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Learning the angles of backcountry boarding

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2004

PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. -- How steep was it? Get on your desk. Put a snowboard under your feet. Jump off. That was the first turn.

And there were many more like it on the way down the precipitous and narrow fingers of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. Forget the lifts, condos, hot tubs, and ski lodge fireplaces. The only groomed, corduroy slopes you see on a weekend Appalachian Mountain Club Backcountry Snowboarding Camp at the ravine, New England's spring sliding mecca, might be in that magazine you hauled up in your pack.

The lifts are your legs, and slope-side accommodations are about as toasty as a dead fire, given that you sleep side-by-side in sleeping bags in an unheated wooden lean-to as the mercury dances with 20 degrees.

But that's why the five of us were there. From a New Jersey roofer to a Mississippian teaching in Vermont, we were intermediate to advanced snowboarders looking to gain some insight into things we need not think about at many resorts: avalanche awareness and safety, snow science, winter camping, and, of course, techniques for boarding in the backcountry.

With guides Michael Ackerman and Seth Burke as leaders, one Friday night last spring at the base of the mountain at Pinkham Notch Visitors Center was spent indoors -- thankfully -- with a group introductory session. The guides outlined goals and expectations, then went through each rider's pack to make sure there was the right gear to withstand Washington. After all, we ranged from big-air snowboarders who favored terrain parks to winter camping rookies.

Saturday morning was the 2-mile trudge up Tuckerman Ravine Trail with full packs and boards to the Hermit Lake Shelter. We established camp, wolfed down lunch, then started our lessons.

Burke took care of the avalanche basics, outfitting all riders with a trusty avalanche beacon. The beacon, or ''small insurance policy," as he called it, is a Walkman-sized device that sends out an electronic signal so rescuers can locate avalanche victims buried under the snow. Meanwhile, Ackerman was out of sight digging a 6-foot snowpit. We gathered around to learn about the types of snow and how well they hold together, something that helps backcountry snow rangers assess avalanche risk.

The march continued into the ravine, and our snowboards with day packs were a much lighter burden to carry. The ravine walls were steep. Expert ski area slopes tend to be about 25 degrees in steepness. Tuckerman's start at 30.

We planned to first make some jump turns from a classroom section on the right side of the bowl. We used our boards to climb up, sticking them in the snow like anchors as we negotiated the mountain steps kicked in by a guide.

There is something humbling, frightening, and frustrating to be on all fours on some steep pitches when climbing up the bowl, knowing full well that the knuckles under the gloves were probably whiter than the snow. During times like that, lifts didn't seem like such a bad idea.

Under a ledge, we took a lesson on riding snow that has the consistency of corn, with an emphasis on technique and confidence. Then it was time to leave the nest. It was like snowboarding an office wall.

Then it was up to a chute, Right Gully, with a 40-degree pitch, so steep that Burke had to shovel out a launch platform.

Next up was Lobster Claw. By this time, the group had split in terms of ability. The better riders headed up into the Claw and discovered that it's not too difficult to set off a minor landslide in the ravine. Calling it a day, we headed back to camp for the long, cold night. We and melted snow to drink along with our one-pot dinner in our lean-to.

Sunday was not as forgiving as the day before. Conditions were awful for riding, since the sun had taken the day off, so we played ''Hide the Bunny." The idea of this role-playing exercise was to find a buried avalanche beacon using the two other essential pieces of gear a backcountry rider should carry: a shovel and a probe. Through teamwork, the bunny was always found.

''What you need in a catastrophe is people power," said Ackerman.

Even waiting until noon couldn't change the hard, icy surface. The group split, one section trying a short piece of Hillman's Highway -- the longest gully at Tuckerman -- while the other tackled the crunch of the Lower Snowfields.

Soon enough, the group snowboarded down the John Sherburne Ski Trail and back to indoor plumbing.

Marty Basch, who lives in New Hampshire, is the author of ''Winter Trails/Vermont and New Hampshire" (Globe Pequot Press, 2001).

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