Thursday, May 24, 2012

5-24-12 Tuckerman Ravine: June 17, 1969

I want to go back once more and briefly to Tucks because Memorial Day weekend is upon us and it is THE iconic holiday celebrated faithfully and for decades in Tuckerman Ravine. To be able to ski over the Lip on Memorial Day is a marker for an exceptional, truly great snow year. I don't have statistics handy to list the years when it was possible to ski over the Lip this late in May, but the photos below are from mid-June 1969, which was a record snow year on Mt. Washington and it was possible to ski the Lip into the first week of June. The first two photos, the one above and the one below, were taken in April 1984. The first one is of Tuck shelter by moonlight with Boott Spur in the back ground.
This photo of the bowl was taken a few seconds after the one above. It was bright enough to hand hold the camera while I exposed the Tri-X for 1 second.  

This is what the bowl looked like on 6-20-69 from the First Aid Cache. The quality of the following black and white photos is not great. I took them "on assignment" for the Associated Press (AP). I'd finally graduated from college and had my first full-time "real" job as rookie reporter for a great newspaper, the Rutland Herald, in Rutland, VT. and I conned my editor, Harry Levins, into letting me use a Herald news car to report on the record snows on Mt. Washington which, in reality, was an excuse to head to New Hampshire and play in the Ravine for a day. The negatives were developed in the newspaper's darkroom (43 years ago!) so not developed archivally and haven't held up well. They weren't wiped either so have a lot of spotting.

The December 1969 Appalachia contains a long, well documented chronicle of the 1968-1969 snow fall which was remarkable in many respects. It began in November with unusual heavy snows all over the north country. The total for November at Pinkham Notch was 35 inches with 66.5 more inches falling in December. In February 130 inches fell creating a total on the ground of 164. At the summit, the Observatory, measured 49.3 inches of snow that fell in one 24-hour period on February 24th. That storm continued for another 91 hours dropping a total of 97.8 inches, another record (for a single storm). Guy Gosslin, Chief Observer at the "Obs" at the time wrote, "beside providing the necessary snow for the rerunning of the American Inferno, the storm caused avalanches on many trails and slopes including Tuckerman Ravine, Ammonoosuc Ravine, Lion Head and Great Gulf." (Guy's remark about the American Inferno is similar to the remark I made in the last blog piece that an Inferno was run in 1969, but, if memory serves me correctly, they changed the name before the race was held. I may be wrong, though.)

There were three of four people skiing in the center of the headwall. Left Gulley had no run-out. The snow was decent; worth the trip, but my guess was that they're motivation was more about them being able to brag they skied in June.  I brought my skis up from Tuck shelter and took a couple of last runs for the year. There was still patches of snow here and there at the beginning of July that a few people tried skiing on.
Looking straight up at the Lip from Lunch Rocks with sizeable crevasses opened and more starting to open as the snow slipped down the headwall. The Lip actually looks like you could ski it in this photo but after I climbed up closer you could see where the crevasse edges were crumbling so I decided discretion was the better part of valor.
The Lip looked a bit ferocious when you got right up to it.
Dead jay that probably got lost in a storm and froze to death.
The run out was in excellent condition for June; long and wide.

In another blog entry this month I noted that in the 1960s it was permissible to camp in the lower part of the Ravine specifically around Hermit Lake and behind the shelter but not in the Ravine or near any of the ski and hiking trails. The restrictions were loosely enforced. You can see a small tent city in the lee of the trees on the shore of the lake.
Looking up at Boott Spur with Hillman's Highway running diagonally down right to left and Dodge's Drop coming down the center of the photo from the ridge.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

