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Welcome to Suckerman's Ravine

Features
posted: 03/09/2004

"You f--kin' idiot! You're gonna f--kin' kill yourself!

Amplified by the curvature of Tuckerman Ravine, the words echo cleanly; heads swivel to a snowboarder at the base of the massive bowl—and then to the object of his berating.

Mr. Helpful's friend is fully gripped. He's just below the headwall of the Ravine, sitting back against the 40-degree pitch, the heel-side edge of his snowboard dug into the sun-softened snow. Five, maybe six feet below him, the world, at least as far as he's concerned, ends. A crevasse has opened. It's not huge; the gap is no more than four feet wide by maybe 30 feet across. Expert skiers or snowboarders would have no trouble skirting the hazard. They might even flirt with it, for the same reason you sometimes turn off your headlights when driving lonely stretches of highway on moonlit nights.

But this guy is no expert. And, thanks to his friend (and, really, who needs enemies?), he's now got the full attention of a cluster of green-uniformed snow rangers—and a few hundred Raviners scattered across the bowl's floor and reclining on the jumbled pile of stone known as Lunch Rocks. Fellow snowboarders, skiers, and blue-jeaned tourists turn from their cans of Bud Light and gaze, completely riveted.

"Jesus Christ! You dummy! Go left!

The guy starts to wiggle skier's left.

"No! NOOOO! MY LEFT! Jesus Christ!

He scuttles back, sliding both across and down, inching simultaneously toward both safety and potential disaster. The Ravine clamor has died. The snow rangers stand at full attention, ready to grab the ropes and backboards that are cached nearby. That crevasse might be eight feet deep. Or 80.

Closer, closer. Rivulets of corn snow loosed by his board tumble into the crevasse. Mr. Helpful has, mercifully, shut up. A whoop drifts across the ravine from the hidden chute of Left Gully: a skier caught in a moment of bliss. And then the snowboarder is clear—he's going to make it. Conversation resumes. The snow rangers return to their rocky seats and pass around a bag of gorp. Mr. Helpful shakes his head and stoops to remove his board. And his hapless friend sideslips through a handful of half-turns to safety.

"99 kegs of beer on headwall, 99 kegs of beer, if one should fall, try to catch one or all, 98 kegs of beer for y'all—from timefortuckerman.org

A glacial cirque that extends roughly a quarter-mile from end to end, offers up about 800 feet of vertical drop, and can accumulate more than 50 feet of snow, Tuckerman Ravine is an anomaly in a region better known for trees so tight they'll take the skin off your ears. Tucks, as it's known in the area, is located on the eastern flanks of New Hampshire's 6,288-foot Mount Washington, a peak famous for boasting the world's worst weather. On April 12, 1934, wind gusts of 231 miles per hour were recorded; temperatures of 50 below are not uncommon. It's a genuine slice of big mountain skiing, with all the attendant dangers: avalanches, crevasses, and falling ice.

It could be rightfully argued that Tucks is the most significant slice of backcountry skiing terrain in North America. That's not because it's the most difficult—though a handful of pitches in the Ravine exceed 50 degrees, and all lines become progressively more difficult the higher one climbs. Nor is it the most extensive: The Ravine proper is home to only ten recognized routes. But ever since 1914, when John Apperton became the first person to ski the Ravine, Tucks has been both baro-meter and breeding ground for backcountry skiing. A barometer because Tucks attracts a large enough cross-section of the sport to qualify as a statistical sampling; a breeding ground because it's where many skiers and snowboarders have their first beyond-boundaries experience.

Along the way, Tucks has become something else—a trophy, one of those things that, along with "sky-dive and "skinny-dip under a full moon, you keep high on your Things To Do Before I Die list. Which isn't to marginale the experience or the sanctity with which many people view Tuckerman Ravine. But it's nonetheless true—as is the fact that a lot of people who come to Tucks solely for the purpose of checking it off their list can't ski worth a damn.

The other key to understanding the Tuckerman experience is this: It's almost entirely unregulated. The Ravine is federally managed and open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There are certain things you can't do—camp, for instance—but beyond that, almost anything goes. Upon entering the Ravine, you'll likely be met by a snow ranger who will point out the hazards of the day, then smile and leave you to it. You want to huck the very crevasse he just pointed out? No one's gonna stop you. You want to do it naked? In Tuckerman Ravine, such antics are so commonplace they hardly garner a second look.

Chris Joosen has worked at Tucks for 15 years. As head snow ranger, Joosen's duties vary widely. One day, I find him mucking about in the outhouse pit. More typically, Joosen and his half-dozen colleagues are called upon to assist injured skiers, assess avalanche threat, and answer silly questions. ("Is it safe? is his personal favorite.)

