I grew up about 100 yards from the New Hampshire Massachusetts border, so to me it was always one of those borders that felt more imaginary than real. My family does a lot of our shopping in New Hampshire (“duty free”), my siblings and I went to high school in New Hampshire, my dad has volunteered as a ski patroller in New Hampshire for nearly twenty-five years old, I’ve hiked much of the White Mountains many times, and grew up spending most winter weekends training as an alpine ski racer in New Hampshire . Yet a few weeks ago when I traveled to the White Mountains to take an AIARE Level 1 avalanche safety course with Northeast Mountaineering – surely something rugged and outdoor enough that I could pass for a local – I knew how to introduce myself as “Todd from Massachusetts.”
The granite staters will never see me as one of their own. For them, the border is very real.
That’s because New Hampshire is a proud state – the “Live Free or Die” state – and its people are uniquely connected to the landscape. When Franconia, New Hampshire’s ‘Old Man of the Mountain‘ collapsed in 2003, visitors from all over visited its former site to pay their respects and lay flowers for the granite cornice formation that still adorns the plaques of registration, road signs and the official state district. . Ask any resident of any part of the state in which direction Mount Washington is, and they will invariably be able to point to it like a compass. As the tallest mountain in the northeast, Washington is the state’s most prominent peak, the epicenter of its mythology, and the beating heart of the state’s tourism industry.
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The Abenaki avoided mountain elevations above the tree line, believing them to be inhabited by deities; today you can reach the summit via a 7.6 mile toll road. Generally speaking, Mount Washington is for most of the year a very accessible mountain. There are countless approaches to the summit during the warmer months, whether visitors choose to ascend the automobile route, take the cog railway, or hike one of the many hiking trails. During the winter, however, it turns into a paradise for thrill seekers. When there is snow here, the trails are filled with cross-country skiers, snowshoers and mountaineers.
What most people don’t know is that Mount Washington has more vertical drop than many of the highest ski resorts in the west, including Jackson Hole and Aspen. From the summit (6,288 feet) to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (2,032 feet) where most people park, the mountain offers 4,256 feet of terrain. Only catch: there is no ski resort here, so if you are looking for winter thrills, you will have to climb, ski or snowshoe.
First skied in 1899, the mountain has a rich tradition of winter sports. In 1914, John Apperson of Schenectady, New York was the first to ski Tuckerman Ravine, a huge glacial cirque just below the summit, earning the mountain the unofficial nickname of the birthplace of extreme skiing in America. For more than a century, a spring pilgrimage to tackle the steep slopes of “Tuck’s” has been a must-do excursion for locals and visitors alike. Other notable areas include scenic Lion Head, the menacingly named Gulf of Slides, and the John Sherburne “Sherbie” ski run reserved for gentle descents.
For those who would argue that the eastern ski slopes are too icy and only the western mountains have powder, there’s a whole ski touring community here who would disagree. If you can’t find powder in New Hampshire, you’re not looking hard enough. If you like being entrusted with things, find a spot on the Aspen chairlift; if you want to earn your turns and find an adventurous sense of accomplishment, set your sights on backcountry spots like the Whites.
After a lifetime of ski racing and thrill-seeking in resorts around the world, it’s the exploration of off-limits, unmapped terrain that resonates with me now. And I’m not the only one – by any measure off-piste skiing has seen nothing short of a renaissance in recent years, especially during the pandemic.
However, with the increase in the number of off-piste skiers, there has not necessarily been a simultaneous increase in liability. I would be remiss to sing the praises of Mount Washington without mentioning the dangers. There have been sixteen recorded avalanche fatalities on Mount Washington, and numerous other accidents resulting from a lack of preparation or lack of observance of safety. It’s not resort skiing, so it goes without saying that when you’re here, no one is watching over you. There’s no lodge for hot chocolate, no ticket office to give you directions, and no ski patrol in case you fall – just you, your wits, and the wilderness.
This is partly why I signed up for the avalanche safety course mentioned above. For three days, we learned about buried surface frost, how to read avalanche forecasts and the hundreds of other conditions that can make backcountry skiing dangerous. I’ve learned that setting foot on a place like Mount Washington with the intention of skiing is less of a to-do list item, less of a “do it for Instagram” experience, and more of a reward for hours and hours of painstaking research, planning, and above all listening to the locals.
In my group, for example, there was a local search and rescue volunteer who was looking to hone her skills. On the last day of our course, as we were digging test columns and measuring the structural integrity of the snow, she recounted how many accidents she had witnessed on Mount Washington, and in the Presidential Range in general. , had been caused by not caring about how quickly things can get dangerous.
“We know it’s not the Rockies, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong,” she said. “I would so much rather have a tourist ask me directions or the snow conditions in the morning than have to go on a body recovery mission in the afternoon.”
If you’re looking to play in the backcountry, I highly suggest taking an AIARE Level 1 course. They’re everywhere. I booked mine through 57hours.com. Yes, you will learn how to look for backcountry warning signs. But more importantly, you’ll connect with locals who lived in the shadow of these mountains long before you arrived in their state and long after you left.
And when it comes to actually planning your trip, I would suggest anyone looking to explore Mount Washington – or any backcountry destination – deploy the same principles I practice when traveling there. : leaving no trace on the outside, putting safety first and, even when it is difficult, exercising the grace to defer to the locals for one of the thousands of questions you too will ask yourself during your visit there. Because even if you think you know the trails and have visited them countless times before, there will always be a level of knowledge that only they can help you achieve.