5-14-12 Tuckerman Ravine: Other Perspectives

I found this black and white photo a day or two after I posted the 5-5-12 Tuckerman Ravine blog piece. This discovery then led me to find photos from 2001 thru 2006 that I thought I lost when my hard drive crashed. This photo was taken in mid April 1981 from the center left Headwall, just below The Chute, with an excellent view of the Lip as well as some of the summit snow fields. You can trace a "line" with your eye that skiers follow down from the summit and over the Lip to the headwall and floor of the Ravine.
In 2006, I accompanied Sheldon Perry (center of photo looking at camera) on an excursion that led us up Boott Spur and around and above the rim of the Ravine and down Right Gulley. Sheldon, who is a phenomenal skier and a former star of the Dartmouth ski team is the official course setter for the most recent Inferno ski races that have been held for the past two decades either on Hillman's Highway or in the Ravine. Hillman's is the wide gulley in this photo that slants down towards the left behind "HoJos" (an older nickname for the Tuckerman Shelter). Up in the Ravine the Inferno race courses have been set in Left Gulley, or, the preferred route when there's enough snow, of coming down over the Lip from the upper snowfields into the bowl. Modern Inferno races have been shorter than the 1933, 1934 and 1939 Infernos that ran from the summit to the base of the mountain, a 4.6 mile-long course. The1952 Inferno ran from the snowfields above the lip to the floor of the Ravine. My comment in the entry two weeks ago that the 1982 Inferno was the first since 1952 may have been wrong. In the big snow year of 1969 a race was held on the Headwall that everyone referred to as the "Inferno" but due to a snag, possibly legal, about using the name "Inferno" it ended up being called something else, maybe the Not-The-Inferno Ski Race. The lesson at the time was that the younger generation had to respect the traditions of the older generations

Our first stop as we circled around was at the top of Dodge's Drop which, from this angle, appears to be a sheer downward plunge to Hillman's Highway. You can make out Tuck Shelter and Hermit Lake down there.  I skied "Dodge's" for the first time in 1963 and was surprised to find it easier than what my fears had been telling me. However, I found that just before that tricky first turn there's a rush of adrenalin and the vivid sensation you're about to die.

The top of Dodge's Drop with the summit cone of Mt. Washington in the back ground. There's  a small cornice in this photo compared to some years when the top of the ski runs on Boott Spur will have huge arching cornices reminiscent of ocean surf that braver skiers than I have cut holes in the cornice they then ski through in a low crouch so that before they can make the first turn they've already picked up a lot of speed and are heading straight down.

Looking West towards Mt. Monroe in the foreground with North and South Twin in the middle distance and Mt. Lafayette and Franconia Ridge in the background.
Above the Ravine looking east towards Wildcat Ski area, Carter Dome and Maine.
A lunch party just above the Lip. The Ravine is to the left and the summit snow fields to the right. To give you an idea of the scale that's Sheldon standing dead center in the photo, just above the Tuck Jct sign, looking down slope for the possibility of setting a course from the upper snowfields down over the lip. The question is whether the snow on the lip will stand up to the wear and tear of a ski race.
Getting down towards the Lip itself and looking back up to the rim.  In the various stories distilled over the years about Toni Matt's legendary run in the 1939 Inferno in which he took a spectacular run on wood skis with 1939-period bindings straight down from the upper right hand corner of the photo,over the Headwall, all the way to the floor of the Ravine without making a turn. You can grasp the full import of that in the photos below. Toni clarified several times that, being the second runner on the course, the track was still "clean", meaning the 4-5 inches of soft powder snow that fell the day and night before the race had not been packed down yet and had filled the lower part of the bowl in such a way that it acted like a "cushion" that tempered his rapid descent. Sheldon is in the upper right hand corner of the photo still ensconced in finding a potential line for a challenging course. I'm not sure but I think the final decision was to set the course in Left Gulley for the 2006 Inferno.
A bottleneck on the Lip. Skiers approach the lip and stop here to plan their descent. Skiing down over the lip was a "rite of passage" for all of the up and coming young, local skiers in the Eastern Slopes region. I remember my first time when, after skiing down from the summit, I was pertified and stopped right at the top of the Lip and froze there. Carl Blanchard, who was escorting us was just above me and close enough to give me a little shove that got me moving again. If he had not, I may have been there still, unable to go up or down. As it was, I was able to collect my wits and ski it nicely although I took some long traverses to get down to Lunch Rocks where there was a reward of a couple of gulps of cold beer with a traditional Ravine lunch of saltine crackers with thick slices of extra-sharp cheese. Beer, and testosterone are major ingredients of life in the Ravine.
The Lip and center Headwall from the top of the Sluice.
Looking down at Lunch Rocks from the Sluice.
The bottom of the bowl from the top of Right Gulley.
Looking back up at the Lip from Lunch Rocks. It's here that Toni Matt began to feel more confident about his decision to ski the Headwall straight. He said if the snow was chewed up as in this photo, like an old washboard,  it would have been an impossible feat. He said he probably would not have had the strength in his legs to withstand the repeated shocks on the uneven surface as he descended the the floor of the Ravine at more than 60 miles per hour as he headed for the Little Headwall. Dick Durrance, who won the 1934 Inferno and ran the 1939 race a minute behind Matt, told of a close call he had in a ski race in the Ravine when he found himself picking up a lot of speed descending the Little Headwall, then losing control for a second, going off the trail, plowing head first into a balsam fir tree, that bent over backwards on impact and snapped him back onto the race course (like an elastic band).
Looking up at the Sluice (center right) and the Lip (center left) from the floor of the Ravine.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

