The skiing often sucks at Tuckerman Ravine. But when it doesn?t?and sometimes even when it does?it?s sublime. To begin with?for all but the most rabid slush junkies?Tuck?s is only skiable during a brief window of time, beginning in April and ending around Memorial Day. (During winter, avalanche danger and world-record gales effectively close Tuckerman.) Skiers must wait until the spring sun settles the snowpack, which can be several stories deep.
Even when conditions are optimal, skiing Tuckerman is a commitment. A trip requires a day?s worth of planning, packing, driving, hiking, schlepping and then hiking some more before the first turn is made. And the return on that investment? One or two or perhaps three good runs, 800 vertical feet apiece, on corn snow as good but no better than what you?d find at Killington, and on a pitch that?s steep, but no steeper than upper Starr at Stowe.
Then there?s the issue of personal safety. Listen to the Forest Service rangers, and you wonder if skiing Tuck?s is ever safe. But they?ve seen it all. Perhaps their warnings are dumbed down to reach the lowest common denominator?the boozy yahoos and the check-me-out daredevils who see bagging Tuck?s as another check-off on their life list. The rest of us can expect to come out OK if we employ a little judgment.
So: Questionable skiing, immense effort, risk of injury and unsavory company. Should you go? Of course.
On a sunny Saturday at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, you?ll join a parade of humanity loaded for kicks with skis, boards, inner tubes, dogs, kegs, pack-mounted coolers, guitars, radios, kites, Frisbees and beach umbrellas. It?s a one- or two-hour slog to the Hermit Lake shelter ("HoJo?s"), with its first energizing glimpse of the Headwall. From HoJo?s, it?s another half-hour to the floor of the ravine. Tuckerman, technically a glacial cirque, is a massive half-bowl, its steep sides sprinkled with rock outcroppings and single-file specks of climbing skiers. Stake out a boulder at Lunch Rocks, an archipelago of avalanche debris spilling out onto the ravine floor. Take a moment to scout safe shelter in case of a runaway ice boulder, then boot up.
One of the beauties of Tuck?s is that it?s an egalitarian place, accommodating all levels of skiers. No one needs to ski anything that will get him or her into danger, though many have. The lower snowfields are gentle, and you can decide how high you wish to go and precisely how steep an incline you?re prepared to tackle. Remember: Wherever you stop, you?ll have to figure out how to get your skis on?not easy on a pitch of 30 degrees or more.
For diehards, nothing short of the rim will do. The rewards: a view of the summit cone and snowfields?which also might be skiable?and a flat spot for putting on your skis. Now is the time to exercise caution. Falls that begin on the Headwall often don?t end before the ravine floor. What?s in between those two points can be the difference between embarrassment and dismemberment. And since there?s no patroller with toboggan handy, evacuation takes hours and inconveniences many, many people.
For most, though, trepidation turns to exhilaration within the first 20 yards. From jump turns to slalom turns to GS arcs, the speed builds and the terrain moderates. Almost as soon as it began, it?s over?all that hard-earned vertical spilled out in a flash of speed and adrenaline.
Some spend their day yo-yoing the Headwall. Others call one run a day. But even when you?re not skiing, Tuckerman provides entertainment. Like watching three guys botch the same cliff drop. Or some poor chap trying to coax his buddy down the Headwall. Or some babe or hunk soaking up the rays wearing next to no clothing.
Skiing is not the end in itself with Tuckerman; it?s only part of it?along with being able to say, "I?ve skied Tuck?s." The price of admission is steep, like the Headwall itself.
But few regret paying it.
Ski Las Lenas, Argentina with Dave Swanwick andd Kim Reichhelm. www.laslenasvacations.com/swany/swany_and_kim/