Fear and Aging in Tuckerman's Ravine
Note from Tom*
There are a lot of new people here since the last time I hit the publish button.
The piece about Keegan got ten times as many views as anything else I’ve ever written. It’s been shared widely and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I hope you all get to feel that validation a few times before you die.
I spend most of my waking moments wondering what to do here on Carrot Cake. I enjoy the freedom of having a space to write whatever I feel like writing, but it’s hard to ignore a response like the one I got from the last post.
The plan, at least today, is to continue writing what I feel like writing. I’ve got some material in progress about parenting and autism but I also spent a bunch of hours working on a piece about skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine. That’s what you’ll see today.
Most mornings, I don’t need an alarm. I’m woken up by little kids needing to pee or a runaway train of thoughts and worries, but I’m the only one here this morning. It’s still black outside but the first two birds are chirping. I stumble around in the dark, visit the loo, and step into driving clothes that I’d laid out the night before. I fix myself a snack for the road and fill an insulated mug with lots of ice and a few glugs from a glass bottle of Grady’s. This will be a big caffeine day.
This morning started a couple of days ago with an idea. I haven’t spent any time in New Hampshire this winter and could feel the opportunities slipping through my fingers. Last year, I skied in the backcountry a handful of times and those trips were cornerstones of the season; they kept me feeling alive. Two days earlier, I checked the calendar, checked the forecast, and sent a couple of “no pressure” text invites. No takers. As soon as I go public with a potential plan, I feel the pressure to follow through.
I climb into the truck amidst a mountain of gear that I packed the day before. Backpacks and dry clothes and ski gear and headlamps and refillable water jugs. I find the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Google Maps and queue up the first episode of a podcast documentary called “Boomtown”.
I arrive onto the main drag of North Conway at about 7am. I’m greeted by strong, low angle sun beams poking over the mountains in the distance. I remember almost nothing from a dark drive that saw three hours and a few extra minutes tick past. Just past the LL Bean outlet, I pull into the gas station for a gallon of water and then walk next door to get the world’s largest iced redeye from Starbucks. Nothing like a rugged day in nature started off with an 8 dollar coffee. Thirty minutes later I’m turning left into the Pinkham Notch Visitor lot. I’ve never been here during a weekday, but it feels wonderful to see an empty-ish lot. I pull nose-in to a spot, kill the engine and climb out. My 38 year old joints shrivel up during a long drive, so I reach up for a big stretch and a few hollers.
I can hear the wind honking through the ravines overhead. Every time I’ve been up here, the wind has been gusting into the 50 and 60+ MPH range. I feel the first little prickle of fear in my guts.
I drop the tailgate, lay out my gear and start organizing things to be shoved into a backpack. My packing game stinks. I always pack one or two space eating items that I never use. I accidentally bury things that I’ll need easy access to. I bring too much clothing.
I lash skis to the outside of the bag and carefully hump it up onto my shoulders.
Tuckerman’s Ravine is a horseshoe shaped glacial cirque that sits on the southeast face of Mount Washington. It’s the walk in beer cooler of the Northeast, holding on to snow until June. It’s an otherworldly place in any season but in the winter its a snow covered coliseum with daredevils taking turns flinging themselves down 50 degree slopes and hucking themselves off cliffs.
As I get into the woods, I hear waterfalls and rivers, and chirping birds. Every few minutes a scrawny squirrel or chipmunk will dart across path. There are two older blokes ahead of me wearing brightly colored climbing boots with ropes and helmets strapped to their packs. No skis. I notice that I feel much fatter than I’d like to. The pants I’m in were looser at this time last year and didn’t have a folded over waistband.
I stop to peel off a layer and then I find a smooth rhythm for the next 40 minutes. I’m huffing and puffing and using my ski poles to take a smidge of pressure off the legs. I pass people in larger bodies that might take all day to reach the checkpoint. I get passed by fit twenty year olds in shorts who are trailed by clouds of pot. We’re all slogging our way to Hermit Lake Shelter (HoJos). HoJos is the spot for a proper intermission. On a nice weekend day there are hordes of 20 somethings and sinewy 70 year olds sipping drinks and eating snacks while they change into ski pants for the final ascent into the bowl.