5-5-12 Tuckerman Ravine Pilgrimage (additions on 5-14-12))

Tuckerman Ravine has been pulling at me since mid-winter. There was a time when I was there every weekend and holiday from February to June all the way through the 1960s and part of the 1970s. In the early 1960s it was permissible to camp around Hermit Lake and and across the Cutler River towards Boott Spur.  We'd set up a tent in our favorite spot and use it on weekends. On Friday nights  dozens of skiers headed up the Fire Trail in the dark, or moonlight, to get an early on the weekend. There were parties every night (the French Canadian contingency often playing host) we'd ski (or ice climbing) all day rain or shine (or blizzard) Saturday and Sunday. I was second generation. My parents had spent weekends skiing there for years and years. I was 5 the first time I climbed up tp the Ravine. It means that for 64 years I've been hiking to Tucks pretty regularly. It's in my blood. Liz, my daughter, and I have had a number of false starts the past few months. We were finally able to get up North and on the Fire Trail Saturday morning, 5-5-12, for a quick trip without skis or snowboard; just a camera and mainly to say hello to Johannes and to document the snow levels in the Ravine and surrounding snowfields.

The Cutler River, which drains Tuckerman Ravine, sounded like a freight train Saturday morning as it pounded down towards Pinkham Notch fed by snow and ice that's melting from the recent spate of warm weather.
The morning started out a bit dreary. Pinkham Notch was closed in by fog and everything was grey. The Fire Trail is not my favorite trail. In some ways it's the "death march" thing, that and having hiked it, run it, and crawled parts of it close to 2,000 times. That's not really something I'm proud of and I mention it in passing as a way of saying, "I know every dam stone in this trail."

I think you get the idea.

Having company helps with the tedium. This couple was originally from Marseille, France, and now they're living in Montreal, PQ. It was their first time on Mt. Washington and they were aiming for the summit.
A veteran Tucks skier who's been skiing the Ravine for about 20 years gleefully on his way up.
I refer to this section of the Fire Trail as Moonlight Serenade after the Glen Miller Orchestra theme song because the stretch of trail is so lyrical on nights in the winter and spring when the full moon is so bright and you stop in your tracks to look around at the sparkling ridges and summits and listen to the incredible silence. In the photo the summit of Mt. Washington is straight ahead and has snow on it (and a little to the left next to the tree ). The narrow ribbon of snow below it is Raymond Cataract.
This was quite a group. I got the impression it was a single family and they were on their way to Tucks for the day. They're resting on Third Bridge which is about 3/4 of the way up to Tucks. It's become fashionable in recent years to spell it as "Tux" when refering to Tuckerman.
A remnant of snow hugs the shady side of the trail.
Another hiker making a day trip to the summit.
Up over a small knoll and here's your first glimpse of the "bowl". It's still a thrill. I would be embarrassed to say that if I didn't know I am one of possibly thousands of people who are strongly attached (and dedicated) to this place for its natural beauty and uniqueness and for all the friendships that were fostered here. It's home to a lot of skiers and mountaineers. 
We got to the shelter just as the morning mist was clearing off. The shelter is the current home of Caretaker Johannes Grieshammer and his assistant, Tom, who were both busy Saturday hooking up the water line to the kitchen (hot water!) after a winter of hauling buckets of water a couple of hundred yards from the hand pump.

