Story and Photo By Judi Platt
I can’t help but snicker when I see those ubiquitous bumper stickers bragging that “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” Real New Englanders don’t drive up Mt. Washington; they hike up it. The most intrepid risk the elements and terrain to ski down it in Tuckerman Ravine where snow lingers through June.
I have done neither, nor will I ever. However, when planning to ski on trails at the base a few winters ago, I learned that the Mt. Washington Auto Road is listed as a cross-country ski trail. I think, “Why not?” and add it to my bucket list.
Aware that Mother Nature’s fury is notorious on Mt. Washington—the highest peak in New England at 6,288 feet—I concoct a “fool”-proof scheme. My husband and I will take the Mt. Washington Snowcoach up the auto road from its base and then enjoy a long, downhill run. Because the coach operates only on days when the wind isn’t howling and snow squalls aren’t obscuring visibility, we reduce the risk of being caught in one of the worst weather traps on the planet. The mountain holds the record for the highest winds ever recorded on the Earth’s land surface, so this is no small consideration.
We embark on our adventure under a bright sun in a Wedgewood blue sky. I silence my creaking joints and moaning muscles and the little voice in my head that keeps asking, “Are you sure about this?” as I board the snowcoach. I ignore the driver’s startled look as his eyes swivel back and forth from the gray hairs sprouting from beneath my thick knit cap to the skis I hand him. Undaunted, I settle back to enjoy the lumbering ride up the mountain. An hour later, the coach grinds to a stop and spits out our gear from its cavernous belly—cross-country skis and poles for me and snowshoes for my husband, who does not share my enthusiasm for this escapade.
Now alone together in this wonderland of frozen snowladen pines, my husband quips, “I bet the driver’s alerting the EMTs right now.” I ignore him and send him on his way with a cheery, “I’ll catch up with you,” as I snap on my skinny skis and take a few photos of the breathtaking views.
Almost from the start, I slide and slip as if my skis are propelled by little demons. The road is icier than I expected for its four-foot base. My right ski goes in one direction and my knee in another. I realize that if I veer off to the side just a few feet, I will be airborne—right off a precipice with a 500-foot drop. And, it won’t be a soft landing. If I survive the flight, I may drown in the bottomless snowpack.
So I shuffle over to the other edge of the road and hug a few trees before taking off my skis. With careful steps, I attempt to catch up with my husband, now a diminutive figure way ahead of me. But soon I have a new concern: I am losing feeling in my toes. I envision leaving them behind as souvenirs for the next person foolish enough to attempt this.
Finally, I find a place where I can safely latch my frozen feet into the bindings and begin to snowplow. I point my toes so far inward that I now worry about crossing the tips of my skis and tumbling down the road and into the jaws of the valley. My thighs burn with the effort, but I make progress. At last, the buildings at the base of the road no longer look like pieces on a Monopoly board. Thank the snow gods! I am going to make it down.
A while later, when I release my bindings, snow not only falls from the soles of my boots, but also from inside. The soles of my not-so-old boots are completely cracked in half and my socks caked with snow. Relieved that I can blame my hapless descent on a “gear malfunction” and that I have broken only boots this day, I heave them into the trash and head for the ski shop.
Where are the bumper stickers that say, I skied down Mr. Washington?
I did—sort of.