AS SEEN IN THE JANUARY 2012 ISSUE OF FREESKIER MAGAZINE. WORDS BY DAN BROWN.
MOUNT WASHINGTON IS STEEPED IN SKIING LORE. It’s been welcoming skiers since a German doctor first hiked it with a wooden pair of skis in 1899. In the early 20th century, it was a group of skiers, led by an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) huntsman and local legend named Joe Dodge, who would first venture into the Tuckerman Ravine area of the Northeast’s largest peak. As early as the 1930s, Tucks was the destination for annual trips for ski clubs and colleges. Many of the staple lines skied today were first descended by students of the Harvard and Dartmouth ski teams. One such line is Hillman’s Highway, named after Dartmouth student Harry Hillman who frequented the gully.
Hillman’s is situated southeast of, and not technically within, Tuckerman Ravine on Boott Spur, a rise that sits in the shadow of Washington’s summit. It’s a favorite of the area, offering the longest run with about three-quarters less traffic than the ravine sees. It’s a perfect escape from the thousands of skiers, snowboarders and, by many accounts, partygoers, on their pilgrimage for a few turns in the spring corn, accompanied by beers on the infamous Lunch Rocks.
In May, three snowboarders and I made the spring trip to Mount Washington. The trek for Hillman’s starts at the AMC’s Visitor Center in Pinkham Notch off of NH 16 in Gorham, New Hampshire. Catching the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from the start, we followed the meandering course along the Ellis River before the Cutler River branch up 2.4 miles to the AMC hut, nicknamed Hojo’s, at Hermit Lake.
Photo by Dan Brown
While trees may be flowering in Boston in May, Mount Washington is known for wicked weather. The trail, though only moderately demanding, requires sturdy boots with good grip as the thaw and freeze cycle makes for some slippery portions. It’s still very much winter here in May, even if the calendar says otherwise.
At Hojo’s, the trail diverges. Staying on the main trail for another half mile puts you on the floor of the ravine, looking up at the headwall. If you start out early in the day like our group, you can plan to spend the morning hiking and skiing a number of the routes in Tuckerman before lunch and then do Hillman’s for dessert.
To get to Hillman’s, bear right at Hojo’s as you come down from Tuckerman. Take a wooden bridge over the Cutler, and you’ll be at the top of the Sherburne Ski Trail, which descends back to NH 16. Turn right and begin the ascent up Hillman’s, which can usually take 45 minutes to an hour through the boot pack that starts near an outcropping of rocks at the pinnacle. From the top, you’re afforded a view of Wildcat ski area to the east, with Tuckerman and the summit cone of Washington to the northwest. As the cliché goes, it’s all down hill from there.
Hillman’s, while not as steep as the headwall in Tuckerman, still packs enough pitch to get your blood pumping. It’s about 45 degrees at its steepest. Couple that with runnels from snowmelt and the occasional bull moose-size mogul, and you’ve got a challenging but rewarding late season descent with about 1,400 feet of vertical.
After finishing, we made our way back to the valley floor by way of the Sherburne Trail, frog hopping bare spots at speed before finally running out of snow about halfway down and hiking the rest of the way.
Note: Due to Hurricane Irene, a lot may have changed since the last snowfall. For up-to-date information, check out mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.
LOCATION: Mount Washington, Gorham, NH
SKIABLE VERT: 1,400 feet
TOP ELEVATION: 5,400 feet
GNAR METER: With anything in this particular area, you have to watch out for undermined snow and ice fall. Another major concern is changing weather. There’s a saying in New England, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” and that’s true for Mount Washington. Often cited as having the world’s worst weather, it held the record for 70 years for the highest wind gust of 231 mph. Avalanches, while not as common in spring, are a concern. Don’t let the fact that this spot is located in the East lull you into a false sense of security.
WHEN TO SKI IT: Spring is the best time for more predictable weather and snowpack.
ROUND-TRIP TIME: Plan on spending an entire day taking advantage of this area’s numerous descents. The hike to Hojo’s from Pinkham is a little under two hours.
ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT: Pack for sudden and unexpected changes in weather. David Goodman’s Best Backountry Skiing in the Northeast and Nicholas Howe’s Not Without Peril are two books that are as inspiring as they are informative on this particular region.