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Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

February 15, 2016

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

It’s been a cold President’s Day weekend here in New England, and likely a little colder for those hardy skiers who have braved the weather to take advantage of the long weekend. It’s no secret that this has always been a popular ski weekend here in the Northeast (frigid temperatures notwithstanding). After all, there are few better ways to beat the winter blues than hitting the slopes.

Of course some of those skiers have forsaken convenient lifts and cozy lodges and headed to Tuckerman Ravine - Tuckerman being not only our namesake, but also the most iconic backcountry ski destinations in the Northeast.

Not only is Tuckerman a regional landmark, it’s one that boasts a fascinating history, named for the botanist Edward Tuckerman who spent two decades exploring the White Mountains and studying its plants in the 1830s and 1840s (Tuckerman wasn’t the only naturalist to have done so, with fellow outdoorsman Henry David Thoreau also visiting in 1858).

Geologically, Tuckerman Ravine is also a bit of a misnomer since it’s not actually a ravine at all but rather a deep glacial cirque on the eastern side of Mount Washington. Famous for its ferocious weather (and the ubiquitous “This car climbed Mount Washington” bumper stickers) Mt. Washington is the tallest peak in New England and bears the brunt of easterly snow and winds all winter long. As the winds pass over the summit, they dump snow squarely into the Tuckerman bowl - so much that there is frequently skiing into the late spring and even summer thanks to the 50 feet of accumulated snowpack (and of course it doesn’t hurt that the steepest pitch in the ravine is an adrenaline-spiking 55 degrees).

The thrill of Tuckerman has captivated skiers for more than a hundred years, with the first intrepid group believed to have skied it in 1914. A few years later, a group led by AMC huts manager Joe Dodge carved the headwall from top to bottom, a vertical drop of 800 feet. By 1932 the US Forest Service and AMC finished the trail up from Pinkham Notch to the Hermit Lake Hut, which opened up a convenient route to the bowl for many more skiers.

Tuckerman was also the site of some of America’s earliest ski races, as individual derring-do gave way to more formalized competition. In 1933, the Hochgebridge ski club organized the first of three American Inferno Races (named for a famous race held in Murren, Switzerland) which proved instrumental in popularizing skiing and racing in New England.

As its name suggests, the American Inferno was not for the faint of heart: the top to bottom race dropped 4,200 feet in 4 miles. The first year the race was won by Hollis Phillips in just under 14 minutes. The next year the race was won by Dartmouth’s Dick Durrance in 12 minutes and 35 seconds. But the best was saved for last: In 1939, with winds gusting at 60 miles per hour, a 19 year old Austrian named Toni Matt won the third and final American Inferno, taking the run in a shocking 6 minutes and 29 seconds (the brave Matt did so by virtually pointing his skis straight downhill the entire race).

In addition to the American Inferno, there were several other famous races held on the mountain, including the First Giant Slalom race in the US in 1937. Still it wasn’t until the next decade, as the ravine became too crowded for ski races, that the rest of the mountain was fully explored. Brooks Dodge, Joe Dodge’s son, added a dozen new trails, including Hillman’s Highway, Lions Head, and Boott Spur.

Today Tucks is still a popular backcountry skiing destination and right of passage for many New England skiers. Starting in late March and well into June (or even July) skiers flock to the bowl, hiking the 3 miles up from Pinkham notch on the same trail built in 1932.  So if you missed it this weekend (or this holiday season), don’t worry -- you likely still have plenty of time.

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