Ascent to Mount Washington-Tuckerman Ravine on 1992-04-25

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Gabe C. (Stayed behind)
Date:Saturday, April 25, 1992
Ascent Type:No Summit Goal
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Point Reached:Mount Washington - Tuckerman Ravine
    Location:USA-New Hampshire
    Elevation:5300 ft / 1615 m

Ascent Trip Report

I drove us north on Route 16 to Pinkham Notch Camp, we seeing our first snow around Jackson, it pretty thick on the ground when we arrived at 9:10 A.M. It was still very overcast, with occasional light snow, but mobbed--hundreds of people thronged the parking lot, all of them with skis on their backs. It was incredible. We had to park almost at the end of the lot, and decided to go to the Camp to check things out. There signs and forecasts said that avalanche danger was low in Tuckerman Ravine, and we saw hordes starting up the trail with skis on their packs, so we decided to go for it.

Back at the car Gabe and I arranged our packs, he putting his snowboard on his rented pack with bungee cords, I inserting my skis into side pockets of my battered Gregory Snow Creek Pack. After putting on our hiking boots (our ski boots were inside our packs), we were ready, so we hiked across the parking lot, where perhaps a majority of all people on the planet with skis on their backs were at that time, and started up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail behind Pinkham Notch Camp.

The trail was wide and covered with snow, but with so many people using it the footway was well packed down and easy to hike on. There was almost a continuous line of people hiking up through the forest, virtually all with skis, and we passed and got passed many times, often by the same groups. We got very hot as we hiked up, stopping a couple of times to change clothes. The most annoying thing for me was that my skis were sticking up about 10 feet in the air, hitting tree branches and raining fresh snow on me--it had apparently snowed about 6 inches the previous night.

As we got higher the weather cleared, and at one point there was blue sky and a good view of Raymond Cataract Ravine straight ahead, but when we reached the ranger cabin at Hermit Lake (HoJo's) it was again cloudy and snowing lightly. Gabe and I took a rest here amidst the throngs, eating a snack at a snow-covered picnic table. A guy here asked us what the story was with the skiing up in the ravine, not visible through the clouds, but we confessed to being Tuckerman virgins too.

After looking at a trail map on the wall of the cabin, we left HoJo's and started the steep, narrow section of trail up to the floor of the ravine. It was very foggy out, and this section of trail was treacherous as it wound up through scrub to timberline--I had turned back here in February on my touring skis due to steepness. We were still in a line of people, literally following in the snow footsteps of the person in front of us--I briefly loaned Gabe a ski pole for a walking aid, since, as a snowboarder, he didn't have any.

We finally came out into the open floor of the ravine, but in pea-soup fog, so we couldn't see anything. We just kept on walking up into the whiteness, past and through Lunch Rocks, where tons of people were hanging out and resting. We saw some guys with cheapo plastic children's sleds, and saw one of them tobaganning down the lower slopes in the fog to a cheer from the assembled spectators.

Not feeling tired, we just kept on walking up, following a set of snow footsteps that led up to the right. Gabe borrowed one of my ski poles again as the slope got awfully steep past Lunch Rocks, and soon we were climbing up a super-steep couloir between two cliffs, with only a couple of other people in our path--it seems most had gone up directly ahead, instead of to the right like we did. Here we saw our first accident, when a skier falling ahead and to the right of us just missed clocking his head on a rock. His other ski was hundreds of feet above him.

The snow steps were now at an angle like a ladder, and each step was carefully planned. Gabe, going first like he had the whole way up, came to a little ledge on the super-steep slope, where we debated stopping, I wanting to hike above the lip of the ravine to either Alpine Garden above or else all the way to the summit of Mt. Washington, neither visible in the fog above, and of which we had gotten discouraging reports from descending skiers. We decided to go on, but as Gabe traversed to the right from the ledge he slipped and fell, out of control and somersaulting down the 50 degree slope toward rocky cliffs below. I thought for a moment that he might die.

However, he managed to hold on to his ski pole, and rather skillfully self-arrested himself after falling only about 60 feet down the slope. He was fine, and we agreed to get our skis/snowboard on here and get the hell off this treacherous slope. This was easy for me, relatively speaking, because I was on the little ledge. Gabe, however, was alone on a very steep incline.

