Tech Tip- How Not to Fall while Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

With the arrival of April the Spring skiing (and falling) season has started in Tuckerman Ravine. After watching a couple tumble almost 500 feet down “The Lip” yesterday I thought some advice on fall prevention might be prudent.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Approximate fall

First tip…

Timing

The snow conditions in Tuckerman Ravine vary greatly this time of year from day to day and often hour to hour. The best type of snow for descending this time of year is referred to as “corn snow”. This is snow that has undergone multiple freeze thaw cycles and looks like little kernels of corn. Backcountry skiers jest that we are “harvesting corn” when the conditions are good. But corn snow is all about timing.

Try to ski too early in the season or the day and the corn hasn’t formed yet. Conditions that promote the formation of good corn snow are close or above freezing temperatures, strong solar radiation, and low winds. Try too ski to late in the day when the sun has dipped below the ridge will often find that the soft buttery edge-able forgiving corn has quickly transformed back into a frozen mess. Literally minutes can make a difference in how a run will ski.

So how do you hit it at the right time? First, you check the Higher Summits Forecast before you even leave Pinkham Notch. You’re hoping that the forecasted temps are at least in the mid to upper 20’s and that summit winds are under 50 mph. You also want to see “Mostly Sunny” or “In The Clear”. Overcast days are not for harvesting corn.

Next you should check the Current Summit Conditions. Specifically what you want from this page is the temperature “profile” that shows what the temperatures are at various elevations on the mountain, wind speeds, and sky condition. This page, along with the Higher Summits Forecast, are both bookmarked on my iPhone for quick daily reference.

Spring Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
MWOBS Current Conditions Page- The ski terrain in the ravine is roughly between 4,200 and 5,200 feet in elevation

Ideally temps in the Ravine will be at or above freezing, winds will be low, and the sky will be mostly clear. The lower charts help identify trends. In the above example the winds have died to almost nothing, temperatures are increasing, and barometric pressure has risen and is holding steady (indicating not a big change for the rest of the day). Visibility however is only 1/8 of a mile with some snow and freezing fog (shown under “weather”)… this means no corn today.

Finally, to determine when the slope you want to descend will lose the sun you have a few tools at your disposal. During trip planning you can use CalTopo’s “Sun Exposure” layer to see when certain aspects and runs will lose the sun. In this example you can see what areas still have sun at 2 PM today.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

While actually out skiing you could also use an app like PeakFinder AR. An example of how I might use this app would be climbing up Right Gully and deciding to go ski in the East Snowfields for a bit before returning to descend Right Gully. Halfway up the gully, near the steepest pitch, I open up the PeakFinder app and find the path of the sun. Where it intersects the ridge the app will mark the exact time the sun will go below the ridge line (often an hour or more before true sunset). I know now what time I need to be through this spot if I still want soft snow!

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
This screenshot is not from Right Gully, but demonstrates the capability

Next up let’s look at…

Gear

Later in the season there will likely be established “boot ladders” where dozens, or hundreds, of other visitors will have kicked deep steps into the 40 to 50 degree slopes allowing people to ascend these slopes with little extra gear.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
A well established boot ladder- photo from OutdoorTripReports.com

However, some of these items could really make a difference early in the season, or later in the day, and also could allow you to travel outside of the established boot ladder, which would make you less of a sitting duck if someone higher up looses their footing. First, the most important…

Helmet!

Skida Headwear Review
The author preparing to descend from 4900 feet in Tuckerman Ravine during mid-winter conditions

Most skiers these days wear helmets at ski resorts while ripping fast groomers and shredding pow in the glades but then many choose not to wear a helmet while skiing in Tuckerman Ravine (which has much more objective hazards than a controlled ski resort). Head injuries can occur from falls, collisions with other skiers, and occasionally falling ice and/or rocks. Most ski helmets though are too hot for a 50 degree sunny day in the ravine, so consider buying or borrowing a well ventilated climbing helmet. The new Petzl Boreo Helmet is an excellent choice at a great price and offers more side impact and lower back protection than most climbing helmets. You can pick one up locally at both International Mountain Equipment and Eastern Mountain Sports.

Mountaineering Axe

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Crampons and a mountaineering axe provide security on steep firm slopes- photo by Brent Doscher

When the professional rangers of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center say that “long sliding falls” are a specific hazard today one would be wise to carry, and know how to use, a mountaineering axe to arrest or prevent a fall. This would be in hand during the ascent with your ski poles strapped to your pack (baskets up). While there are many models that will suit this purpose I am currently carrying the Black Diamond Raven Ultra Ice Axe which is incredibility light-weight (12 ounces) yet still has a steel head and pick. Lots of experienced skiers like the added flexibility of carrying a Black Diamond Whippet Pole instead of a full fledged mountaineering axe, and if snow conditions are soft enough this can be a great option.

