Wednesday, May 4, 2011

-Trip Report- Gulf of Slides: The Sideshow (April 30 - May 1, 2011)

Spring skiing at its best.
Mt. Washington can resemble a Spring circus.  The crowds gather for an annual festival that marks the end of the ski season.  Some people enjoy the show under the big tent: lions, clowns and of course, those candy peanuts.  But the main event isn't the only show in town.  Somewhere near the big tent sits the sideshow: a mystery tent with freaks, thrills and otherworldly experiences waiting to be discovered.  While the sideshow lacks the pomp and circumstance of the main tent, it can still blow your mind.

The last days of April were quickly upon me and it was time to make my yearly trek to the big mountain for Winter's big goodbye carnival.  I had decided well in advance that the last weekend in April would be the time to visit Mt. Washington.  Knowing that she can be a fickle old bitch, I was excited when the weekend forecast was released, and it was looking downright epic.  Both days were forecast to be sunny and warm with very little wind.  I couldn't have gotten any luckier.

Fired up. Ready to go.
Thursday night I excitedly packed my bag so that I could rush out the door at the end of the day on Friday and head up to the Mt. Washington area for an early Saturday start.  Given the ridiculously good forecast, I decided to make it an overnight trip to the Gulf of Slides.

While camping is restricted in the Cutler River drainage on Mt. Washington, including Tuckerman ravine, regular National Forest rules apply to the area in the Gulf which allow for camping.

I broke out the big pack, tied on my Go-Lite Shangri-La Shelter, and was so optimistic about the weather found myself packing my 30F degree Lafuma bag instead of my full-on -20F portable sauna (aka the EMS Mountain Light bag).

Even with my early start, I was forced to park in one of the distant lots on Saturday morning surrounded by the throngs of people heading up to Tuckerman from the Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center.  Given the number of cars, I was sure the entire mountain would be overrun.

The crowds disappeared though as I left Pinkham and started up the Gulf of Slides Trail.  After crossing the first bridge, I was alone.

I followed the trail as it crossed a large open brook, but I continued up and to the left of the main trail onto "the shortcut" that I had heard about from a number of other skiers.  Although the shortcut was more of a bushwhack than a trail, there was an abundance of snow.  I also happened upon a couple of other backcountry enthusiasts on their way up the mountain: the only two that I crossed paths with on the entire hike up to the ravine.

Before long, I found my way back to the main trail, and I was coming to the realization that the Gulf of Slides Trail was way ahead of me on the whole "end of winter" concept.  Much of the trail on the lower mountain was now a collection of muddy fields with little snow.  And so I alternated between skinning up the trail and carrying my skis.  Soon I arrived at the first of the slides to reach down and cross the trail.  The raw power of the mountain was on display as shattered and flattened trees littered the snow filled ravine.  A solid ribbon of white, however, ran all the way to the top of the mountain, and the soft corn snow at my feet was a positive sign of things to come.

The Second Slide

After two quick upward pitches, I arrived at the floor of the ravine, passing the emergency cache, and the "Second Slide".  Again,the ribbon of snow ran solidly to the top of the ridge.

The scene in the main ravine blew me away.  Only a few thin clouds wafted over the top of the mountain as a handful of skiers climbed the right side of the gully.  Where Tuckerman certainly had hundreds of skiers queuing on its boot ladders, the Gulf was virtually empty. 

Fortress of Solitude.
Tired from the climb, I spied a relatively flat spot at the edge of the woods and set up my shelter.  The hard, dense snow held the tent stakes firmly, which is in contrast to the battles that usually occur when trying to stake out a shelter on unconsolidated snow.  I shoveled out the inside of the tent to make a flat sleeping platform and a foot well so that I could hang my feet over the sides of the "bed" and sit upright in the shelter.  Given that Charlie Brown's Anus was (permanently) on loan to Gered, I brought my larger GoLite shelter: which was more than enough space for me to spread out.  Although much larger than what I needed, the GoLite lives up to its name weighing in at a mere 2.7lbs.

