Mecca of the hard-core spring skier

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Memorial Day weekend, 1982. It must have been 20 years ago almost to the day I last climbed the John Sherburne Trail into perhaps the most legendary catch-basin in North America, Tuckerman Ravine.

Tuckerman's, as it is colloquially--almost lovingly--designated by the faithful, is more than a geological landmark. It is a rite of spring, a skier's mecca, a goal in the mind's eye. For some it is to be returned to spring after spring; for others it must be reached at least once before the skis are put away for the last time.

I am thinking about this as I again trudge up the three-mile trail from the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) base camp to the Ravine. Why do people huff and puff for the better part of three hours for a 20 second run? In the case of many of the 2,500 to 3,000 visitors who usually arrive each spring weekend, they're not even going to get the 20 second run. They will watch and kibitz from Lunch Rocks or from the sun deck of the ''Howard Johnson's,'' which is what the Ravine's shelter used to be known as, before it burned down and was replaced with the official-sounding ''Hermit Lake Shelter.''

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After all, there are mountains in the American West studded with powder-snow catch basins. People hike in and ski them, and that's that. No big legends, no annual pilgrimages and Memorial Day reunions. Why then is this the 29th Ravine Memorial Day for a Philadelphia underwater salvage expert, who dropped everything to return? Why is it the 13th for a Burlington, Vt. youth whose parents honeymooned up in the old Harvard Cabin here back in the '30s? Why did three college kids from Michigan drive through three weather fronts in order to make it here in time for a rainy Memorial Day weekend?

The first answer undoubtedly is people, There are 60 million of them within a day's drive of here, which helps explain why this plot of White Mountain forest and tundra is perhaps the most heavily used in all the national forests. Beginning in late March, early April most years--just as soon as the avalanche danger is minimal--they start climbing up to ski the 800 vertical feet of the Headwall (maximum pitch 55 degrees), then Hillman Highway, the left and right gullies and the snowfields.

Usually, Memorial Day marks the climax of this second season. Ned Therrien of the US Forest Service estimates that on some holiday weekends 5,000 people trek into the Ravine. In a good snow year like this one, skiing can last as late as July 4.

Meteorological tall tales and a sense of history probably add to Tuckerman's mystique. Embarrassingly, America's first man of nature, Henry David Thoreau, is reported to have started a fire up there. This is also where Toni Matt mistakenly schussed the Headwall and became a skiing legend because of it.

And ''Tuckerman's'' lies just below the arctic-like summit of New England's highest mountain, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington. That doesn't sound very big, but it's said to have about the worst weather in the world. One reason may be it's the only such exposed place with its own summit weather station. Three prevailing weather systems - one from the Great Lakes, one from the Ohio Valley, and one coming up the Atlantic coast--somehow converge in a churning frenzy over Washington and the Ravine. The result back in the early '30s was recorded winds of over 230 mph. Last year, they reportedly blew 175 m.p.h. for 24 hours straight. ''You couldn't even open the door,'' was the report from the weather station, according to one AMC official.

Such savagery helps to produce ice falls that attract winter climbers from far and wide, not to mention an annual snowfall that can run 150 feet, sometimes more.

As I finally reach the floor of the great natural bowl, the snow pack is probably down to 30 or 40 feet. The Headwall's infamous Lip is exposed rock now and skiers must start below the near vertical wall or go up one of the gullies, or climb 1,500 vertical feet into the cache above Hillman Highway. Whichever, in the massive white amphitheater they become mere specks to the spectators below.

I keep my vow, which was gasped 20 years ago when I said I would never again lug skis and boots up to the Ravine, ski and hike back down in the same day. This time, we head for Lunch Rocks, a perfect outcropping between the Ravine's floor and Headwall for refreshment, regrouping and commenting as skiers climb and descend.

A telemarker links some graceful bent-leg turns over the granular, still remarkably firm spring snow. There aren't many moguls, but there are some deep vertical ruts together with a few suspicious looking cracks and crevasses above. Every once in awhile, the word ''ice!'' will pierce the air, as a hunk of winter breaks off somewhere up top and comes tumbling down the Ravine.

Signs and leaflets warn people of the dangers up here. One rescuer was killed in an avalanche trying to find two lost and injured ice climbers this past winter. The capricious May weather is such that one is urged to beware of both the sun's rays and the dangers of exposure to the cold on the same day.

I am with a group of outdoor writers who are supposed to be ''testing'' a new synthetic insulation called Quallofil. It is being touted as having much of down's warmth and pliability without down's high cost or tendency to lose insulating capacity when wet. But with the sun benignly shining and the temperature more than 80 degrees F. what's to test?

After we eat lunch, take pictures and watch both the tentative and the confident in the bowl, one by one we begin the trek back down. That's when we begin to meet more and more of the faithful trudging up the trail, trying to be one of the first 86 people who will get the first-come, first-served shelter sites for the big weekend. Not one more may stay ovenight. And the AMC base camp below, of course, has been booked for months.

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