Wednesday, September 22, 2010

-Trip Report- Hillman's Highway: A River Runs Through It (May 2010)

Did somebody bring an auger?
There's nothing like skiing with the sound of rushing water beneath your feet.

The words skiing and water usually end in disaster unless there's a boat involved.  That includes the late spring contests where skiers dress up in ridiculous costumes and go skimming across open water to reaffirm principles of speed, air displacement, and blood alcohol content.

But I wasn't picturing the margarita fueled crowds of some resort.  I was more focused on driving out thoughts of a dark, cold, wet hole that was waiting for me on the other side of an unknown thickness of snow and ice beneath my feet.

Such is the mental battle on Hillman's Highway on a warm spring day.

 It had been a warm couple of days and I had already started the last skiing weekend of the 2009-2010 season in style: short sleeves and moguls on Jay Peak.   While I missed playing in the powder filled glades, it was nice not freezing my ass off on the chairlift: for once.

By Sunday when  I arrived at the Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center, it had been a solid 48 hours of early summer weather on the high peaks.  You could almost hear the mountains melting.  After letting my legs rest for most of the morning, I began the trudge up to Tuckerman's Notch relatively late in the day.  The forecast was iffy on rain for the late afternoon, so I was in a hurry to get up there before conditions changed.  However, for the meantime, the sun was still shining and it was downright hot.  It wasn't long before I stripped down to my t-shirt, and rolled up the cuffs on my pants, and the heat was still unbearable.
Sunburned faces were already descending when I reached Hojos. I looked up to the left of Tuckerman's at Hillman's Highway. I recognized the narrow gully extending from the basin where Hojo's is located all the way to the summit ridge.  Just to the right of Hillman's, running about halfway up, is a large triangle of snow known as the lower snowfields.  If timed right, one could cut over from Hillman's and into the top point of the triangular field of snow.  This is tricky, though, as scrub brush blocks a clear view when you're on Hillman's.

I surveyed the last part of my climb, and half a bottle of water and two pop tarts later I was on my way up Hillman's.

Only a couple other skiers were ahead of me climbing the gully, but the moguled snow evidenced the dozens who had already carved their way down Hillman's earlier in the weekend.

While steep, Hillman's isn't as steep as the headwall and upper reaches of Tuckerman's.  The real difficulty lies in navigating some narrow chutes, and on this day, avoiding the water hazard.  The only open water was at the very bottom of the gully, but I could hear the water rushing under the snow beneath my feet in places. 

While the two skiers above me struggled to make progress skinning up the steep slope, I still had my skis on my pack and bare booted up the side of the gully, quickly leaving them behind.
Just below my stopping point.

About three-quarters of the way up the slope I finally stopped on the top end of a rock outcropping.  The flat area allowed me to put my skis on and there was some open slope to allow me to get a few turns in before needing to navigate a tight pinch point.

While the angle wasn't steep enough to make a fall that dangerous, the unknown thickness of the ice kept me on my feet.  The last thing I wanted was to go airborne and belly flop into an ice bath.

Quickly, I linked turns and skied down to the bottom of the gully, reaching the hole in the ice.  I was able to step around it and make my way down the Sherburne without having to take my skis off.

The Sherburne Trail was in late season form with only the first third skiable.  I reached the rope marking the closed portion of the trail, and as I pulled off my skis and tied them back onto my pack, I watched the rain clouds peeking over the top of Tuckerman's and wondered when and where my skis would be back on my feet.

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