Standing on top of the gully, I was intimidated. It was steeper than I expected, and narrower, and, most notably, I could only see the first hundred yards or so of it before it doglegged right behind a rock band. The ambiguity of it allowed my imagination to run wild–Does it get steeper? Do the conditions get worse? Is there a cliff band I need to worry about? The longer I stood there, the greater the obstacles in the gully became.
We left that day later than expected due to some bad luck with traffic. We (Doug, Mickey Spades, and I) all were stoked on skiing, but less enthusiastic to be driving to Pinkham Notch, the traditional starting point for a trip to the Gulf of Slides or Tuckerman’s Ravine. Instead we ended up on the Route 302 side of Mount Washington hoping to find snow, and perhaps explore one of the gullies on the less-traveled side of the mountain. In all honesty, I would have been happy to poach any of the closed ski resorts along way, but Doug and Mickey were psyched on adventure. Exploring some of the places we’ve been talking about visiting the last few years was their priority and they were willing to sacrifice a sure thing for the unknown. The unknown we eventually settled on–after my attempt to sell them on $17 lift tickets and the ease of lift-assisted skiing at Bretton Woods–was Airplane Gully, located between Mount Clay and Mount Washington.
A combination of skinning and booting alongside the Cog Railway brought us to the ridge between Mount Washington and Mount Clay. It also brought us in contact with some other skiers who were seeking the same object, and who had also never been there before. As we poked along the ridge, I was shocked by the steepness of the pitch on the Great Gulf side of the ridge (the side we were planning on skiing). At that moment, the seed of doubt was planted. Is this something I really want to do? Is this something I am actually capable of doing? If something does go wrong, how fucked am I? Talking to the other skiers did nothing more to settle my confidence. They had come seeking out Airplane Gully after growing tired of skiing Tuckerman’s, having claimed boundless trips there. I should now better than to allow something like that to psych me out, especially since I believe most people are quick to embellish their exploits, but their backcountry bravado left me shaken.
Being an incredible day weather-wise on Mount Washington with sun, a mild breeze, and temperatures hovering somewhere between the high fifties and low sixties, we decided to take a break on the Great Gulf side of the ridge to eat lunch and discuss our options. As we settled in, we got to watch two skiers tackle a very steep and rocky bit of skiing into the Great Gulf. If the initial steepness of the Gulf was the seed, watching these two ski the narrow couloir was the fertilizer. The two anonymous skiers skied with grace and skill making the challenging couloir look casual. Watching them ski I realized that they were far more skilled than I, and the pitch was far steeper than I was comfortable with in such a remote setting.
After our short break, we traversed a little further along the ridge and found the skiers from earlier and the entrance to Airplane Gully. My motivation was already gone. The second we sat down and watched the group ski, I knew I was out. Instead of looking for a reason to ski the gully, all I could think of were reasons not to: it is too late in the day; after we ski it, we’ll still have to climb back up it before heading back toward the Cog and our car; it is too steep; it is over my ability level. In hindsight, I think it was easily within our ability level. Would it have been a long day? Sure, but we’ve had longer and part of the reason for trips like these is to test yourself. The gully, while steep, was made far steeper in my mind and although we couldn’t see the rest of the gully between internet videos and a route description, we had a fairly good idea of what was in store.
It’s hard to say if I regret not skiing Airplane Gully that day. It was a day in the mountains in which I returned home not only safe but at a reasonable time of night. I had a beautiful day on Mount Washington and, maybe more importantly, gained some insight into what skiing that side of the mountain entails. On the other hand, it never feels good when you let fear rule your thought process. It’s easy to psych yourself out and hard to fight through it and, at some point, if you pursue these activities you need to push past it. The great thing is that Airplane Gully is still there and I will have chance at redemption.