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The American Inferno

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  • The American Inferno

    Hey all,
    Since we're all gearing up for another great winter, I thought I'd share with you all a great article from an old March 1951 issue of Ski Magazine that I just discovered yesterday (upon it's arrival, along with eight others, fresh from ebay!).
    Anywho, its called The American Inferno and it's written by JOE DODGE!
    Even though I never heard him speak, you can tell that he wrote it just the way he'd say it if he were telling you in's really funny!
    Full story in the next post.....
    Last edited by Harkin Banks; 09-29-2009, 10:54 PM.
    Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.

  • #2
    The American Inferno

    Starting at the top of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, the Inferno race down the Headwall is “hell on skis”.

    By Joe Dodge

    Now, dammit, I want you characters to imagine something. This is prob’ly gonna be hard for you, but I want you to try just the same. I’m gonna describe a race course and then I’m gonna ask you to tell me where in the h---- I mean where in the United States this here course is located. OK? Let’s go.

    This course starts on top of a bald old mountain and drops 4300 feet in 3.6 miles. It drops into a glacial cirque with a slope at the top that is almost vertical; under the racers’ skis at this point there are more than 50 feet of snow. It rockets over a steep drop and into a slot between spruce and fir trees. The slot continues down the mountain to the valley floor, and from the top of the course to the bottom the snow can vary from deep powder to solid ice to mushy corn.

    All right, where is this rugged course? No, not Oregon or Washington. Not Colorado. I knew you characters were a bunch of knuckleheads. So all right, I’ll tell you: It’s the best ole race course on the roughest, toughest, best ole mountain in New Hampshire. It’s the course from the top of Mount Washington down through Tuckerman Ravine to Porky Gulch – or Pinkham Notch, if you want to be delicate about it. And on it have been run some of the roughest, toughest ole races that these United States have ever seen.

    Now it all began back in 1933. I was a lot younger then, and I hadn’t learned to swear so good, so I was roped into helping with a Hochgebirge Race over on Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill. A lovable ole character, name of Grampy Bright, asked me how the snow was on rugged ole Mount Washington, and I allowed as how there would be plenty of snow for any race anybody might want to run.

    Well, after a lot of correspondence between Boston and Porky Gulch, Easter Sunday, April 16, was chosen as the day for the race. Early on the day chosen, a dozen or so of the hardiest of New England’s racers gathered at the Gulch, received numbers from the race committee, and climbed the mountain.

    Now I don’t want anybody to think this race was much like the races we run today on open slopes and prepared trails. There was no John Sherburne Trail at this time, and the so-called Fire Trail extended only about a mile up the mountain. The best course on this particular day was down the right gully of Tuckerman Ravine, over the Little Headwall, down the river bed to the Fire Trail and down that to the Cascades where a portable radio was set up to aid the timing at the finish line.

    In spite of all the obstacles and bum weather, the racers started down, and the race was won by Hollis Phillips of the Appalachian Mountain Club. His time was 14:41.3 for the three and three-quarter mile course.

    The race was a success, and was run again the next year. Dick Durrance had just become a ski racing sensation in New England, and everybody expected a terrific run from him. Unfortunately he took a line too far to the left when he came over the Headwall, ran into some avalanche tracks, and fell a couple of times. Nevertheless he won the race with a time of 12:35.0, and Bob Livermore, who took a terrific cart-wheeling fall at the bottom of an old avalanche trough, was second.

    The race was planned for 1935, but it was combined with the Eastern Downhill Championships and the Eastern Olympic Trails. The snow conditions were poor on the lower part of the mountain, and the course was only from the summit of Mount Washington to the floor of Tuckerman Ravine. This could not be called an Inferno or even half an Inferno, but it was the best we could do at that time.

    It wasn’t until 1939 that conditions were again favorable for an Inferno. By this time the U.S. Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps had improved the skiing facilities in the Pinkham Notch area considerably by building the Wild Cat, the Gulf of Slides and the John Sherburne Trails.

    The race was run on April 16 – the sixth anniversary of the first Inferno. Racing had changed a good deal in this time, and many of the racers had never raced in previous Infernos. Toni Matt, a new ski instructor in the Hannes Schneider Ski School at North Conway, had only recently come over from Austria. He had a great reputation, and hundreds of spectators had come to see how he would do on this rugged ole course.

    Toni Matt’s run on the Headwall is still the talk of skiers whenever racing is discussed. He took the Headwall practically straight, with hardly a check at the lip of the Ravine. Everyone could hear his skis chatter on the ice on the floor of the Ravine before he shot over the Little Headwall and down onto the Sherburne trail. I’ll never forget how fresh he appeared at the end of the race as he leaned over my shoulder and asked, “Joe, vat vass my time?”

    His winning time was 6:29.3 – a full minute faster than Dick Durrance, who came in second, and more than twice as fast as the winner of the first race back in 1933.

    Last paragraph in the next reply (because of space constraints).
    Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.


    • #3
      The American Inferno - Part Two

      More Infernos will be run in the future, but this year the Eastern Slope Ski Club decided not to ask for sanction for the race until there is surely enough snow in the critical connection between the floor of the great Ravine and the top of the Little Headwall to assure a successful race. But if and when the race is run again – and we all hope that it will be this spring – Toni Matt’s record time may be cut; for skiing has moved along at top speed, and it’s a long time since 1939. Get training Boys!

      End of Story

      Well, I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did!
      Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.


      • #4
        I was just recently sent a story from an old hutsman who worked up at Lakes in the mid '50s about when he got in trouble with the big man himself...and he sure has a particular way with his words that Joe Dodge... It would have been an honor to meet such a man.


