In the summer Tuckerman Ravine looks like an open gash in the shoulder of Mount Washington. It's a cliff, really, on a scale both breathtaking and humbling, as if the gods had taken a gouge out of the mountain's side. The ravine is creased by a cascading waterfall, the sort of setting masters of the Hudson River school of art used to paint. Hikers surveying the steep rock face in July and August find it inconceivable that it could ever be skied. Belayed, maybe. � In early winter the ravine becomes even more forbidding. Mount Washington is host to some of the most extreme weather in the U.S. It is bitterly, inhospitably cold, routinely lashed by hurricane-force winds (over 74 mph). The highest wind speed ever recorded, 231 mph, was measured on Mount Washington's summit, which at 6,288 feet is the highest in New England. Barren and white, 2,000 feet above the tree line, the crown jewel of the Presidential Range is a terrible and unforgiving host when the snow flies. The desolate half-mile slope between the summit and Tuckerman's lip cannot hold the new snow, which is blown by the howling winds into the ravine, the site of frequent avalanches.
Through January and February, the snow in the bowl deepens. It averages 55 feet in winter and has been measured to a depth of 150 feet. Gradually the sheer cliff, the waterfall and the massive boulders on the ravine's floor become blanketed in pristine white. In this garb Tuckerman comes dressed every spring, transformed into an ivory bowl both beautiful and deadly.
And then Tuckerman's faithful arrives. The migration starts in March, as the days lengthen and the snow softens. In April and May the Tuckerman frenzy reaches its peak. Skiers, ice climbers, hikers, campers and revelers come. Fathers and sons. Husbands and wives. College throngs on spring break.
They come from all over New England, up from New York and New Jersey, down from Quebec. Their reward? A long climb and a few turns down one of the steepest, most dangerous faces in the world. Locals call Tuckerman the birthplace of extreme skiing. A trip over the lip and down the headwall is one a young man or woman will never forget. It's more than a rite of spring. For 70 years skiing Tuckerman has been a rite of passage, a place where New England boys have come to prove their manhood and men have come to remember their youth.
The tradition dates to the 1930s, the early years of recreational skiing. Tuckerman pioneers discovered that when ski areas in the East were beginning to shut down in March, the ravine was just getting skiable. Club coaches began to organize ski racing there. (The first giant slalom event in the U.S. was held at Tuckerman on April 4, 1937) Special trains were organized from Boston, some that rented ski equipment to passengers. Thousands made their way to Pinkham Notch on spring weekends. There were no lifts or rope tows. (There still aren't.) Skiers had to hike the four miles from Route 16, up the Fire Trail, along the Cutler River, to reach the floor of the ravine. The climb, with skis attached to backpacks and poles used as walking sticks, took about three hours.
It was more a mountaineering experience than a ski trip. Early skiers used seven-foot wooden skis with leather bindings, and few would attempt the headwall of Tuckerman. "Considering the equipment they used, it was almost suicidal to go over the lip," says Nicholas Howe, 71, author of Not Without Peril, a book chronicling the recreational fatalities in the Presidential Range. "You were lucky to survive. You had to be either really brave, really good or really stupid. From the top it looks as if you're stepping off the roof of a house."
At its steepest Tuckerman's headwall is 55 degrees, and at no point is the pitch less than 40 degrees. "Put your elbow against your side," says Howe, who grew up in nearby Jackson, N.H., and first skied Tuckerman when he was 17 "Now draw an imaginary line from the tip of your index finger to the arch of your foot. That's 55 degrees."
Going over the lip of the headwall "is like stepping into an elevator shaft," says Rosemary Whitney, 55, who annually makes the trip to Tuckerman from her home in Pownal, Maine. "It's a complete act of faith."
The first descent over the lip was made on April 11, 1931, by two Olympic skiers from Dartmouth, John Carleton and Charley Proctor. A week later three Harvard skiers went from the summit of Mount Washington, down the headwall and all the way to the visitor's center at the base of the trail. Roughly that route was used for the infamous American Inferno races staged at Tuckerman in 1933, '34 and '39, a four-mile downhill covering 4,200 vertical feet. No gates. Just a few flags to show entrants where the lip of the headwall began. In the 1939 race Toni Matt, a 19-year-old Austrian ski instructor, made history when he schussed Tuckerman's headwall the first time he saw it. He hadn't meant to. He'd intended to make a couple of turns above the lip and ski down in control. But he got stuck on his edge and was carrying too much speed to turn. He railed it. Matt finished the course in 6:29, cutting the old record nearly in half. The tracks on the headwall were later described as resembling a giant dollar sign: S curves of other competitors broken by a straight slash made by Mart's schuss. Few have schussed the headwall since.
Today, devotees express themselves in other death-defying ways. Egged on by spectators who picnic on the "lunch rocks" below, daredevils plummet down the headwall on everything from skis to inner tubes to anatomically correct dummies. "Girls in bikini tops and shorts go over the edge on telemark skis," says Howe. "I cringe. You don't want to fall with any skin showing or you'll end up looking like raw hamburger."