Crampons

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Petzl LLF Crampons- photo from Petzl.com

While an established boot pack might feel secure leaving the boot back or taking the path less traveled may require some traction. Micro-spikes might be helpful on the lower angled hiking trail below Hermit Lake (Hojo’s) but won’t cut it in 40 degree terrain. For snowboard boots check out the Black Diamond Neve Strap Crampons. For those who count ounces and wear technical touring boots my current favorite is the feather-weight Petzl Leopard LLF Crampons.

Education

skiing Tuckerman Ravine
The author heads into steeper terrain in the Gulf of Slides, Mount Washington- photo by Erik Howes

If you would like to take a course in basic crampon and mountaineering axe technique I teach a one-day skills course at Northeast Mountaineering. I also offer Backcountry Skiing Skills Courses along with Ski Mountaineering and this is the perfect time of year to attend one of these courses! Contact me at nealpinestart@gmail.com for availability.

Resources

Higher Summits Forecast

Current Summit Conditions

Mount Washington Avalanche Center

Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol

Time for Tuckerman

Friends of Tuckerman Ravine

Granite Backcountry Alliance

Ski the Whites

Summary

Skiing (and falling) in Tuckerman Ravine is a time-honored tradition and rite-of-passage for many East Coast and beyond skiers. YouTube is full of videos of these falls. Some result in no injury, others result in “snow rash”, bruises, cuts, broken bones, a least one LifeFlight, and occasional fatalities, one of which was exactly 8 years ago. Hopefully the above advice can help prevent a few of these from happening this season. There is a lot of fun and sun to be had in the next few weeks in Tuckerman Ravine but let’s be sure we respect the hazards that exist in our wild places.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Exploring a new slide path

The final days of October 2017 brought over 6 inches of rain from the remnants of Tropical Storm Philippe to Mount Washington which resulted in major flooding all over the Saco River Valley (which had risen to 14 feet above flood stage!). It also apparently ripped a nice new slide path near Burt Ravine on the west side of Mount Washington, only 10 minutes from the Cog Railway.

Backcountry Skiing Mount Washington
The 10 minute bushwhack to a 500 foot new slide path

I came across this path a couple days ago while exiting Burt Ravine and noticed it looked quite fresh but didn’t really put it together that it was only 5 months old until I got home and did a little research. While I’m sure a local or two has likely quietly grabbed the first descent I needed to get back and put a run in on this new path pronto, and this morning I made it happen.

Here’s the skinny…

I skinned up the Cog reaching Waumbek Tank in about 30 minutes. At 3,920 feet I picked up our skin track from a couple days prior and contoured/bushwacked back to the slide path (ten minute bushwhack). This skin track enters the slide at mid-path, so I set in some kick-turns and climbed up to about 4,200 feet, the high point on the path.

Backcountry Skiing Mount Washington
Skinning up the young slide path with the Jewell Trail ridge across the way

From here the run drops 500 feet to the south most tributary of Clay Brook, the main brook fed from Burt Ravine.  The average slope angle was 30 degrees with a max pitch of 34 degrees and is an almost true NW aspect.

Backcountry Skiing Mount Washington
Details from the top of the slide path
Backcountry Skiing Mount Washington
The run, courtesy of CalTopo
Backcountry Skiing Mount Washington
Looking back up the path from about mid-path
Backcountry Skiing Mount Washington
The lower half of the path. There is a split that goes left out of frame that had a set of tracks in it that continued down Clay Brook

I skinned back up to the established bushwhack and exited back to the Cog, reaching the car in amount 2 hours and 20 minutes from departure.

Given I waited about 20 or more minutes for some friends to arrive before dropping I would say this would be pretty easy to hit car-to-car in 2 hours. It’s a really nice little run that is super accessible (though it costs $10 to park at Marshfield Station). New slides like this are so exciting. While extreme weather can have devastating effects on life & property the power of Mother Nature can also open up new ski terrain from time to time, and this little shot in the woods is well worth the effort.

