Spring time in Tuckerman with the Mount Washington Ski Patrol

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TUCKERMAN RAVINE, MT. WASHINGTON, N.H. — An ordinary day doesn’t happen here.

“There’s really no such thing,” says U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Brian Johnston.

Johnston, a Windham native and a former professional climbing guide, has just finished briefing five of the 18 volunteers on the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol.

The patrol, sanctioned by the National Ski Patrol system in 1948, has been tending injured skiers, climbers and hikers during the ravine’s famed spring ski season since 1939. It now works hand in hand with the U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers, assigned to forecast avalanches and provide search-and-rescue staff and expertise in the state park during the winter season.

Overnight winds have buffeted the slopes above, polishing parts of them to a hard, near-glassy surface. In other areas, the snow has been packed by the winds into dense layers similar to Styrofoam in consistency but easy to cut with a ski-edge or a shovel.

In still other areas, the drifting snow settles as it blows over a variety of terrain features, piling up in a wind-drifted powder. Under it all — and exposed in places — is a surface as hard as concrete, the result of rain and a freeze several days earlier.

Overnight, the heavy winds, the tail of a fast-moving weather system, were gusting toward 100 mph on the summit but have now subsided to the 3o mph range. A cloudless blue sky is revealing itself over the gleaming white bowl of Tuckerman Ravine above.

Each morning, Chris Joosen, a snow ranger and Forest Service avalanche forecaster, contemplates these ever-changing conditions as he formulates an avalanche advisory to warn of dangerous areas, conditions or concerns on the parts of the mountain prone to avalanches.

The job is a complex melding of weather science, observation, common sense and psychology. “It’s part science and part art,” says Joosen, who has been on the job for eight years.

It’s a sunny Saturday and for the first time in days, the winds have diminished enough to make being on the mountain pleasant. Temperatures are rebounding quickly and are expected to climb to a seasonable 20 degrees or more — and that means skiers and climbers will be on the mountain.

Known simply as “Tuck’s” in East Coast skier slang, the massive ravine below Mount Washington’s southeast shoulder fills with snow over the course of the winter. Each spring,  thousands of skiers ascend to Hermit Lake and then to the floor of the Tuckerman Ravine bowl to make turns on the steepest terrain in New England.

On a busy spring weekend, when the weather and snow combine for just the right conditions, as many as 4,000 people will trek to the floor of the ravine — many with skis on their shoulders and backpacks bulging with all the gear and food needed to spend a day or longer in the winter wilderness.

Rangers and ski patrollers give those who venture into the steep-sided ravine information to make informed decisions about safe travel and on snow conditions on a mountain world-renowned for its constantly changing weather and winds. Concern about natural or human-triggered avalanches and ice falls are a part of daily life.

“The majority of people want to be safe,” says John Knieriem, the patrol director. “We try to give them as much information as possible so they can make intelligent decisions about what to do. They want to go home the way they got here.”

Most do, but each year dozens are injured, some seriously, and nearly each year one or more people are killed in their pursuit of an adventure on the mountain. Johnston and Joosen say increased contact with hikers and skiers by the patrol in recent years has made a difference in reducing the number of people hurt or killed.

“I have no doubt that it has helped prevent more accidents and injuries than we could predict,” Johnston said.

For the past eight years, they’ve made a particular effort to try to talk to each person or group coming into the ravine to ski. They ask what the group has planned for the day, advise them of the conditions in different areas, and discuss the avalanche advisory and what it means.

Knieriem has volunteered on the mountain for 23 years. He is second only to Roger Damon in years on the patrol.

Damon, 82, has been aiding skiers and climbers at Tuckerman for more than 42 years.

Both men speak passionately about why they have put in so many years in the cold and the wind. The physical challenges of the work at its most difficult are immense, rivaled only by the challenge of trying to provide emergency medical care, sometimes to very seriously injured people, in an often weather-hostile, back-country setting.

Knieriem seems undaunted.

“Look at this place; look around,” Knieriem says. “Look at the beauty that’s here.” A cloudless sky, patrollers and rangers call it a “perfect bluebird day.” But the beauty Knieriem sees isn’t only the landscape of New England’s highest peak.

“Look at the people who come here,” Knieriem said. “They are outgoing, fun to be around. They aren’t just sitting around; they are here, doing something. They have life, and that’s so enjoyable to be around. We have a good time.”

A two-time cancer survivor, Knieriem, 73, has never shied from a challenge. After a storied career as an engineer and entrepreneur, he returned to school and graduated with a nursing degree in 1997, at age 61. He now works in as an emergency room nurse in Manchester, N.H.

Damon began patrolling at Tuckerman in 1967. He may be the oldest active patroller in the National Ski Patrol system, he says.

“I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest one East of the Mississippi, and that’s good enough for me,” he says with a wry grin.

A retired, 30-year Army officer, Damon  first skied New Hampshire as a boy under the tutelage of a Norwegian woman who was a friend of his family. Damon began at age 4 or 5, taking the “ski train” from New York on Appalachian Mountain Club outings.  He has no memory of ever “not skiing.”

