Recreational History of Tuckerman Ravine
The following history is from Over the Headwall: Nine Decades of Skiing in Tuckerman Ravine by Jeffrey R. Leich. Jeffrey is the Director of the New England Ski Museum and an avid skier of Tuckerman Ravine.
Perched on the southeastern side of Mt. Washington is Tuckerman Ravine, a glacial cirque, small by the standards of higher mountains, that has an outsized reputation in the ski world. Attracting notice when skiing was young for the prodigious depths of its snowfields formed when winter winds sweep volumes of snow off the alpine lawns of Mt. Washington and funnel great accumulations into this cirque, Tuckerman Ravine would became a springtime mecca to skiers seeking to extend the ski season, and in the process would become the birthplace of what is today called extreme skiing.
Named after botanist Edward Tuckerman who studied alpine plants and lichens in the area in the 1830’s and 1840’s, this ravine exerted a pull on the earliest visitors to the White Mountains. Henry David Thoreau visited in 1858, and in a prelude to the mishaps that would befall some later visitors, he sprained his ankle, and suffered intense embarrassment when his guide started a forest fire that swept the floor of the ravine.
Since 1916, the ravine and the surrounding ranges of the White Mountains have been owned and managed by the White Mountain National Forest. Few skiers came to Tuckerman before the Pinkham Notch road was plowed in the winter in the later 1920’s, but by the mid-1930’s hundreds, then thousands could be found there on sunny spring weekends. Then as now, skiing in Tuckerman Ravine required a hike of about three miles over primitive foot trails to reach the ski runs. No ski lifts have ever been built, or even seriously proposed, in this raw alpine location.
The first use of skis on Mt Washington was by a Dr. Wiskott of Breslau, Germany who skied on the mountain in 1899.
The first known ascent of the mountain on skis came in 1913, when Fred Harris and two other members of a large party of newly-formed Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) skied all the way up the carriage road. Dartmouth skiers would pioneer new ski routes on Mt. Washington for the next thirty-five years.
The first man on skis in Tuckerman Ravine was not from Dartmouth however, and is little-known in the White Mountains today. John S. Apperson of Schenectady, New York, who visited the raving in April 1914, was an active and well-known climber, skier, and environmentalist in the Adirondack Mountains and made the first ski ascent of Mt. Marcy in 1911.
In the mid 1920’s a few parties entered Tuckerman Ravine on skis, staying on the lower slopes. Joe Dodge, hutmaster of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Camp at the trailhead to the ravine, was an early visitor on skis along with Albert Sise, who would do much to develop master’s racing and remained an active skier into the 1980’s.
In the late 1920’s, skiers came to Tuckerman a little more frequently as accessibility improved due to winter plowing of the highway through Pinkham Notch. Skiing was becoming more popular as clubs such as the DOC and AMC involved more people in the sport.
John Carleton and Charley Proctor were both Dartmouth skiers, and both had skied for the US in the winter Olympics, Carleton in 1924 and Proctor in 1928. Frequent companions on ski trips to the ravine, they decided on April 11, 1931 after a run in Right Gully, to attempt skiing the headwall. They climbed up the route now called the Lip to the top of the headwall, and then making jump turns in breakable crust, skied down over the 45-degree snow wall. Carleton fell high up on the run and recovered, while Proctor kept on his feet for the whole run.
One week later, on April 19, 1931, a group of Harvard skiers became the first to ski from the summit down over the headwall, Robert Livermore, Brad Trafford, and Robert Balch spent a week camping in the road’s summit office and skied extensively above timberline. This group would go on to found the Hochgebirge Ski Club that would become instrumental in the development of skiing and ski racing in New England.
In the next few years, Otto Schiebs’ Dartmouth skiers – Dick and Jack Durrance, Warren and Howard Chivers, Sel Hannah, Ed Wells, Harold Hillman, Ted Hunter, and Steve and Dave Bradley – made frequent visits to the ravine and probably made the earliest descents of the Left Gully, the Chute and one of the Center Wall routes, at better than 50 degrees some of the steepest routes in the ravine.
With the 1930’s came the Depression. John Carleton was instrumental in convincing the Civilian Conservation Corps to cut downhill ski trails in the White Mountains, and one, the John Sherburne Trail, was cut from the floor of the ravine to the Pinkham Notch Road. Also built was a skier’s warming hut at Hermit Lake. Its roofline was similar to the Howard Johnson’s roadside restaurants then springing up in New England, and it was soon nicknamed HoJo’s.
