NEXT TIME YOU’RE at a junk store, see if you can find an old-fashioned wide-brimmed chamber pot, the kind your granddad used to call a thunder mug. If you take one home, chainsaw it down the middle (safety goggles, don’t forget!), and hang from the rim some of that icy gunk oozing from your undefrosted freezer, you’ll have a pretty good scale model of Tuckerman Ravine, the snow-filled gorge near the summit of Mount Washington that is one of the shrines of North American skiing. Seen from below the tree line, the ravine really does look like the inside of a giant, steep-sided white bowl—dotted, on most spring weekends, with hundreds and hundreds of unaccountable black specks.
Mount Washington is the windiest place in North America, with notoriously unpredictable weather, so for greater accuracy you might want to train an electric fan on your chamber pot—or maybe a couple of fans, for the scale-model equivalent of 200-mile-an-hour gusts—and periodically you could brush off some of the freezer gunk and watch it crash to the bottom. For the rest, you’ll have to perform a little thought experiment: Imagine an army of trained ants crawling up the slick porcelain sides of your pot and then sliding down again, some of them on skittering legs, some of them tumbling abdomen over thorax. If you do this experiment correctly, your first thought is likely to be the same as it is in real life when you stand there gazing upward in New Hampshire: Those ants must be out of their minds!
In real life, the ants, when you climb up the ravine itself, turn out to be human beings of a varied yet singular sort, all embarked on what has become a curious New England ritual—part Woodstock, part Outward Bound, part spring break. They come from all over the East and from Canada, too, as soon as the weather warms up enough, in April and May, to reduce the risk of avalanche: little kids and geezers and all ages in between; stoners, slackers, hard-chargers, and working stiffs; college dudes and high-school dropouts; gays, straights; huffers and puffers and the preternaturally fit; equipment junkies clad in chartreuse-colored synthetics, guys in cammies, babes in bandannas and tank tops, old guys in blue jeans and ratty turtlenecks; skiers, boarders, snowshoers, and telemarkers; also people carrying inner tubes, snow coasters, and just plain old plastic trash bags—anything that will slide. Their goal is to ascend the ravine, as far as their strength and courage and good sense will take them, and then, God willing, come down again in one piece. On a good weekend a couple of thousand people or more will show up, and you can witness some of the best extreme skiing this side of a Warren Miller video; you can also see some appalling wipeouts.
Some people participate in this ritual for the scary thrill of it; others, for bragging rights—so they can say they’ve done it. People have been known to ski the ravine in costume—tuxedos and Superman suits and the like—and in no costume at all, just their boots and their birthday suits. (A nearly naked turbo-hottie was said to be in evidence the weekend I visited, but, alas, I never saw her.) Some people go just to hang out. They spend the day on the “lunch rocks”—tiers of greenish, lichen-covered boulders at the bottom of the ravine that form a natural grandstand and provide a safe (or sometimes not so safe) refuge from which to watch.
Some people, New Englanders mostly, have been coming to the ravine for so many springs that they probably don’t even know why they do it anymore. But for a lot of people who make the annual trek, the reason is something close to romance. They’re drawn by the stern, forbidding beauty, by a love of skiing itself, and by the purity and simplicity of the Tuckerman ski experience. No tickets, no lifts, no lines, no beginners.
The ravine is an ongoing reminder that skiing, though in some ways very old, is also something quite new. The first chairlift in North America was built in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1936, and not many more went up until after the war. In the beginning, which was barely a lifetime ago, people skied the way they still do at Tuckerman Ravine. They walked up, carrying their own gear, and came back down, savoring every turn. They got in one, two, maybe three runs a day—each more precious and hard-won than the last.