There was a guy behind me who also wanted to use the ledge, and he waited while I took off my pack, removed my skis from it, took off my hiking boots, put on my ski boots, stepped into my skis, and then put on my now-much-lighter pack, all in a very precarious position on a very narrow, exposed snow ledge. I then traversed across the slope, made one clumsy turn on perhaps the steepest slope I had ever skied, then realized that I felt naked with only one pole on this kind of terrain--Gabe had my other one. Having vacated the ledge, I then sat down to wait for Gabe, my skis biting into the snow to hold me in place.

Gabe had made his way over to the right (as you look uphill) to find a place to get changed, but it was still too steep. He therefore laboriously traversed back to the left of the couloir, after ten minutes finally reaching the ladder-like trail uphill. Here he rested for a long time, realizing he'd have to hike up about 60 vertical feet to the ledge I had used. A Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol guy came along, however, hiking with an ice axe, and he offered to chop out a ledge for Gabe on a steep ridgetop to the left of the ladder, not as high as the ledge I had used. So Gabe only hiked halfway up the steep trail, then went left to a steep hogback-type snow ridge, where a very secure platform was chopped out of the snow by the ranger, named Roger, a fiftyish guy who roamed the ravine helping people out.

I skied over to the new ledge as it was being constructed, thanked Roger (as did Gabe) for his help, then sat down to wait for Gabe to change his boots. Apparently he had been badly shaken up physcologically, now nervous and scared after his fall, and it took him a long time to put on his snowboard boots, repack his pack, and put on his snowboard. We tried to build up his confidence by getting him to repeat the mantra "I CAN snowboard--maybe not hike up a steep slope, but I can definitely SNOWBOARD".

While we were here the fog cleared, and we could see the whole ravine beneath us. There were tons of skiers, most of them hiking up in various lines, the most used being in the middle of the ravine--we had definitely blundered up to the right in the fog. The whole ravine was an almost perfectly round snowy bowl, like one of the ones at Vail or Whistler, only smaller and steeper. Whenever a skier either skied down well or fell spectacularly, the resting crowds at Lunch Rocks would send up a loud cheer. What a scene.

I thought we might ski down to the left (again, looking uphill) from where we were, but we decided to stick with the couloir we had hiked up. I got my pole back, and Gabe went first, scraping his board down the steep slopes fine. I went next, doing much better with two poles, and made a couple of good turns to where the couloir melded into the main lower slopes of the ravine. The snow was icy crud with six inches of wet powder on top of it--not the greatest, but all right--the crud itself would have been bad news.

Gabe and I stopped a couple times on our way down to gawk and take pictures. It was here we saw the most spectacular skiing accident we had ever seen--a guy had lost it up near the lip of the headwall and had taken out another skier, both of them hurtling downhill in a cloud of skis, poles, and limbs, clocking another skier before the high-speed catastrophe ended near the ravine's floor. The crowd oooed and groaned.

After our relatively brief run, Gabe and I decided to eat lunch, sitting in the snow in front of Lunch Rocks in the now pleasant but still overcast afternoon. As we ate we saw a couple more completely, utterly spectacular accidents--the place was like a bowling alley, with skiers who fell on the upper steep slopes plunging hundreds of feet at high speed before stopping. A dog showed interest in our food as we ate--the place was hopping, with tobagganers, skiers, snowboarders, dogs, and just about everything at a ski resort except lifts. Gabe was still shaken up from his fall, and didn't want to hike up much anymore, while I still wanted to go for the summit of Mt. Washington, a thousand feet above the lip of the ravine, which was a far as we could see up. So after lunch I put my skis in my pack and started hiking up the central snow ladder/trail (wearing my ski boots), determined to at least get to the top, or lip, of the ravine. Apparently most people changed into their ski boots at Lunch Rocks to avoid the boot-changing-on-a-cliff-face routine we had ineptly tried, and then simply carried their skis uphill for any one run, skiing packless. However, since I wanted to go high, I still needed my pack.

It was hard work going up, and I needed frequent rests. I soon joined a line of people, and after going around some stopped hikers I noticed that the wall of the ravine was awfully steep--I mean awfully, awfully super-steep. I needed to put my hands in the snow footsteps in front of me for balance, feeling like a fly on a wall. I finally was behind a guy who was enlarging the snow footsteps in the cliff wall, explaining this to a woman behind me who was wondering about our slow uphill progress.

I finally came to a tiny, crowded ledge, where most people were stopping to put on their skis. It was too full of people to even rest there for more than a minute, and I took off up again, behind some French Canadians. The terrain started flattening out as I fought my way through some drifted-in krummholz, and, wheezing, panting, and resting from my exertions I was soon above the lip of the ravine, passing a cairn on the Alpine Garden Trail.

