Those that have been up to Pinkham Notch know what awaits them after the nearly three hour hike from a certain trailhead: situated on the southeast face of Mt. Washington, a stunning cirque emerges, one that has been an amphitheater for moments that have shaped what skiing in the US is today.
As you approach the bowl, the traditional lines come into focus and the mind can’t help itself from beginning to plot your way down. Your eyes fixate on the line of skiers boot-packing up the cirque, knowing that you’ll soon take your place in that line, then watch as skiers descend down the familiar lines: the gentler left and right gullies, the chute, the lip or the sluice.
There is a congenial spirit among those who gather at the base of the ravine - often perched on the Lunch Rocks, cold beer in hand, eyes fixated upwards on those making their way down the cirque. Some are preparing for the descent, others soaking up the atmosphere following their run, and many there to simply watch the entire spectacle without so much as even thinking of strapping on skis. Each in their own way embodies the touring spirit, and is there to celebrate perhaps the purest form of skiing in the United States. Though, there is one line in the cirque that casts a hush over the crowd below and captures everyone’s attention whenever a skier above moves into position to run it: The Headwall.
As with any legendary off-piste run, there is always a first descent. In this case, it was a General Electric engineer from Schenectady NY named John Apperson who first hauled his skis to Tuckerman’s in April of 1914 to lay his claim. Perhaps the earliest known ski mountaineer, John spent time touring in the Adirondacks descending many of the traditional high peaks before conquering Tucks and others (he was one of the first on Killington, too). A charter member of the Adirondack Mountain Club to boot, few are as instrumental to ski touring as we know it today.
Apperson’s efforts quickly attracted skiers from all over New England keen on testing their skills, and one-upping each other on some of the most difficult terrain around: By early April 1931, a brave group of Dartmouth College skiers took on the headwall from the lip. Not to be outdone, only a week later, a group of Harvard skiers took on the headwall directly from the summit. It was only natural then when the two schools held slalom races there against one another.
While Tuckerman's was quickly becoming a hot local destination for spring skiing, it would be those Harvard kids, founding members of the Ski Club Hochgebirge, that would put Tucks on the map for good. Fascinated with the Inferno race that had been run in Murren, Switzerland since 1928, the club members proposed an American Inferno: a 4.2 mile race down Mt. Washington. The first two iterations of the event in 1933 and 1934 saw skiers like Dick Durrance (who won the race in 1934, was the first American skier to win a race in Europe and went on to help turn Alta and Aspen into what they are today) slash their way down the ravine, dodging the exposed rock and finishing around 15 minutes. It was the 1939 edition of the race, however, that solidified the American Inferno, Tuckerman Ravine and the Headwall all into skiing lore.
Toni Matt came to Tuckerman’s as a fearless 19 year old kid, a protege of the legendary Hannes Schneider. Competing in his first Inferno, he made a few early turns before tucking and taking a straight line. He realized his error too late: he had yet to reach the lip and was hurtling straight towards the headwall at 45 miles per hour with nowhere to turn.
Though Matt would later call himself lucky for being “nineteen and stupid with strong legs” - he landed the jump, eventually reached 90 miles per hour and finished the race in six minutes and twenty-nine seconds, an overwhelming record.
While those that make the pilgrimage to Tucks this spring may not be able to replicate Matt’s feat, his spirit and the spirit of all those alpinists that have contributed to what makes the place so special lives on.