Man has put a road and a cog railway up the mountain and has built hotels and a weather observatory on its summit. Washington's winds have given those guys in the observatory plenty to think about: In 1934 they had a 231-mph wind—the strongest ever recorded anywhere on the earth's surface. Early this year the Mount Washington area claimed its 93rd life, the majority of the victims having succumbed to exposure and avalanches. The mountain continually sends the message: You can try what you like with me, but I don't often cooperate. A hard-core mountain. And Tuckerman is anything but the soft core of the mountain; 5 skiers have died in accidents and falls there since 1943.
There were a hundred people entered in the '82 race—men, women, even a few children. One with as hard a core as any was race director Chris McAleer, 36, an insurance broker from Massachusetts. He had wanted to ski in an Inferno. That dream had died: He was on the sidelines with a knee injury. He would still run the show; he'd still go to the summit and judge conditions and work on the course. And because he was no longer a prospective competitor, he concentrated all the harder on being a race director.
McAleer's first duty was to decide whether there would even be a race. "My emphasis from the start has been to hold the race only if the weather allows it to be done safely," he said. On Thursday, April 15, 48 hours before race time, several racers were in the ravine checking the headwall and the snowfields that would hold the gates. There was high avalanche danger, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and the headwall did slide that afternoon, burying five skiers, some up to their chests, and sweeping away the skis and poles left stuck in the snow. "If there's anything but low avalanche danger on Saturday," said McAleer, "I assure you we won't go into the ravine."
The word spread in the mountains Friday—skiers at Wildcat and Cannon were all talking about the slide at Tuckerman. "They'll never hold that race tomorrow," said one, basking in the bright sun that makes spring skiing elsewhere in New Hampshire so delightful. "I don't know," said another. "I hear they have permits for this weekend only."
That was true. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land, had allowed the race committee a three-day window. If Saturday proved unsuitable, the event could still go on Sunday or Monday.
The organizers, trying to put the avalanche out of their minds, met on Friday evening. Saturday's schedule, perhaps the most hopeful document that insurance man McAleer ever photocopied, was passed out. The program was outlined, from the crack-of-dawn departure of the snow cats through the noon race start to the 5 p.m. awards ceremony.
Saturday dawned clear, but before the first cat departed at 7:30 a.m., an overcast had set in. Climbing the fire trail, the cat passed skiers—actually hikers now, with their skis clamped to backpacks. Many were down to T shirts or were going bare-chested and were using their poles to help them climb up the hard-packed trail. As the cat got farther up the mountain and the stream of hikers continued, it became clear that some of them had started out at six, maybe even five in the morning. And there would be no small crowd in the ravine. Competitors were bringing rooting sections, party lovers were bringing provisions and all were packing a load of curiosity. It had been more than a decade between Infernos, and a new generation was anxious to see if it could dominate the mountain.
As the first snow cat came out of the forest at the end of the fire trail, its riders saw a gray fog in Tuckerman's bowl. Hundreds of cheerful skiers were plodding into the ravine, but the mood on the cat turned grim as McAleer and others realized there might be a serious problem with the weather. It was just before 9 a.m.—three hours before race time—and conditions were starting to disintegrate. "The winds are picking up," McAleer observed, peering at the mountain as his cat made its snorting run at the ever-steepening slope.
On Washington, wind is to be expected, and this breeze seemed unexceptional at first. It gusted to 50 mph in the bowl; several hikers were knocked down by the suddenness of it. Still, it wasn't the wind in the bowl that was cause for worry. The summit was the problem. The word from above Tuckerman's lip was that it was blowing steadily at 70-plus. That was a daunting fact, but even at that the wind was within limits—barely.
To see just how tough the conditions were. Perry got out of the cat and hiked up the north side of Tuckerman's bowl, past Lunch Rocks, where the early competitors were awaiting orders to ascend to the summit. He continued on and over the lip, and then his spirits sank. The snowfields and summit cone of the mountain were a white moonscape aswirl in heavy gray fog. Perry started across the mountain, figuring that if his summit starting point was being wracked by the wind, perhaps he could find a more sheltered one in the snowfields. He knew that if they couldn't ski up here, there would be no Inferno today. Three-fourths of the race was to take place before the skiers shot over the lip and into Tuckerman; a few gates on the headwall just would not do.