When the temps start rising and resorts start closing down for the season it's time to start thinking about Tuckerman Ravine. Well this year mother nature wasn't so kind to us out East so for myself planning began in March. Since I live just outside of NYC, a solid 6 hours away from Mt. Washington, planning always starts the same... text all of my snowboard buddies to see who is available and when. A few hundred text messages later we had a solid group of 7 ready to tackle Tuckerman Ravine on April 8th. That's a full month earlier than I had made the trip last year.
Our original plan was to make the drive up on Thursday, April 7th and stay at the Eastern Inns in North Conway, NH for the night. The goal was to wake up early on the 8th, hike in, get a run or two on Tuck's then hike out and drive home that night as some of us had commitments the next day. As I had found out in years prior, planning your trip to Tuck's weeks before heading up is always risky as the weather is nearly impossible to predict and can get pretty nasty. Check out my post from last year where we almost pulled the plug on the trip while eating breakfast due to the day's wind forecast only to get up there to a beautiful day.
As we discussed our plan it quickly changed to driving up on the 7th and hiking the 2.4 miles up to the Hermit Lake Shelters where we would camp for the night in one of the lean-to's. I was a little hesitant in doing so since that meant winter camping, which most of us had never done before, in an area notorious for extremely cold weather. This also meant buying or renting additional gear and having to carry more on our packs. As we went back and forth about the decision we eventually came to the consensus that this was the proper way to do Tuckerman's and it would also make the most of our day on Friday as most of the hike would have already been behind us.
A little over a week before the trip I started keeping a close eye on the weather forecast via The Weather Channel to get an idea of what kind of weather to expect. To my surprise there was a storm set to dump up to 18" on the area right before we were expected to get up there. This is typically music to anyone's ears but Tuck's is one of a few places in the East where avalanches are a real threat and that's a lot of new snow to be falling on what was understood to be a very icy Tuckerman Ravine this year. Don't even get me started on the wind slab potential there. This is why I also started paying close attention to each day's avalanche danger posted by the Mount Washington Avalanche Center.
By Monday, April 4th that snow storm was essentially wiped off the forecast and non-existent. By Tuesday we were seeing the potential for rain. By Tuesday we had also already lost 2 members of our group, one for an unexpected scheduling conflict and another due to the promise of very poor conditions. On Wednesday the remaining 5 of us woke up and nervously checked the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast which has much a more detailed and accurate forecast but only goes 2 days out. Wednesday's forecast was even less promising with it calling for potential heavy rain on Thursday. On Wednesday we lost two more of our group, another last second scheduling conflict and one more guy due to Whiteface announcing that they would reopen.
So then there were three: Matt Rosa, Louis Bruno and myself. I assured them that in fact the forecast looked a little bleak but that it could change any minute. It didn't really take much convincing as all three of us were dying to get out of the NYC area and into the mountains and we weren't going to let a little rain in the forecast get in our way. So we decided we'd meet up at Rosa's at 5:45 am and hit the road by 6 am.
I woke up Thursday morning to a phone call and multiple texts from Bruno asking where I was. It was 6:15 and I had slept right through my alarm! Bit of a rough start to a trip that already seemed doomed from the get go but luckily enough I packed before going to sleep so I jumped in my car and Tokyo drifted my way up to Rosa's. An hour late we loaded up Bruno's truck and our trip had officially begun.
Somewhere in Massachusetts we found the rain. It wasn't too heavy of a rain but there was no end to the dark clouds in sight. I checked the Higher Summits Forecast again and it just seemed to keep getting worse. Now we were looking at rain starting in the early afternoon and getting heavy at times and the potential for thunder with everything changing over to snow by Friday morning and eventually clearing up and getting colder throughout the day Friday. These are definitely not ideal conditions to be hiking or snowboarding in and the forecast even said "expect a brush with hypothermia if you plan on heading up Mount Washington."
Once we got into New Hampshire I contacted the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center(603-466-8116) to get the current weather at the trailhead. They said it had been misting and was transitioning into a steady light rain. Either way we were undeterred, mostly because we picked up new sleeping bags earlier that week and really wanted to use them, so we started to think of the best way to hike in the rain. We even picked up extra garbage bags to help keep everything dry.
We arrived in Conway around 1 pm and poked our head into International Mountaineering Equipment to pick up a few extra things. I rented a pair of gaiters as well a mountaineering axe and bought a couple of 18" Black Diamond universal straps. While we were there we talked to an employee about our plan and she stared back at us with a concerned look and pointed to the avalanche bulletin that was posted. I explained to her we were keeping an eye on all forecasts, bulletins and had all the proper gear at which point she pointed at the Mount Washington Park Ranger who had written the days bulletin and was now standing behind it. By the time we left the shop they realized that no matter what they said they weren't going to stop us and they wished us the best of luck. I highly recommend stopping by their shop if you need gear or simply info as they were super knowledgeable and were very friendly despite the fact that they probably thought we were dumb as rocks.
Next on our agenda was a stop at the Northeast Mountaineering Bunkhouse to have lunch and link up with Jared of NEM Guides. Here we would pick his brain on any additional intel, discuss our final plans and gear up before heading to the trailhead at Pinkham Notch down the road. Over lunch we decided we would try to wait out the rain and see if there was any sign of it letting up. It was time to Netflix and chill. We pressed play on Jeremy Jones' "Deeper" and took some naps on the couches of the bunhouse. When we woke up the light steady rain had turned into a fairly heavy rain so we pressed play on "Further". When we woke up again it was downright pouring. Before we pressed play on "Higher" we decided it was time to cut our losses, book a hotel, and head to the pub!
