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This is the story of an event that didn't happen. But that isn't to say this is an uneventful story. There were events all right, several of them, and dramatic ones, too, having to do with courage and daring on a dangerous mountain. This is the story of those occurrences, and of one the mountain wouldn't let happen.
First there was a geologic event. About 40,000 years ago the glaciers covering the northeast quadrant of what would become North America receded, leaving scarred ridges and valleys in what came to be northern New Hampshire. The White Mountains emerged, of which the highest, at 6,288 feet, is Mount Washington. The east side of the mountain had three deep bowls—glacial cirques—carved into it. They're called Great Gulf, Huntington Ravine and Tuckerman Ravine.
To the delight of the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, the glaciers' handiwork is generally well-suited to tourism: scenic flumes and skiable slopes. But Tucker-man definitely isn't among nature's gifts to tourists. It is deep and steep and hard to reach. Two-and-a-half miles west of the base of the mountain the ravine begins, extending as flat, as a floor toward the mountain for 300 yards and then rising as steeply as 55 degrees in a concave wall. When you're in the ravine, faced with the headwall, neither the summit nor the base of the mountain can be seen. There's only a huge, rocky amphitheater in view. Tuckerman in winter is even more intimidating. It gets an accumulation of 60-65 feet of snow annually, and winter winds often exceed 60 mph.
Among the things most people don't readily do in such a place is ski, but for a daring few the challenge is simply irresistible.
There was a ski trip to the ravine in 1913 by three adventurers from Dartmouth College. But after that, few tried it until the late 1920s. Tuckerman's allure grew in the '30s as equipment improved, and in 1933 the inevitable happened: A bunch of experts assembled at the summit and said, "Let's race." This was no "beat-you-to-the-bottom-for-a-Michelob Light" stuff, this was serious business. The event was called the Inferno after the formidable race course in Mürren, Switzerland. That first Inferno became a marathon of sorts. Once the skiers reached the ravine's floor, they continued down the fire trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club's base camp in Pinkham Notch, a total of more than four miles. The club's Hollis Phillips won in 14:41.3. The next year, America's best skier, Dick Durrance, reduced the mark to 12:35.0.
The Inferno was not raced the next four years because of a lack of cooperation from the mountain. The weather was treacherous—snowy, windy, foggy, icy—and hopes to make the race an annual event faltered and died. But in '39 at Inferno time, the mountain was in a glorious mood not evident before or since. Bright skies, hard snow and cold temperatures beckoned 44 skiers, among them the famed Toni Matt of Austria. He hadn't skied Mount Washington before, and later he would claim that was why he did what he did. There were 4,000 people watching from the sides of Tuckerman's bowl when Matt left the summit. He came hurtling across the upper snow-fields and then, to the horror of the crowd, he went soaring over the lip and took the headwall in an 80-mph schuss: no turns, no edging, no braking. As Matt disappeared down the newly cut Sherburne Trail, the spectators gasped in wonderment. Matt finished in 6:29.2, nearly halving the record. He said, "On the way up, I thought I would make a few turns on the headwall. When I came over the lip, the snow looked so good and smooth that I asked myself, 'Why not?' I just spread my skis and let go."
Traditionalists will claim that Matt's was the first and last true Inferno run, but there have been Infernos since 1939, albeit only two. War, weather and wary organizers caused 13 years to go by after Matt's run without a race, but then, in 1952, the Inferno returned, in a shorter, somewhat more congenial version. The Bobtail Inferno, it was called. It began above the lip and ended on Tuckerman's floor, without the forest run to Pinkham. There was a modified Bobtail in 1969, when Duncan Cullman, from nearby Franconia, beat former Olympian Tyler Palmer by .071 second.
And that brings us nearly up to date: 47 years but only five races by 1980. There was to be an Inferno that year. A field of veterans from '69 and tradition-minded newcomers were ready to go; problem was, it didn't snow enough. This seemed the cruelest curve Washington could throw at the skiers—there had always been snow in Tuckerman, usually so much that skiing was discouraged until the avalanche danger lightened in April. But that winter there was nearly none, and so the skis and the dreams were packed away.
They were to be broken out for the sixth Inferno last April 17. The sixth Inferno? Make that the "1982 Tuckerman Ravine Classic Giant Slalom." There were to be approximately 50 gates on a mile-long course, and this altered format prompted the organizers to change the name. Still, throughout the North Country skiers were talking about the upcoming Inferno. "You hold a race on Washington," said a man who was skiing the tough slopes of Cannon Mountain in Franconia, "and it's an Inferno. I don't care how many gates they throw on the hill—it's an Inferno."
"Hard-core." That was the other expression heard around Mount Washington as April 17 approached. You heard it as often as you heard Inferno. This was to be a hard-core event organized by hardcore people, for hard-core competitors. "It's still a kind of marathon," said Chief of Course Sheldon Perry. "To climb from Pinkham with your skis on your back and then ski Tuckerman on Mount Washington—that's pretty hard-core."