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May 8, 2015 7:34 PM

Raw slopes at extreme skiing's roots keep riders stoked

The Associated Press

MOUNT WASHINGTON — On a postcard spring Saturday in New Hampshire's White Mountains, a boisterous band of pilgrims some 2,000 strong is preparing for their own brand of funky and fearless worship.

Alone and in groups, they leave Pinkham Notch and trek 3.1 miles up a narrow, mud- and snow-covered trail toward Tuckerman Ravine, the birthplace of extreme skiing in the United States and for nearly a century, a bucket-list destination for snow-loving thrill-seekers. On their backs, they carry the only possessions required: skis or snowboards, boots, poles, helmet, clothes for any weather, water, protein bars and apples, and maybe a can of beer.

Christen Cevoli, a freestyle skiing instructor in Vermont, still had vivid memories of her first trip as she made her second journey to Tuckerman.

"You get to the top of Left Gully and it felt like you were looking down at the edge of the world," she said, cinching the belt on hot pink ski pants and reaching down to buckle her boots.

"I got to the top and I almost started to hyperventilate and I was like, 'If I don't ski down now, you're going to have to helicopter me off this mountain,'" said the 30-year-old from Brewster, Massachusetts. "Yeah, I was scared. It was totally worth it. I just took a deep breath and yelled and just went for it."

Tuckerman is a glacial cirque — think of a bowl — carved out of the east side of Mount Washington during the last ice age. It's perfectly positioned to catch and cradle snow that swirls off the mountain's 6,288-foot peak, building up an average snowpack of 50-plus feet a year. That usually keeps skiers and riders on its slopes through May.

John Apperson of Schenectady, New York, made the first descent in April 1914. But a summit-to-base race, called the American Inferno and patterned after a similar race in Muerren, Switzerland, captivated skiers around the globe in April 1933, according to Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum and author of "Over the Headwall: Nine Decades of Skiing in Tuckerman Ravine."

"They had an element of the spectacular about them that nobody had ever seen before in this country," Leich said of the races.

Tuckerman put its enduring stamp on the extreme skiing world during the 1939 Inferno courtesy of Toni Matt. The young Austrian finished his final turn before reaching the steepest part of the slope. With no chance to turn, Matt pointed himself down and scorched the hill, cutting the previous race record nearly in half to 6 minutes, 29 seconds. Today, skiers and riders whose grandparents weren't born when Matt made his daring dash still speak his name in hushed reverence.

"It's the legend of Tuckerman Ravine," said Colin Boyd, a 27-year-old from Eliot, Maine, who is the 4th ranked snowboarder on the Freeride World Tour. "Everybody wants a story to take home. It's a rite of passage."

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