I pull off the elastic microspikes that have been on my boots and grab a seat at a picnic table. There is some protection from the wind. I’ve worked up a sweat and it feels delightful to take a load off. I dig into my poorly packed backpack and fish out a jug and a snack. It’s two slices of homemade banana bread held together by a slathering of peanut butter, blueberry preserves and a dusting of sea salt. I break off some small pieces and chew them slowly. I savor a few glugs from a jug of cold water laced with citrus flavored hydration powder. There’s something about hard physical work that activates my taste buds. I eavesdrop on a couple of different groups planning their approaches. A trio of young skiers is headed for the bowl, eager to take on the headwall. Another larger group peels off and heads for Hillman’s Highway. They are fist bumping each other and smiling. Without warning, my first negative thoughts show up. I think about turning back. It’s scary being up here alone.
But I finish my snack and continue on. It’s another twenty minutes of steep hiking to get into the beer fridge from here. I come into the bowl and get blasted by the wind. The wind hits the skis that are strapped to my bag and shoves me around. There are a handful of people in the bowl. The sun is torching and between gusts it feels like a beach day. I see a group setting up shop behind a huge rock, protected from the elements. Two couples, four kids, three dogs playing in the snow. The men are staring up at the headwall and the women are keeping an eye on the kids and the dogs. The dogs are barking their balls off and its echoing off the walls of the amphitheater. After the novelty of it wears off, the barking starts grinding my nerves. I wish they’d stop. I find my own little nook that’s somewhat protected from the wind. I take off my pack and sit on it.
I spend the next 70 minutes watching and listening and having a conversation with myself. I pace. I’m gripped by intermittent fear. I feel old and I feel fat and I feel like I don’t belong up here. I comfort myself by thinking that I don’t have to ski.
There isn’t any skiing happening yet, only planning. I can’t use other peoples’ runs to make assessments yet. I see a couple of athletes rest skis over their shoulders and start slogging their way towards the wall. I watch them for a long time as they hike up. They act very casual about the whole thing. Skis slung over shoulders, no ice axe, not using their poles, just strolling along as if they aren’t climbing a set of stairs on a rapidly melting, vertical ice wall in 60 degree weather. They disappear over the top of the ridge and reappear fifteen minutes later. One at a time they point their skis down hill and make six to eight fully committed turns, slashing and spraying the heavy snow all the way to the bottom. They have a bit of a Rocky and Apollo beach reunion at the bottom. They are stoked. Speed, power, style. They both made hard shit look easy.
My internal dialogue continues.
“It’s fine to spend seven hours in the car today and not attempt a run. There’s always next season.”
“Come on, man. You haven’t been up here all season and fancy yourself a backcountry guy. Do you really want to hike out of here without skiing?”
It’s hard to find the line between giving in to the fear and making a smart call. Maybe I can lie about skiing a couple runs. I know all the right words to say.
I see a climbing guide take a beginner group of 8 or 10 climbers over to Right Gully to practice their skills. Every few minutes, I am startled by the echoes of “On Belay!” Hearing someone shout in the mountains always raises the hair on my neck. To my ears, it always sounds like distress.
I’m 60/40 in favor of skiing. I decide that I’ll setup my gear for a ski and see how I feel. I rip the climbing skins off the bottom of my skis. I switch from hiking boots to ski boots. I snap crampons onto the boots. I stick my avalanche beacon into my pocket. I unstrap the helmet from my bag and rest it atop my head. I watch a guy slog his way up Left Gully and do a bit of “worst case” math in my head. Right Gully, which I’ve skied before, looks sketchy today. I watched a couple of skiers struggle over the top of the ridge loaded with ice and exposed rock and then never saw them again. I’m too scared to even look at any of the runs near the headwall. I conclude that if I fell on Left Gully, I’d end up in a thicket of bushes, but no rocks. I glance up at the guy death marching his way up Left Gully. He pauses to shed a layer. It’s about 11am and the sun is pounding Left Gully. The snow looks fluorescent. The fact that he stopped to shed a layer mid hike gave me hope that I could also stop there to put my skis on and ski the fuck out of there if I needed to. I’m 70/30 in favor of skiing. My gear is ready. I buckle my pack up tight and wobble over to a couple guys getting ready to start their hike. I wanted to sanity check myself a little.
They respond almost in unison. “What’s up man? How’s it going?” Everyone up here seems relaxed and content.
“Good. What a day. I just spent an hour trying to psych myself up for the climb.”
This gets a little laugh. “Where ya headed?”
“I’m thinking Left Gully. It looks like the most mellow run today.” We are all scanning the wall, in a trance. “What about you guys?”
“Good idea, man. Then you don’t have to deal with any rocks if you fall. I’ve taken a spill up there and you pretty much slide to safety. We’re hiking up and skiing the lip.”
