Tuckerman Ravine ski-history enthusiasts celebrated a milestone this past Wednesday, as April 16 marked the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest ski feats of all time: Toni Matt's legendary schuss of the 800-foot Tuckerman Ravine Headwall in the 1939 American Inferno.
Then 19, Matt (1920-1989) had been raised in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria, the home of ski great Hannes Schneider (1890-1955). He arrived in North Conway to teach at Mount Cranmore in the winter of 1938-’39.
He went on a tear on the ski racing slopes of New England and out West that season leading up to the Inferno.
Matt on Feb. 5 that season won the Eastern Downhill and Slalom Championships on Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vt. He next aced the 1939 Greylock Trophy Race (he won it again in 1940) in Massachusetts on Feb. 26. Then, on March 5, he won the Hochgebirge Downhill at Cannon Mountain. He then headed west, winning the Sun Valley Open Downhill on March 25. He next won the National Downhill, Slalom and the Combined Ski Tournament April 1 and 2 on Mount Hood, Oregon, placing sixth in the slalom and first in the downhill, finishing second in the combined after Durrance.
Once back East, he joined the field of 42 racers who registered for the American Inferno on Mount Washington two weeks later, which was finally held on April 16, following two postponements. Many have described his performance as one of the greatest feats in American ski racing history. As athletes gathered last weekend for the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine's 14th annual Inferno Pentathlon, it gave one pause to reflect on that race day three quarters of a century ago.
The 1939 Inferno was the third summit-to-base race held on Mount Washington, with Hollis Phillips of the Appalachian Mountain Club winning the first in April 1933 with a time of just under 14 minutes, and American ski great Dick Durrance (1914-2004) winning the second inferno in April 1934 with a time 12 minutes, 35 seconds.
A shortened race was held in 1935 from the summit to the floor of the ravine, but lack of snow kept it from running down to Pinkham Notch, so it was not termed an Inferno, according to Jeff Leich of the New England Ski Museum in his book, “Over the Headwall: The Ski History of Tuckerman Ravine.”
Unlike the first two earlier attempts at hosting the 1939 American Inferno, Sunday, April 16, was nearly ideal, with bright skies, cold temperatures and high winds at the racers' backs on the summit and corn snow below. The conditions were an essential factor in aiding Matt in halving Durrance's previous record. The other was simply Matt`s incredible performance.
Up until 1939. the headwall in Tuckerman Ravine had generally been handled in a series of “check” turns. Matt, however, traveling at speeds approaching 85 miles per hour, took the Headwall in a single long arc, leaving the nearly 3,000 spectators assembled in the ravine literally awestruck.
“They tell me there were thousands of people there that day,” recalled Matt in an interview with this reporter in 1988, “but I never saw or heard anyone on my way down. I was too focused on racing."
After arcing down the Headwall on his 7-foot, 6-inch wooden Northland skis, Matt roared over the little Headwall and down the Sherburne Trail, reaching the finish at Pinkham Notch in a record 6 minutes 29.2 seconds, a full minute faster than second-place finisher Durrance. Matt later noted he had intended to make two turns, but the snow had felt so good, he simply pointed his boards downhill and went for it.
"I wasn’t very familiar with the terrain, as I had never skied the Headwall. I thought I had already gone over the Lip and that I was halfway down. Instead, I wasn't even at the top yet," Matt recalled, often joking in his talks about the race with his thick Austrian accent and good humor that “you're lucky when you're 19, stupid and have strong legs” and that he “couldn't turn.”
Matt said he nearly lost control and came close to hitting a tree near the base of the narrow Sherburne Trail in Pinkham Notch, but held on for the victory.
"The Sherburne Trail was very narrow. Maybe only 25 feet wide at most, and it was all grooved out, which could get you in trouble. The toughest part, though. was the transition on the floor of the ravine, because there was no such thing as course preparation in those days. It was like a plowed field," Matt said, describing his never-equaled feat down the eight-mile run with some places approaching 65-degree drops.
Famed broadcaster, ski promoter and frequent Eastern Slope skier Lowell Thomas (1892-1981) witnessed the schuss. He said Matt vaulted down the Headwall “like a lead plummet, hitting 85 miles per hour as he came shattering of the bottom, his skis shattering the icy snow.”
Matt continued his winning ways the following year, winning the Greylock Trophy Race. On March 8, 1941, at the National Downhill Race Championships at Aspen, he finished first in downhill (Durrance was second) and second in slalom (Durrance was first), giving Matt first in the combined and Durrance second.
He won the prestigious Gibson Trophy Race (1940 to 1966) at Mount Cranmore four times, virtually owning it from 1940 to 1943, after which he became an American citizen and entered the service with his best friend, Herbert Schneider (1920-2012). Together they served with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops during World War II.
Matt suffered a severely broken leg in 1952 at Sun Valley, which ended his racing career. The leg was in a cast three years before a surgeon operated successfully, thanks to Thomas' efforts. He then resumed skiing, teaching and coaching until his retirement from the sport in 1980 after serving as an official at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. He was inducted into the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in 1967. From 1955 until his death, Matt was the superintendent of the Quaker Hill Country Club in Pawling, N.Y. — a job Thomas was instrumental in getting for him.
His performance in that legendary lnferno of April 1939 ranks as one of the most daring ski performances ever, even if he downplayed it himself.
“I’m not trying to minimize it,” Matt said, prior to returning to Cranmore for the 1989 “Flight Without Wings” 50th anniversary celebration, where he was greeted as a hero, “but everyone thinks I must have felt a terrific thrill or something. But all I was worrying about was to stand up and get out to the bottom of the headwall and then over the little headwall to the Sherburne Trail. I certainly wasn't thinking, ‘Oh. what a thrill it is to schuss Tuckerman Ravine.’ It was a mistake I made, really, in that I schussed further up than I had planned to, that's all."
Matt was supposed to run fourth, but ended up going third, wearing No. 4. That was because Durrance, the 1934 champion and the No. 3 scheduled starter, said he was having equipment trouble, so Matt went in his stead.
A FULL MINUTE?
In an interview with this writer that was published in the March 20, 1987 edition of The Mountain Ear, Durrance didn't contest Matt's victory. He did, however, question the full-minute margin.
He had raised the issue on page 57 of his book, published the year before, entitled, “The Man on the Medal: The Life and Times of America's First Great Ski Racer.”
“I didn't believe that at the time, and neither did a lot of the other racers. It just wasn't believable that Matt could make up a full minute on me. I had good wax and cut every corner to the inch, but I did two side-slips down the Headwall, which is about 800 feet. I don't think he could make up that much time on the Headwall.”
Did Matt win?
“Yes,” asserted Durrance. “But the time may have been only one second, and not a full minute and one second. But, who knows? It was a long time ago.”
A YEAR OF RECONNECTING
Slowed down by a series of heart attacks in his 60s, Matt gathered with friends at Cranmore’s “Flight Without Wings” celebration in February 1989. Among them were Eastern Slope Ski School instructor Otto Tschol (1909-1995), Aspen developer Friedl Pfeifer (1911-1995), Otto Lang (1908-2006) and lifelong friend Herbert Schneider (1920-2012).
Matt took a run for the first time in eight years. Steve Rice — then marketing director at Cranmore, and now of CNL Lifestyle Properties Inc. of Florida, the group that helped finance the Fairbank Group's purchase of Cranmore in 2010 — got to ski with Matt and Schneider, a thrill for any ski history enthusiast. Both then nearly 69, Matt and Schneider skied flawlessly, making classic big GS turns, according to Rice.
It proved to be a big final year for the legendary former racer, who was said to have had “legs like tree trunks” in his prime.
Earlier that year, Matt had made his first visit back to St. Anton since before the war. In an interview at the celebration, his son, Richard, recalled that his father had been worried how he might be received, since he and Herbert had fought for the Allies as American citizens. Instead, he was greeted warmly, with townspeople asking, according to Richard, “Toni, where have you been all these years?”
At the Cranmore “Flight Without Wings” celebration, Matt autographed countless editions of the 1989 version of the “Flight Without Wings” book.
He also got to greet and pose for a photo with 1969 Tuckerman Ravine “Bobtail” Inferno second-place finisher Tyler Palmer and 1984 Tuckerman Giant Slalom winner Eric Pendleton.
BACK TO THE RAVINE
A last treat awaited local Tuckerman ski fans on the 50th anniversary of his schuss, as Matt made his first trip back to the ravine in a half century on April 15, 1989.
Accompanied by Richard and by my brother, late Mountain Ear publisher Steve Eastman (1949-2008), who was there to take photos of the occasion, Matt was driven to the Hermit Lake shelter at the base of the Lower Headwall by longtime U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Brad Ray.
Wearing a white Cranmore 50th anniversary cap, the ski racing legend posed for photographs in front of the forest service's Hermit Lake shelter below the lower Headwall.
As for Ray, I remember his reaction when I had placed a call earlier in the week to see whether he might be interested in driving Toni Matt — yes, THAT Toni Matt — up to the ravine in the Thiokol, one day short of the 50th anniversary of Matt’s legendary Headwall schuss.
“Boy, would I?” exclaimed the usually reserved veteran snow ranger, who in 2000 went on to co-found with Al Risch of Madison the non-profit Friends of Tuckerman Ravine organization. “I’d love to. I’ve told that story of Matt's schuss to so many people so many times, every time I go to the ravine, but I’ve never met him! So, yes!”
Matt was scheduled to give a talk that night at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, but there were so many people, the talk was moved just slightly north and across Route 16 to the Wildcat Mountain base lodge.
“You know,” he said, with a surprising and touching tear in his eye, “I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that race over the years. But seeing you people tonight really is something.”
A month later, Richard Matt called this reporter once again, but this time with the sad news that he had found his father on the greens of the golf course in Pawling, dead of an apparent heart attack.
TUCKERMAN INFERNO PENTATHLON
Two shortened so-called “Bobtail Infernos” were held after the 1939 race, so-called because they were shortened due to weather or snow conditions, according to the NESM’s Jeff Leich.
The first in 1952 was won by Bill Beck, followed by fellow U.S. Ski Team members Brooks Dodge — a native of Pinkham Notch and the pioneer of more than 20 of the runs in the ravine — and Ralph Miller in third. Due to icy conditions and fog at the summit, it was run from the top of the headwall to Pinkham.
Racers in the 1952 Bobtail Inferno schussed the headwall from a standing start, but no one has ever done it from the summit in a race as Toni Matt did when he vaulted into history in the April 1939 Inferno, according to Leich.
The second was held in 1969 from the summit to the floor of the ravine but not on to Pinkham due to a lack of snow cover below the lower headwall, according to Leich. Franconia’s Duncan Cullman was first, followed by Tyler Palmer, who with younger brother Terry Palmer and fellow Mount Washington Valley resident and David Currier of Madison were part of the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team in Sapporo. “I always felt like the Great Spirit guided me that day,” said Cullman when interviewed at the starting gate of Bode Miler’s BodeFest at Bretton Woods in 2007.
The memory of Matt's schuss and past Tuckerman greats is kept alive every spring since 2001 with the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine's Inferno Pentathlon, held this year on Saturday, April 12, with the ski leg held on Hillman's Highway and the Sherburne Trail. The local team of All Stove Up won the 36-mile run-kayak-bicycle-hike and ski run in the 17-team field with a time of 3 hours, 39 minutes and six seconds. Team members were runner Triston Williams, kayaker Mike Saras, bicyclist Eric Nelson, hiker Margaret Graciano and skier Matty Burkett. Wild Things won the all-female class in 4:01:19. Team members included sponsor Titoune Meunier Bouchard, who did not compete; runner Kelsey Allen, kayaker Liz Stokinge, cyclist Meredith Piotrow, hiker Leslie Beckwith, and skier Suzie Carrier. Solo TuckerMan winner was Dr. Josh Flanagan, 34, of Southbridge, Mass., in 4:03.34, while Dublin (N.H.) school teacher and World Cup Randonee medal-winning mountaineer skier Nina Silitch, 41, won the TuckerWoman class in 4:28:57. She put in incredible ski runs — she was tops in the GS on Hillman's with a time of 26 minutes, 52 seconds for the climb and ski run. On the downhill run on the Sherburne Trail, her time of 8:26.92 put in her in 11th place among the 61 finishers. In the Dynamic Duo category, the Wild Kitty duo of Justin Deary and Mark Trahan finished first among the 12 teams in 4:10:16. In the new Adaptive class, Team Beauty and the Beasts was tops in 5:02:03. The team consisted of runner Mik Oyler, kayaker Katelin Oyler, cyclist Matt Geary, hiker Nichol Ernst and snowboarder Cliff Cabral.
Through that event, and in the hearts of everyone who tackles Tuckerman, the legend of Matt's feat lives on, as does the story of “The Race for All Time.”
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NOTE: Part of this article is excerpted from “The History of Cranmore Mountain,” (2012 The History Press), available locally at White Birch Books, Zeb's, North Conway 5 and 10, Ragged Mountain Equipment and J-Town Deli.