Tuckerman: Quest for the Unknown
The story doesn’t begin here, but many years ago. For as long as can remember the photograph hung on the living room wall. For a time I believe it resided over the fish tank. Then perhaps it was beside the door that nobody used. For close to three decades it hung without fail in my parents house. Then it moved. To our family camp, where it now remains. The point is not where, however, the point is what. The year was 1937, the month April, I believe. Not believe, know, being etched into my mind and all. Slalom race between the venerable programs of Harvard and Dartmouth. The point is not what, however, it is where. Tuckerman Ravine.
Yet despite its prominence on the wall and despite my consequential knowledge of its ever contour, rollover, and rock I had never skied it. Recently this had begun to bother me. It seemed a hole in my resume. How could I have been from the East Coast and never have skied it. How could I have obsessed over that particular image for so many years and have failed to conquer it? It had always seemed too far from my Upstate New York home, then I transplanted myself clear across the country. Even from this distance I could here it still calling me. This is how I found myself boarding a plane to Albany.
Now mind you a month and a half ago it was all-time. Two weeks ago it was much better. Conditions had deteriorated, but this is when I could make the trip and the time for excuses had ended. It was June and it had snow, which is much more than most places could say. This was my here and now.
I had originally hoped to make this a team mission. I had contacted a trusted man in the field and had arranged to rendezvouson the East Coast. As can often happen he was unavoidably detained by more pressing matters and I was left scrambling. It soon became clear that the only way this was going to go off was to fly solo. This was discouraging.
It was not independently that it was a five hour drive, or that I would have to hike and ski on my own that made it now seem arduous, it was a combination of the two. The notion of bagging the operation altogether occurred to me.
Really though, was this ever about anyone else or was it just me? Hadn’t it always been just about me? Well… perhaps… Before this devolves into a conversation I’ve had many times over with my mother and just about every girlfriend I’ve ever had, let’s be clear that the answer was yes. This had been my personal mission from the start. For so long I had waited. I hadn’t skied on the East Coast in some time. This was a search of sorts to regain my roots. It was solely my responsibility now to make it happen.
This wasn’t just simply about making some turns in June. This wasn’t just fun and games, this was important goddamn it. In fact I stand corrected, this wasn’t just about me personally. This was the quest for something greater, to find the spirit of what was right and good about what made me a skier.
In order to make this happen I was going to need a car. Not just any car would do. It needed to be capable of achieving a high rate of speed, and posses the ability to tackle any tricky terrain thatI would probably encounter. It also matched the description of my dad’s new car. I explained to him in detail the importance of the situation at hand and he agreed fully… then handed me the keys to my mom’s car.
As soon I hit the road I tuned the satellite radio to the grunge rock station. If this was going to be a search for roots of some kind it would be important to set the mood. Before too long I was back in tenth grade again, just without the angst… Ok, perhaps I never lost the angst. I was rocking out and heading to the hill just like the days of being piled into the school bus after school going to West Mountain for ski club. Only instead of dreaming that I was headed to some legit mountain… I in fact was.
I hit the trailhead around 11am. I had aborted the first attempt the day prior due to a later than ideal arrival and pesky clouds hovering in the vicinity. Then parking lot was jammed, particularly for a Wednesday, today however, it seemed a bit more mellow. I passed a few hikers headed to the summit, but saw no other skiers. The hike to the caretakers cabin was surprisingly manageable, from there the final push of granite steps began to take its toll on the legs. The weight of skis boots and pack became distinctly more palatable on the larger steps up. The sight of snow, however, quickly rejuvenated me. All and all it took probably an hour and forty-five minutes to reach the ravine floor.
As I made the final approach it became apparent that I was not the only inspired one today, a lone skier was hiking his way up the left center of the bowl. As I sat down to rest and change into my boots I watched him come down making what looked to be quality corn turns. He skied his way down to the termination of the snow and looked satisfied. He was a man of probably 45 or 50 and was noticeably missing his two front teeth. He had gotten out early and was on his way out. Apparently he was from the foothills of New Hampshire and had just this season taken skiing back up for the first time in forty years. This was his tenth assault on Tuckerman this year. If I was looking for what was right about skiing, meeting this gentleman seemed to suggest I might be on the right track.
