Death in Tuckerman Ravine

This photo from the Mount Washington Avanlanche Center was taken Friday at Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire. It was two days before a Boston man fell into a deep crevasse located in the area above the hiukers' heads.

Of all the places in New England, Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire is hallowed ground for skiers.

For generations, skiers have hiked the 2.4-mile trail to the the base of the ravine, stared at its steep headwall and climbed up its pitched slope. Once they’ve gone as far as they could, they carefully put the skis on to make the steep descent.

All while praying, silently, that they won’t make a mistake and fall. That fall could result in you sliding a long distance, likely into trees of worse, rocks.

In this photo Saturday, March 24, 2012 photo, Tuckerman Ravine is seen on Mount Washington. Authorities have not been able to reach Norman Priebatsch , a Boston man who fell into a deep crevasse on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. Officials say Priebatsch was hiking with three other people Sunday afternoon in Tuckerman Ravine when he fell, sliding down a slope and into the crevasse. The Forest Service said Monday evening that recovery efforts have been suspended until a safe entry situation exists. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

There’s no lifts, no grooming and no forgiveness at Tuckerman’s. It’s serious backcountry skiing where you can easily get hurt – or killed – if you’re not prepared, in shape or an expert. It’s a sustained 40-degree pitch on often cruddy and variable snow that can easily trip up skiers.

Every year, someone gets seriously hurt – or killed – at Tuckerman’s either it’s a skier or hiker.

And it happened again this week, when a 67-year-old Boston man slipped, fell and slid into a deep crevasse in Tuckerman’s. The crevasse is located between an area known as the Lunch Rocks (where people sit and watch skiers) and The Lip.

Norman Priebatsch, an avid hiker, skier and outdoorsman, is presumed dead after falling into the icy crevasse on Sunday. An attempt to rescue Priebatsch was aborted after rangers determined the attempt too risky. Inside the the crevasse there was hanging ice, and running water.

It could be days, maybe longer, before Priebatsch’s body is removed.

According to the Union Leader, Priebatsch was a well-known Boston-area entrepreneur who co-founded Tinnix Inc., which makes a smart cell phone application for tinnitus sufferers. He also co-founded a biotech company called Adeptrix, which works on DNA decoding.

Each spring thousands of skiers and spectators go to Tuckerman’s.

The ravine collects huge amounts of snow that is blown off the top of Mount Washington. It builds up in the ravine and snow depths reaching more than 50 feet. This year’s strange winter, however, has created even more dangerous conditions at Tuckerman’s.

Fortunately, there is plenty of information out there. The best source is the Mount Washington Avalanche Center that provides daily reports.

Read today’s report and it seems you’d have to be insane to go there now:

“Crevasses, undermined snow, and waterfall holes continue to be a serious threat. Currently the area from the Sluice to the Center Bowl is littered with crevasses. Most of these are covered with a thin coating of newer snow, which makes them nearly impossible to safely assess their exact location, size and depth. The hazards presented by the crevasses are not to be taken lightly; it is truly “no-fall” terrain.

“Taking into account the extent of crevasses, the severity of the consequences, and the inability to assess the hazard, the greater Lip area, which includes a section of the summer hiking trail should be avoided entirely. As we have discussed in past weeks this is also true for the heavily crevassed areas in the northern portions of the Center Bowl underneath the headwall ice, Lip and areas towards the Sluice all the way down to the Ravine floor.

“Surfaces will be icy and hard below the new snow, so long sliding falls continue to be another significant threat. The slick surface will allow for rapid acceleration down slope, potentially sending you into numerous obstacles below you.”

OK, I get the point.

Another great source of information is the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, a private group that works with the U.S. Forest Service.

I’ve skied Tuckerman Ravine several times and count it as one of my most memorable experiences. I’ve done some stupid things up there, like not being fully prepared, but fortunately survived. The peak experience was one time in April when a buddy and me actually skied from the top of Mount Washington into some snow fields and down into a gully into the ravine. It was one of those experiences where you didn’t want to stop and think about what you were doing. If you did, the fear factor would start setting in.

There are some locations in the Ravine where the skiing isn’t so severe, like the Little Headwall and Hillman’s Highway. And in good snow years, you can ski all the way down from the Ravine to the parking lot on the John Sherburne trail.

There’s a limited amount of lean-to shelters where you can spend the night the night. Details here.

So, if you’re a very good skier, in good shape and up for the challenge, a trip to Tuckerman’s is worth it. Probably not this year, but in the years ahead. It’s the purest skiing you can get; light years away from the cushy groomed trails.

Just be sure to heed the ranger’s advice. They can save your life.

Jim Shay