On the Trail of Legends

Mount Moosilauke has a sanctified aura for those interested in the history of skiing. One of the great early proponents of the sport, Fred Harris of the Dartmouth Outing Club, first proposed a ski-borne outing here; in the late 1920s and ‘30s some of the first “down-mountain” races in America were held here, including the first ever National Downhill race in 1933. Old film clips and black-and-white photographs of the period convey a heady mystique. There is something grand in the faces of those early skiers: a debonair audacity, a willingness to forge ahead with brisk savoir faire despite limitations of conditions and equipment. For a contemporary backcountry skier it’s hard not to feel a sense of reverence for these historical figures as spiritual ancestors of the sport.

In the late 1920s and early ‘30s, state-of-the-art skis were made of hickory, birch, ash, maple or pine, and reached the base of the fingers of the skier’s outstretched hand. The bottoms were slathered with wood tar and then waxed along their entire length with different gradients of wax, from hard paraffin “running wax” to sticky Klister “climbing wax,” according to the terrain and the temperature of the snow. For steeper climbs, sealskins were also widely used, and sometimes ropes were knotted around the ski for greater traction. The old Kandahar-style cable bindings allowed the heels to lift off the ski for climbing and touring. Tows were not introduced in America until the mid-30s, and didn’t really take off until just before World War II, so everyone was a backcountry skier. Apart from a few isolated gold-mining towns and Scandinavian immigrant colonies, skiing in this country grew out of the European alpinist movement. For many years it was considered an auxiliary mountaineering skill, and it gained currency as such among the Northeastern sporting elite.

At that time, Moosilauke possessed three trails of note: The Carriage Road, most often used for down-mountain races; Hell’s Highway, which had a reputation as the steepest and most terrifying ski trail in the East; and the Gorge Brook trail, a foot trail also used for down-mountain racing. With the advent of lifts these trails fell into disuse, but in the late 1980s the Dartmouth Outing Club took on the task of re-clearing the Carriage Road and the Gorge Brook trail for skiing. (The great hurricane of 1938 had made Hell’s Highway permanently impassable.) Today they are, with minor variations, the same trails frequented in that magical interwar era by such luminaries as John Carleton, Charley Proctor, Otto Schniebs, Dick Durrance, Harold Hillman, and Eddie “The Snapper” Wells.

A spring storm warning was in effect for all of Vermont and New Hampshire, with a forecast for a 100% chance of precipitation. My co-adventurers and I hoped that some altitude would give us snow and sleet rather than the rain and sleet in the forecast, though we knew that the prospect of unpleasant weather wouldn’t have stopped the hardy skiers of the early thirties from venturing out in the woolens, leathers, and oiled canvas anoraks. Still, we hoped the rain would hold off for a while.

We reached the trailhead at 11 A.M., with the temperature reading 33 degrees. We put on some red kick-wax for the 1.6 mile approach, a very gradual uphill on a forest road through birch and hardwoods at the edge of a deepening ravine. The extra glide felt good underfoot and allowed us to make some time as the storm threatened to bear down on us.

The ski trails begin at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, an old-fashioned backwoods camp that was the largest log structure in New England when it was built in 1937. With its massive white pine logs stained brown, and its spacious ‘settin’ porches, the building exudes the spirit of a bygone mountaineering age. We genuflected on the way by, descending a short hill and crossing a narrow bridge to the beginning of the Gorge Brook Trail. There we scraped off the kick-wax and put on our skis. We planned to ski up Gorge Brook and down the Carriage Road, following the route of many an old-time down-mountain racer.

The trail beyond the lodge is pretty, a winding pathway through the forest, following the meandering snow-filled depression of a frozen brook crossed by occasional log bridges. At noon a light snow began, and we noted with pleasure that these were honest flakes, small and dry, much better than the half-frozen raindrops we’d been expecting. The trail took us up gentle switchbacks, leaving the brook and the pure hardwood forest behind as we ascended to the higher reaches of the mountain. After a time the transitional hardwood-evergreen forest became a pure boreal forest, with only an occasional birch to interrupt the permanent shade of spruce and fir. By 2:45 p.m. we could tell by the increasingly diminutive trees that we were approaching the summit. The snow was coming down harder by now, but it was still snow, nice dry powder in fact, and we quickened our pace in anticipation of the descent. Around that time we ran into a group of three snowshoers, who warned of high winds and low visibility at the summit. We knew from experience that the changeable conditions on these gentle-looking White Mountain peaks were nothing to take lightly. Books have been written on the fatal misadventures of unprepared hikers and skiers in this range.

The snowshoers’ warning cooled our eagerness, and we set off again with a slight sense of foreboding. As we skinned up through the snow-covered krummholz and onto the bare ground of the summit cone, the snow turned to an icy mix that collected on our hats and froze the exposed ends of our hair. The wind rose in volume until it reached a sustained, high-pitched shriek.

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There is a nineteenth century legend about a doctor from the nearby town of Benton, a gaunt and eccentric man who had completed his medical studies abroad and was rumored to be an alchemist. This was all well and good until the town’s household pets began to disappear, fodder, it was rumored, for the doctor’s nefarious experiments. When the first child went missing a hue and cry arose in the village, and the doctor fled in the direction of Moosilauke. Near the summit he was observed to quaff a mysterious elixir and disappear. Shortly afterwards, in 1860, the Moosilauke Summit House was built, and in the environs of this structure a furtive spirit was often detected, creaking across the floor late and night, leaving windows open, and snacking on food from the cupboards. Some witnesses swore they saw a black-cloaked shadow darting in and out of the cairns marking the trail on the ridge below the windswept summit cone.

