Grip it and Rip it: A Tale in the Life of Brett Weir

My favorite male model, Hansel once said, “Sometimes you just have to grip it and rip it.” These words resonated loudly in my head on January 2nd, when I decided to hike and ski Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington, New Hampshire.

Skiing Tuckerman’s in January is not a common activity for most people, but I wouldn’t say that I am most people. Mount Washingtonis home to the highest wind speed ever recorded by man at 231 miles per hour, is notorious for having the worst weather in the world, on top of being the tallest mountain in the East. These factors coupled with severe avalanche dangers at Tuckerman’s make attempting to conquer the beast a truly harrowing feat.

I summoned up a fellowship, if you will, of six of my closest and able friends to join and assist me on my journey. Conditions at the base of the Pinkham Notch at eight am were snowy with temperatures in the teens.

After finishing our rather dry lembas we strap our skis and boards onto our backs and begin our ascent. The trail was fairly well packed so snowshoes weren’t necessary, but as the snow began to fall harder, the crampons on the bottom of the snowshoes came in handy.

We reached the Hermit Lake Shelter two hours after we started and the winds whipping down from the summit of Washington instantly freeze our sweat drenched jackets and gloves. It is there that we get our first good look at the ravine: Ice flows hang menacingly off he top of the headwall waiting to break off in Jetta-sized chunks and roll down the ravine demolishing everything in its path while immense exposed rocks sit precariously in the way of a skier’s line.

After we thawed our hands and reenergized we set off for the final push to the base of the bowl. The hike from Hermit Lake to the bowl is the hardest half mile of the trip due to the steep granite steps that are usually dry and easy to walk on in May are now covered with ice and snow. Being at the front of the line, I risked losing my footing and having my forty pound pack drag me backwards into my six other friends or off the edge of the trail into a raging river of liquid ice.

Upon reaching the bowl we quickly shed our packs and huddled behind a rock stuffing our faces with frozen sandwiches and Gatorade. I then was faced with the challenge of putting my ski boots on. Putting on ski boots that have been outside for four hours in single digit temperatures is sort of like stuffing your foot down your kitchen sink.

Many-an-expletive-later, my boots were on and we headed directly up the Left Gully of Tuckerman’s Ravine with our skis and boards slung over our shoulders.

The extremely steep pitch of the Left Gully and the harsh windblown conditions made footing especially tricky on this January day.

Leading the group up the gully put a rather large load of responsibility on my shoulders which I gladly took on.

Climbing the gully is a little like climbing up a steep ladder with skis in your hand while wearing very inflexible ski boots as someone pours buckets and buckets of snow on your head for an hour and a half. Alright, it is exactly like that.

A half hour into the hike the snow got very deep. I started to sink in it up to my waist making causing me to exert energy that I didn’t have.

Generally, deep light snow at a steep pitch such as the one we were hiking up that day is very prone to avalanches. However, the expert rangers at Pinkham Notch posted a low avalanche danger for the Left Gully, so why shouldn’t we trust the word of the professionals and think it was any different?

Due in large part to a courageous effort by all seven members, the fellowship stayed complete and reach the lip of the gully an hour and a half after we set out from the base of the bowl.

The ascent wasn’t easy by any means as each and every one of us was pushed beyond our physical and emotional limits to the point of break-down.

Reaching the lip was as exhilarating as it was frightening as we looked straight down the gully we had just climbed up to realize we would have to ride down it flawlessly or possibly stumble to a messy death at the bottom.

I sat at the top watching my friends conquer the chute in wonderfully grandeur fashion of graceful, tight, arching turns and funneling out to the bowl where they would take off their equipment and watch the next in line thread the needle through rocks like wind through an air tunnel.

I finally took a deep breath, gripped it and ripped it, and dropped in to wonderfully soft snow at dangerously high speeds. With my head pointing straight down the line, I focused on the next turn while completing the last, digging my edges in just hard enough to keep me from skipping across the snow.

My turns were coming like clockwork until one fatal second when everything went wrong. Before I could realize what was happening, a massive slab of snow had broken off beneath me and as it sucked me in and covered me up, began moving abruptly down the slope. I could seenothing but black and could feel nothing but the tumbling snow moving me that I had no control over.

My mind went blank as I struggled to draw a clear conclusion of what was happening beyond that fact that I was in an avalanche. What seemed like an hour later, but was really five or seven seconds later, I caught a break and took advantage of it. The edges of my skis touched the ground so I instantly dug them in as hard as I could and slid out of the side of the slide. I sat in the snow and watched my snowy escort collide with a house-sized boulder and spill over a cliff. When I got to the bottom I couldn’t speak but could only lay down and catch my breath. I realized that my life was seconds away from being in serious jeopardy and that was something I was not used to. Perhaps I gripped it and ripped it too hard. Perhaps not. But with a lot of skill and a little luck, I ride to see another day.