The lure of Tuckerman Ravine

  • Lisa Hoekstra’s children, Jordan and Genna, made an attempt on Tuckerman’s Ravine. COURTESY PHOTO

Wednesday, April 26, 2017 6:11PM

Stories. Hikers and outdoor adventurers always come home with stories. Funny, scary, life-altering, thrilling and inspiring, each story is uniquely owned. Two stories from my family have intrigued me for years. They are stories of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington.

My grandfather, an avid and excellent skier, skied all the East Coast mountains and the Swiss Alps from the 1930s into the 70s. He skied Tuckerman Ravine before it became the now popular badge of an experienced skier. He used real seal skins strapped to the bottom of his skis to ascend up the bowl from “Lunch Rocks,” where my supportive but risk-averse grandmother would watch him tromp up and swoosh down.

My father too has a Tuckerman story. But it’s not a story of climbing or skiing. It’s a story of flying and dropping down into the Tuckerman bowl to “slide-slip” his plane down the steep slope. He told me recently that the day he flew his small double-seater to the top of Washington was blue-sky clear and quiet. A rarity at the top of the Whites. He flew concentric circles over the summit, dropping in elevation lower and lower to test for updrafts. Feeling none, his buzzed over the top and lowered his plane sideways on the snow below the headwall of Tuckerman. And then he ever so gently slid down several hundred feet until he pulled back up and away from the Ravine.

These two stories have intrigued me and my children, Genna and Jordan, for years. I wanted to venture to this place of family history and make our own story. The thought of carrying on family tradition pumped up our courage and they strapped their snowboards to backpacks to make the hike two years ago this month, with the thought of snowboarding the slopes 75 years after their great-grandfather had.

Peter and I tagged along to record this history-making adventure. Being the over-prepared hiker that I am, I carried a 28 pound backpack, with extra gear, food, medical supplies, and shelter if needed in a crisis. I didn’t realize the Tuckerman Trail is not only well-populated, but has caches of emergency supplies at several locations along the way.

We left the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center at 8:30AM. The parking lot was already nearly full. The temperature was in the 40s and overcast but not overtly cloudy. In the valley that was the weather anyway. After the 2.4 mile trek up the wide Tuckerman Trail, as is always the case on Washington, we found a completely different weather system with snow falling, fog, and low 20s. We stopped briefly at The Hermit Lake Shelters to add extra layers and the kids tied on their snowboard boots. The next half mile to the base of the Tuckerman bowl felt harder than the previous 2.4 miles had. Steep, 8 inches of new snow, single file on a very narrow, crowded trail with people going both directions. Many hikers had snowboards or skis strapped to their backs that swung way too close to other hikers going the opposite direction.

This was not the hike I had envisioned!! I hadn’t planned on this family story including a bunch of strangers on the same mission, literally vying for space on the trail.

When we arrived at the base of the Ravine, the Lunch Rocks were barely visible. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see up into the bowl at all. One of the several guides patrolling the Ravine approached us and sternly asked what our intentions were. Wasn’t it obvious from the snowboards what my children had come for? He asked if they had avalanche beacons. No. Ice pick? No. He “highly advised” not riding the slopes. The avalanche risk was considerable, and without the proper gear, he wasn’t excited about lodging a rescue mission for “unprepared boarders.” That got my attention.

Jordan was still game to hike up just a little way and slide down, just to be able to say he had snowboarded Tuckerman. He wanted a story to tell! Genna, not so much. She said aloud that she’d like to walk down the aisle for her wedding coming up in two months. Not hobble on crutches or worse.

The guide nodded at this wisdom, and offered to take our picture, for memory sake.

He then suggested taking the snowboards down the Sherburne Ski Trail, which parallels the Tuckerman Trail. At least then they could lay claim to riding a part of Mt Washington! So we headed back to where they could catch Sherburne at the Hermit Lake Shelters. The packed trail going down was treacherous. The downhill hikers not only were walking thru slippery snow, but everyone’s right foot was on the edge of a very steep ravine. Each foot fall sent mini-avalanches down the slope to our right.

More than once my right foot slid several inches off the edge. I fell three times with the weight of my pack pulling me off-balance. I was shaking by the time we stopped at the shelters.

Jordan and Genna strapped on their boards and quickly disappeared thru the trees and down onto the slope of the Sherburne Trail. Peter and I continued descending on the Tuckerman Trail. Once in a while we caught a glimpse through the trees of other people skiing and riding. It looked like a lot of starting, taking one or two turns, then stopping. We could hear the scrapping of ski edges on rocks and ice. We heard yelling. I did not like this one bit. I had handed Genna my First Aid bag for her to carry before they went down, praying they wouldn’t need it. We finally reached the bottom of the snow line and within a few minutes they emerged from the woods. Because of the extreme conditions, it had taken the same amount of time for them to ride the trail as it had for Peter and me to walk the same distance.

But, they were smiling and in one piece. And they had boarded Mount Washington! I felt physically and emotionally exhausted by the time we reached the parking lot, shed our layers and packed all the gear into the car. It had been a difficult hike, with too heavy a pack, when my body wasn’t yet in shape for the load. And it had been an emotional day thinking about my grandfather’s and father’s stories of this magical yet unforgiving place of lore. I hadn’t before felt fear on a hike like I did that day – fear for my own and my family’s safety. But, we now too have a story to share. Maybe one day I’ll hike to Tuckerman Ravine with my grandchildren and tell them the family stories of generations past. If I do that though, I think we will hike in the summer.

Lisa Hoekstra is a Peterborough resident, a Registered Nurse and hikes for mental and physical health. She hopes her “Footnotes” column inspires readers to get out in the woods and find joy and peace there.