True grit: Tuckerman Inferno pentathlon pits athletes against mountains

Special to the Sunday News
April 14. 2018 9:07PM
A happy snowboarder tackles the final relay leg of the Tuckerman Inferno. (MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL)

There was gusty wind, spitting snow, and plenty of suffering during the 2018 Tuckerman Inferno. Seventeen hardy souls finished the pentathlon event as elite solo racers, while more than 100 competed as members of relay teams.

For the fourth year in a row, Andrew Drummond of Madison was the fastest TuckerMan, besting a field of 12 men and finishing the grueling run-kayak-bike-hike-ski course in just over 3 hours and 38 minutes. Jessica Marion was the fastest of five women competing solo, finishing in 4 hours and 10 minutes.

Starting at Story Land in Glen, racers ran a hilly 8.3 miles, kayaked through a spring run-off charged Saco River, then jumped from the water to bike 18.2 miles and a whopping 2,000 feet of elevation gain to Pinkham Notch, where they were met with a stiff headwind near the end of the third leg of the race. Next up was a 3-mile hike - and another 2,268 feet of elevation - to reach the final leg - a ski near Tuckerman Ravine.

"There's no way to train for it," said Drummond.

Saturday's Tuckerman Inferno was run - nearly to the day - 85 years after the first American Inferno was staged in the ravine, back on April 16, 1933.

Back then, skiing was in its infancy in this country. There were no ski resorts and only a handful of designated ski trails hewn from the forest, so most skiers stayed on the gentle pasture hills to get their thrills.

Only 11 intrepid racers, all accomplished skiers, signed on for the 1933 Inferno. Named after the legendary 9-mile ski race in Murren, Switzerland, which started in 1928, the American version began at the summit of Mount Washington and descended through the snowfields and down the ravine, finishing at Crystal Cascade in Pinkham Notch. The winning time was 14 minutes 41 seconds.

The American Inferno happened again the following year, then not again until 1939, when young Austrian skier Toni Matt, who'd spend the winter teaching at Cranmore, famously took the headwall straight, an amazing feat on any day, but especially in an era of wooden skis and leather boots. Matt's daring run slashed the record to 6 minutes 29 seconds.

Three more shortened Inferno-inspired races were held after World War II - in 1952, 1969 and 1984. Weather, avalanche danger and the sheer amount of effort involved in hosting a race in Tuckerman Ravine kept the Inferno from becoming an annual event. But that changed in 2000, when Al Risch, who'd helped orchestrate the 1984 Tuckerman Classic, and retired snow ranger Brad Ray founded the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine (FOTR).

The kick-off event for the nonprofit group was the first Tuckerman Inferno, and it's been held - come snow or high water - every year since.

"We always figure out how to pull it off," said Jake Risch, Al Risch's son, president of FOTR and race director for the Inferno. "It's always a little bit different."

He recalls one year when the Saco was at flood stage on race day, so organizers set up a course with buoys in Thorne Pond to serve as the kayak leg. Another year, Risch said, "We woke up race morning to a foot of new snow in Pinkham Notch. Cyclists and plow trucks don't mix."

That was the only year the race was moved to Sunday, its backup weather day. The bike portion was moved into the valley, below the snowline, and the rest of the race adjusted accordingly.

All funds raised through the event - about $20,000 each year - go toward maintaining FOTR's mission of preserving and protecting the unique alpine and sub-alpine eastern slopes of Mount Washington and sustaining recreational uses in the area. In this endeavor, FOTR works closely with the U.S. Forest Service's Mount Washington Avalanche Center.

Risch said FOTR regularly does trail work in the Pinkham Notch area, including on the Sherburne Trail and the Gulf of Slides, and has donated first aid caches and avalanche warning slat boards. The latest effort, in collaboration with the avalanche center, is to provide high-speed internet access for snow rangers at Hermit Lake to assist with the dispersing of avalanche information and rescue efforts.

While the Inferno is surely a suffer-fest for those competing, it's all for a good cause.

"I don't think you can emphasize enough how gratifying it is and how rewarding to finish something like this," Drummond said.

General NewsHuman InterestOutdoorsRunningSkiingHikingWhite MountainsMt. Washington

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