There wasn't much traffic when we arrived. The early birds were already skiing up in the bowl and the groups on the sun deck were gearing up for the mile long hike up to the Ravine or the two mile hike to the summit.

The trail to the Ravine passes through a haunted forest before beginning a steep ascent to the First Aid Cache at the mouth of the Ravine. It's a strenuous climb that offers ample rewards like this view of Boott Spur and (below) a great view of the Carter-Moriah Range with Carter Dome rising in the middle.

It took me a second to grasp the large area of fresh gravel and boulders in the bottom left of this photo and then I realized that it is part of a slide started by the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene back in August of 2011. It's clearly a huge amount of debris that came down Hillman Highway and the more vertical gullies, like Dodge's Drop, that plunge down Boott Spur towards Hillman's. Dougy Dodd was on Boott Spur the day following Irene. He hiked up to Lakes of the Clouds and came back down through Tuckerman Ravine and commented that it was hard to imagine how vast the volume of water was that poured down the mountain during the storm but the slide gives you a good idea. That is a lot of tons of sand and stone.

No matter what you think or how young, or fit you feel, packing to the Ravine is toil, purely and simply. Every person who strains up this grade probably wishes, however briefly, for the existence of a chair lift.
There have been a few discussions over the years about developing the mountain as a commercial ski area but no plans were ever drawn up. The argument against was the awful weather that the mountain is famous for and that could easily devour inexperienced skiers on the upper slopes. It is unlikely, if not assuredly impossible, that the mountain will ever be developed as a commercial ski area.

Skiing the high, steep slopes, ravines and gullies in the Presidential Range requires expert skill and above-average strength both of which are best served, not with ski lifts, but by climbing. This skier's expression says it well. He's dog tired; leaning on his poles and gulping for air but his eyes are on the prize that's just over the next rise, or maybe the one after that.

This could be the trail to Shangri La.

Liz has got the bouldering bug and has to stop at every rock to test her skill.
The view from one of the boulders included the Carter Range, again, and a better view of Wildcat Ski Area in the center of the photo where you can see very small patches of snow that are left on some of the trails. It feels odd, so early in May, to see no snow anywhere below 4,000 feet.

To be continued....

Since the 1920s Tuckerman Ravine has been a place where skiers come to enjoy a challenging mountain run but many also come to cut their teeth and push themselves to their limits in both courage and steepness as a means to test their mastery. Many Olympic skiers have developed strength and style here over the years and the Olympic trials were even held here in the 1950s.
This spring the best skiing has been in Left Gulley. You can see a number of skiers coming down. The Chute is to the right and you can see skiers hiking up. No two years are alike in terms of the distribution of snow in Tuckerman. It depends on local weather events; wind primarily. Some storms come in from the southeast (as the major storm of early February 2010) or from the north, northwest, etc. An important facet of snow accumulation in the bowl is that big storms do dump a lot of snow, but it is the wind raking across the slopes above that contributes the most snow. Another facet is that the March and April are often the months with the most snow accumulation here.

Looking up at the center left headwall. Two US Forest Service volunteers are in the foreground. The forest service has developed a very effective public outreach program in which they try to talk, at least briefly, with everyone that comes into the bowl on a given day to point out where it's safe to ski, where the ice looks sketchy, etc.. This effort has reduced accidents by 80-90 percent. Each spring the amount of snow and the length of time it lingers is a signature of the past winter. In mid-June 1969 the Ravine looked like in does in these photos. The longest period of time the snow has lasted that there records of was in the fall, winter, spring, summer and fall of 1926-1927. The Snow Arch was still standing in late September 1927 but regrettably, to some, the snow completely melted in a warm October. For the "some" there's eternal hope that one of these years some snow, even a few shovels full, will last a year so we can yell that the glacier is back.

Looking up at the "Lip". In 1969, 1996 and again in 1999 the lip stayed open into late May and early June. In 1996 I hauled my skis down the Fire Trail for the last time on June 14th. The volume of snow is important for skiers but so is the texture. Ideally, cold nights and clear, cool days sustains the snow the longest and is the wish. Fog, as in low clouds, with a wind tends to eat snow faster than any other single element. Rain is second and intense sun, hot days is third.

