Hillman Highway, Mt. Washington
Friday, May 23, 1997

Hikers: Matthew Reagan, Aleks Engel, Glen Bolton

After weeks of waiting out the weather, record snowfall, and avalanches, a few intrepid chemical engineers made the trip up to Pinkham Notch first thing Friday morning. We arrived at 9am, had the packs ready by 9:15, and arrived at the Hermit Lake shelters by 11am--just in time to watch a few telemarkers make first tracks on lower Hillman's and the Lower Snow Field. Here I am (on the left, with my Famous Green Skis) smiling in pleasant pain after the two-mile hike up the tractor road (click on the photos to see the full-size versions). ChE Glen Bolton (right) looks equally satisfied. After the long walk up with 45 lbs. of equipment on your back, you truly appreciate the value of the commercial lift ticket! Avalanche danger was listed as high all over, including all approaches to Tuckerman Ravine proper, so we settled for Hillman's--especially after a few brave folks tested out the stability of the snowpack.

Here is the view of Hillman Highway from our "base camp" (picnic spot?) at the head of the Sherburne ski trail. This may very well be the best view of the mountain we had all day, thanks to high winds, blowing snow, and high-altitude fog. The Highway stretches from the foreground up into the clouds at the upper-right-hand corner of the photo. To the left are the hanging cliffs of Boott Spur. Our first run began at the top of the large triangle of stunted forest at right-center, and our second attempt went higher, beyond the cloud line. The weather was seasonable, but the wind was brutal. We did not attempt an ascent to the very top of the Highway, since conditions became unbearable about 2/3 of the way up. We also witnessed a small soft-snow avalanche while in the upper part of the Highway. The slow-moving tongue of liquified snow did no damage, but served as a reminder of the enormous amount of snow that was perched over our heads beyond that wall of clouds.

Here is a view of the lower third of the Highway taken from the HoJo's deck. The grey line on the right of the ski field is the well-worn footpath to the top of the Triangle. Beyond the tip of the triangle, we had to break our own path onto the steeper upper sections of the gully. The conditions were very spring-like (OK, maybe downright sloppy at the bottom), but there is no substitute for snow depth. I would never have expected this much coverage on Memorial Day weekend, but then again, neither would I have expected 70"+ of snow in the month of May. It was truly unfortunate that avalanche conditions were so high in the ravine itself, since the incredible amount of snow would have opened up numerous interesting routes and made a descent of the headwall a realistic endeavor (for me, at least--others may not need ideal conditions!). However, Hillman's was fun, if not extreme.

At Hillman's, Tuck's, and anywhere else in the backcountry, you have to earn your turns. Here is a photo from our rest stop about 2/3 up the slope. Notice that our intrepid skier/climber is ascending with only the toes of his boots in the snow. The grade approached 45% near the top of the Highway, and simply walking, balancing, and even sitting became more difficult. Stepping into bindings was quite challenging. As we climbed higher, visibility decreased and the wind (and blowing snow and ice pellets) became much worse, so we began our run from a point just above this photo. The snow was magnificent, by the way, thanks to a constant stream of new powder blowing down from the summit.

Here I am banking a leisurely turn through the deep, heavy snow. Glen Bolton is approaching from higher up. Although things look rather quiet in this picture, there were dozens of other skiers and boarders on the mountain this day. A few adventurous souls ventured into the narrow chutes to the right of Hillman's, and one snowboarder even traversed across the top of the ridge to access one of the highest strips of snow. Although 'cheating' on the ascent gave him no chance to survey snow conditions (and gave the crowd on the deck a moment of suspense), he made it down without any major mishaps. It didn't look like anyone attempted Tuck's that day--which was for the best, I suppose.

After two runs (and therefore, two climbs), we headed back to HoJo's for a rest and contemplated the true value of the $50 lift ticket. We were able to ski 1/3 of the way down the Sherburne trail until the snow gave way to rocks and mud, and then packed up our skis and walked home to Pinkham Notch.

Next trip? Fourth-of-July skiing?

photos by Matthew Reagan and Aleks Engel

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