Choose your own (cliche) title:
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong gear”, “Bad conditions make good skiers”,
“The Ice Coast”?
I want say thanks to the Synott Mountain Guides, ragged Mountain Equipment, North Face and whoever else helped stage the first Mt Washington Backcountry Ski Festival last weekend for the most fun I’ve ever had at -20 F. They certainly did a better project management job than me, who couldn’t even put together a single action photo all weekend. I did manage to assemble the required skis, boots, poles, gloves, socks, layers, and a coat, which I call a victory. However, between juggling the assortment of gear and constant strive to stay warm, I failed to grab even my iPhone for a quick photo.
The festival’s base operations were at Ragged Mountain in Intervale, NH and various courses from Intro to Backcountry Skiing to Advanced Mountaineering and AIRE courses were offered in addition to clinics and demos. A party Saturday night highlighted the weekend and was hosted at Wildcat Mountain Ski Area.
I must admit, when I purchased my ticket for the Mt Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, I was picturing skiing untracked powder under bluebird skies. On the day I clicked “Register” there was still snow on the ground. It sounded like a good idea at the time. Then President’s week brought balmy temps which were followed by the less fun physical state of dihydrogen monoxide, which crushed the previously bountiful snowpack .
As the 15 day forecast started to materialize, it was hard to believe. Outside at my home in Connecticut it felt like Spring had arrived with temperatures in the 60s, but the Mt Washington extended forecast was already looking like something out of a documentary on one of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Antarctic Expeditions.
The thought of bagging on the whole thing bounced around my head consistently over the next 2 weeks. It was going to be about a 4 hour drive on a Friday night for what I pictured as a weekend spent repeatedly counting fingers and toes, hoping for the same number after each tally. I also worried about other appendages. I wondered what life would be like after losing these digits and appendages to frostbite, and if maybe there was a frozen off digit and appendage support group who met at my local community center. But that’s me.
Anyway, the forecast for Saturday, the first day of the event, called for a low around -15. The posted registration time on Saturday was 7:30 am with groups leaving around 9am. I figured I could get there a little late, and have plenty of time to register, then go eat breakfast, and be back in time to check out the vendors and meet up with my “Intro to Backcountry Skiing” group. I kinda pictured there being 20 other people there? That was the image in my head until I rolled in around 7:35 to find a ¾ full parking lot at Ragged Mountain Equipment in Intervale, NH. I was a little surprised to see no one in the store as I entered, until I took a right. The registration area spilled out from a sort of split level back room with rows of people lined up between two rows of vendor tables. I don’t like crowds, so I pretty much kept to myself in line instead of ogling over the gear laid out in front of me, which I’ve salivated over online. The registration process was a little hectic. But, all things considered, that was the only negative I can think of, and with this being the first go at this event, I can’t even knock them for it. And honestly, if you’re the type of person that enjoys entering races and attending organized outdoor events, you probably are used to a lot worse.
Once I got through the line, which moved along fairly fast, I found my guide for the day, Rich, who herded our group of 5 together and we all left for the Pinkham Notch Trailhead. I jumped in my car solo, as the mess inside was too embarrassing for company. Stuff from work muddled with bags of ski gear like a pile of charcoal briquettes topped with empty coffee cups and snack wrappers in the back seat, front passenger seat, and trunk. As I headed out of Intervale towards Pinkham Notch, the cozy small town disappeared and the mountains began to rise. As the mountains rose, the temperature dropped. 1, 0, -1, -5.
The trail center was easily visible from a distance and surprisingly busy. I had to park about 300 ft or maybe more from the pack up room where the group gathered. The walk in was eye opening as winds gusted across the parking lot bringing the wind chill down to a temperature reading of “ridiculous”.
The pack up room was crowded, so Rich took us over to the lodge where he surveyed our gear and instructed us on the basics for the skin ahead. He then took the group outside and we started up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The tingling in my feet and toes from the bitter cold subsided inversely to my increasing heart rate. Blood pumped and skin thawed. The group stayed at an even pace and we kept moving ahead with short breaks only taken in wind protected corners along the trail. The trail tunneled up through walls of pine trees giving shelter from the relentless wind which had scoured the exposed parking lot below.
Rich took us up to the Harvard Cabin, where he and his wife Marsha are caretakers. The Harvard Cabin is maintained by the Harvard Outing Club year round for hikers, climbers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts. After some bacon, tea, and some drying off, we headed up to the Hermit Lake Shelter where the temperature hovered around -25. Blasts of arctic wind crashed down from Tuckerman Ravine like a tidal wave. The transitions from skin to ski went quickly. Motivation is sometimes hard to find.. and sometimes not, like when you’re transition from climb to ski is the only thing standing between -25 temps and a warm lodge at the bottom of the trail. We all gathered up at the beginning of the Sherburne Trail, confirmed everyone had bindings and boots in ski mode, and headed down.
The blasting winds shot pain to any nerves not covered up by clothes, but they also moved lighter snow over to the sides of the skating rink surface of the Sherbie ski trail. There were some good turns on the snow and probably some big smiles hidden under balaclavas and face masks as we skied on down the winding trail back to the Trail Center.
We wrapped it up with a quick goodbye at around 3:30 and headed to our cars. Ragged Mountain equipment was hosting a get together with demos and clinics fortified by Moat Brewing but I had to get some boot work done and headed down to Conway instead. I grabbed a Maple Latte and a donut at Frontside Grind after a stop at a local ski shop who carries Lange boots; then headed back to my motel to get ready for the Apres Ski Party at Wildcat.
This was actually my first time at Wildcat and it seems like a really cool place. Wildcat feels more like ski area, which I prefer to a posh ski resort, and is plenty accommodating with a great atmosphere. I’ll have to come back to ski some time. The mood was fairly chill but that could be expected based on what everyone had been up to earlier in the day. Shuffling around on sticks through the woods in Sub zero temperatures takes it out of you. There was definitely stoke present, though, and everyone was happy to be there. I had recently found Andrew Drummond’s Youtube Channel and was excited to see his presentation. Andrew’s presentation was well put together and inspiring. His skills skiing and filmmaking combine to adeptly showcase the extreme terrain available in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Later, Emily Harrington of the Northface Athlete Team, who had just completed her first day of East Coast skiing in the freezing weather and horrible ski conditions brimmed with enthusiasm as she gave her engaging presentation. She kept the crowd’s focus by sharing her adventures in iconic big mountain settings like El Capitan, Nepal, Myanmar, and a few others I may have missed while stuffing my face with Chicken Enchiladas from the bar. Hopefully at future fests, the free appetizers will last a little longer.
Anyway, for me, who had only put skins on at a resort, and never been this part of the White Mountains, this was a great introduction to backcountry skiing and the Mt Washington zone. Mark Synott of Synott tours did a great job putting this together and was very present and welcoming at the entire event. Everyone I interfaced with at the event was very friendly and I met a bunch of cool people in my Intro to Backcountry Skiing group and elsewhere at the festival.
I got an early start back to CT on Sunday and skipped out on the free demos and clinics that were included with registration, which I’m sure were great. Hopefully they do it again next year, and I highly recommend it for beginners like me. I imagine the experts had a good time also. For what it’s worth, I can’t think of a better group of people on this earth with whom I’d rather freeze my ass off with again!