Tuckerman Ravine is a backcountry skiing adventure that will test both parent and child.
Maybe it’s the history. Tuckerman Ravine was first skied in 1914 and was the site of the first downhill ski race in North America, “The American Inferno.” Maybe it’s the rugged beauty. Even Westerners admit that Tucks is as craggy and extreme as anything in the Rockies or High Sierra. And over the years, sharing this magical place with my children has been an enormous privilege.
Before you go & where to stay?
First, the basics: Tuckerman Ravine is on the southeast side of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. At 6,288 feet, no one is going to struggle with altitude sickness in northern New Hampshire; but “The Rockpile" makes up for its lack of altitude with a significant dose of attitude. The mountain is home to some of the worst weather on the planet: 200+ mph winds, subzero temperatures, plus snow, ice, and rain every month of the year. I’m really selling it, aren’t I?!
You can imagine what all that weather does to the snowpack. For most of the winter, Washington is sheathed in a bullet-hard case of wind slab; but because Tucks is a deep glacial cirque on the lee side of the mountain, those hurricane-force winds strip the mountain clean and deposit snow from above tree line down into the Bowl. In the soft days of spring, this deep, rich snowpack corns up beautifully.
Tuckerman Ravine is backcountry skiing. There are no lodges or lifts to carry you to the top. This is vertical that you have to earn, so the preparation for this trip begins months in advance. You need to make sure you and your kids are ready for the 2-½-mile hike into the Bowl. The trail rises about 2,500 feet along the way. You’ll need to carry your ski equipment, extra clothes, and bad-weather gear. I’ve seen a bluebird day cloud up and get cold suddenly, making the folks with just light pants and t-shirts pretty miserable.
KidTripster Tip: Because of the physical requirements, your children should be at least 10 years old and at least 65 pounds. They also should be intermediate skiers, although people do hike up with just sleds.
You’ll need a good backpack that has a way to strap in your skis. You can clip your boots into the bindings after they’re attached. Strap your ski tips together and slide your helmet over the A-frame. You’ll want a helmet while climbing and skiing in the Ravine. Long-sliding falls are common, and there are a lot of prominent rock outcroppings. You can use your ski poles for balance as you hike up. And pack your sunscreen. When the sun is reflecting off the snow on the bottom and sides of the Ravine, the temperature can be 40 degrees warmer inside the Bowl than outside.
Your ski gear will weigh about 20 pounds, and the pack and extra clothes (fleece, wind shell, extra socks) will add at least another ten. So there’s 30 reasons to get in shape before you head up. The trail is wide and easy to follow with no severe pitches. For most of the hike, you’re deep in the woods with the trail following the Cutler River. It’s better early in the spring, when the snow covers the rocks as hiking on snow is easier than picking your way over boulders. After a couple hours, you reach HoJo’s, the caretaker’s residence. That’s where the latest advisories are posted, and where you’ll get your first close-up views of the Bowl.
KidTripster Tip: There is a volunteer-staffed snow patrol testing the snowpack, posting avalanche advisories, and maintaining five first-aid caches in the area. They’re always willing to offer advice.
We decided to camp up at HoJo’s in an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) lean-to for $10/night. You eat what you carry up. I went with my 15-year-old son and his friend. The camping gear (sleeping bag, pad, and camp stove) added another 20 pounds to each of our packs. My son complained that I put more of the heavy stuff in his pack. Hey, if he didn’t want to carry it, he should have been the one organizing things, right? If camping isn’t your thing, the Joe Dodge Lodge or any of the hotels in the valley work just fine. The Colonial Motel in North Conway is an especially good value.
KidTripster Tip: Lean-to’s can’t be reserved in advance, but you can pay for your spot at the visitor center near the parking lot on the morning of your climb.
What to do?
We dropped our packs and headed into the Bowl. Our objective was to ski the Right Gully, sometimes called the bunny hill of the Ravine; it’s a good first ski though its steepest pitch is about 40-degrees. The snow was a soft, wet corn with a firm foundation. Perfect! Easy to turn, easy to navigate. But it was foggy; we could barely see the entrances into the gullies as we started up the sides of the Bowl.
Climbing the slopes of Tuckerman Ravine is an experience in itself. So many people have gone before that there are “boot ladders” that help you space your steps. These are essential when the slopes are icy. Many skiers clip crampons onto their ski boots and carry an ice axe. I settle for adjustable ski poles that can shorten in steeper terrain. I’m happy to keep my skis attached to my pack, but some folks still carry them over their shoulder in the traditional manner. I find that as I get older, my balance isn’t as good as it used to be. Also, the young people seem to climb faster every year.
Towards the top of the Gully is a “boot platform.” That’s where lots of folks have kicked a flat spot into the slope in order to put their skis on. When we reached the top, we celebrated - me, by catching my breath and the boys by pulling out a kite!
Eventually, we pushed off. Skiing etiquette in the Ravine dictates that the skiers descend one at a time, so that there aren’t too many folks moving at once, and if someone does blow a turn and start to tumble, the climbers can get out the way. The skiing was beautiful. The fog started to clear. We could occasionally catch a view of the rest of the Ravine. The splendor seemed almost more special, coming as it did in peeks and glimpses. Down, down we glided - tight turns through the Gully, broad curves to the floor of the bowl. We then picked and poked our way through dwarf birch trees down the Little Headwall to our lean-to, a carb-rich dinner, and warm sleeping bags.
The next morning was one of those bluebird days that you dream of: clear, cool with a firm surface just ready to corn up in the sun’s rays. This time, we headed up Hillman’s Highway - a long, steady slope to the south of Tucks. It’s not in the Ravine proper, but it is popular and one of the loveliest natural slopes anywhere. We were proud to be some of the first folks headed up the long climb – not bad for a middle-aged man and two growing teenage boys, for whom sleep is sometimes more dear than food.
After lunch at the campsite, we loaded our packs and skied down the Sherburne Ski Trail to Pinkham Notch. The Sherbie is a great run all by itself — 2,500 feet of vertical and 2-1/2 miles long. We were able to glide all the way to the parking lot.
The thing about backcountry skiing is that the memories are never really adequate. Carving down a slope and sharing grins and fist-bumps at the bottom can’t be held onto after the fact. Pictures and videos evoke feelings, but they can never capture the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration that accompany a classic descent. Most people don’t get why we would hike and climb for hours just to ski for 30 minutes. But anyone who has had an epic day away from the lifts and crowds understands. It’s not the adrenaline, although there’s no denying the rush. It’s not even the skiing itself. It’s sharing something unique and ineffable with your child - an accomplishment where you push your bodies, your psyche, and your skills to their limits on a mountain that’s harsh and unforgiving. This time, the Rockpile relented and gave us a great day.
From Gotham, head south on Highway 16 for 13 miles. If you have a GPS on board, plug in “Pinkham Notch.”
For newbies, click here for more information and current trip reports. You should also check out weather conditions and the latest avalanche bulletin at the Mount Washington Observatory webpage.
Finally, I’d recommend David Goodman’s guidebook, Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski Tours In New England And New York.
Doug Tengdin is the father of six children and lives in Hanover, New Hampshire. In his day job, he manages investment portfolios and blogs at here. From his office, he stares longingly at posters of Mt. Washington and Tuckerman Ravine all day.