Hikes: Tuckerman Ravine
Forrest Berkley conceived of the hike and Bill Yedor and I were willing participants, as we shrugged off our out-of-shape bellies and tender joints. The slopes up the White Mountains were steep and we were mentally prepared for the hike: muscle memory from many similar climbs in other parts of the country. We prayed that our legs felt the same preparation. It was late August and hot on the ridge top of Mt. Washington that day. Forrest had decided that a trip up to Mt. Washington and down Tuckerman Ravine was the perfect antidote to the “not enough hiking blues.” We allowed him to sing the song and we whistled along. Forrest had booked reservations at the campsites and cabins the night before hitting the summit and the night after cresting the peak, so he kept us hiking briskly to stay on schedule. The number of people we saw on the trail was surprisingly light as we spotted only a few others who were jockeying for position on the trails. That tranquility lasted until we came hit the summit and walked out of the trees.
In front of us, cheek-to-jowl, were cars, lots of them. It looked like a parking lot at a bus station. The vehicles were carrying New England gentility, or as Vince Bagli, my father-in-law, would say, “the Great Unwashed,” to the top of the tallest peak in the mountain range. Gazing out at the expansive parking lot, and the steady stream of cars coming and going, we were in shock. And so were the tourists who spotted us, it seemed: we had spent the better part of a weekend scaling the White Mountains’ Presidentials to arrive to this peak. It had taken the drivers less than an hour to get here. All of the drivers looked at us in our hiking/backpack finery as if we were mad: why hike up here when you can drive up and get the same view in the convenience of your car? We smelled pretty bad, we should admit, but we stayed down wind. They will never get it.
We were here for more than the summit, after all. We had the Ravine to look forward to and we soon were soon all about the descent.
Traffic Jam at the Summit
The Ravine Story
Best known today for its prodigious snowfalls and extended ski season, Tuckerman Ravine is a Mecca for winter sport enthusiasts who love extreme skiing and snowboarding. The steep cliffs of the Ravine are atypical for New England, offering slopes that are usually reserved for Colorado and Utah. First traversed by Germans and other Europeans who carried their skies up the long walk, it is an extraordinary basin. The canyon that holds the Ravine, carved out as a glacier cirque, was created at a radically steep pitch, particularly for a mountain range with the reputation of the “more-rounded” Appalachians. The ski season in the White Mountains has been known to go into early summer, before the snow becomes too soft or the rocks too exposed for a safe descent.
The Ravine was named after the Amherst botany professor, Edward Tuckerman, who scoured the White Mountains during the 1830’s and 1840’s. He studied the alpine plants and lichens and documented his findings in manuscripts later collected at Amherst College, where he taught history, botany, and lichenology for the majority of his career. Professor Tuckerman is said to have “discovered the ravine” through his extensive field work on lichens, and that sounds fair enough, at least to an area that more often named peaks after Presidents than gullies after professors.
Of historical note, Henry David Thoreau, drawn to the area by stories about beautiful Mt. Washington, visited the Ravine in 1858 and immediately sprained his ankle on the granite boulders. As if a precursor to mishaps yet to come, Thoreau’s guide started a fire. The flames quickly grew out of control, burning the trees on the floor of the Ravine to a crisp. So it goes, sometimes.
The Ravine is a little-known spur used by hikers of the Appalachian Trail coming down from or climbing Mount Washington. Weekend hikes to the top of Mt. Washington usually start from either the basin of Tuckerman Ravine or the Lakes of the Clouds hut (our route). In either case, it is not for the faint of heart. The wind and clouds can rattle people of all ages and all levels of experience. Tuckerman Ravine owes it fame to its unpredictable weather conditions, as it faces to the Southeast. The prevailing winds swoop ferociously across the adjacent mountains. Jeffrey Leich, Director of the New England Ski Museum, describes ski season in this great snow gully “when winter winds sweep volumes of snow off the alpine lawns of Mt. Washington and funnel great accumulations into this cirque.”
The Wind Velocity
Mt. Washington is also famous for having recorded the highest wind velocity on earth. During a particularly fierce wind storm in 1934, the brave crew at the Mt. Washington Observatory recorded gusts to 231 mph. As the sign above proclaims, that is a world record (at least its the highest speed up to this point in history). The winter storms and accompanying winds dump an average snowpack of 55 feet into the surrounding ravines and the snowpack brings the skiers. The skiers, it seems, bring the thrill of danger, and the agony of ice. There have been 10 deaths recorded in Tuckerman Ravine, most due to avalanches which crushed the unwitting day skiers in its descending debris.