I gesture with a ski pole. There’s an incredible waterfall pouring off one of the cliffs as the snowpack melts before our eyes. “Right between the waterfall and Sluice?” I ask.
“Cool. That looks super fun (not to me). Did you guys see those two savages come down Chute a while ago?”
“Yep. They were ripping.”
“For sure. Well, enjoy guys.”
I’m feeling a bit better after this brief chat. I’m 80/20. I spy a boot-pack that looks like a staircase and start heading towards it. I gain a bit of elevation, look around and trigger a flood of vertigo that I get from being in high places. Even though I’ve just started hiking, it’s already steeper than any ski resort run. Hiking up the ravine feels like a prolonged version of a rollercoaster clicking and jerking its way up a big ramp.
I see a guy prepping to ski The Chute, over to my right. I watch him nervously make his first turn. Two turns. I look away briefly and when I look back he falls and starts sliding down the wall. His slide turns into the famous tomahawk. High velocity, involuntary cartwheels. He makes five or six revolutions before sliding to a stop behind a giant rock. He’s got two buddies behind him that fetch his gear and make it down to him in 20 seconds. Our man seems alright but the fall rattles my nerves badly.
I notice that there are two guys above me, slogging through the sun softened bootpack and I feel relief that I’m not alone. The sun is cooking me. I have too many layers on and my helmet feels like I’m wearing a crockpot. I have a brief blast of panic chemicals rush through my body. The self talk starts.
“You are strong. You are tough. You can ski this.”
What the fuck are you doing up here alone? This is stupid. Do you have health insurance?
You are strong. You are tough…
I keep moving.
I tell myself to just stare into the next spot where I’ll place my boot. Don’t look around, just one foot in front of the oth—.
Shit, I looked. Alternating moments of vertigo, panic chemicals, deep breathing. I let the sensations pass, but I’m not sure how many more times I can shrug the panic off.
I keep going. I start eyeballing a small shelf with a couple shrubs that I can see someone else had used for a rest before. It’s another 10 minutes of sweaty hiking. I hike. I have one more blast of fear as I’m reaching the nook and that’s it for me. I side climb my way over to the spot that I picked out and sit on my ass. I’m in thin cotton joggers and now I’m soaked through from sitting, but I don’t care. I just want to get out of here. The guys ahead of me continue on. I stomp out a flat bench to make my transition. The skis come off my back. I shove their tails into the snow and start taking off my crampons. I take a quick break to think about how to ski this line. From the halfway point, I know that this run is no big deal but the mind is my enemy right now. I get everything packed away and get set to put my skis on. Is it the downhill ski first or the uphill ski first? I can never remember. I think I went with the uphill ski first. I snap into the bindings, buckle my chinstrap and start side slipping down. I pick out a spot to make my first turn. I move my weight forward onto the tips of my skis and make a half hearted first turn. I didn’t realize how cooked I was from the hike in. I ski defensively to the bottom and feel a rush of cool relief to be out of there.
I transition from ski gear to hiking gear and start walking out in soaking wet pants. Down hiking is not any fun. Every step threatens to rip my quads from where they attach just above the knee cap. I stumble down to the shelter where I had my snack earlier. I feel calm now, but completely cooked. I sip some water and put my boots and skis back on so I can ski the top third of John Sherburne Ski Trail to eliminate some of the down hike. I shove off onto the trail and enjoy the sensation of some easy skiing and a break from the quad ripping. Two minutes later, I hit a patch of ice and eat shit pretty hard. I lost a ski and my sunglasses. I thank god no one is around right now. I do a quick bodyscan to make sure I didn’t injure myself. During the scan I notice that my left wrist is either totally fine or shattered into pieces. I need to get off this rock. I make it back to the truck in one piece. I was up there much longer than I planned to be.
It’s 70 degrees and sunny in the parking lot. I slowly change into dry clothing and put my gear into the bed of my truck. I don’t care about packing things away correctly, I’m too toasted for that. I take stock of the day.
This place is no joke. It’s not a novelty. As I was making my way down, I saw two different helicopters circling the summit. I hope they were taking advantage of the clear skies to make some practice landings, but maybe they were plucking guys off the hill in baskets. I decided that I either need to come up here 12 times a year or not at all. I have one small glimmer of pride in being able to safely get myself off the hill. It was the right call to bail halfway up Left Gully. I feel every one of my thirty eight years.
There is something to feeling fear and not running away. I think it’s good for humans. It’s scary to be getting older.
I dial up Boomtown on Spotify and point the truck south.