FeaturesThe Lure of Tuckerman!
Generations of UNHers have made "Tucks" their own
By Sue Hertz '78
THE STRATEGY ISN'T WORKING.
As the sweat dribbles down our necks and our breath labors with the effort to climb the steep stone steps, I talk of the Tuckerman Ravine mystique. I talk of the ravine's spectacular beauty, its deep snow, its spring skiing. I talk of its origins, of Ice Age glaciers and compacted snow carving out U-shaped valleys. I talk of its grand waterfall and fickle weather. I talk of its power, its pull, of looking into the ravine from Wildcat Mountain and yearning to leap across Pinkham Notch to ski over that snow-covered headwall into the bowl, so perfect, so white. I talk of anything that will take my son Luke's mind off of his misery.
He doesn't buy it. He's hot, he's tired, he wants to stop. Now.
At 12, he doesn't care that he's ascending the alpine Mecca of the Northeast. He doesn't care that New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine is the birthplace of extreme skiing, the site of Toni Matt's flight over the headwall at 70 mph in the 1932 Inferno Race. He doesn't care that on any springtime Saturday as many as 2,000 people will carry skis and snowboards and kegs of beer up this three-mile trail on the side of Mt. Washington. He doesn't care because he's a kid and hiking is always more work than you think and this hike in particular is too much.
And as I try to tell him that's the magic of Tuckerman, that its challenge is part of its reward, he stops. And glares. If he thought he could get away with it, he'd curse.
Perhaps we should turn around and head for lunch in North Conway.
The hike up Tuckerman Ravine was my idea. Growing up in New England, I'd spent many a cool, windy summer day treading the trails on Mt. Washington. As a high school student, I'd hiked the ravine with friends to plot how we'd ski that 50-degree pitch (so steep your elbows could touch the snow) if we had the guts. As a UNH sophomore, I finally had the guts and celebrated my last exam in the spring with a few runs—and one tumble—down the bowl. What I didn't know as I flew, both vertically and horizontally, past the crowd lounging on the "lunch rocks" and the line of skiers trudging up, was that I had joined an unnamed, unorganized, unofficial but very passionate UNH club.
For decades, thousands of UNH students and alums have made—and still make—the springtime pilgrimage to this formidable outdoor playground carved into the southeast shoulder of the Northeast's tallest peak. To be sure, plenty of people visit "Tucks," as its admirers call it, the rest of the year for summer and fall hiking and deep winter backcountry skiing. But every natural wonder has its season of glory, and for Tuckerman Ravine that season is late March to early June when the bottomless snows melt enough to ease the threat of avalanche and the sun warms the air.
For many, it is a rite of passage; you can't call yourself a skier until you've stood at the top of the headwall, your ski tips cantilevered over the edge, your heart in your throat, and then careen down the pitch so steep you wonder if you can turn. Although he had skied glaciers in France and Paradise at Mad River Glen, Tim McCaffery '00, '02G felt that he needed Tuckerman on his ski résumé during his first year as a graduate student. "I was only doing it," McCaffery says, "to end the question, 'You haven't skied Tuckerman?'"
For others, it is a chance to pump the adrenaline and test the ski skills. After spending their undergraduate years skiing the bowl and some of the popular gullies carved into its side, Jim Jelmberg '67, '71G, '86G, '93G and his ATO brother Dick Knight '67 braved the fiercely steep and narrow Dodge's Drop in May 1970. After skiing the Drop successfully—bare-chested and in shorts—Jelmberg says, "It never occurred to me not to return to Tuckerman each spring."
Some view a trip to Tuckerman as an escape, a "mental checkout," according to Cary Kilner '95G, who says "our cares, anxieties and petty concerns drop away as we really live for a few hours."
Yet that "living" comes at a price. The price of lugging a backpack weighted with skis, perhaps a snowboard, boots and lunch up the three-mile trail to the ravine, and then carting skis and boards up 800 vertical feet to the top of the headwall, step by step, toehold by toehold. The price of knowing that as you plot your descent, one wrong turn, one bad decision could mean the difference between what Al Sanborn '53 calls "the thrill of a lifetime" and the end of a lifetime. Of the 139 people who have died on Mt. Washington, 31 perished in Tuckerman Ravine.
"The dual nature of this revered place is defined by its great beauty," says Jelmberg, "and its great danger."
And the attempt to conquer that danger, to survive the contest, to learn the lessons that contest will teach, is at the heart of the lure of Tuckerman Ravine.
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