Year of the Tall Ships and more
Our hike, which was in 1976, was a test of our lungs, our knees and our weekend warrior status. The hike won, but so did we. The views from the summit, over four thousand feet above our starting elevation, were expansive and glorious, once the clouds passed and the winds died down.
Bill Yedor remembers the season pretty well, these many years later and he set the scene: “It was the summer of the tall ships in the big cities: Forrest was a paralegal at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York; Henry was working on the fundraising campaign for Yale; and I was reconciling payroll checking accounts for an outfit that made designer jeans in factories located in South Carolina. It was the era of the Moonies. They were everywhere, even sweeping Manhattan (literally… they would march out three abreast in white overalls with push brooms through Times Square.)” Hiking took our minds off the day-to-day business and into a different place of solitude.
Resting atop Mt. Washington
We made it to the top and were psyched for a respite, but still had to make it down over 4,000 feet through the Ravine and to our car. Easier said than done. In summer the Southeast facing Ravine is in the direct sunlight nearly all day and even with modest cloud cover, the UV rays come through and it heats up. The hikers on our trip had not toughened up our bodies to sleep on wooden plank beds and Therma-rest cushions. Yedor recalls “being very hot, tired, sore, hungry, sore and did I say sore?” We were not expecting to see all those cars at the top, but were even more surprised to see kids with ice cream dripping down their chins. We had just bouldered our way onto the parking lot, but before we could avail ourselves of the delights of late 20th Century park service goodies, Forrest announced we had to leave immediately to secure our spot on the floor of a hut at Pinkham Notch.” Forrest also reminded us that the hut was at the bottom of Tuckerman Ravine.
White Mountain Cabin during CCC era
The food on our trip was excellent. When we arrived at our cabins, Forrest took over the meal duties and cooked atop our Seva and MSR stoves (Forrest has always been a master chef on sabbatical). The freeze dried delights were carb heavy, which really hit the spot. The water was plentiful on the trip, to the point where we were able to bathe in it. The winter that year left the streams running high all summer long.
Forrest braves a 50 degree bath
The only thing we really had to complain about was our hiking pace, which aggravated our old sports injuries. Bill Yedor acted as though the downhill parts whacked the pain button on his bony, rugby-thrashed knees. At one point I thought that we would need to get a litter for Bill: one knee started to scream more than the other, then vice-versa. His bandanna moved from being tied to his head to his knee and back a few times during the descent. He hobbled along with a pine branch as a cane, and made the most of a tough situation. In self-defense Bill added, “Cut me some slack! My knee didn’t completely crater until about half-way through day two. I lasted pretty well up until that point.”
The Bouldering view back up the Ravine
The trails to Pinkham Notch were steady in some areas and completely overgrown and rocky in others, as if some mid-Depression CCC road crews had worked on them, then gave up in spots because there was too much granite: Your Tax Dollars at Work! We survived it, and lived to see another day.
Not so lucky were some other visitors to Tuckerman Ravine. As we glanced over at the Sherburne Ski Trail, adjacent to the Ravin hiking trail, we spotted some crosses painted on rocks and others affixed into rocky cairns. These appeared to be death markers on the side of the trail. We surmised that the markers were for those live free or die dare devils who had lost their lives in the descent of Tuckerman Ravine! There didn’t seem to be hikers listed among the dead, but that may be because of quick reading. In any case the skiers and show-boarders have a faster and more dangerous descent than the hikers. RIP!
Cross is the mist
The red crosses appeared to be markers for aerial relief. They were placed in unusual spots that could be missed from the ground, as if some helicopters flew over, dropped ropes, lowered braces and gondolas and hauled the injured to a nearby trauma hospital. There was really nowhere to land.
Fortunately, there were no serious casualties to our hiking weekend and we lived to see another day. It is cathartic to talk about the scaling of Mt. Washington, camping on the ridges, and climbing down Tuckerman Ravine. It makes me rub my knees just to think about it. It definitely put our minds off other matters and on to some majestic scenery. The weekend was just what we could have asked for: a strenuous and great weekend of hiking. Bill and I only wish we had stopped for ice cream.
Thanks, Forrest. Great stuff.
 Edward Tuckerman lost his hearing early in his teaching career and he resorted to field research in botany which he conducted for many years, going to the Bering Strait, the Missouri River, the Yellowstone River and all over New England. http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/amherst/ma43.html
The highest points in the White Mountains are named after US Presidents: Washington, Adams, Monroe, Madison, Jefferson, Pierce, Eisenhower, and Jackson among them. The Ravines named for Tuckerman and Huntington are the most famous, but there are also Ammonoosuc Ravine, King Ravine, and Jobildunk Ravine, along with named Gulfs. http://www.summitpost.org/ravines-gulfs-of-the-white-mountains-nh/176426