Beyond Tuckerman

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I splash in my hiking boots through a rivulet of muddy water running across the trail. It was snow last night; now it's running down to the sea. Not all of it, though. Some is mixing with the thin New Hampshire soil to make mud. And the mud is splashing up onto my lower legs. And the reason for this, frankly, is that I'm not riding a chairlift.

You see, this April day, I'm on the Tuckerman Ravine trail. It's the approach to the Plymouth Rock of American backcountry, where it all started, at least in myth. I've been wanting to ski here for probably a dozen years. To be hiking along wishing for chairlifts feels not only like blasphemy, but also like self-betrayal.

I'm here with Marc Chauvin and Jim, a nice guy who, like me, drove up from New York. That's Marc up ahead with the wild black hair, the too-heavy pack, and the tree-trunk legs. I wasn't going to mention this but Marc's a guide. No one uses a guide to ski Tuckerman: The trail's not that tough; puppy dogs, Methuselahs, and pregnant women all hike it every day.

But today, we'll be skiing from the summit of Mount Washington, which at 6,288 feet is about 1,200 feet above the rim of Tuckerman, where most everyone else on this trail will stop. The total vertical drop on this run, from summit to parking lot, is usually over 4,000 feet. Unfortunately, the snow has melted from the bottom couple of miles of the four-mile trail, leaving a mere 3,500 feet or so of skiing.

We got off to a late (my fault) but pleasant start. It's a sunny 10 a.m., and Marc and Jim and I are skinning up the trail, which starts at the Pinkham Notch parking lot at 2,000 feet. The first couple of miles were mud and ice, and I slipped and struggled along in my hiking boots until the snow kicked in. Now we're able to skin up. I have Marc to thank because he has provided Alpine Trekkers, which convert our regular ski equipment into free-heel touring gear (later, we'll ski down with fixed heels).

Around us, everyone else is hiking up, carrying their skis and boots on their packs. That's the way things have been done here for 60 years or more, but Marc is proving a point. If you use skins, the weight is on the snow instead of your back. Marc thinks everyone would be a lot happier if they'd just use climbing skins.

I think, in contrast, that everyone would be happier if they just used chairlifts. Here's a little limerick that I'll compose on the hike down at the end of the day:

There was no chairlift in Pinkham
And I got too tired to link 'em.
My turns sure stunk
I was in a funk
So I'm buying two beers and
I'll drink 'em.

Nevertheless, overhead is a canopy of white birch and spruce, and beyond that a liquid blue sky. For absorbing the white glory of God's creation, the hiking is best when we're in the sun, the blinding snow etched sharp with the black shadows of tree limbs. But the sun is hot, so I abandon the light and skin up the shady side of the trail instead. The cool air moves in shifting tendrils around my forearms and torso. And the skins, I have to agree, are a pleasure compared with hiking -- with skis on our feet we're, you know, skiing. On the trail, we pass a boy, maybe eight, and then his sister, around 13, and both of them are red-faced and sweaty in black ski jackets and K-Mart-style hiking boots. In front is their father, with three snowboards strapped horizontally across his pack. "You're really going to owe him for hauling all the gear," Marc says to the girl, and she smiles a little but looks pissed off.

Finally, we climb up out of the woods into an Ansel Adams ravine. We have reached Tuckerman. Less a bowl than a shot glass, Tuck's is a flat circle surrounded by steep walls. We pull into a clearing, and in the clearing is a large cabin, and attached to the cabin is a big sundeck, and it's crowded.

This is the best ski deck in America. Dogs wander around, and so do some kids. The sun is warm, but there's a cool breeze flowing down off the mountn. One woman with black leather telemark boots and honey-colored hair is leaning against the wall, gently roughing up the fur of her Labrador retriever, who gets up to see what I may have to eat.

