Skiing the Gulf of Slides - 13/Feb/2000

By David Metsky

This was a trip I'd thought about for years. The Gulf of Slides is a remote backcountry skiing destination that is a bit more exotic than Tuckerman, its more famous sibling to the north. Many fewer people ski there, it's farther away, a bit more dangerous, and farther from help. Because of the danger (avalanche danger was medium that day) and our general inexperience with ascessing it, we weren't planning on skiing up the slides and chutes of the ravine. But the trip up and back were supposed to be great and the snow was about as good as it gets. We chose to take our lift tele gear, a bit heavier than the backcountry stuff but since all we were doing was skining up and skiing down, we figured the weight was worth it. It was.

I met up with Lafe and Allison at Pinkham Notch. They had skied up the Tuckerman Ravine trail the previous day, coming down the Shelbourne Ski trail. It was good, but by the time they hit Hojos, it had gotten overcase and cold. We started out from Pinkham under pretty much blue skies, and with more fresh snow overnight we were expecting a good day. We started out with wax, but after a few steep pitches in the unconsolidated snow we put on our skins. We also quickly got hot from the excursion in the warm sun. But we were making progress and already thinking about the descent. The trail is pretty much a steady up, with a few small drops. But mainly you climb, up and up, higher and higher, until you get your first views of the Gulf of Slides.

You also get the sobering reminder of the first avalanche cache, a collection of snow probes, shovels, and sleds to assist in the rescue or recovery of people who get caught. Just a few years earlier, two people were killed in the chute of the main slide, and a second avalache cache was put up in their memory. Which makes it even more impressive and awe inspiring when you hit the base of the ravine. All around you can see trees that were snapped and bent from recent avalaches. We decided to go up to the base of the chute where we got a view out of the ravine. Lafe wanted to go up a bit higher, to where earlier in the morning another skier had gone, dug a snow bit to assess the danger, and continued up. As Lafe was putting on his skis, we saw the other skier coming down from the top for his second run. Al and I dropped down lower to set up for lunch while they skied down. For the run down the bottom of the chute, we elected to keep our skins on.

While we started eating, the other skier came by. He had gone up top for two runs, and said the avalache danger wasn't that bad. But we were happy we had stayed low, anyways. It was kind of unnerving, sitting among all that twisted wood, and thinking about the two skiers who had died in nearly the same spot. But today wasn't that day, and we weren't those skiers. For the begining of the trip down, we decided to keep our skins on until we got our backcountry legs back under us. By the time I hit the original cache, I was ready to remove the skins and let 'em rip. Lafe and Al decided to keep theirs on for a bit longer. I was just loving the snow; it was perfect powder, something you rarely find back east. There was about 10-12" of light fluffy snow above a solid base, and there were only 3 or 4 sets of tracks! You could use the full width of the trail, plus the trees in places. The best part about the snow conditions was you could take the turns in the trail at full speed because you knew that no matter what was ahead you had time and enough room to handle it. This was the best backcountry downhill run I'd ever had. Of course, having my lift gear may have been part of the equation as well.

The rest of the trip was just a blur of deep snow, blue skies, and turn after wonderful turn. Sure, we had a few mishaps, but we had a ball. Here's a few just plain fun shots:

For anyone with good backcountry skills, a healthy respect for avalanche dangers, and the will to put in a good day's work, this is a trip for you. Make sure you check the avy forecast and remeber that discretion is the better part of valor.

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