As has already been reported in this blog Tuckerman Ravine is a glacial cirque. It has attained a great deal of notoriety for the skiing/snowboarding but also as an iconic glacial feature. The bowl shape is the cue. It was assumed to be a glacial cirque more than 100 years ago and I believe it was in July, 1879, that William Pickering, a Harvard geologist, made a perfectly straight line with large and even- sized rocks across the entire bowl about 2/3 of the way up the headwall. He observed and measured them every day as long as the snow lasted. The experiment demonstrated that the stones were carried down the wall and that the ones towards the center moved faster than those on the wings. This was his proof that a glacier could have carved Tuckerman.

A skier coming down in the center of the Ravine with the rocks of the actual "headwall" towering above him. After Pickering, it took another 70 years before geologists were pretty much in agreement that Tuckerman, and several other ravines and "gulfs" are true glacial cirques and that they were carved by small, local, alpine glaciers that resided here for hundreds of thousands of years. The local, alpine glaciers were overridden tens of thousands of years ago by the last continental ice sheet, the "Wisconsinan", which also contributed to the present shapes of the cirques. The other cirques delineated include Great Gulf and Madison Gulf (possibly one glacier between them), Huntington Ravine, King Ravine, Castle Ravine, and a small cirque-like formation in Oakes Gulf. The cirques occupy the east and north facing slopes of the Presidential Range because of the directions of the prevailing winds.
So the prevailing winds of a specific winter determine, along with the amount of snow that falls, the amount of snow in the ravines. The winter of 2011-2012 has been one of the lightest snow years on record and it shows in this photo taken midway up the headwall looking up towards the Lip and the huge slabs of rocks that are exposed.

This and the 3 following photos were added on 5-14-12 for readers who have never been in Tuckerman Ravine to ski or hike and hopefully these photos will give a better sense of the steepness of the headwall and what it's like to be on the Headwall itself. The above photo was taken near the top of Left Gulley in 1984 near the end of the day. The shadow on the snow in the foreground is a signal that the sun is leaving the Ravine and it's time to descend as the snow will begin to freeze and will be difficult to ski in. On those hot, sunny days in April and May, by mid-afternoon, the snow turns into heavy "mashed potatoes" which are also difficult to ski in.

Looking from Right Gulley across the headwall at the continuous line of skiers hiking up to the Lip. This gives you an idea of how steep the center of the bowl is. The Lip, where the skiers are climbing towards, is a bit steeper. Skiing over the Lip gives you the illusion that you are skiing vertically but it's actually only about 60 degrees but steep enough. There are some gulleys that are  steeper and certainly one of the draws of both the Ravine and a few of the skiable gulleys on Boott Spur are the "steeps". Dodge's Drop and the Duchess are two steep runs that are popular on Boott Spur. In the Ravine, the center rocks on the headwall and the Sluice are also challenging. Many of the skiers in this photo will continue on above the lip to take a few runs on the summit snow fields before skiing down over the Lip into the bowl. You can tell the age of these photos because there are no snowboarders in the Ravine. By the early 1990s they'd be everywhere in the Ravine and gulleys. 