Dartmouth Outing Club crews staffed the Summit House until it burned to its foundations in the fall of 1942. We picked our way across the rocky ruins of this structure in order to reach the plaque marking the highest point on the mountain. We saw no ghost, but as the snowshoers had warned, we encountered low visibility and high winds. It wasn’t too bad until we crested the final broken rise of the summit. Then we understood why they’d made such a point of stopping us. The wind was so fierce it was difficult to remain standing. The ground was pure blue ice broken by occasional drifts of graupel; the lichen-covered edges and corners of granite boulders poked through the ice, meaning a slide could be extremely hazardous. The worst part was the painful sting of the ice pellets pelting our exposed faces.

We found a windbreak behind a low wall of stacked granite that must have been part of the foundation of the old Summit House. We tried to take a picture, and shouted at each other over the howling wind. The plan was to descend the Carriage Road in order to complete the historic loop, and the way appeared obvious: a kind of antique-looking thoroughfare made by parallel rows of granite rocks leading down the exposed ridge. Something about it reminded me of the Wizard of Oz; there was even a crooked wooden sign to point our way. Glare ice and a thin layer of drifted snow lined the trail, which faded in and out of our sight in the uncertain gray blur of the storm. We figured visibility would increase as we descended, so we ripped the skins off our skis and blew on our hands and started down, increasingly single-minded about getting clear of the painful windblown ice pellets.

The going was rough: imagine a sloping hockey rink with countless fin-like rocks slicing up through the ice. Soon the well-marked track disappeared and we followed cairns down a ridge, markers of neatly stacked granite high enough to peek up through increasingly deep drifted snow until . . . the cairns disappeared. The wind seemed to have ratcheted up a notch, if that was possible, and the cloud covered had lowered, making it difficult to see each other, though we were never that far apart. After a moment of numb indecision we agreed in a brief, shouted discussion that the best thing would be to head back up to the summit. From there we could find the end of the Gorge Brook Trail and come down the way we’d come up.

This was probably a good choice. There’s a lot of wilderness in this part of New Hampshire, and although I have no doubt we would have been able to get down to the forest and out of the wind, we might very well have ended up sleeping in a snow cave with a wet storm raging, little food, and the menacing ghost of Doc Benton abroad in the blowing night.

The idea of putting on our skins again in this wind was too much to contemplate, and climbing the icy summit cone was a humbling experience. Of course we hadn’t brought crampons, having neglected to remember (despite experience in the area) that these gentle-looking White Mountain peaks often hold precisely this sort of surprise. The screaming wind made it impossible to carry our skis on our shoulders, so we cradled them in our arms like flatlanders. All three of us fell quite a bit, fortunately avoiding the sharper rocks. In one particularly harrowing fall I slipped on glare ice under six inches of drifted snow and began sliding downhill on a steepening slope that seemed to roll off into howling nothingness. But I managed to self-arrest, and eventually we gained the summit again. We found our way over the crest and descended into the sheltering krummholz, where we could once again see our tracks. The worst was over, and it was now only a matter of following the Gorge Brook Trail down.

And what a trail it is. Too narrow for slaloming, you have to take it straight, like a bobsled run, trusting in the curves constructed by the original trail crews to check your speed, so you don’t go crashing into the close-spaced conifers. When you get the rhythm it’s exhilarating, cruising fast down a narrow mountain path, the trees a blurred wall on either side, trusting the trail to take you in long swooping turns over dips and traverses – but when you start to think about it you realize that what you’re doing is a little foolhardy, even potentially quite dangerous, and the resulting crisis of faith is not likely to be pretty. On several occasions I lost my nerve altogether and resorted to sitting down in the snow: an undignified maneuver I hadn’t used since grade school.

We arrived at the parking lot in a steady snowfall at around 4:30 PM, tired but happy. We’d been somewhat pummeled by the mountain, both on the summit and on the way down, but in the final analysis we’d found what we’d come looking for. We’d gained some insight into the history of the sport we loved, insight that wouldn’t have come to a library-bound researcher, or to a skier of exclusively lift-served terrain, or even to an explorer of the wide-open bowls typical of backcountry skiing in western America. You have to actually travel up and down one of these classic woodland trails in order to fully understand.

In this modern age we’ve evolved a different way of skiing. Whether parallel or telemark, our turns are generally more precise than our sporting ancestors, and we’ve conquered plenty of terrain they would have considered too steep or exposed to be skiable. But those pioneers knew a few things we’ve forgotten. They were tougher than we are, for one thing: no plastic laminates, no wicking layers, just wool and cotton and leather, sometimes imperfectly waterproofed with grease or wood tar. In a classic down-mountain race the prize didn’t necessarily go to the man or woman (because plenty of women raced on these trails in the ‘30s) who was the most fearless; the one who had the faith to make the next turn, despite ever-gathering speed. Fearlessness was the indispensable x-factor, and the skiers of that time – in their ankle-high leather boots and seven-foot hickory skis with bear-claw Kandahar bindings – had that quality in spades.  They were giants, homespun American legends. A day in the White Mountain backcountry is a pilgrim’s journey on the trails where those legends came to life.

This article originally appeared in Couloir magazine.