The second week of January we took a skiing and climbing trip to the White Mountains. Conditions for skiing were looking as though they could be better but we were excited about the prospect of exploring some new terrain.
We packed the van on Monday, January 11th and headed to the Whites with plans to ski the Sherburne Trail on the East side of Mount Washington, or Agiocochook, as it was formerly known. We had skied this trail about a month prior and though coverage was far from ideal, it was a modest improvement from the last time we were there. As we descended we dodged rocks and basked in the beauty and scope of the largest mountain in the northeast. No core shots were had!
The next day, our plan was to build off of the ice climbing skills we had learned a month prior. We suited up with rental gear from the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School and met AMGA Alpine Guide Keith Moon at the Champney Falls trailhead bright and early. Cold temperatures the week before had led to perfect ice conditions and Champney offered a great array of steep options- a level up from the more moderate ice we had climbed at Frankenstein Cliffs in December. It was an enjoyable first step down the long road of learning and “Type-2 Fun” that is ice climbing, of which there will hopefully be many more.
Getting a taste of winter skiing in the presidential range on Monday had left us excited for more. On Wednesday, we were climbing the Tuckerman Ravine trail once again. The plan for today was to go beyond the Sherburne Trail and into Tuckerman Ravine, the site where thousands gather on sunny spring weekends to ski corn and cheer on skiers launching themselves off the Headwall. Winter skiing in the ravine however is a much more serious undertaking. In notoriously bad weather, skiers need to manage avalanche hazard, icy conditions, and often poor visibility. Fortunately, due to the long spell of minimal snow, conditions present meant that the latter two would be our primary concerns.
We had divided into two small groups for the day in order to create an easier learning environment. Patrick and I each took four athletes and both groups made it into the ravine at a steady pace, in solid time. Upon assessing conditions, both groups decided that the best option for the day would be to climb and ski “Chicken Rock Gully”- a line that is most prominent in the early season, before the ravine is filled with snow wall-to-wall. The two groups separately reviewed crampon and ice axe techniques at the bottom before beginning the ascent. At the top we transitioned and discussed strategies for skiing steep terrain in challenging snow conditions, which they were. Some skiers used an ice axe to descend, attached to their ski poles, and we talked about conservative ski techniques in tricky conditions. Side stepping and side slipping are important skills in the mountains and after a few necessary steps and shimmies, we were rewarded with enjoyable turns below- A full-value experience! While the snow wasn’t great, it was an exciting look into the world of ski mountaineering.
While we had two fun days on Mt. Washington, we felt lucky to have made it out with minimal base damage to our skis due to the low snow. We decided we would use the next day to practice more ski mountaineering skills at Willey Slide in Crawford Notch. Willey Slide is a wide open slope with plenty of ice and steep snow to mess around on and serves as an amazing classroom. We decided to approach the slide from the top of Crawford notch on the railroad tracks where the scenic railway runs in the summer months. This is a longer approach but provides amazing views through the glacial notch and across to the inspiring ski terrain on Mt. Webster. Upon arriving at Willey’s, we split into groups once more, and expanded on the crampon techniques we discussed a day earlier. We also practiced self arresting from long sliding falls, rappelling with skis on, and belayed skiing using a variety of anchors. We went back that evening and after study hall, rounded out the night with pizza and a movie.
Friday was our last day and the forecast looked sunny and warm. We decided to take the opportunity to support a local and independently owned ski area called Black Mountain. Black is the picturesque image your mind conjures up when you think about the way skiing used to be. There is no village at the base, or high speed 6 person chairlifts, or liftlines- just a lodge built decades ago and skiers going skiing. There were two trails open served by a poma lift, which some of our athletes had never even seen before. We spent the morning racing around, riding through grass, and hitting jumps on the side of the trail with the place completely to ourselves. It was a fun and relaxing way to end an action packed week.
On the van ride home most slept, resting with anticipation of further adventures ahead!
Written by Owen McAndrew, Backcountry Coach