Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By JOHN CHRISTIE
For some of us, the ski season never really ends and we can't pack our gear away for next season until we take those few last turns in the soft corn that remains on New Hampshire's magnificent Mount Washington.
For years a few of my hardy (some say foolish) buddies and I, despite increasingly vocal protestations from our better halves, pack up and head the surprisingly short distance to get in that one last day of skiing in late May or, as was the case this past week, in early June.
A drive of only three hours from my midcoast home gets my Camden cohort, Sam Appleton, and me to Pinkham Notch, where we join up with the LaCasse brothers, John and Bill, as well as Sugarloaf legend Don Fowler, WSKI exec Jeff Dumais and ace photographer Don Watson, who chronicles what he characterizes as "six old fools pretending to still be young."
For years and in the case of some of the aforementioned, decades, this sojourn is an annual rite of spring that only infirmity or death is destined to interrupt, although I must admit the terrain we now tackle is slightly different from years gone by.
By that I mean that the traditional 2.4-mile slog up to Hermit Lake and then the additional ascents have been replaced by a drive up the Auto Road nearly to the summit and a scramble down a few hundred yards to the dependable patches of snow that last well into June in the East Snowfields.
Easier to get to than the Ravine and offering slightly less pitch -- although more than ample to get old (or young) hearts pumping and blood racing -- the Snowfields meet the requirement of enabling us to add one more day to our ski season. A season, in the case of Fowler, for example, that ended on this trip at 161 days, whereas I had logged only about half that number. Still plenty, says my wife.
Tuckerman Ravine is actually an expansive glacial cirque that creates a natural bowl into which the prevailing -- and considerable -- westerly Mount Washington winds dump on average a snow pack of 55 feet that remains until July.
Thousands of diehards take the trek annually to test their skills while multitudes also go just to watch in awe -- and sometimes in horror -- those who attempt to negotiate the 40-to-50 degree pitch where, as the saying goes, "You don't fall down ... you fall off!"
The New England Ski Museum in Franconia, N.H., tells us that the first recorded skier in "Tucks," as it's called in the vernacular, was John Apperson of Schenectady, N.Y., in April 1914. Later, two Dartmouth skiers, John Carleton and Charlie Proctor, negotiated the entire headwall on April 11, 1931.
In the years to follow, annual Harvard-Dartmouth slalom races were staged, as well as Olympic tryouts. In 1933, Ski Club Hochgebirge proposed and held a 4.2-mile race from the summit to the Pinkham Notch base, dubbing it the American Inferno. Run again in 1934, the race garnered global attention in 1939, the year of Swiss Olympian Toni Matt's daring schuss of the headwall that set the never-to-be-broken record, cutting nearly in half the winning time of the previous Infernos.
The race has been reborn in recent years as a pentathlon, featuring an 8.3-mile run, a 6-mile kayak race down the Saco River, a 19-mile bike race north through Pinkham Notch, a 3-mile run/hike up the Tuckerman Trail and a 1-mile ski/hike giant slalom to the floor of the ravine.
If you're planning a trip in the next few weeks, or a visit in future years, remember that Mount Washington has -- and creates -- its own, unique environment and weather vagaries. Over the years, our crew has been confronted with rain, snow, sleet and 80 mph winds, as well as the rare sun-drenched 80-degree day. No matter what the forecast, bring warm, waterproof garments as well as sun screen.
You can be assured that your first trip, or your 50th, will be a late-spring skiing experience you'll never forget.
John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at: