EDITOR'S NOTE: The late Conway Daily Sun ski columnist Nicholas Howe of Jackson penned this story on the American Infernos held in 1933, '34 and '39 on Mount Washington, with the latter won by then-19-year-old Austrian ski instructor Toni Matt when he "schussed" (straight down) the Tuckerman Ravine headwall to earn his place in American ski lore. Nick's story, which ran April 22, 2008, has been edited for length.
Author of "Not Without Peril," a chronicle of accidents on Mount Washington and the Presidential Range, Howe, 85, died April 4.
The 80th anniversary of Matt's legendary schuss is April 16. The New England Ski Museum's Eastern Slope Branch in North Conway plans to have on display a ski pole that was reportedly part of the pair he used in the 1939 Inferno.
Meanwhile, the spirit of ski racing on Mount Washington lives on in today's 18th annual Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon, presented by Friends of Tuckerman Ravine (see related story).
MOUNT WASHINGTON — The first American Inferno was held on April 16, 1933. It started on the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington, and the only stipulation was that everyone finish at the AMC camp 3.8 miles and 4,200 feet below.
Eleven racers from various New England ski clubs took the start, and there were three obvious routes. One descended from the snowfields below the peak over the Lip and onto the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine, a far steeper pitch at 60 degrees than skiers would find anywhere else in the eastern United States. This terrain was subject to frequent avalanches, and many entrants trailed long ribbons to guide rescuers in case of need. Or racers could choose the Right Gully, farther to the side of the Ravine. It was less intimidating but a less direct route and a narrower track.
Race-day pleasures were further attenuated by steady rain and such thick clouds above timberline that racers steered by the angle of the wind. Everyone survived, and Hollis Philips won in 21 minutes, 18 seconds.
The second Mount Washington Inferno was held April 14, 1934, and the intervening year had seen the transformation of American ski racing.
European-trained Dick Durrance hiked up to Tuckerman Ravine early in his first winter in New Hampshire, 1933-34, and found that it did not match the settled civility of the Alps. There were two small bark-covered lean-tos, and there was weather.
For the second Inferno, 3,000 spectators climbed to the Ravine to see what this Durrance boy could do. Twelve competitors made sweeping turns on the snow fields of the summit cone, got down over the Lip as well as they could, then made a quick turn to their right for a steep traverse under the rocks. They then turned left and plummeted down the Headwall with as many more turns as the interests of survival might require.
Most of the competitors fell on the rough snow on the floor of the Ravine, a stirring adventure in those days of bear-trap toes and loose heels. Durrance got into an avalanche track that upended him several times, but his superior skills over the Little Headwall and down the Fire Trail brought a winning time of 12 minutes, 35 seconds against the previous year’s mark of 21:18.
Then American ski racing was transformed again. Toni Matt grew up skiing in St. Anton, Austria, under the tutelage of Hannes Schneider; Toni Seelos was his racing coach. In November 1938, three months before Schneider’s arrival in North Conway, Toni was brought over to New Hampshire by Benno Rybizka, an Austrian disciple of Hannes, and he started the Eastern Slope Ski School for Carroll Reed in Jackson. He was also recruited by Harvey Gibson, the North Conway native and financier who created Mount Cranmore to open the Eastern Slope Ski School at his mountain, so Toni was on hand to greet the Schneider family when they arrived in January 1939.
Now, six years after the arrival of Durrance, Matt taught American skiers yet another vocabulary of speed. The record on the Nosedive in Stowe had been set the year before by Ulrich “Cannonball” Beutner of Germany, and Matt lowered that standard by 12 seconds.
Two downhills were held on the same day at New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain and Toni won the first one by such a huge margin that the legendary accuracy of Joe Dodge’s timing was challenged. Joe said, “No mistake — wait until the next time down.” The racers went back to the top, and Toni won again by exactly the same margin.
Walter Prager was still close to his World Championship form, and Toni beat him in Sun Valley’s Harriman Cup downhill by 17 seconds. The Mount Washington Inferno was next.
Toni had been in the Ravine only once before. In January, some of his new friends in North Conway invited him to come along to climb it. But the climbers were soon wrapped in an impenetrable fog, so they decided to have lunch and head back down. The day was inadequate preparation for what was to come.
The next try was scheduled for April 8, but a storm turned the racers back. The weather was threatening the next weekend, too, and the Saturday try was canceled.
Sunday, April 16, was perfect, and as fans scrambled for the best viewpoints the racers were seeing to their strategies.
By this time, technique and nerve had advanced to the point where everyone planned to come down through the Headwall. They’d hang on as well as they could as they dropped over the Lip into the Headwall, then swing to the right and make as many turns and steep traverses as judgment dictated before they straightened out for the run across the floor of the Ravine, down the Little Headwall, and on down the new Sherburne ski trail that ran 2 1/2 miles to the finish at the AMC buildings at the highway.
Toni was hiking up with Herbie Schneider, Hannes’ son and a boyhood friend from St. Anton. When they came within sight of the Ravine, Herbie asked Toni what he planned to do. “That’s what I’d like to know, too,” he said.
They climbed on up the Headwall and, bracing his knees against the slope, Toni realized he’d never seen anything like this slope. Years later, he remembered the moment: “I wished I wasn’t there, but I decided that I was going to have to ski down anyway, so I’d make three or four turns down through the Lip, and then maybe try to run straight because I knew that the more speed you get on the outrun, the better off you’d be.”
There were lumps and humps of avalanche debris on the Headwall and on the floor of the Ravine, and Toni was wondering if his skis could stand the beating. They were Eriksen Streamlines from Norway, the best racing skis of the day, and they’d just been through one of the hazards that sometimes colored early race days.
Toni had entered the Eastern Championships on the Thunderbolt Trail on Mount Greylock in the Berkshires, and when he was at full charge in his training run, a dog trotted out in front of him. The collision proved fatal to both dog and skis. The race was the next day, so Toni went to a local hardware store and got a pair of Northlands off the rack, shifted his bindings and won the race.
Jake May had the only ski repair shop in the North Conway area; it was in the back room of my family’s hotel in Jackson, and Toni brought him the splintered remains of his treasured Eriksens. Jake separated the dog parts and the wood parts as well as he could, and glued the skis back together.
This was the usual practice in those days, but there was nothing usual about what the Eriksens would face on Mount Washington.
Anticipation was running high and the result of the Inferno was hotly debated. So many people asked Dick Durrance what would happen that he finally got tired of it and snapped, “Toni’s going to win by exactly one minute. He’s almost 50 pounds heavier than I am, he’s going to gain that much time on the flats between the Headwall and the Sherburne, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Race day dawned blustery. Dick drew the third start and Toni the fourth. Toni knew his rival well. “He always used his noodle, he didn’t just go wildly at it. Most of us felt that to win a downhill you had to be ninety-nine and six-tenths out of control, but Dick kept his speed to what he knew it had to be and he could hold it there.”
Dick was still fiddling with his bindings when the first two racers pushed off. The starter saw that he wasn’t ready, so he asked Toni if he’d like to go. Unable to delay his start, he pushed off, letting Dick follow next.
Oscar Cyr was further back in the start line, and he remembered his run on the summit snowfield. “My course down was a series of sweeping snake-like Christies, uneventful except for the presence, right through the heart of my every turn, of two straight parallel tracks, the schusses of Durrance and Matt.”
The drop into the Ravine is so steep and abrupt that the Headwall cannot be seen from above, and the wrong line will put a skier into the rocks on either side of the Lip. Walter Prager had set a wide locating gate there, and he took a position nearby.
Toni’s plan was to take the summit cone straight, then make three or four turns over the Lip before going into a right-hand traverse under the rock line. Now he realized that the steep was much steeper and his speed was much higher than he’d anticipated. He turned right, then left and right again, expecting to be lined up for the traverse, but he’d miscalculated the combination of time and distance and he found that he was still above the Lip and heading for the rocks. He had to straighten out to avoid hitting them, “and before I knew it, I dropped over the Lip itself and there wasn’t any sense in turning — I knew it wouldn’t slow me down anyway.
“Going over the Lip is a terrifying experience, especially the first time. It’s like jumping into a 600-foot-deep hole from a speeding car. I figured I hit 85 miles per hour, but there wasn’t time to be afraid because I was too busy watching for bumps.”
Durarnce came next, and as he passed Prager standing above the Lip, his coach yelled, “Matt schussed — go straight, go straight!” Dick yelled back, “The hell with you!”
The first winning time was 21:18, the second was 12:35, and Toni finished in 6:29.2. Durrance made turns over the Lip and then one more into a traverse before he straightened out his line. He finished in second place, 59 seconds back and one second less than he’d predicted the day before.
Toni did not go up to Tuckerman Ravine again until April 1989, the 50th anniversary of his great win. Decades and generations have passed, and people still climb up and ask the snow ranger to show them where Toni Matt schussed the Headwall.
Life took Matt to other places with other mountains and finally to work for Lowell Thomas in Pawling, N.Y.
On April 15, 1989, he came to North Conway to visit friends and memories, and that evening, there was a large gathering in the valley at Wildcat Mountain's base lodge to welcome him back to his first home in America.
As it turned out, they were also saying goodbye. One month later, at age 69, Toni’s heart failed him and he died.
There was never another Mount Washington Inferno and there never will be, the rules of modern racing do not allow it. Toni Matt is alone with history now, the man who schussed the Headwall.