Next time I head there I will try the bushwhack from the Switch House along the 4,200 contour so I can come in from the top, though the lower traverse would still be the easiest way out. I also want to go ahead and ski out Clay Brook to the Jewell Trail but I’ll be doing that on a day where I don’t have an early turn around time set.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Weekend Report- AIARE 1 Avalanche Course, Bates Outing Club, Backcountry Ski Festival, 2 Avalanche Accidents

Holy smokes what an amazing last four days and another Nor’Easter, the third one in 10 days, hits tomorrow!


Thursday

I spent Thursday at Wildcat wrapping up a Northeast Mountaineering Guides AIARE 1 Avalanche Course. It was a true powder day and we got in 3 solid laps including Thompson Brook while making snow-pack and weather observations and getting in some Companion Rescue practice.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Checking layers in a wind loaded aspect near the summit of Wildcat
AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Making some turns in Thompson Brook- photo by @cfphotography

Friday

On Friday I met 7 students from the Bates College Outing Club at our classroom space at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center. Due to epic field conditions we focused on covering the majority of classroom on our first day so we could get two full field days in over the weekend.


Saturday

Saturday morning we met at the Northeast Mountaineering Bunkhouse to learn a little about Companion Rescue before working up a trip plan to Hermit Lake and potentially into Hillman’s Highway. The mountain was quite busy with traffic as this weekend was also the 2nd Annual Mt. Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, a killer event hosted by Synnott Mountain Guides and Ragged Mountain Equipment.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Busy day at Pinkham Notch!

As our class arrived at Hermit Lake a member of Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol informed us of two avalanche incidents that had just occurred. A skier in Gulf of Slides had triggered a slab avalanche and been carried in the “middle finger”. No injuries reported but he lost a ski and had a long trip back to Pinkham Notch. The 2nd incident was two skiers getting hit by a natural avalanche in Hillman’s Highway while they were ascending. They reported being carried about a 100 or so feet but were also not injured.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Chatting with Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and Andrew Drummond of Ski The Whites

We decided to head up that way and see if we could spot the avalanche debris. Just past the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s we could see a small debris pile about 100 feet above the dogleg. We climbed up a bit further before transitioning to our descent. We enjoyed some pretty epic powder on the Sherburne Ski Trail, especially when we ducked into the woods on the right side at a few spots!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Hillman’s Highway Tour

After we debriefed our tour at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center I headed to the vendor gathering at Ragged Mountain Equipment and enjoyed a cold one courtesy of event sponsor Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery. I bumped into a few former avalanche course students who were attending the festival and it was great to catch up and see them out there getting after it!

I then made my way over to the Apres party at Beak Peak Base Lodge where Tyler Ray of Granite Backcountry Alliance kicked off the evening where keynote inspirational speaker, The North Face athlete, and professional ski mountaineer Kit DesLauriers, would be presenting. I saw a lot of former students in the crowd here as well! Speaking of GBA I’m excited to announce I’ve joined their “Granbassadors” team! Such an awesome organization to be a part of. If you are reading this you likely ski in the back-country so you should check the mission out and subscribe here!


Sunday

Sunday morning had us planning a Gulf of Slides tour in the pack room at Pinkham Notch (along with quite a few other avalanche courses!). We skinned up into the Gulf by 11 AM and made our way over to the yet-to-be-filled-in South Snowfields. I then navigated us up to a bit of a bench and traversed us back over to the main gully stopping at about 4620 feet. Here we had a great small test slope that allowed us to see some really reactive new wind slab. After practicing some stability tests we used travel techniques to cross the main gully and then descend a smaller finger of amazing powder down to the lower half of the gully. It was by far the best run of my season so far!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Gulf of Slides GPS Track

Fun turns all the way down the Gulf of Slides ski trail saw us back to Pinkham by 2 PM where we squeezed in a little more Companion Rescue practice before reviewing our tour and debriefing the course.


Relive ‘Gulf of Slides’

 

A huge thank you to the Bates Outing Club students who were super motivated to learn through-out the course and brought some endurance and solid skill that allowed us to access quite a bit of terrain over the course of the weekend! And to my former students that came up to me at both Ragged, Bear Peak, and on the mountain thank you for saying hi! So rewarding to see people out there applying skills they acquired in one of my courses years ago! You all rock!


Video Highlights From the Weekend

 

Ok… I’m still feeling the high from the last few days and can not believe we have another foot of snow coming tomorrow!!!


Useful Info

If you are heading up there don’t for get to check both the Avalanche Advisory and the Higher Summits Forecast!

Still need to take your level 1 avalanche class?

We have seats available for this upcoming weekend and the conditions on PRIME!


See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start