I could stay on this deck forever, or at least until beach season starts on Long Island. I'm soaking up the sun and dumbly staring at one of the best mountain views I've ever seen, anywhere. But after half an hour or so, we move on to the runout of all the Tuckerman runs. To our left, we see a gully with a long line of skiers plodding steeply up single file, like a scene from the Klondike gold rush. They're going up Hillman's Highway. Straight ahead, a second line of skiers hikes up toward the Lip, on the right side of a wide, wide, wide face.

There are chutes, too. In New Hampshire no one's pretentious enough to use a word like "chute," though. These are gullies. Among them, wrapping around from the left, are Dodge's Drop, Hillman's, Duchess, Left Gully, the Lip, the Sluice, South Gully, and then Right Gully and Right Right Gully. (The last two names, I believe, are copyrighted by the Dartmouth College creative writing department.)

We take one of the right gullies. We strap crampons onto our boots, pack up our skis and poles, and break out the ice axes. We don climbing helmets and check our avalanche transceivers. We are now dressed for an assault on the Eiger. The other skiers in Tuckerman look like they're ready to ski at Wildcat. I feel like an overdressed doof. But the crampons and all do make the hiking easier.

On the way up, we're passed by some telemarkers skiing down. The snow is perfect, the slope is around 40 degrees or a little steeper, and these guys are ripping. Marc looks at Jim and me, grins hugely, and exclaims, "Not bad, huh!"

At the top of the gully, we come out above the shot glass into a larger world. I'm feeling pretty beat, but my spirits are lifted by thescenery. We're on a broad, flat plateau called the Alpine Garden, which forms a windswept shelf below the white dome of Mount Washington's summit. The Ravine was pleasantly crowded, but up here we're among the few. It's dramatic. We're on the very edge of tree line -- a rotten place to be born a sapling. We hike up to the left, crunching through a thin layer of ice, until the slope starts steeply upward toward the peak.

If the alpine Garden is windswept, the summit dome is wind vacuumed. I lower my head and listen to my nylon clothes flap furiously. It's all got a wonderful mountaineering sort of feeling -- Himalayan, even. But without the hypoxia. We wind our way up through the snowfield, around isolated boulders, and on toward the summit. A short distance below the peak the snow-to-rocks ratio drops. Above here, skiing wouldn't be much fun. Marc and Jim drop their packs and continue on a couple hundred more vertical feet to tag the summit before skiing down, but I want to save the meager juice I have left for skiing. Besides, I was on the peak two months ago. I doubt much has changed. So I stay with the gear.

On a mild day, the wind near the summit of Mount Washington blows around 40 miles per hour. It's a mild day, but I've been sweating. Hunkered down in the lee of a chunk of granite, with my pit zips and everything else sealed up tight, I begin to shiver.

I munch on a mini Snickers bar, and suddenly an image of Beck Weathers pops into my mind. He was that guy from Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air -- the client from Texas who promised his guide, Rob Hall, that he'd stay put and wait until Hall got back from the summit of Everest. Hall never returned, so Weathers sat waiting at 27,600 feet and eventually spent two days and a night exposed, nearly dying and losing his nose and most of both hands to frostbite. Meanwhile, I'm still shivering. I think if Rob, er, Marc doesn't return soon I'll start down on my own.

Marc and Jim return after about 15 minutes, and we laboriously pack up our crampons, attach our ice axes to our packs, and click into our bindings. I follow them down the slope.

I don't know why I suck so bad at skiing Mount Washington. Other times, at ski areas, I ski pretty well. People even tell me so. Those days, of course, I haven't climbed 4,000 feet over five miles, and I'm not wearing a backpack. But now I can't get past the idea that my edges will get stuck as I try to turn, and I'll fall. A quick calculation reveals that in this fall I'll rotate 130 degrees through space, my head and shoulders accelerating through an arc of about 12 feet before impact.

So I tend to lean back and into the hill. I know this is the worst thing to do, but I keep curving around uphill, precariously riding on the back 24 inches of one ski, my quads stretched like overcooked spaghetti. I scoot pathetically across the slope and in among the rocks.