In the 1930’s skiing was a booming sport. As the decade progressed, increased publicity about skiing, the availability of formal ski instruction, ski trains, and mechanical ski tows all brought new recruits to the sport. No longer the exclusive preserve of club skiers and college teams, skiing attracted a wider group, and those new skiers made their way to Tuckerman in large numbers. In the early 1930’s it was common for a group a skiers to have the massive bowl to themselves, but by mid-decade there would be hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of skiers in the ravine on a clear spring day.
The sudden influx of visitors to the area, still in the grip of the Depression, quickly attracted the notice of the local business community, and it wasn’t long before spring skiing in Tuckerman Ravine was being promoted by local chambers of commerce, the State of New Hampshire, and the Forest Service.
Races held in the 1930’s attracted large groups of spectators and skiers, and provided a chance to mingle with others in the small fellowship of the ski world. Harvard-Dartmouth slaloms, Olympic tryouts, and giant slaloms all were held in the ravine in the 30’s. But the races that caught the imagination more than any other, the races that still are talked about by Tuckerman skiers, were the three American Infernos of the 1930’s.
Just two years after the headwall was first run in 1931, the Ski Club Hochgebrige proposed a summit-to-base race on Mt. Washington, to be called the American inferno, named for a similar race held in Mürren, Switzerland.
The heavy snowpack of 1933 had piled up in Tuckerman Ravine so deeply that the angle of the slope was lessened enough to make the race practical. On April 16, 1933 the first Inferno was run, from the summit down Right Gully through the ravine and down the hiking trail to Pinkham Notch. The winner was Hollis Philips, with a time of 14:41.3.
The race was held again the next year, with young racing sensation Dick Durrance, who had learned t ski in Europe, the winner in 12:35.0. This time the race entered the ravine over the precipitous Lip of the Headwall; Durrance, like most of the racers in 1933, had never skied the Headwall before the race.
The third American Inferno was held April 16, 1939, with forty-two skiers taking part. To reach the start of the race they had to hike the four miles and four thousand vertical feet up the course. On reaching the summit they waited in a shack called Camden Cottage until the decision was made to hold the race in spite of the cold temperatures and 60-mile-per-hour winds.
Among the racers was Toni Matt, a young Austrian skin instructor, who had spent the winter working for the Eastern Slope Ski School at Mt. Cranmore. Though he had bib number 4, Matt ran third, ahead of Dick Durrance, who had to adjust his equipment at the last moment. The wind was blowing so hard at the start that matt just needed to lift his poles at the signal, and the gusts started him on his way.
Matt had only been on Mt. Washington once before, on a foggy day. On his hike up he planned to make three turns over the steepest part of the Headwall, then straighten out for the outrun. As he neared the Lip of the Headwall in the race he made his three turns and straightened, only to discover that he was just approaching the steepest part. With no chance now to turn he rode out his schuss down the precipitous slope, thrilling the many spectators in the Bowl. Shooting across the ravine floor, down the Little Headwall and on down the Sherburne ski trail, Matt finished in 6:29.2, cutting the old record almost in half.
Matt’s unplanned feat became the talk of the ski world. A few others have run the Headwall straight from a standing start, before and after Matt- Norwegian jumper Sigmund Ruud in 1932, and several competitors in the shortened 1952 Inferno- but none have captured the imagination of Tuckerman skiers like the legendary Toni Matt. Recalling the event in later years, Matt stated that the sensation of high speed came to him at the transition from the steep wall to the flat floor of the ravine; he felt lucky to be “nineteen, stupid, and have strong legs”.
Brooks Dodge, son of Joe Dodge, grew up with the ravine in his backyard. As a teenager in the mid and late 1940’s dodge was drawn to ski in the ravine, but felt a need for a technique that would allow for shorter, more precise turns. Practicing in the ravine, he perfected a two pole turn in which he planted both poles, jumped his tails off the snow while keeping his tips brushing the surface and his upper body facing downhill, then pivoted his skis into an edgeset and prepared for a new turn. This turn allowed Dodge to skin in a narrow corridor while maintaining tight control of the vertical drop of each turn in the steep gullies of the ravine. When he started using his new technique, six routes in the ravine had been skied. Through the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Dodge pioneered a dozen new routes, the steepest and narrowest of the gullies in Tuckerman.