On Skiing: After the lifts stop turning

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As always, this time of year we never know how much longer the lifts will turn.

The handful of areas still operating could shoot for May 1st. At the end of March, it seemed as if there would be plenty of snow to keep going indefinitely, and more snow on April Fool’s Day reinforced that idea.

This past week, however, has demonstrated just how quickly things can change once April arrives. Two weeks ago, we had mid winter conditions with close to 100 percent cover and all trails open. That has changed as temperatures have climbed and trail counts have dropped, but there is still plenty of skiing for today’s Easter festivities at Sugarloaf and Sunday River, and the weather will determine how much longer these two stay open.

Last weekend, the most grueling spring challenge in the Northeast took place in the Mount Washington Valley with the running of the annual Inferno Pentathlon. If you’re one of those athletes who can stand four hours of painful exertion, now is the time to start training for next year. The competition starts with an 8.3 mile run, rising 600 vertical feet up Route 16. Next comes a switch to a kayak for a 5.5 mile paddle down the Saco River through Class II and III rapids. Near Storyland, paddlers hop on bikes and head up Route 16 once again, detouring through Jackson Village and up the highway to the Appalachian Mountain Club headquarters 2,000 feet higher. The uphill doesn’t let up as they become hikers, carrying their skis up the Tuckerman Trail to the ravine, 3 miles and 2,268 vertical feet up the mountain, where they step into skis and head down the Sherburne Ski Trail.

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The results didn’t list home towns of competitors so I don’t know if any were from Maine. I did see a Sam Morse listed but don’t know if it was Maine’s CVA grad and U.S. Ski Team member, but I would not be surprised as he is no doubt in shape for such an endeavor. The winning elite male was Andrew Drummond who covered the 36 miles in three hours and fifteen minutes. Whitney Withington won the women’s elite division in four hours, and three minutes.

There were also teams in the Inferno Pentathlon which is a major fund raiser for the Friends of Tuckerman, a group that is dedicated to preserving the unique alpine terrain and conditions. You can look for friends in the list of results on the website, www.friendsoftuckerman.org.

Their web site is also a great source of information if you’re planning any kind of visit to Mount Washington. For many skiers Tuckerman is the next destination after the lifts stop turning and this web site is the place to start planning the trip. There are links to the AMC, the Forest Service and the weather service. You can find out conditions above timberline, the avalanche danger and which trails are open.

The years I skied Mount Washington every spring, I would watch the weather forecasts and call the AMC headquarters at the foot of the fire trail to get updates on conditions. We would start by climbing into the ravine in April and May and later drive up the Auto Road to ski in the Snowfields. Once I picked a day, I would load up the car, drive a short way from our home on Paris Hill and look at the mountain in the distance. If it was sharp and clear in the sun, I picked up my friend and we headed over, planning our arrival by 7 a.m. so we could find a place to park near the foot of the trail and be one our way up early.

If this is the year you make that first trip into Tuckerman Ravine, I can offer some advice gained from many days on the mountain and in the ravine. First, be aware that this is a true alpine environment. It may be a pleasant T-shirt day at the beginning of the trail by the highway. We headed up one such day and in the ravine we experienced fog, rain, snow, sleet and bright sunshine in a matter of hours — and it was June 1.

Climbing up for a run in the Right Gully, we got into the clouds and realized we couldn’t see down. We only knew how steep it was by reaching out and touching the snow which was about arm’s length away. We stepped into our bindings and side slipped down until we could see. I mention this to make the point that while you hike up in a T-shirt, you might need a fleece and a wind proof shell above the timberline.

That means carrying some extra layers, and for that you need a good backpack. I used one with an aluminum frame. The skis were lashed to the sides and the boots, lunch, water and layers of clothing were inside. I climbed in Limmers, a sturdy, handmade lug sole hiking boot fitted to my foot. They never gave me a blister. If you ski in a thin ski sock, add a slightly thicker sock inside your hiking boots for the climb. It’s a great way to prevent blisters.

Memorial Day (5/29) is a busy time in the ravine and Victoria Day (5/22) finds it full of Canadian skiers. The two days occasionally fell on the same weekend, making for an unusually large crowd but with Memorial Day now always closer to the 30th, that doesn’t happen.

Finally, remember to prep your ski gear for summer. Pull the liners from your boots and dry them thoroughly before buckling them as you ski them and storing in a cool dry place, out of the sun. Ski bases should be cleaned and a coat of wax ironed on to protect them over summer and stored on something other than a concrete floor.

See you in November!

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