Published DateBy Tom Eastman
MOUNT WASHINGTON — Whether as as a skier or snowboarder, or just as a spectator, tackling Tuckerman is the ultimate challenge for spring skiing lovers in New England.
Capturing the excitement, allure, danger and thrills and spills of Mount Washington's famed ski bowl is Alain Comeau of Brownfield, Maine, in his soon-to-be released DVD, “Facing the Headwall: Experience a Day in Tuckerman Ravine.”
Produced over a period of two years, the 23-minute action-packed DVD features footage gleaned from numerous treks to the ravine by Comeau, a veteran climbing guide, photographer, videographer and musician.
“I just brought my camera along every time I went up on Mount Washington,” he notes. “I just was interested in the subject and kept on filming. I had no plan. Then I began to realize I had something, and then it was a matter of telling that story of a day in the ravine, and of editing all the footage down.”
Ever humble and quiet-natured, Comeau said in an interview at the Frontside Grind in North Conway Village Friday that he is happy to have had the opportunity to share Mount Washington with avid skiers and armchair adventurers alike.
“I feel it does capture the essence of what I would call the 'Tuckerman Experience,' which is all-encompassing and multi-generational,” said Comeau. “The people, the camaraderie, the dangers. I also include interviews with the snow rangers, including veteran, retired snow ranger Brad Ray, who just had so many stories — I wish I could have included them all, but of course, when you do a film, it's always what to leave in and what to leave out. Maybe there's another project just on Brad's stories alone!”
In one compelling scene, Ray is shown at the popular gathering spot for spectators in the ravine known as Lunch Rocks, sharing tales about ravine safety and the dangers of avalanches, crevasses, flowing water behind undermined snow on the headwall, and falling rocks and ice, especially on warm spring days when it all loosens up.
As Ray speaks to Comeau's camera about those hazards, chaos erupts when someone shouts out, “ICE!” The camera tilts as Comeau tries both to capture the action while also doing his best to get out of the way of the tumbling ice boulder.
It drives it home dramatically, and demonstrates how a glorious sun-filled day in the ravine can turn deadly in a matter of seconds.
Other scenes with head U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Chris Joosen and snow ranger Justin Preisendorfer underscore the need for all visitors to the ravine to be prepared for those challenges, and to have escape routes planned in advance, should automobile-sized chunks of ice come barreling down at them from above.
Some of the dramatic shots show skiers and boarders attempting to make it down the center headwall of the ravine — viewers will be astounded that the daredevils were able to survive such falls. Other footage shows GoPro helmet shots, taken by a snowboarder as he descends Left Gully.
History of skiing the ravine
A brief portion recounts the history of skiing and racing in the ravine, dating back to the American Infernos of the 1930s. One photograph featured shows then-19-year-old Austrian skiing sensation Toni Matt just as he nears the sole gate on the Lip of the ravine, just as he makes his turn for his legendary downhill schuss of the Tuckerman Headwall in the American Inferno of April 16, 1939.
As all ski history lovers know, Matt made his dramatic summit to base run in an amazing 6 minutes, 29.2 seconds — a time that halved the previous record set in 1934, and which was a full minute faster than second-place finisher and 1934 champion Dick Durrance.
Through photographs loaned by Jeff Leich of the New England Ski Museum, and other footage shot over the years, Comeau seamlessly connects those early daredevils with the skiing and snowboarding thrill-seekers of today.
“We have progressed in time,” says Comeau, owner-operator of New England Mountain Climbing Guides, a team leader for the volunteer Mountain Rescue Service of Mount Washington Valley, and an instructor and certifier for the American Mountain Guides Association. “But there is something about Tuckerman Ravine that is timeless. The equipment has changed, as has the clothing — but the ambience has not changed. It is kind of a timeless place.”
Skiing and climbing
Comeau has had a lifelong love affair with Mount Washington since he first came north from his boyhood home in Wayland, Mass., as a teenager to hike the 6,288-foot mountain. Later, he returned in spring to ski Tuckerman.
As a skier, he became a climber in an effort to safely get to some of the more challenging routes he wanted to ski.
He eventually became a climbing guide. His video pays homage not only to skiing in Tuck's, but also to climbing in neighboring Huntington Ravine.
It all reflects his love and reverence for Mount Washington, and all of its joys, challenges and ever-changing and fickle moods.
“I think it [the DVD] gives a representative look at what to expect in a day up there,” said Comeau, “for people who have never been up there, or for those who have, it is something to take home and enjoy.”
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