Joosen is 35, but with a receding hairline and serious, efficient manner of someone accustomed to living in a constant state of preparedness, he seems older. I first meet him on a stellar Saturday morning in late April. At 9:30 it's already in the high forties and the melt is softening the snow surface to pristine corn. On days like this, it's common to find upwards of a thousand skiers, snowboarders, and voyeurs spread across the Ravine's floor, lounging on Lunch Rocks. They all get there by schlepping up the Tuckerman Trail, two and a half miles of rugged hiking that gains 2,500 feet in elevation. The trail is about 15 feet wide; still, on sunny Saturday mornings in spring, it's not uncommon for the route to become log-jammed with humanity. At Lunch Rocks, the occasional flashers, the frequent waft of marijuana, the echoing notes from the sax player—a Ravine fixture—and the overarching sense of well-being that accompanies the season's first T-shirt days make it feel like Woodstock on snow.

Which means Joosen needs to be prepared for…anything. The couple dozen annual incidents that require assistance aren't much different than those occurring on ski slopes the world over. Skiers fall, and falling sometimes hurts. In fact, a quick scan of accident reports for Tuckerman Ravine reveals that it's a reasonably safe place to ski—if you discount the distance from civilization. Sure, there's the occasional avalanche (most recently, in November 2002, two climbers were killed), but sprained-ankle, torn-meniscus, twisted-shoulder tweaks are more the norm. Occasionally, someone attempts something truly idiotic, like the time a snowboarder rode off the roof of the Hermit Lake Shelter and landed on his head. But Joosen takes a broad view. "I don't get frustrated anymore. Humans will be humans, and it doesn't help me to get frustrated.

A week later, I attempt to emulate Joosen's unflappable attitude when I witness the stupidest thing I've ever seen in skiing.

It's another fine spring day—not quite noon, and already in the fifties. Sunlight glints off the snowpack and the hundreds of winter-white appendages. I'm just starting to get my groove on when I see a guy in Dockers (Dockers!). He's shirtless, sunburned pecs on proud display. He's also sockless, and he's trying to wedge his feet into a pair of rear-entry boots.

"Bobby! he calls to a companion. "These don't fit so good. Damn. Whaddya think? Maybe I should take the liners out?

Bobby, also shirtless but otherwise resplendent in CB Sports (CB Sports!) ski pants, merely grunts and turns his mirrored shades back to the cloudless sky, leaving Dockers to twist and cram.

It's easy to poke fun at some of the clowns who frequent Tuckerman Ravine, but to do so misses an essential point: These encounters have become an important part of the Tuckerman Ravine experience. Better skiers have been laughing at lousy skiers here since the 1920s. It's all part of the fun. For many, Tucks is about the party, and parties are always about the people. If someone has the fortitude to muscle the forward half of a canoe up the Tuckerman Trail and halfway up the headwall, well, who am I—or you, or anyone—to say they shouldn't then turn around, climb in with three buddies, and let gravity do its thing? Certainly they have the same right to that vert as any skier. And so do dogs, under-dressed hikers and sledders, and beginner snowboarders. New Hampshire's state motto, after all, is Live Free or Die. So what if there's a certain Soldier-of-Fortune sensibility in that—isn't freedom what skiing's all about?

Well, yeah, but the Ravine has become such hallowed ground that small changes reverberate like revolutions, which could help explain the recent "controversy surrounding Tucks. At its core are the seemingly benign and well-intentioned actions of a local group called Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, who are providing what they see as essential upgrades. Thus far, they've focused on bringing potable water to the Ravine (a 132-foot-deep well has already been drilled; this summer, the associated piping and power supply will be installed), improving parking, and stringing a landline from the Hermit Lake shelter to the ranger station at the base of the Tuckerman Trail.

To hear it from Al Risch, the organization's executive director, such changes are critical to the Ravine's survival. "These things have been needed for decades, he says. "What's going to happen when the place gets so run-down that the Forest Service puts a gate across the trail and says, 'No, there are too many people up there and we don't have the resources, so you can't go?'

But not everyone is convinced Tucks will benefit from the Friends' efforts. "I know their heart is in the right place, says Kevin Killourie, who lives in nearby Jackson and has been skiing the ravine for nearly 15 years. "But they're just making it easier for people to get up in the bowl. It should be just as difficult to access and ski as it was in the '50s. I can't help but think that they're dulling the teeth of Tuckerman Ravine.

It's hard to imagine that more parking and clean drinking water will dilute Tucks experience. In fact, it's more lax than ever. "We've actually backed off of the regulations, says Joosen. "We used to close it when avalanche danger was high, and we always kicked everyone out at five. Now, we're putting the onus on the people coming up here to look after themselves.

Still, the fact that people are worked up only reinforces another of Risch's beliefs—that Tucks has always existed somewhere between reverence and revelry. "The mystique is still there; that hasn't changed, he says. "And neither has the partying. Christ, we used to go up there for three weeks at a time and just go down for supplies. Sure, some people like to go with a bottle of wine or a six-pack. But isn't that just their own kind of mystique?

