Living Up to an Alpine Legacy in the White Mountains

Words by Katherine Oakes Englishman
Photos by Katherine Oakes Englishman

It was one of those moments when you could feel your heart pounding in your entire body. With the ice axe in one hand and my ski touring pole in the other, I attempted to steady myself as I craned my neck to look up the mountain’s steep and slick pitch. “That’s right, use your ice axe with all you’ve got”, our mountain guide Jim Surette shouted over his shoulder. “If you fall here, that would be bad!” Now would be a bad time to mention my latent fear of heights.

As we neared the summit, each step had become more of a hard kick that had me digging the front of my sharp crampons into the firm snowpack as we continued bootpacking up. I knew we were close but I didn’t try to get a good look; it was steep, I was exhausted and on top of that, I had a feeling that losing my focus would result in losing my balance. As Jim had helpfully pointed out moments ago, that would be bad. Besides, once you get up, skiing down would be the easiest part (not), so, I pushed on.

A loud sigh of relief and excitement escaped me as I joined my husband Brian and our guide Jim from Synott Mountain Guides at the top, where the expanse of Mount Washington’s snowfields glowed and sparkled in the sunlight. It was a ridiculously perfect bluebird day. Above us was the observatory and to the right, I could see the lip of Tuckerman Ravine — a very steep and questionable line that plunged down the face of headwall and into the base of the ravine.

At that moment, standing on top of a mountain was a good place to be.

We would not be skiing that, instead, we’d slide down Lobster Claw, the farthest run in right gully, which was only slightly crusty at the top but opened up into a beautiful snowy apron at the bottom. After a full day of skinning and climbing, we were totally game for going downhill.

Since we were new to backcountry skiing and mountaineering, Jim patiently walked us through the steps necessary to go from hiking to ski mode. As I fumbled around, learning how to pry the skins off my skis and safely pack away the ice axe, I could feel the beacon wrapped about my torso beneath my layers and thought about the avalanche gear in my pack. In the 1940s and 50s, this is not what my grandmother would have had. Avalanche safety is a huge topic these days among back and sidecountry skiers and I couldn’t imagine her in this area without them.

Yet, here I was; somewhere near where she had been, years after hearing her famous ski stories. “Finally”, I thought to myself. At that moment, standing on top of a mountain was a good place to be.

We call my grandmother, Nana, and I had grown up listening to her stories, as most grandkids do, but without really appreciating the grit and effort it took for her to actually accomplish those feats. A first generation Swede, she lived in the Bronx and in Sweden until she married my Poppie, had a family, and eventually relocated to the suburbs of New Jersey. Once their children grew up, they built a home where the lake meets the mountains in a heavily-forested area of New Hampshire. Her homespun tales of adventure were never short on romance, excitement and wanderlust. She always loved to travel and even put off getting married so she could experience life to the fullest: a solo ski trip around Europe, sailing in the Cape and my favorite, her own trek up Mount Washington and the timeless adventure that is skiing down.

Many other members of my family, including my father and uncles had skied Tuckerman but it was the desire to pass on this sense of adventure Nana had given me that compelled me to go. All that, of course, was in addition to the fact that it just looked like so. much. fun.

The thing about Tucks was that it was just the right kind of challenge for me. While I’d been fortunate enough to experience some world-class steeps over the past few years and felt more confident and connected to myself while skiing than ever before, I had yet to go uphill. I had also yet to try mountaineering. So, when we had decided to go for it we were glad to have Jim as a guide to show us how. In that same vein, I also loved learning alongside my husband, and have to say that one thing that can really strengthen that bond is being willing to be total beginners together. Your vulnerability, humility and shared experience that emerge out of those moments give you a new perspective and appreciation for that person and it is so worth doing.

At the top of the high alpine bowl we clicked into our touring skis and watched Jim make several perfect hop turns before stopping halfway down Lobster Claw; from there he motioned us to ski down one at a time. We followed suit, trying hard to adjust to the weightlessness of our skis by digging into our edges with all we had to avoid falling. I continued to swallow my pride, shamelessly blaming my “loose boots” for the close encounter I had with a tiny tree back there. Ha ha, right guys? Totally the boots. We cruised down the exit path all the way out to Sherburne Trail and felt exhilarated as the rush of cold air cooled us off — thoroughly enjoying every second of slipping and sliding on the snow.

A legacy is something that’s passed on; it’s a gift that has been given to you. Two generation’s worth of a sense of adventure, ambition and a love for skiing in this place had generously been passed on to me — what I did with that was totally my choice. Whether it is a legacy you’re creating, keeping alive or haven’t yet discovered, our lives have the potential to make a lasting mark on the world and we have the freedom to choose what it will be. We had been told that that day was one for the books. In fact, it might have been the best day of the entire season, another skier had excitedly proclaimed as he summited Tuck’s, breathless, a mile-wide grin plastered to his face. A spring day in January? Unheard of. The low winds, blue skies and full sun enhanced the day for sure, but I doubt I would have been disappointed even in the worst conditions. Much like life, skiing is what you make of it. That day in the White Mountains, I knew the only way I could ever truly live up to the legacy I was given was to enjoy every second of it. Nothing else mattered.

My legs were working, my heart was beating and most importantly, there was snow.

 

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