Unfortunately, up at this elevation it was totally socked in. After another brief spurt of energy brought me to a nice rock to sit and rest on, I realized that above me there was nothing but white snow and thick white clouds, your basic white-out, meaning that I might not be able to find my way down the mountain. I decided to simply ski down from where I was, at 5300 feet, about 1000 feet short of Mt. Washington's 6288 foot summit but still 1000 feet above the floor of Tuckerman Ravine.

After a long, quiet rest, including a snack and drink of water, I put my skis on, strapped on my almost empty pack, and started skiing down through the fog to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail/Alpine Garden Trail junction. I saw one guy hiking up to my resting place as I left, the only guy I saw during my rest, above the hordes below.

At the signs at the trail junction I continued down, bearing to my left, the way I had come up, not wanting to chance going over a cliff. The moderate slopes, above the lip, were OK to ski on, but hidden rocks were a hazard, and the snow was pretty thick and gloppy, overlaid on ice--typical backcountry stuff.

After a minute of so I found myself sort of on top of the dominant central cliffs of the ravine, with the ledge I had passed on the way up on my left. There was a fairly wide area between the cliffs and the ledge and its associated line of skiers hiking uphill, but it was ferociously steep, and also very icy, since the fresh powder/glop had all either fallen off or been scraped off. I was very nervous about being able to ski this slope, so I decided to traverse and kick-turn until it became easier, although finding a platform to kick-turn wouldn't be easy.

I started across the steep slope very slowly, towards the line of skiers, but the slope was so steep and icy that I couldn't even get an edge for my traverse, and while almost stopped felt my skis loose their grip. Suddenly, I was hurtling down the ravine, somersaulting wildly, feeling my left shoulder pop out of its socket, trying desperately to stop myself as I literally thought to myself, "So this is what's it’s like to die--oh, well, it's been an interesting life".

I had no way of knowing where I was tumbling, and I thought I might go over a cliff, crash into some rocks, or clock anther skier, but finally my thrashing managed to slow me down and I dug my feet into the snow to stop myself, ending my 600 foot fall. It was very similar to a fall I had at Whistler, British Columbia, in March, 1990, the only other one as bad as this one in eight years of skiing.

The audience at Lunch Rocks had seen my spectacular fall, and was kind of hushed, and when I started moving and realized that except for my shoulder I was unhurt, I raised my right arm and everybody cheered. I was then forgotten about by the masses.

After cleaning the snow from my glasses, removing my pack, and detatching my one ski that somehow stayed on my foot, I tried to relocate my shoulder. Since this was about the twentieth time this had happened to me, it was a drill I knew well, but my shoulder hadn't been out in well over a year, meaning it would probably be hard to work back in. People must have thought I was weird as I extended my arm, moved it behind my head, and did other gyrations, but it had to be done.

After a bit I heard Gabe's voice below--he hadn't seen my fall, but had recognized me. He hiked up to me, and then Roger, the same volunteer ranger who had helped Gabe earlier, came up, and he and another ranger got my other ski (there were a couple of other loose skis littering the mountainside from all the accidents--I was asked which one was mine) and, after I was unsuccessful relocating my shoulder, tried helping me get it in with traction and twisting. I was at the same spot as the incredible three-skier collision I had seen earlier--the snow was all red around me, from the blood from that crash. Meanwhile, Gabe, a true friend, hiked up to get my poles, halfway up to the lip, exposing him to the same maniacal steepness I had seen on my way up, only he had to hike down as well as up.

While I waited here some poor woman named Patty, receiving encouragement from her friends, soon found the whole ravine join in a chant "Pat-ty! Pat-ty!" after a while as she made her way down the easy lower slopes to wild applause. The whole scene was just incredible.

After about twenty minutes I realized that I wasn't going to get my arm back in easily, and I was kind of in the middle of things, so Roger said I should ski over to Lunch Rocks. With his help I put on a warmer jacket, got my skis on, and gently skied the not-so-steep lower slopes of the ravine over to the right, then across to where Gabe and I had eaten lunch. Gabe was here, and I put on my pack, and, with my arm still in pain and dislocated, I easily skied to the very bottom of the ravine, where the trail came in.