Ultimately, Tucks is pilgrimage for some, debauchery for others, and lifestyle for a few. For 15 years in a row, Chris Joosen has spent the majority of his winters in a cramped back-country cabin. When my friend Pete Richardson's father died in 1998, Richardson and his friends carried an urn to the top of the Left Gully headwall, opened it, and emptied his ashes into the wind.

Beyond all that, Tucks is a challenging place to finish the season. On a sunny May afternoon, as I'm knocking out turns up high on Right Gully, I catch and disengage the heel throw on one of my tele bindings with the opposite ski and slide a good 50 feet before managing to self-arrest. It doesn't take long to slide 50 feet down a 35-degree slope covered in corn snow—maybe six seconds. But in those few ticks of the clock, with saxophone notes drifting past me and the jagged edges of Luncunters have become an important part of the Tuckerman Ravine experience. Better skiers have been laughing at lousy skiers here since the 1920s. It's all part of the fun. For many, Tucks is about the party, and parties are always about the people. If someone has the fortitude to muscle the forward half of a canoe up the Tuckerman Trail and halfway up the headwall, well, who am I—or you, or anyone—to say they shouldn't then turn around, climb in with three buddies, and let gravity do its thing? Certainly they have the same right to that vert as any skier. And so do dogs, under-dressed hikers and sledders, and beginner snowboarders. New Hampshire's state motto, after all, is Live Free or Die. So what if there's a certain Soldier-of-Fortune sensibility in that—isn't freedom what skiing's all about?

Well, yeah, but the Ravine has become such hallowed ground that small changes reverberate like revolutions, which could help explain the recent "controversy surrounding Tucks. At its core are the seemingly benign and well-intentioned actions of a local group called Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, who are providing what they see as essential upgrades. Thus far, they've focused on bringing potable water to the Ravine (a 132-foot-deep well has already been drilled; this summer, the associated piping and power supply will be installed), improving parking, and stringing a landline from the Hermit Lake shelter to the ranger station at the base of the Tuckerman Trail.

To hear it from Al Risch, the organization's executive director, such changes are critical to the Ravine's survival. "These things have been needed for decades, he says. "What's going to happen when the place gets so run-down that the Forest Service puts a gate across the trail and says, 'No, there are too many people up there and we don't have the resources, so you can't go?'

But not everyone is convinced Tucks will benefit from the Friends' efforts. "I know their heart is in the right place, says Kevin Killourie, who lives in nearby Jackson and has been skiing the ravine for nearly 15 years. "But they're just making it easier for people to get up in the bowl. It should be just as difficult to access and ski as it was in the '50s. I can't help but think that they're dulling the teeth of Tuckerman Ravine.

It's hard to imagine that more parking and clean drinking water will dilute Tucks experience. In fact, it's more lax than ever. "We've actually backed off of the regulations, says Joosen. "We used to close it when avalanche danger was high, and we always kicked everyone out at five. Now, we're putting the onus on the people coming up here to look after themselves.

Still, the fact that people are worked up only reinforces another of Risch's beliefs—that Tucks has always existed somewhere between reverence and revelry. "The mystique is still there; that hasn't changed, he says. "And neither has the partying. Christ, we used to go up there for three weeks at a time and just go down for supplies. Sure, some people like to go with a bottle of wine or a six-pack. But isn't that just their own kind of mystique?

Ultimately, Tucks is pilgrimage for some, debauchery for others, and lifestyle for a few. For 15 years in a row, Chris Joosen has spent the majority of his winters in a cramped back-country cabin. When my friend Pete Richardson's father died in 1998, Richardson and his friends carried an urn to the top of the Left Gully headwall, opened it, and emptied his ashes into the wind.

Beyond all that, Tucks is a challenging place to finish the season. On a sunny May afternoon, as I'm knocking out turns up high on Right Gully, I catch and disengage the heel throw on one of my tele bindings with the opposite ski and slide a good 50 feet before managing to self-arrest. It doesn't take long to slide 50 feet down a 35-degree slope covered in corn snow—maybe six seconds. But in those few ticks of the clock, with saxophone notes drifting past me and the jagged edges of Lunch Rocks waiting patiently for my slide to careen out of control, I come to understand, with newfound clarity, that Tucks is simply a reflection of who we are, as skiers, as snowboarders, as drunken frat brothers in rear-entry boots.

It's a comforting and strangely energizing thought; so much so that when I come to a halt, I'm back on my feet in seconds, hiking to regain the vertical I just lost.

(Click on the slide show below to see images from the article.)Lunch Rocks waiting patiently for my slide to careen out of control, I come to understand, with newfound clarity, that Tucks is simply a reflection of who we are, as skiers, as snowboarders, as drunken frat brothers in rear-entry boots.

It's a comforting and strangely energizing thought; so much so that when I come to a halt, I'm back on my feet in seconds, hiking to regain the vertical I just lost.

(Click on the slide show below to see images from the article.)

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