In college at the Vermont military school of Norwich University, he tried out for the ski team but didn’t make it, so he joined the ski patrol instead.

Damon has seen the good and the bad the mountain has to offer, but he is still motivated by the people who come to visit and play in the ravine, the beauty of place and the ability to help those in trouble. He lists “watching people” among his favorite memories as a Tuckerman patroller.

The hike, from Hermit Lake where the Appalachian Mountain Club has a caretakers’ cabin and small visitors’ center, to the ravine floor above is about a 40-minute trudge over snow and ice. Crampons, an ice ax and the skills to use both are recommended in winter. Damon easily makes the journey, both up and down, on foot. 

Most visitors seek out the advice and information Damon, Knieriem and the other patrollers and rangers have to offer. But a handful of those he talks to every day will do what they choose, regardless of the advice of the experts.

“It’s the, ‘It won’t happen to me’ syndrome,” Damon says. 

Other patrollers on the mountain this day include Mark Renson, Jim Lovett, Ed Roy and Bob Strauten. While Damon and Knieriem are greeting people at the AMC’s caretakers’ cabin — the men stand on or near a large deck, known as the “porch” — the others are hiking to the ravine floor.

Renson and Strauten are engineers by profession. Lovett is an emergency room doctor and Roy works as an emergency room technician and is training to become a registered nurse. During the bulk of the ski season, all of the patrollers work at regular lift-serviced ski areas in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

None is planning to ski, partly because the high terrain is more of an avalanche risk and partly to be ready to respond if they are needed. “We have the luxury of picking and choosing a good day,” Lovett says.

At Connection Cache, the men shovel a week’s worth of wind-blown snow from a small storage building that includes rescue litters, oxygen and other supplies for dealing with injures. From there, they continue to interact with skiers and climbers, making suggestions on possible routes of travel.

All are wearing avalanche transceivers, electronic homing devices that allow a buried person to be located. All four are joined by Joosen as they continue to monitor the skiers and climbers above, keeping a watchful eye on things.

The day doesn’t become as busy as Joosen or the others anticipated.

“Actually, I’m pleasantly surprised,” Joosen says. “Everyone has been fairly well-behaved.”

Only a few, over the advice of the rangers, have ventured into the most dangerous areas of the hill. But via an informal network of word-of-mouth communication, some coming from guides on the mountain and other travelers, the patrollers and rangers keep tabs on what’s going on beyond their view.

Later in the day, Roy and Johnston will be called to a rescue on another part of the mountain below the ravine but above Hermit Lake. A telemark skier fell in an area off a popular route called Hillman’s Highway.

The skier was in an area to the side of a triangular patch of scrub forest known as the “Christmas tree.” The skiers in his group included several trained in wilderness first aid, but the man had seriously injured his shoulder and his leg in a bad fall.

He will eventually, within an hour or so, be taken off the mountain by snowmobile to an awaiting snow cat for the trek to Route 16, where an ambulance will take him to a hospital in North Conway.

Later that night, the men join Joosen for a spaghetti dinner and conversation at the rangers’ cabin. Earlier in the day, Johnston had described the relationship between the Forest Service employees and the volunteers as “a real family-type of environment.”

That’s evident as the volunteers swap stories about their days on the mountain or dinner-table philosophies on their experiences in life. The laughter is as abundant as red sauce and noodles.

Stories of naked skiers and where the snow goes when they fall and a man riding an inflatable shark down the ravine until it pops all draw laughter and smiles. Typically, the patrol and rangers are on duty until about dark, but they come out to help find lost people or tend to the injured at any hour.

Joosen alternates from preparing the food to looking up from the nearby window to the mountain above. He scans the landscape for anything unusual during the waning hours of daylight.

While as many as 2,000 to 3,000 people can come into the ravine on a busy spring weekend day, the mountain seldom has a sense of crowding, except in the most popular places. On this day, Joosen and the others estimate a low number of visitors somewhere in the ballpark of 500 to 700. The mountain seems vast and deserted as night settles in.

“The landscape has the ability to absorb quite a few people,” Joosen says.

As the night winds down, the patrollers pick up the chore of cleaning up after the meal, while Joosen readies for a snowmobile ride off the mountain with his dog Cutler, a Forest Service yellow Lab trained to sniff out people buried in the snow. The dog is named after the river in Cutler River Drainage, the technical name for the area the Forest Service is tasked with serving.

Before leaving, he thanks the patrollers for a good day on the mountain, and jokingly says, “Goodnight, you princes of Tuckerman.”

For the volunteers, it’s hard to frame up what keeps them coming back to a job that is challenging not only in the physical sense but also in the intellectual and emotional sense.

Knieriem says the magnetism of the place, for him, is overpowering. “You fall in love with a place,” he says. “This is just some place I’ve got to be.”

Knieriem says he suspects he will stop patrolling on Mount Washington “when I can’t crawl up the mountain anymore.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

Editor’s note: Regional Editor Scott Thistle and Staff Photographer/videographer Daryn Slover spent two nights and two days at the Hermit Lake campground and in Tuckerman Ravine from Friday, March 27 to Sunday March, 29 for this report.


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