The ubiquitous Roger was here, and offered to take my skis down to a forest service hut near HoJo's, where he said he could apply hot compresses to my shoulder to help it get in. He took off, and then I went, with about half a mile of steep, treacherous, rocky/icy trail separating me from HoJo's. Gabe, who had to attach his snowboard to his pack with bungee cords, was way behind me.

The trail was hell--I had to be very careful, and every step was painful for my poor left arm. Hiking in ski boots wasn't very easy either, down the rock steps, deep snow pitches, and treacherous slopes of the path, using my right hand and ski pole for balance, falling gently only once. I saw skiers off to my right, taking a backcountry route to the Sherburne Trail, and when I was still behind Roger (at the beginning) I saw him admonish skiers about heading into that country.

After a painful eternity I arrived at HoJo's and went to the porch of the Forest Service hut, next to a sno-cat, where my skis were resting, but no one answered my pounding at the door--Roger was gone, and it was all locked up. I took of my pack and made concerted efforts to relocate my shoulder again--reaching behind my head, extreme stretching, crazy twisting, and whatever else I could do, all to no avail. I was basically resigned to having to hike all the way back to Pinkham Notch in my condition and driving to a hospital to get a doctor to fix it.

Gabe finally showed up at the hut's porch, complaining bitterly about the toughness of the trail he'd just come down, and rested for a bit while we ate about ten Snickers Bars between us. He went over to an outhouse, and when he returned he said people at HoJo's (visible fifty yards away) were saying that one of the skiers in the wild country to the south of the trail had fallen in a crevasse, and that explained Roger's absence--he had more important things to worry about than me.

Since I was a semi-invalid, Gabe had to help me change my boots from skiing to hiking, pack my pack, attach my skis to it, and put it on my back, all in a continuous light snowstorm--the weather had been deteriorating all afternoon. After Gabe pulled my sternum strap tight, pulling my left shoulder strap against my neck, my pack wasn't too bad, considering my condition. I could certainly walk.

The wide Tuckerman Ravine Trail was easy to hike on, descending at a gentle grade through the forest, and only the dull, occasionally painful ache from my shoulder made it hard for me. Gabe and I trucked, striding forcefully and quickly past people, and stepping out of the way for the occasional illegal downhill skier. About halfway down I slipped while crossing a rivulet in the snow, getting my boot wet and awkwardly righting myself, then noticing that the jolt had knocked my shoulder back into place. I was immensely relieved at avoiding a trip to the hospital. We theorized that I needed to warm up my body, and the fast hiking we were doing would have done that. My extensive stretching must have helped, too.

The main crisis over, we continued to fly down the trail, grateful for having survived the carnage of the Ravine. For the relatively few skiers there and the fantastic number of major injuries, we decided that Tuckerman Ravine was the most dangerous "ski area" in the world by a factor of about 100 over its nearest competitor. Five or more spectacular accidents, blood in the snow, a guy falling into a crevasse, another missing rocks with his head by about a foot, my shoulder, Gabe's slip, and god knows what all else we missed--it all added up to the Ravine being a deathtrap.

The snow soon disappeared from the trail for the most part, it got warmer, and we passed a couple die-hard skiers coming down the muddy lower Sherburne Trail before arriving at Pinkham Notch Camp. We hiked to the car, jettisoned our stuff, and then went into the trading post to check out the scene. It was full of people, and after browsing through their books, looking at the 3-D relief map, checking out the fatality listing on the wall (surprisingly few skiing deaths considering what we had seen), and using the restrooms in the basement, I went to the crowded desk and asked if I could leave a note for Roger, the helpful ranger, letting him know that I was all right. They said they had no way of getting anything to anybody on the volunteer ski patrol, but they said they'd take my note anyway.

Gabe then drove back down NH 16 to our motel, since my shoulder, despite being in place, was very sore and stiff. I showered at the motel before we went out to find dinner, settling on a steak house south of our motel. We ate after Gabe checked out a L.L. Bean factory outlet store next door.

Back at the motel we just watched some T.V. before crashing out, tired, sunburned, and sore, but grateful for having survived.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3786 ft / 1153 m
    Total Elevation Loss:3786 ft / 1153 m
    Quality:3 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Skis, Ski Poles
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Windy, White-out
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:3786 ft / 1153 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 3286 ft / 1002 m; Extra: 500 ft / 152m
    Loss on way in:500 ft / 152 m
    Start Trailhead:Pinkham Notch Camp  2014 ft / 613 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:3286 ft / 1001 m
    End Trailhead:Pinkham Notch Camp  2014 ft / 613 m

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