A racer in the 1982 running of the Inferno ski race in Tuckerman Ravine tries to navigate in thick fog. This and the photo below were taken on the Headwall a few minutes apart during the first running of the Inferno since 1952. It would be a serious omission if I didn't mention the Inferno as it's yet another feature of the Ravine that has made it world famous. In the 1982 version of the race it started on the snowfields above the lip and ended in the bowl. In the first running of the race, in 1933, it started on the summit, descended the summit snowfields to the Lip, then over the Lip, down the Headwall and across the bowl to the Little Headwall and down the Sherburne Ski Trail to the AMC's Pinkham Notch Camp (Appalachia, June 1933). You can get the idea why the "Inferno".
(Photo: A racer in the 1982 Inferno wipes out.) The 1933 Inferno was well attended and it was decided to hold the race again in 1934 (when it was won by Dick Durrance a young Dartmouth skier) and again in 1939. In the 1939 Inferno one skier, 19 year old Toni Matt, made history by taking the Headwall on a straight course (afterwards the race blamed it on a miscalculation) and, being the first person to "schuss" the Headwall, was able to keep control of his skis all the way to and then down the Little Headwall and on down the Sherburne. He finished the run in 6 minutes 29 seconds cutting the best time in the 1934 Inferno in half. It was an amazing feat by any standard. In 1982 the race was shortened and gates were added so that racers would be forced to stay in control and none would be tempted (or able) to win fame and fortune by following in Toni's tracks. Toni worked winters in the ski shop  at Carroll Reed's in North Conway and in the early 1950s, when I was a kid there, Toni could still enthrall his admirers, including this writer, with animated retellings of his history making schuss down the infamous Headwall. The Inferno was attempted one more time, in 1952, but course was shortened and not the same summit-to-bottom race because of bad weather.
This is the area of the Headwall that has a fatal charm. It is certainly not the only source of deadly missiles of ice but it is the primary one. Ice building up on the rocks in the late fall and early winter of the preceding year begins to melt and insolation warms up the rocks as they emerge from the snow pack in the middle to late spring. The Forest Service has spent a great deal of effort over past decades in mechanically controlling the ice fall (as in shooting it down when there's no one in the Ravine, as well as educating skiers, snowboarders and hikers, the exact dangers presented by the ice. I was present in 1959 when a skier was hit by a large piece of ice very close to where I was standing when I took this photo last Saturday. The skier died while being carried down to the road. I have also witnessed, and taken part in umpteen rescues, skiers getting hit by falling ice and/or sliding headfirst into the rocks and sustaining fractured skulls, punctured lungs, broken appendages, etc. It is one of the hazards of skiing in Tuckerman and, of course, to some it makes skiing in the Ravine more "fun" or macho. The forest service is to be given much credit and applause for their successful efforts in decreasing deaths and severe injuries (all injuries) in the past 20 years.

Getting closer to the lip. At this point a basketball-sized chunk of ice whizzed to my left. When ice breaks from the rock it sometimes make a loud cracking sound like a rifle but sometimes it doesn't. There is usually someone watching vigilantly who yells the alarm "ICE!, ICE!" with the location of the track it is taking. Sometimes skiers out race the ice but I've watched helplessly as skiers ski right into the path of the falling ice. The ice picks up incredible speed so it makes it difficult to sit and think what the best evasive action might be. You kind of have to move on instinct.

In this photo, where I was lying on the snow to take it, the main item is the water that was seen cascading down over the lip, emerging here for a moment before descending down across the floor of the ravine under the snow pack. It's a lot of water, but also a hot day, or becoming a hot day. Where I was lying I could hear the roar of the water a foot, or so, below me under the snow and ice. It's a bit eerie.

Here's that bowl shape, a definition of a cirque, in the two opposing walls curving down to the Little Headwall. Just sliding around in our boots, called boot skiing, was great fun. The snow was perfect in texture. One good thing about the snow this year is the long runout from the headwall across the floor of the Ravine which increases safety a lot. In all of the above photos of the Ravine I am struck by the apparent density and height of the vegetation, the alders and birch and in some places balsam fir. It is just conjecture but it seems to be denser and taller but maybe the lack of snow depth gives it that illusion.

Liz inhaling the smell of balsam.
The Ravine is host to a lot of interesting characters who each have a story or two to tell about a close call or a particularly challenging ski, or ride, down a stretch of steep snow. One wonders where the truth begins and ends during some of these tales. The tales I like start by the teller asking you how long you've been coming to the Ravine each spring as a way of finding out what you might be willing to believe and how far he, or she, can stretch it.
It was great to see Johannes Griesshammer, the Tux Caretaker, and to hang out for awhile. The last time we crossed paths was at Zealand back in October 2010. He was at the new Madison Hut last summer (2011) where he served as hut naturalist. We've been sharing interest in several things: geology, glaciers, bushwhacking, and the origin(s) of the northern forest which add up to endless discussions.
Tom, Assistant Caretaker

The trail down.

Vortex of icy water in the Cutler River at Third Bridge. I dare you!