“Namaste My Friend Steve!”
So says my friend Phil, by email or by phone or in person, whenever he greets me. Melts my cold heart each time.
And so he said to me at 5:30am last Wednesday (April 29) when he picked me up to drive four hours north to the White Mountains so we could ski Tuckerman Ravine on the southeast face of Mount Washington.
Phil first introduced me to spring skiing at Tuckerman in May 2013. Since then we’ve had a few other adventures together, like the 25-mile Presidential Traverse over the tallest peaks of the White Mountains, including Washington. More recently I’d followed his footsteps in climbing the tallest mountain in all the Western Hemisphere, Aconcagua, while he’d pedaled his bicycle down the coast of California, so we had a bit to catch up on during the drive.
Phil had also become somewhat famous while I was away in Brazil the past five months, being profiled by his Connecticut newspaper and the local FOX News affiliate for his tenacity in delivering the US Mail despite a winter of record-breaking snowfall in downtown Mystic, a quaint coastal village where he’s worked 30 years as a mail-carrier.
“This is what I live for,” Phil, who is 58 years old, told The Day newspaper in a story headlined “Delivering mail in Mystic after blizzard a breeze for Mount Everest climber.” Phil attempted Everest a few years ago and nearly reached the summit. ”Just give me three good months of winter weather, and I’m happy.”
We were both happy to be back on Washington to ski and camp. I was toting my 15-year-old snowblades, which are actually the worst thing you’d want for backcountry skiing because they sink easily into the snow and cause you to flip forward or fall backward. Phil had a pair of skies that he’d found at the dump. Obviously, we didn’t take our skiing prowess too seriously; we were there because the scenery is awesome and it’s fun to watch daredevils zipping (and falling) down the ravine.
The 2.5-mile trail to Tuckerman starts behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, which was absent of any snow when we set out at noon on April 29. Within a mile the trail was covered with snow, and soon we were being passed by speedier skiers “skinning” up the trail on alpine-trekking skis. The previous weekend some 2,000 people had hiked to Tuckerman to ski and watch the skiing, but today there would be only some 50 people willing to make the mid-week excursion.
We dropped our overnight gear at the Hermit Lake Shelters, hiked into the bowl of the ravine, and took several runs down the Left Gully, a relatively modest run with 45- to 55-degree pitches. Meanwhile, more-nutty skiers were flying over the Center Headwall and The Icefall, which slope downward at 60-90 degrees (a sheer vertical drop) and require a different level of audacity.
Conditions were decent: the snow wasn’t so sticky or wet as it can get in late spring, but the weather also wasn’t as frigid and cold as in the early spring.
Phil by now was a tuckered man, so alone I tried a new route for me called Hillman’s Highway, which is a bit less steep at 40-degrees but is also a longer run (and longer hike up, of course). Hillman’s runs directly into the John Sherburne ski trail, which I skied about 1.5 miles until the snow turned to mud. Then I hiked back up 1.5 miles to reach the shelter, where Phil was sitting back relaxing in dry clothes and drinking coffee (Starbucks Via packs, unbeatable).
“What took you so long?” he said.
The next morning we hiked back up the ravine for a final run down Hillman’s, then returned to Pinkham Notch via the Sherburne ski trail.
Neither of us wanted to return home quite yet. We’d eyed Mt. Chocorua as we drove past it into Conway the previous day and agreed it’d be a fun peak to tag. Why not today?
We sped down Route 16 through Conway and parked at the trailhead for Mt. Chocorua, which would be a nine-mile roundtrip hike. It was totally worthwhile, even despite Phil having slept little the previous night while shivering inside his thin sleeping bag at our open-air shelter. Chocorua is only 3,490 feet tall (nearly 3,000 feet shorter than Washington) but it stands alone and is one of the most prominent and picturesque peaks in the White Mountains.
“We came all the way here for this?” Phil said facetiously at the summit.
He pulled out a peanut butter sandwich and a pack of American Spirits (the package has an Indian wearing feathered headdress). We each lit a ceremonial cigarette, which seemed somewhat appropriate given that Mt. Chocorua is according to legend named after a Native American man who leaped off the mountain to his death rather than surrender to a gang of white settlers.
“I think he killed himself because his girlfriend dumped him or something,” Phil said.
To me, Phil is in many ways The Dude, that character from the film The Big Lebowski, with his laid-back drawl and graying hippy hair and goal of taking it easy, in his own way. ”The Dude abides,” the film’s narrator says. ”I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”
“Namaste My Friend Steve!” Phil said in parting when he dropped me off at nearly midnight back in Connecticut. “Let’s do this again.”