards.
In 1951, a worker's carelessness leads to the fiery destruction of the lovely Tuckerman Ravine Shelter, built in the late Thirties. Fueled by massive timbers, a winter's supply of firewood and the lacquered skis of hundreds of visitors, the fire burns for days, stripping Tuckerman of its only amenity. Never mind; this is the golden age of camping on Mt. Washington. Arriving skiers pitch war-surplus tents, produce hatchets and begin hacking at the adjacent forest for bedding and firewood. Each year, their detritus piles higher, and the deforestation is more visible. Meanwhile, Howard Head arrives at thee mountain with prototypes of his new metal skis, which work well except for occasional blinding flashes of sunlight off their bright aluminum tops.
The Forest Service has a problem: Tuckerman is attracting skiers by the thousands, and most of them lack the basic backcountry-safety smarts demanded by such an unforgiving high-alpine environment. Avalanches and ice-falls are the main threat. Various attempts are made to ameliorate the danger, employing everything from machine guns to explosives. In the end, the forces at work in the Ravine prove much more complex than anything encountered at much higher altitudes in the West, and Tuckerman refuses to be tamed. The Forest Service falls back on a strategy of educating visitors of the potential dangers. To this day, it is thought that as many as 10 skiers have died in the ravine, mostly from avalanches or ice-falls.
The second "HoJo's" shelter burns in 1972, and an Appalachian Mountain Club that is increasingly disenchanted with the irresponsibility of some Tuckerman visitors opts to replace it with a structure that provides only nominal shelter for skiers. No longer can visitors check their skis in the basement of the lodge or buy a cheeseburger at the grill. These are the wild years, and on some weekends the partiers outnumber the outdoorsmen. But the tide gradually turns. The Forest Service acts to limit camping, an environmental movement awakens, and behavior moderates. Deforestation caused by campers ceases, trash is cleaned up, and the landscape begins a slow recovery.
Getting to Tuckerman Ravine has always been strictly a bipedal affair. Now controversy erupts over attempts to mechanize access. There are various plans, employing snowcats, helicopters and even the century-old Cog Railway, which climbs the opposite side of the mountain. Environmentalists resist vehemently, as does the Forest Service. Skiers deposited on the summit will lack knowledge of the terrain and snow conditions, opponents argue, and will find themselves unprepared for situations more difficult than they expected. Such arguments prevail, and mechanized access is banned, though not without a number of testy confrontations. Meanwhile, a new trend in equipment emerges, one that completes a neat historic circle. Skiers are finding that free-heeled telemark equipment makes getting around on the mountain easier, with scant sacrifice of downhill performance on the steeps.
Snowboarding explodes in popularity, bringing a youth infusion to the mountain. Boarders are immediately at home in the ravine, thanks to the comfort of their boots and the ease with which their equipment can be carried up the mountain. Reforestation is nearly complete-even to the point where it has begun to obstruct the ski-ability of the Little Headwall above HoJo's. Winter mountaineering surges in popularity, and snowriders begin to explore new routes on the mountain, visiting in even the coldest months. Many have high-alpine experience gained out West, but Mt. Washington's weather extremes can be far less forgiving than in the high peaks of the Rockies, even though its 6,288-foot summit is far lower than many in the West. Some explorers require rescue.
2000 and Beyond
In a new century, Tuckerman lovers look back on the last as they ponder the ravine's future. There are two camps: those who see it as a valuable recreational resource to be enjoyed by all, and those who fear it is being loved to death and who advocate stricter environmental protection of the area. A fund-raising effort is underway, aimed at continued funding of the Snow Ranger program as well as the procurement of a safe supply of potable water. And in a year of steady snowfall and cold temperatures, the ravine is filling in nicely for a long season of sun-drenched spring skiing.