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Sometimes Skiers Go to Extremes

June 2, 2006

MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. (AP) _ Most skiers see boulders as obstacles. Forrest Frizzell sees them as launch pads. On a Sunday in May, the 21-year-old Frizzell blasts into the air off a tractor-trailer-sized rock and rockets down the headwall at maniacal speed. Making turns does not seem to interest this Evel Knievel on skis. Spectators cheer his jump _ and then quickly run for cover.

Each time, Frizzell rides to the bitter end before hitting the brakes perilously close to where the snow stops and a brook begins.

Then he pops out of his skis, throws them over his shoulder, and starts back up the mountain.

``This is the sickest skiing on the East Coast!″ beams Frizzell, from Lebanon, Maine.

At most ski areas, anyone skiing like that probably would get his lift ticket yanked. But here, at Tuckerman Ravine, almost anything goes. Besides, you can’t buy a lift ticket. To ski the ravine, you have to climb it.

Tuckerman has been drawing hardcore skiers to its challenging terrain for more than 75 years.

Named for 19th century botanist Edward Tuckerman, the ravine is a large glacial cirque on the southeastern shoulder of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in the Northeast.

Windblown snow collects in the ravine throughout the winter. By March, when skiing in the ravine usually begins, the snow may reach depths of 75 feet. Most years the season lasts well into summer.

The ravine is a 3-mile hike starting at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s visitor center in Pinkham Notch.

Shaped like a cereal bowl cut in half, the ravine’s dominant feature is a wide slope near the center called the headwall. It’s flanked by about a half-dozen narrow routes with names such as Chute and Sluice.

Most who venture into the ravine strap skis or snowboards to their backpacks for the climb up. Many wear crampons and use ice axes for extra stability to cope with grades as steep as 55 degrees.

Many people who think they aren’t afraid of heights learn otherwise on the climb.

``We definitely get a good percentage of folks who tote their skis or boards up here and don’t make any turns, because once they get a look at the steep stuff they just don’t want any part of it,″ said Justin Preisendorfer, a snow ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Tuckerman skiing.

While they climb, skiers must take note of the terrain they intend to ski.

``At a ski resort you don’t have to worry about crevasses, you don’t have to worry about falling ice, and in the East, you don’t have to worry about sliding off a cliff,″ said Preisendorfer.

``But our biggest worry today is going to be other people. Skiers falling, coming cartwheeling down, people skiing out of control, hiking up and dropping a ski. These hazards multiply on the weekends.″

More than 30 skiers and hikers have lost their lives in the ravine.

Dave Bennett and Seth Burke are caretakers at the Hermit Lake Shelters, about a half mile below the ravine. In addition to overseeing lean-tos that accommodate 80 campers, they dispense advice on where to ski and what conditions to expect.

``Our most moderate run, Hillman’s Highway, is probably equivalent to a double black diamond at a resort,″ Bennett said. ``But at a ski resort, that run might have a steep section that lasts for maybe 10 turns. Here it’s a straight-shot chute that goes down 1,500 vertical feet.″

``Good training for Tuckerman Ravine is going to your resort, hiking up the hill, riding down the gnarliest, chunked-up mogul trail at maximum speed, dehydrated,″ Burke said.

Paul Jones, a 39-year-old computer consultant from Marlton, N.J., has been coming to Tuckerman Ravine for 20 years. To stay in shape, he climbs Hunter Mountain ski resort in New York every Saturday and Sunday during the winter.

The ravine is the only place in New England where backcountry skiing and snowboard riding is a spectator sport. On a sunny weekend, more than 2,000 people hike and picnic at the Lunch Rocks, a jumble of boulders that doubles as stadium seating.

``We do have amazing skiers and riders that are putting together some pretty amazing lines. A lot of them might be able to fit into any Warren Miller ski video or Teton Gravity film,″ said Preisendorfer.

The place has a carefree, festive atmosphere. More than a dozen unleashed dogs run around, several following their masters as they ski. Several people ski in shorts on this sunny day, despite temperatures in the mid-40s.

Ben Reilly, a Bates College freshman from Southborough, Mass., skis in a billowing teal prom dress.

The previous week, a New Hampshire man skied wearing only his ski boots and helmet. The crowd cheered. The rangers were less amused and fined him $100.

But nothing gets the crowd stoked as much as a good crash.

Twenty-three-year-old Kim Blouin of Longueuil, Quebec, tried to catch some air off Frizzell’s boulder, but things didn’t go so well. On landing, he caught a ski and somersaulted and bounced, head-over-heels, flipping backward four times like a rag doll.

``I tried the little cliff, the rock. Seems like I landed on a big bump, and I couldn’t stop. Things happen, I guess. Flipped four times. You just can’t stop, then you’re sliding with the snow. That was great,″ he said as he dug snow out of his pockets and hunted for a lost pole.

``I’m going to get my pole and retry it.″

The crowd cheered as Blouin tumbled, but went silent at the end of the fall. The cheers resumed, even louder, when he got back on his feet.

``The crowd loves to see people take wipeouts and stand up and be OK. But at the same time, when we have 2,000 people and somebody gets critically injured, then obviously there aren’t the cheers and it can be a pretty somber scene. It’s always great if folks can get up, shake it off and walk out. I think the resiliency of the human body is something that is pretty amazing,″ Preisendorfer said.

Daniel Curran of Boston is a Tuckerman regular. Up above the headwall, he starts to put on his skis.

``When you look at this objectively, it’s just stupid what we do,″ he says.

``You get up early, you hike up three hours (to the floor of the ravine). Then you hike another hour straight up the side of a mountain.

``All for about five minutes of skiing with a high probability that you are going to fall and hurt yourself. ... But 99.99 percent of the American population will never do this.″

Then he stops thinking objectively and points his skis downhill, toward the edge of the headwall.


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