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.

1 comment:

Josh Katzman said...

Mr. MacPhail,

My name is Josh Katzman and I am planning (with a friend/training partner) on running a Hut Traverse this Saturday as I prepare for the Western States 100 run at the end of June. We've decided to follow the "MacPhail" route, running up from Appalachia to Madison to start. We're pretty excited, one, for the adventure, and two, to be "chasing your ghost." One question I had is about the route you took from Pinkham to Lakes. Did you take Boot Spur, to Davis to Camel? Any suggestions/advice would be appreciated (

Thanks for all the history/details about this adventure. It's been on my list of things to do for a while, so I'm looking forward to a fun day!

Take care,

Josh Katzman