Skiing Tuckerman: An Annual Rite of Spring in the Northeast
May. 16, 1992
MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. (AP) _ If you're a baseball fanatic, a trip to the World Series is a must. For football aficionados, it's the Super Bowl. But if you're a hard-core skier living east of the Mississippi, life isn't complete without a run down Tuckerman Ravine - perhaps the most famous non-commercial ski slope in the country.
''If you ski, you always want to do this,'' Chris Carmichael, a senior at Plymouth State College, said last week.
The Danver, Mass., resident, like thousands of other skiers and curiosity- seekers this spring, drove to the base of Mount Washington, hiked three miles, then climbed, crawled and pulled himself up a sheer slope of snow. Including driving, his trek took about five hours.
A hair-raising run down the 1,000-foot ''bowl'' lasts about 60 seconds. The hardiest, best-conditioned skiers might get in eight such runs in a day. Then, exhausted, they must carry their equipment back down the steep grade.
Is it worth it?
''Absolutely,'' Carmichael said.
A trek to Tuckerman is a rite of spring in New Hampshire - perhaps as anticipated by skiers as the return of black flies is dreaded by the general populous.
''It seems like it's passed on from generation to generation,'' said Gary Davis of the U.S. Forest Service. ''Every spring, it's like the lemmings going to the sea.''
Because there are no lifts, skiing Tuckerman costs nothing. But that has little to do with its popularity. It's the steepness, 65 degrees at some places on the headwall at the top, that draws daredevil skiers. For others, it's the breathtaking beauty.
Randy Pittman, a 21-year-old expert skier from Townsend, Mass., said he's never been to a ski area that gives him the thrill he gets at Tuckerman.
''Every run you make is precious,'' he said.
Tuckerman is near the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington, New England's highest peak and home of the highest wind gust ever recorded. The ravine, scooped out by prehistoric glaciers, first was skied in the early 1900s.
In the 1930s, the Inferno Race - a daring competition from Tuckerman's headwall to the base of the mountain - was started. In 1939, skiing at speeds up to 85 mph, Toni Matt set a record that still stands by completing the course in 6 minutes 29 seconds.
The race, now discontinued because of safety concerns, drew widespread attention to Tuckerman, and from then on the ravine's popularity has grown despite Forest Service efforts to keep a lid on it.
''We don't encourage (skiing), but it seems to become more glamorized every year,'' Davis said. ''It's something we have to live with.''
Tuckerman's season runs from about April 1 to Memorial Day, though June skiing isn't unusual. On a sunny Saturday or Sunday, up to 2,000 people will flock to the ravine.
On a recent Tuesday, scores of skiers were challenging Tuckerman. Perhaps 250 more sat and watched from the ''lunch rocks,'' so named because it's where people gather to eat and drink.
A successful run draws cheers from the crowd; a wipeout often brings catcalls.
''I like watching people fall,'' admitted Peter McNealus, a ski coach at Mount Snow in Vermont.
''I make sure they're all right, then I laugh.''
One unfortunate skier was jeered by McNealus and others recently after he skied about 100 feet, lost a ski and tumbled several hundred feet down the slope. Undaunted, he stuck his one remaining ski in the snow, climbed back to where he lost the other, tumbled back down, gathered his equipment and started climbing to try again.
''The crowd is fun,'' Pittman said. ''If you get a supportive crowd, it's great.''
The crowd also warns climbers of possible doom. Shouts of ''ice'' often are heard to warn climbers when chunks of ice break off the headwall and tumble down the ravine.
The shouts sometimes aren't heard or heeded. Every year, several people are injured by tumbling chunks of ice that can be as large as freight car. Others ski into rocks or fall in crevasses. And, occasionally, someone dies after falling backward off the headwall.
''This is not for wimps,'' said Carson Lake, a 36-year-old chef from Pawlet, Vt., who made his first trip to Tuckerman this year.
Davis said about 50 people are hurt each year skiing Tuckerman. Recently, a man skied into a crevasse and injured his back, he said.
As a precaution, every weekend three rangers and six to eight volunteers patrol Tuckerman to keep an eye out for injured skiers, he said.
As it stands, there are few regulations at Tuckerman. No open fires are allowed, and anyone staying overnight must sleep in a shelter or face a fine. Other than that, about anything goes, Davis said.
''We try to educate people about the dangers, and most people use common sense; it's those who don't that you have to worry about,'' he said.
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