A rite of Spring; TUCKERMAN'S RAVINE

Legends invariably fall flat. The waters of the lagoon are never as blue as promised, the beaches are not deserted, the mountains seem somehow smaller. But Tuckerman's Ravine is one legend that stands up to its advance billing. All of it is there: the corn snow, the 55-degree vertical, the Friendly, zany people, rangers right out of Sergeant Preston, and of course, let's not forget the skiingm -- the kind of skiing that has all but died out in this country.

Situated on the Northeast's highest peak, Mt. Washington, Tuckerman, with its famous headwall, is as much a rite of spring for thousands of skiers as Florida beaches are for college students. In fact, the severe Mt. Washington winter weather, the steepness of the ravine, and the threat of avalanches make skiing the headwall possible only late in the winter into spring, after most other ski areas in the Northeast have closed. And the "season" at Tuckerman's often extends well into summer; Fourth of July skiing is not unknown. This year good skiing is predicted through May.

Tuckerman's offers the only truly alpine skiing in the northeast. No lifts or snowmaking equipment have made their mark on the area; it is the last haven of skiing the way "it used to be done."

Before the revolution of uphill transportation a little more than 40 years ago, everyone climbed the slope under his own power. In those days, the climb was not regarded as a tedious prelude to a downhill run. The austere spell of the remote and lonely snows meant as much to the skier as the actual run down. The skiing experience was considered a branch of exploration, a means of absorbing mountain culture.

That same sense of mountaineering and exploration is the attraction of Tuckerman's. At Tuckerman's, skiing shakes off the commercialism and conformity that has shackled it, to become again an adventure.

The "adventure," however, is not for the fainthearted -- nor is it for anyone who is less than an excellent skier. A three-mile hike, all uphill, greets the skier before he even gets to the headwall. Many stay overnight at the Pinkham Notch Camp, on Rte. 16 just south of Gorham. Built and run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the lodge has clean, comfortable rooms furnished with bunks, army blankets, and a small dresser. Breakfast and dinner (all you can eat) are served promptly at 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. next door.The price is $21.50 a day for lodging, breakfast, and dinner.

Immediately after breakfast a steady stream of skiers laden with packs and skis begin the three-mile hike into the ravine. The area is open year-round to hikers, but the skiers don't usually begin coming until late March. The two most popular weekends are late in May. The week before Memorial Day is a Canadian national holiday followed the next week by the American holiday.

After two hours of hard climbing one arrives at the ravine. Near a rushing stream are a small lodge, ranger station, and open-air shelters available to campers for $1.75 a night.

It's still early by the time we reach the shelters and, slightly winded from the climb, we decide a visit with the rangers to find out where the best skiing is would be a welcome respite.

The rangers invite us in and when Brad offers us a seat with the observation that "You're not going to get any taller standing there," we realize we are in for a rare treat and more than just a discussion of snow conditions. When the rangers find out we're writers, the fun really starts.

"Somebody -- said he was a writer -- was up on Hillman's Highway last year doing a survey or something on the kind of people who ski Tuckerman's," said Andy, a ski patrolman, joining in the roast. "Only problem was, I had to tell him he wasn't on Tuckerman's."

Too soon, it's time to resume the climb toward the elusive headwall. Hillman's Highway is off to the left of the base hut and offers good skiing without another long climb. But the headwall beckons and we sling our skis on our back and start up the trail again.

It's another good hour's climb into the bowl. A little way up the headwall, we pick out a cluster of rocks, ditch our packs, and have lunch. We exchange hiking boots for ski boots and continue on up.

By now, a steady stream of would-be skiers is entering the bowl, where they begin splitting up, some opting for the right gully, others the left, and still others for the main headwall.

The pitch is so steep, it can't be sidestepped. Skis can only be put on at the top. After a few minutes to savor the view and the accomplishment and marvel at the vertical, which almost makes one dizzy, skiers shove off, preceded by war whoops and yells for one all-too-quick run down. The sides of the headwall and luncheon rocks -- as the rocks that stick up above the snow are known because of their handiness for picnics -- are crowded, and everyone turns to watch a skier descend.A fall can be very embarassing, as one will roll and slide, unable to stop, all the way to the bottom.

You can get an incredible tan sitting on the luncheon rocks; the sun focussing on that bowl of white snow acts as a giant reflector. On sunny days, it's also much nicer to ski, as it's warm.Usually on cloudy days it's freezing cold, and not so pleasant.

The later in the spring, the more outrageous the outfits -- everything from bathing suits to shorts to mirror sunglasses. Friendly people, suntan oil, and zany antics prevail.The altitude, the climb, or both seem to put everyone on the same friendly footing with everyone else as strangers share lunch and experiences together like old friends.

There is an almost even distribution of young and old. One party of two couples confided they had been coming to Tuckerman's since 1932.

"The first time I skied the headwall," said another, "was with Toni Matt, one week before his downhill run."

Matt in 1939 made what is the most legendary and famous downhill run in American ski history. In the third, and as it turned out, final running of the American Inferno, a four-mile downhill race with a vertical drop of 4,000 feet beginning at the top of Mt. Washington, Matt schussed the headwall.

No control gates were set up on the headwall for the race, the course setters assuming that anyone who valued his life would throw in a couple of turns to check his speed as all others had done in previous runnings.

What prompted Matt to take the headwall straight has been the subject of numerous stories. He says he intended to take it straight.Witnesses say he lost control momentarily and by the time he regained it was heading straight down.

His feat received no attention to speak of at the time. Newspaper accounts merly stated that he won the race in record time. The story, however, bounced around from skier to skier until it became the greatest deed in American ski history.

And maybe it was. No one has done it since. But skiers keep coming back to Tuckerman's, lured by the story and other Tuckerman legends, and maybe to carve a few legends of their own.

For reservations and more information contact the Appalachian Mountain Club, Pinkham Notch, Gorham, NH 03581 (603-466-2727). The lodge is often quite full on weekends. The closest town is North Conway, which is about 18 miles to the south.

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