Sabretooth tigers and yawning voids in the snow

The jubilation that spring skiing conditions bring in Tuckerman Ravine is colored by the hazards that emerge at the same time. Returning to the hill from days off spent rock climbing in the valley, I noticed the astonishing drop in the depth of the snowpack. Water is flowing all around the mountain including under the snow, the Little Headwall is now a water fall and the vast majority of ice accumulated on the cliffs through the winter months is still clinging in place, but just barely. Though Left Gully and Hillman’s Highway hold good riding and limited consequences for mistakes, the area around the Lip, Center Bowl and Lunch Rocks in a minefield of hazards. While crevasses are still just barely open, the waterfall hole near the Lip brings images of the shark in Jaws lunging for Captain Quint….I would not want to find myself in that horrible gullet. And the ice above Lunch Rocks lurks in the shadows. I made a quick video pan of the Bowl so you can check things out and begin to consider your plans.

Hillman’s Highway and Left Gully are the best options in my mind right now. Limited hazards from ice fall, no crevasses and limited undermining combined with their length, make them a great option. Hillman’s has the advantage of the most vertical without the hike into and back out of the Bowl. The trail out of the Bowl is the only viable descent from the floor at this point. After the quick, but icy in places, hike back down to the Hermit Lake courtyard, intrepid skiers can ski about a half mile down to the rope at crossover #7 and begin the hike back to Route 16.

Weather wise the weekend begins pretty nicely with sun and clouds on Saturday with a chance of thunderstorms very late in the day.  Saturday night this chance builds and Sunday now looks like fog and rain with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms in higher terrain.  This will linger into Monday.

A Call to Arms

Tuckerman Ravine is a melting pot.  It’s one of my favorite aspects about this place.  There are beginners getting their first taste of backcountry skiing.  We see guides with clients, introducing them to advanced techniques and passing on learned skills.  There are diehard locals who are up every day for the morning or afternoon run on the Sherburne.  There are also the rockstars, the people that ski lines mere mortals dream of.  No matter which group you fall into, and these are just a small sample of the possibilities of defined groups, we all love the Ravine for various reasons.


During mid-winter, I tend to see more of a knowledgeable crowd up here.  The “avy-saavy,” the local who’s been waiting five years for the perfect powder day on Dodge’s, or the people with experience looking to push their comfort zone.  As the transition to spring occurs, the crowds increase and the ratio of inexperienced to not-inexperienced starts to swing.  Some of the winter crowd leaves, finding their way to the remote reaches of Mount Washington.  However, there are still a large number of knowledgeable skiers and adventure seekers in Tuckerman Ravine.


Many years ago, I had my greenhorn experience here in the Ravine.  The bootpack up the climber’s right wall of Left Gully seemed beyond vertical.  I MacGyvered my skis onto my pack with p-cord and PVC pipe, thinking “clampons” and ice picks were meant for climbing ice, certainly not the long-sliding fall territory I was in.  After an hour of sitting on the edge, trying to work up the courage to drop in, I made turns through the choke and then caught an edge traversing out under the Chute.  I believe the term for what happened next might be what your neighbors do on a sunny, summer Saturday morning when they’re trying to get rid of all their useless junk.  I stood up, couldn’t understand why people were cheering, tucked my tail between my legs, and found everything except my pride.


These days I stand in the courtyard or near Levy Rock and try to talk to as many people as I can, asking, “Are you aware of the avalanche hazard today?” or “Have you seen that massive tower of ice hanging above Lunch Rocks?”  But I can’t get everyone, and those that I do, the thirty seconds I have their attention for is enough for the one main hazard I need to get across, not the lifetime of experience and knowledge I want to pass on.


So I call on you, reader of the Weekend Update.  I realize how easy it is to ignore that clueless looking group heading up to sled underneath the Lip, or the group who come up every April 25th because that’s when they come up to ski Tuckerman, despite the rain, or wind, or considerable avalanche danger.  Not only are they most likely endangering their own lives, but there is a chance they are putting our lives at risk.  What if they unknowingly venture into unstable terrain above you and find that weak pocket?  What about when you hop in the bootpack up Left Gully as an access to Oakes or to the south variation of the Chute, and the Tux rookie at the top slips and takes out you and the whole line?


These are not remote possibilities, they are eventualities, unless you take five minutes out of your tour and stop and talk to that person.  There are countless lessons that could be passed on.  Basic avalanche awareness, a heads up about springtime hazards, lessons about avoiding long-sliding falls, even what gully looks like it has better conditions; you don’t have to give away the location of your secret powder stash, just a useful tip that will help someone less-experienced enjoy their day.


With my two cents now out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff.  High pressure is building in from the west, clearing the summit out of the fog for the first time in over a week.  This clearing trend looks to continue through the weekend, with clouds rolling back in Sunday afternoon, possibly bringing some precipitation on the way.  Winds will remain calm, allowing 40 degrees to actually feel like 50 in the Bowl.  Unfortunately, it appears as if those temperatures will remain above the freezing mark for most of the mountain making sloppy snow widespread.


These warm temperatures will have numerous effects on the conditions this weekend.  First, the snow will be heavy mashed potatoes, making turn initiation tough and slower speeds overall.  Second, the crevasses that formed in the second week of April that were covered up by last week’s snow are reappearing.  Yesterday, we had a report of someone booting up the Lip and punching through, suddenly finding ten feet of air below their feet.  Just this afternoon as I was traversing across under the Center Bowl, I also found a likely home for Gollum.  These crevasses tend to form primarily in the Lip, but can also be found just below any bush or rock outcropping.


The third effect of the warm temperatures, and effect that I think will be most troublesome, will be the large sluffs created by skiers.  Watching several skiers come through the Chute, Center Bowl, and Lip today, I was impressed with sluff management.  Whether they were outrunning the slow moving mass, or trending to the right or left, all skiers avoided getting caught.  Sluffs will be more of an issue in untracked terrain.  Areas such as Left or Right Gully that see constant traffic will have the loose snow cleared away more regularly, whereas if jumping the Icefall is your goal tomorrow, be aware of getting swept off the cliff by the sluff following you.  As these sluffs become more prevalent, I imagine runnels will become an issue as well.  Sluffs running down the same track over and over again create these troughs that make a narrow chute even tighter.


This weekend, let’s all go out of our way and talk to one person who looks lost.  We all had our greenhorn experience in Tuckerman Ravine.  I always look back on mine, wishing that person who just shredded the Headwall would give me any advice.  Rather than complain that it’s too crowded with inept people, let’s try to make it a place where those people learn some mountain sense, spread the word back home, and come better prepared for their next pilgrimage.

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It looks to be a great weekend.  I’m excited to see you up there. Be sure to read the advisory tomorrow morning for more discussion about the days hazards. And if you are thinking of heading outside our forecast area to ski or climb, remember that other slopes and gullies have not benefitted from the skier traffic or the helpful terrain factors that Tuckerman has, so the potential for wet loose or even wet slab avalanches should be on your mind. Some aspects around the northern Presidentials will be seeing a rapid rise in temperature to well above freezing for the first time in quite a while.