Also it did not take long to realize that I had made a major blunder in not packing bug spray. Blackfly season with no bug spray? What was I thinking? I wasn’t. The entire hike up had been bug free. It wasn’t until I hit the snowpack that they appeared. When the appeared they appeared in quantity and armed with ferocious appetites. It became impossible to swat them off, they gathered in deviously behind my ears. Blood was lost. By the end of the evening I was still feeling phantom flies on my neck and my right eyebrow had become rather puffy.
The headwall itself had completely melted out by now, only the bottom 1/2 or so of the ravine was skiable. It seemed that the Left Gully held an extended high angle pitch that looked good to go but required a steep bushwhack in at the bottom. The far lookers right portion of the ravine held good snow up high but it became dirty and variable towards the bottom. The bowl itself was consistent but rather short given the melt out, the lookers right side of it was capped off with some large barely hanging on chunks of ice.
I assessed the situation. The Left Gully looked rather hairy but it was definitely doable. I could check out something simple down the middle or I could take advantage of the energy I currently had. The Squaw Valley in me itched, was I really not going to ski the steepest narrowest thing here? Had I come all this way to ski mid-angle corn? I was slightly concerned about my aloneness in the situation but ultimately was confident that aside from potential operator error the line was completely safe. It was going to be Left Gully, but first I had to get there.
Clamoring up over rocks and moss with my ski boots I used the rather thick vegetation to pull my way up. This wasn’t easy now, it would be even harder going downhill on the way back. At least I had that to look forward to. I hit the snow and began boot packing my way up. I made pretty quick work of the lower third being careful to avoid the areas around the rocks that was clearly undermining. By the middle when my legs started to fade the tenuous nature by which I was grasping hold of the mountain became more noticeable. An ice axe would have been a welcome addition, anything to give some more sound anchorage.
By the final 20 yards the aura of Tuckerman was starting to take hold. I had always been told that its steepness would be surprising. As the corn became less corny and the ice underneath became more icy it was now taking multiple kicks to find some kind of toe hold. Damn, it was steep after all. I was sweating profusely in the sun and it seemed like each step upward was getting more sketchy. I don’t know if it was exhaustion or fear, but it seemed like I was shaking. Yes! This is exactly why I traveled all this way to be here. This is what I was looking for all along. In the moment, however, the satisfaction did little to quell the nervousness. Where was I even going to get my skis on? I picked a safe point where the sun had melted the snow away from a rock creating a bit of a platform. The last ten feet were more of a controlled scramble than anything else, I took a deep breath and carefully removed my skis from my pack.
Having forwent the warm up run I still had little idea of what the snow would ski like. There would only be one way to find out. I put my skis on on the dry ground, bracing myself against the rock. Took one last deep breathe and shoved off onto the slope. I took my first turn somewhat tentatively and immediately felt foolish. This was quality snow. It was good corn with just enough edgebleness to maintain control. I swooshed myself down longing for more as the snow petered out into the brush. For years I had imagined I would ski Tuckerman Ravine. Today I had. It was undoubtedly a triumph. To top things off it had actually been good.
I bushwhacked my way back out of the gully swarmed by blackflies. I took one more lap in the middle of the bowl and decided to call it a day. Now sweaty and tired I desired to bask in my glory on the rocks below with a bit of relaxation but the blackflies forced me to beat a hasty exit.
The primary downside to taking on the ravine so late in the year is the inability to ski down to the valley floor. Down-hiking with skis not only feels wrong, but with each step a ski seems to catch on something or bang a rock to great annoyance. Hiking is also far less enjoyable when there isn’t skiing to be had at its conclusion, just a long car ride.
As I took the long but scenic drive back to Upstate New York I wondered if I had found any true insight to the spirit of skiing. Had getting back to my East Coast roots given me any more appreciation or understanding? This perhaps was unclear but I was sure for certain that I had found at least one thing, and it had been exactly what I was looking for.