Chasing my shadow again.
After setting up camp, I headed up the Main Gully for my first run of the weekend.  I labored up the boot ladder in solitude until reaching a line of small evergreen scrub brush where the snow began to thin.  Above the line of evergreen shrubs, snowless alpine scrub and rock spread out over the top of the ridge.  A flat platform above a set of bushes provided the perfect spot to put on my skis and launch onto the slope.  While steep, the Main Gully doesn't have the gut wrenching steepness, or death penalty sections found at Tuckerman.  The snow had become soft in the afternoon snow yielding perfect spring corn conditions.   I carved my turns into the relatively flat and un-moguled snow back to the bottom.

I needed booty crampons to get any higher than this.
Afternoon arrived quickly an as shadows enveloped the slide, I dug out my kitchen in the snow and began the endless chore of melting snow for dinner and the long night ahead.  It was barely beyond 6:00PM when the sun set over the top of the ravine and I scarfed down the last of my Easy Mac

At a loss with what to do with myself, I wandered up the Second Slide in my camp booties for some photos in the fading light.

Keith, I can see your house from here.
It was a relatively calm night, with occasional fits of wind flapping the loose spots on my shelter.  I woke up around 3:00 AM wishing that I had brought a warmer bag.  The combination of my Lafuma bag with my Sea to Summit Thermolite bag liner was barely enough for what I later learned were temperatures in the 20's.  I had violated a sacred rule: always bring more bag than you think you'll need.  Awake and cold, I employed the camping version of an electric blanket:  I ate half a Snickers bar.  Sure enough, the additional energy warmed me up enough to allow me to go back to sleep.

The next morning, after wolfing down a couple of blueberry Pop Tarts and some instant coffee, I headed up the slide for first turns under a cloudless sky.  The air was eerily still and the sky was a deep shade of blue that I hadn't seen since my trip to Mt. Cardigan a few years earlier.  The sun had already softened the snow by the time I reached the top of the boot ladder.

It was another glorious day of near perfect conditions in the Main Gully.  On my second run, I chatted with a French Canadian power skiing couple who had also camped in the ravine and were on their way over to Tuckerman.  They shot past me up the mountain, humbling me with their climbing speed, but also providing me with the "real climbers in action" photo-op of the day.

If there was dust, I would be eating it.
After pushing corn all morning, I skied to the bottom of the ravine and past a "crowd" of ten skiers just arriving around noon, to pack up and head home.

Despite skiing with a thirty pound load, I sailed down the first sections of the trail,  alternating between hiking with my skis on my back and skinning what little snow was left.  I bypassed the shortcut and instead stuck to the trail only to discover that the lower portions were completely devoid of snow.  What had been a ten minute trip on skis on my previous visit to the Gulf of Slides was an hour-long slog through mud and muck.

However, even the difficulties of the long exit off the mountain couldn't wipe the smile off of my face.  This was likely my last skiing weekend of the season, and oh what a weekend it was: even if I didn't get to see the donkey riding monkeys.

I've put together two videos.  The first is an overview of the weekend, with scenes from all over the area.  The second is simply a top to bottom run in the main gully.  Enjoy.


  1. Great Post. I have never skied Tucks. Like Warren Miller says, "If you don't do it this year you will be another year older when you do." I really need to get a full ski year from start to finish in 11/12 and hopefully end it with a Tucks trip.

  2. Hey, there's no time like the present too! This Sunday should be another good one on the rockpile. Thanks for reading, and for the comments.

  3. EPIC!!!! nice report......It is always a mystery how trail head parking lots are jam packed yet the crowds thin out so fast, I wonder where everyone goes? I also like your choice of Pop Tarts for breakfast, the fuel of champions!!

  4. Next weekend there will be tucks. And you will be there. Skiing the headwall. Making up for your epic puss out on Thanks For The Memories Coliour. Link to footage of you not skiing TFTMC.

  5. Great entry ... great photos and website. Very enjoyable! Looking forward to digging deeper into you work ... very inspiring. Thanks!

  6. Thanks Grant, Poptarts are my trail breakfast staple.

    Glad to have you aboard Harry! Thanks for the comments.

    And as for you Little Mermaid.... Are you skiing this weekend as well or did you already sell your skis for a new bike that won't help you swim any faster?