We booked a room at Eastern Inns and headed over to MOAT Mountain for dinner and a few pints. After exchanging tales about snowboarding and skiing with Jared the three of us headed to the hotel to repack our gear and figure out the game plan for the morning. It was decided that we'd head to the complimentary breakfast in the morning and wait until the avalanche bulletin was posted before making any moves. Morning came and as we ate our waffles we constantly refreshed our browsers waiting for the bulletin.
8:30 hit and it was finally posted. Silence hit us as we read through the forecast and the danger for the day. The avalanche danger was moderate with wind slabs being the major problem. Thursday dumped up to 2" of rain on the mountain before it transitioned into a wintry mix and ultimately snow. The forecast for the day was wind blowing at around 35-40 mph and an additional 2-4" of snow likely. Not perfect but it was good enough for us to at least hike up and check it out. Rosa had already ruled out himself snowboarding but was up for the hike anyway while Bruno and I were bringing our boards with us in the hope that there was just enough edge hold to get some turns in.
We geared up and headed for the trailhead. We stopped by the visitor center where we talked to the staff about our plan to snowboard and got the same look of concern we received the day before at IME. They wished us luck and we started making our way up the trail. It was warm enough that I was hiking in just a tee but about a mile up the trail turned to solid ice. We were prepared. Rosa threw on some micro spikes and Bruno and I had crampons we purchased that week. Bruno had Black Diamond Contacts and I opted to spend the extra few bucks to get the Black Diamond Neves which were lighter. My 2 cents on them is that the weight reduction was minimal and both got the job done just fine.
Eventually we arrived at the Caretaker's Cabin aka Hojo's Hut. We poked our head in and talked to the caretaker while having lunch. We let him know that our goal was to climb up Left Gully as well as ride down it like I had done the year before. He let us know that there were guys up there setting the course for the 2016 Tuckerman Inferno Race to be held the next day. He suggested Right Gully instead which he said was already not rideable from the top. I asked about Hillman's Highway to which he said that Hillman's was a long shot and that Right Gully was a safer bet in terms of rideable snow.
As we were having this discussion a couple of skiers came down from the ravine and were prepping for their hike down to the trailhead on the deck of Hojo's. Turns out they had just been up on Left Gully and said that there were some people setting up but they weren't really in the way and that the turns were pretty. From the deck we could see a good amount of Hillman's but there was fog in the ravine so Left Gully and Right Gully were out of view. I wasn't too fond of the idea of other people being on Left Gully or the fact that Right Gully would be a short run.
I explained to Bruno that I was leaning toward Hillman's but we had to be on the same page since if we decided on Hillman's it was basically an all or nothing decision. We reviewed our options from with the caretaker again. From the deck we could see some obstacles that would we have to navigate around that would undoubtedly be icy which at a 45 degree pitch you need to be sure you can maneuver safely. We then discussed what our options were if we got up Hillman's and it was not rideable. Both options seemed less than ideal. One was to down-climb and the other was to hike up and around to Boot Spurr Trail which would take us all the way back down near the visitor center.
We decided we were there for an adventure and that we would take the riskiest route that day which was Hillman's Highway. The new plan was that Rosa would head back down to the visitor center where he would wait for Bruno and I. We didn't know just how long it would take us but that if he didn't see us by 7 pm to notify a ranger and we went our separate ways.
The trail from Hojo's to the rock pile at the base of Hillman's was a mixture of snow and ice but still rideable. So far so good. We made our climb up Hillman's fairly slowly, partially because we knew we only had time for one run so we wanted to save our legs for the way down and partially because we wanted to inspect every aspect of the couloir before deciding to make turns on it.
Every couple of hundred feet we stopped to assess what we saw and more importantly what we heard. Two inches of rain is a lot and the entire way up we could hear running water but usually couldn't see it. We did our best to track where it was under the snow and planed our descent accordingly to avoid those spots where the snow was being undermined. Along the way we encountered a couple of smaller wet point release slides from the day before that exposed some of the undermined snow we were seeing as well as remnants of pinwheels. The slope was obviously pretty unstable just a day prior but seemed to stabilize pretty nicely on the colder end of the melt-freeze cycle we were in.
The climb got a little dicey at times and would have been nearly impossible without ice crampons. Even the micro spikes would not have done much good because of the pitch. By the time we reached the top of the 1,400' climb we ultimately felt pretty good considering the small dusting of snow at the tail end of the rain seemed to adhere to the wet icy layer pretty nicely.
As we switched out of our crampons and strapped into our boards we went over the spots we needed to avoid once again. Strapped in and with ice axe in hand we started our descent. We quickly realized that we hadn't accounted for the drop in temperature while we made our way up. Although we were constantly moving and therefore warm so we didn't feel it get colder, the forecast made it very clear that the temperatures were going to keep going down throughout the day. This meant that the nice edge-able snow, albeit a very thin layer, had been hardening up on us.
Every turn was extremely choppy(if you can't tell from the video) and had to be very calculated. Luckily, I spent most of my day at Hunter Mountain a couple weeks prior prepping for these kinds of conditions by practicing making turns for the purpose of dumping speed and I was able to manage making it down without incident. Bruno happened to wash a couple of times on the way down so it was a good thing we had our ice axes and he was able to self-arrest pretty quickly.
We got to the bottom of Hillman's to realize we took way longer than expected and had to make some moves in order make our 7 pm deadline. Unfortunately they had just closed the uppermost section of the Sherbourne Ski Trail so we stopped at Hojo's to let them know that if they get a call about a couple of guys who made their way up Hillman's that we were safe and making our way down. We got to the visitor center to a very concerned Rosa at about 6:50 pm. We changed back into our jeans and hoodies, stopped by Red Fox Bar and Grille to meet up with Jared and give him the rundown of our day before making the long drive back to NY happy that we took a chance and lucked out with the weather.