Brian Irwin for the boston globe
Mount Washington is a behemoth of a hill. Slight by Western standards, this peak rises over 4,000 vertical feet from the trailheads on the mountain’s east side to the summit. Its east-facing slopes catch the wind-loaded snow from the broad alpine garden, allowing for accumulation that permits skiing into the late spring. But it’s in late winter that the peak colloquially known as “The Rockpile” truly shines as a destination for backcountry skiing.
Arguably the birthplace of giant slalom skiing, and storied for its role in the development of ski mountaineering in the east, Mount Washington is a potentially hazardous foray, even for those with sharp skills and tools, like ice axes and crampons. I’ve ski patrolled on Washington’s east side, which holds the venerable Tuckerman Ravine, for over 15 years. In that time, I’ve witnessed some of the best skiers in the world, like the showboating Glen Plake, known for his erect Mohawk, launching from its cliffs and threading its steep couloirs. I’ve also seen tragedy, and even death, for those unfortunate adventurers who tested their mettle on the rockpile and failed due to a myriad of reasons. If there is one thing I’ve learned on these local hills of mine, it’s that education is the best insurance policy for staying alive and having fun.
Backcountry skiing is a burgeoning pursuit, enticing thousands per year away from the crowded slopes of established ski resorts. The competition for fresh tracks is near absent out there, but the hazards remain. This is why Mark Synnott, sponsored athlete for The North Face, internationally certified guide and steep skiing expert, sought to spark up the first backcountry ski festival on this celebrated hill.
“We are literally situated at the base of the most accessible gnarly mountain in the world,” said Synnott, referring to the peak that, although only three hours from Boston is the home to the second highest recorded wind speed on earth. His goal: “To help cultivate the New Hampshire [and beyond] backcountry skiing community. . . . It’s fun to hang out with fun, like-minded individuals who share and appreciate the same goals.”
Those goals are deep powder, memorable days on snow, and of course, safety. This is why Synnott is offering a smattering of ski clinics not only geared toward enjoyable backcountry travel, but also avalanche awareness. He’s offering a Level I class based on the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education curriculum. Synnott is a certified AIARE instructor. And, to sweeten the deal, some of his clinics come with a complete avalanche equipment package, including beacon, probe, and shovel.
Avalanches aren’t uncommon on Mount Washington, yet with proper guiding, these objective hazards can be avoided. In addition to the AIARE program, this festival will also hold a basic avalanche awareness clinic, as well as guided tours of the region. One- and two-day ski mountaineering courses will be offered, with some of these guided trips making forays into the steep glacial cirque, Huntington Ravine.
Huntington is an impressive bowl, a vast amphitheater striped with towering rock buttresses split by a series of steep couloirs. The festival’s revered guides will lead clients down these challenging chutes, some of which require a belay with a climbing rope, or even a few rappels. There will also be a specialized “Steep and Deep “clinic for those interested in taking their skills to more remote ranges.
Mount Washington is an ideal training ground. Easy access, terrain representative of the big mountains, and nasty weather all converge to create the arguably the best practice mountain east of the Rockies. Ski mountaineering has taken Synnott, his staff, and many others to the big ranges of the world. Many of those objectives entailed glacier travel, and as such, even though there are no glaciers on Mount Washington, this festival also boasts a glacier travel and crevasse rescue curriculum.
In addition to clinics, the Mount Washington Backcountry Ski Festival will offer a series of après ski presentations by notable figures in the industry. There will be a festive party held at the local Wildcat Mountain Ski Resort, as well as a DJ on Saturday. A full weekend registration costs $40; clinic fees are extra and can be found at www.skimtwashington.com.
A few years ago I plodded up the face of Tuckerman Ravine. I made my way across the Alpine Garden to the top of Left Gully, one of the steepest and longest runs in the cirque. I clicked into my skis, dangled their tips over the lip of the slot and after a second of trepidation, cast myself down its throat, slicing deep turns with each hop. Snow soughed beneath me, forcing me to take pause after each turn to manage the creep of the loose snow beneath my skis. As I rounded out my last few turns I looked back to the ravine, now dwarfed by its massiveness. The wind picked up, pushing clouds over the lip of the bowl. There was no one else in the area, and as I stood alone and stared at the broad bowl, the entire ravine evaporated into the thick weather above.
The first annual Mount Washington Backcountry Ski Festival will be held on March 11th and 12th.
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