Finally, I skid to a stop and regroup. I decide to get aggressive. I do a big sideslip/jump down the slope to get some momentum and launch a series of jump turns -- totally unnecessary jump turns if I were skiing right, and exhausting, but at least I'm moving. I get in a groove and try to start jumping only into the fall line, and then steering out, and I make some kind of accommodation with my skis and my backpack, until I'm finally making real turns and actually having fun.

Which lasts eight turns down this gorgeous white slope, and then I'm at the bottom, where Jim and Marc are waiting, politely ignoring my performance. We skid and pole across the Alpine Garden to the top of our gully. The gully, it turns out, rocks. Now my little jump turns are working. The vertical is straight and sustained, and with the rock walls on either side, there's even scenery. And down we go, the turns easier than they've been all day, and finally I feel like I'm skiing and I think maybe I even whoop.

We eat vertical fast, too fast, and we're down, back into the wide flat base of the shot glass, with other skiers coming down from the gullies around us. We're ready for a screaming long novice run, broken by occasional bump pitches, down past the ski deck to within maybe a half-mile of the parking lot. I don't turn at all. Can't. My legs are burning too bad.

When the snow runs out, the smell of the mud and grass is sweet, despite my fatigue. Jim and I look up at the crisp white glory of the high ridges against the sky. We were there. And maybe we'll be back. On the way down, Marc described a dozen other great ski runs that are hidden on Mount Washington's flanks.

But I'm especially glad I did Tuckerman. Among New England classics like Ted Kennedy and Plymouth Rock, Tuckerman is clearly the best.k into our bindings. I follow them down the slope.

I don't know why I suck so bad at skiing Mount Washington. Other times, at ski areas, I ski pretty well. People even tell me so. Those days, of course, I haven't climbed 4,000 feet over five miles, and I'm not wearing a backpack. But now I can't get past the idea that my edges will get stuck as I try to turn, and I'll fall. A quick calculation reveals that in this fall I'll rotate 130 degrees through space, my head and shoulders accelerating through an arc of about 12 feet before impact.

So I tend to lean back and into the hill. I know this is the worst thing to do, but I keep curving around uphill, precariously riding on the back 24 inches of one ski, my quads stretched like overcooked spaghetti. I scoot pathetically across the slope and in among the rocks.

Finally, I skid to a stop and regroup. I decide to get aggressive. I do a big sideslip/jump down the slope to get some momentum and launch a series of jump turns -- totally unnecessary jump turns if I were skiing right, and exhausting, but at least I'm moving. I get in a groove and try to start jumping only into the fall line, and then steering out, and I make some kind of accommodation with my skis and my backpack, until I'm finally making real turns and actually having fun.

Which lasts eight turns down this gorgeous white slope, and then I'm at the bottom, where Jim and Marc are waiting, politely ignoring my performance. We skid and pole across the Alpine Garden to the top of our gully. The gully, it turns out, rocks. Now my little jump turns are working. The vertical is straight and sustained, and with the rock walls on either side, there's even scenery. And down we go, the turns easier than they've been all day, and finally I feel like I'm skiing and I think maybe I even whoop.

We eat vertical fast, too fast, and we're down, back into the wide flat base of the shot glass, with other skiers coming down from the gullies around us. We're ready for a screaming long novice run, broken by occasional bump pitches, down past the ski deck to within maybe a half-mile of the parking lot. I don't turn at all. Can't. My legs are burning too bad.

When the snow runs out, the smell of the mud and grass is sweet, despite my fatigue. Jim and I look up at the crisp white glory of the high ridges against the sky. We were there. And maybe we'll be back. On the way down, Marc described a dozen other great ski runs that are hidden on Mount Washington's flanks.

But I'm especially glad I did Tuckerman. Among New England classics like Ted Kennedy and Plymouth Rock, Tuckerman is clearly the best.

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