Despite the obvious evils of summer-deadly heat stroke, warm beer, no snow-I try to deal with it like a Zen guy. When in summer, paddle a canoe, ride a bike, take a swim, hide in the underground bunker-remember, it’s going to end. But one morning last summer, I finally snapped.
It’s already 80 blazing degrees outside when I call my friend Gaga and scream, “Let’s go skiing!” For years, Gaga has been trying to drag me to Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire. I’ve always told him to buzz off. I’ve heard too many deadly stories about that place. The first was when I was in high school. My friend Jon’s brother went there, Jon reported, and lost his down parka, which had cost him $300. Why? Because he was sitting at the bottom of the bowl eating a sandwich when some guy came flying down, hit a rock, and cracked his skull open. You could see his brains. Jon’s brother used his $300 coat in a futile effort to stop the bleeding. The guy died.
True story or high-school ski legend? I don’t know. But I like being alive. On the other hand, as the bumper sticker in my home state of Maine declares: “Summer Sucks.” I figure when Gaga and I get up to Tuck’s, I’ll just make a few sissy turns and that’ll carry me over until Sunday River fires up its snow guns around Halloween. So three hours later we’re hiking up Mt. Washington, skis strapped to our packs forming big V’s overhead, plastic telemark boots on our feet. It’s August 4. And I’m nervous.
Tuckerman Ravine, below the shoulder of Mt. Washington, is shaped like half a coconut shell. It fills up with the snow that eddies in all winter and holds on longer than anywhere in the East. Thanks to Tuck’s, a pair of New Hampshire fanatics have skied every month for years. But today we only see hikers in shorts and T-shirts. As we pass them on the trail, they look at us like we’re escaped circus animals. Eleven hundred times we hear, “Are you going skiing?” To a group from a boy’s camp I reply, “Nah, we’re just carrying our skis to look cool.” To a guy with a Nike swoosh tattooed on his biceps (and he’s looking at us funny?) I explain that carrying skis over your head improves radio reception. When someone asks, “Is there still snow up there?” Gaga says, “Nope. We spray our skis with silicone and ski on the rocks.”
Even at altitude it’s flaming hot. I down three quarts of water, and my head still pounds. Across the valley, the trails on Wildcat Mountain are entirely green. When we reach the bowl, we see and hear dozens of little streams running off the rocks and flowing under the snow, creating ominous crevasses and snow bridges. Two young guys from Vermont are hiking up and skiing down over one snow bridge that is only about two feet wide and six inches thick, a foot of air beneath it. If it collapses under them, they’ll fall 30 feet and crash into the boulders below.
Gaga, who’s been a Forest Service ranger and an Outward Bound instructor, also happens to be a registered nurse. (I never travel in the backcountry without my own private nurse.) He tells them they’re risking death, but they say, “No no, it’s fine.”
When I say to Gaga, “This doesn’t look as hairy as I expected,” he laughs for several minutes. Then he points to a boulder the size of an SUV on top of the snow. “See that? I was up here in April when that fell from up there.” He points to a rock band near the lip of the bowl.
I don’t want to be crushed, but the sight of that corn snow has me jonesing to ski. I follow Gaga up the snowpack. Now I can see why he’s been laughing at me: We’re kicking our toes into the soft, corny snow, and our knees are nearly connecting with the slope at the same time as our feet. When we’ve climbed as high as we dare, it’s so steep that I realize that if I don’t properly plant my feet, I’ll roll right to the bottom. But I have to try. I click into my skis and look down.
Big mistake. Our patch of snow is surrounded by ferns, moss, skunk cabbage, grass and a lot of large, vvery sharp rocks. It is definitely a “no-fall zone.” It’s been four months since I last set an edge on snow. How do I do this again? Gaga makes a few very nice jump turns, and I figure, what the hell. I follow. And live. All day long we aren’t able to take long runs-about five jump turns to gravel, then skis off, and climb back up again. The snow is wet and dirty, not knee-high powder. But it’s skiing.
As we trudge back down at sunset, Gaga, who is something of a Zen guy himself, says to me, “The measure of your ignorance is your belief in tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the universe, the master calls a butterfly.” Which is to say, hey, summer is nothing more than very early pre-winter.