        • #5
          Despite all the advances in technology, nobody has ever beat Toni Matt's time, have they? I'm surprised that even in this day and age, some have not tried to, independently. Sounds like a pretty cool objective. I swear this could be a killer promo for Red Bull or some other such extreme sports company - the Toni Matt Challenge - where you try to best Toni's time from summit to Pinkham. Six and a half friggin' minutes - in 1939 - that is unreal.
          we're all living proof that nothing lasts


          • #6
            pretty rare that the Lip is in stable straightline-friendly conditions (i.e. less than upper Moderate) AND the little headwall is in.


            • #7
              Nice history, thanks for the post.

              pretty rare that the Lip is in stable straightline-friendly conditions (i.e. less than upper Moderate) AND the little headwall is in.
              No doubt avalanche science wasn't up to today's standards, and they probably raced in conditions that would be considered off-limits today.


              • #8
                he missed a turn

                Originally posted by yuckster View Post
                pretty rare that the Lip is in stable straightline-friendly conditions (i.e. less than upper Moderate) AND the little headwall is in.
                at the top to check his speed, so his only choice was to straight line or lose all of his speed. the straight line certainly wasn't planned.



                • #9
                  Originally posted by DSM View Post
                  No doubt avalanche science wasn't up to today's standards
                  probably true, however avi forecasting was probably a more simple affair and not so techy. sometimes techy gets in the way of what is really happening and most important.

                  mount washington is where the 1st ever avalanche forecasting center in the country operated. cool fact huh?



                  • #10
                    Thanks Harkin...that's a fun piece!


                    There's another reason:

                    The Sherby of yesteryear was trimmed right to the ravine floor...and don't let the official liars tell you different.

                    In the last two decades a straight or even very fast run between the Floor and the Little Headwall has been a rarity. A few years ago I managed to ski through the high side once, a lot of turns were required because of the tallish vegetation. Twice I have been able to use the Cutler streambed to ski through, but had to crouch to get under some overhanging vegetation both times.

                    Trim it out to original spec and yes, some modern-era, time-chopping might commence, but bring those 205, 207, 210 or 215 DH boards.

                    Remember folks, Toni Matt was a hot sh!t skier, really fast with world class skills and nerve. There are just a few that good in any generation.
                    Go for adventure, take pix, but make certain to bring'em back alive!


                    • #11
                      Good to know.

                      Back in '04 or '05, I got there in a lovely Feb day when the top of the streambed was entirely filled in. That rarely happens but it's a pleasure when it does. The skiing down is entirely different. Spicier and steep when you use the top, as I recall.


                      • #12
                        Inferno Update - 1952

                        Time Magazine April 21, 1952

                        And No Bones Broken

                        It was blowing a gale. The wind shrieked over New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, wrapping its 6,288-ft. summit in swirling fog. Thick ice glazed the mountain’s sheer headwall. From Pinkham Notch, down in the valley, a line of black dots inched upward along two rows of red flags. The dots were ski fans, out to see the world’s most dangerous ski race, “the American Inferno”. The course runs in a four-mile drop from the summit over the 1000-ft. headwall, through Tuckerman’s Ravine and down a narrow wooded trail to Pinkham Notch, over 4,250 ft. below.

                        Before last week, the course had been run only twice (actually three: ’33, ’34 and ’39 - Harkin). In 1938 Dick Durrance did it in twelve minutes (actually, it was 12 min., 35 sec. in 1934 – Harkin); a year later, Austria’s Toni Matt went down wide open in the seemingly unbelievable time of 6 min., 29 sec. This year, 13 topnotch skiers made up their minds to try it despite the foul weather – not from the summit, but from a point three-quarters of the way up the mountain.

                        At 12:30 a faint cry of “track” floated down from the foggy heights. Dartmouth’s Robert Stewart shot down the mountain’s face, flashed narrowly through the ravine and across the flat into the tricky turns on the wooded trail. He was averaging better than 50 miles an hour.

                        At two-minute intervals, the other racers skimmed and skidded down the mountain. One man lost his balance, tripped and rolled over, sending up a geyser of snow. He got up and went on. Dartmouth’s Bill Beck, the 22-year old who placed fifth for the U.S. in the Olympic downhill race, whistled down, his skis chattering like Tommy guns on the bumpy ice. Brooks Dodge, also a Dartmouth man and Beck’s Olympic teammate, loomed out of the fog at terrific speed, frantically clawing at his misted goggles. One skier blindly pounded on to the flat before he knew he had reached it, hit a bump, hurtled into the air and pin-wheeled four times before he hit the ground.

                        The winner: Bill Beck, who first tried the headwall at the age of ten, in the amazing time of 4 min., 14 sec. For a wonder, no one broke any bones.

                        End of story

                        Well, historical inaccuracies aside, it’s an interesting and entertaining read. I’m not sure that the winning time could be compared to Matt’s 6 min., 29 sec. in the ’39 Inferno, since the article clearly stated that the ’52 race was NOT from the summit, as the earlier Infernos were (well from the old Camden Cottage, which was just below the summit, but within the summit cone). The question is, where exactly would “three-quarters of the way up the mountain” be? Wherever it was, it wasn’t from where the earlier Infernos started and therefore, Beck’s winning time cannot be fairly compared to Matt’s ’39 record. Despite this disparity, it’s still interesting to think just how far apart the two race starts actually were. As the account above stated about Robert Stewart’s run, he: “…shot down the mountain’s face, flashed narrowly through the ravine and across the flat into….the wooded trail”. That ’52 race had to have started at least at Chicken Rock, if not just above the Lip. Wherever it was, I’d be willing to bet that Toni Matt probably went by it within the first minute into his record ’39 run. That would mean, handicapped for the shorter course, Beck would have bested Matt’s record by over a minute! It would be interesting to talk to Beck about it (he’s still alive). I’m sure he’d remember exactly where it started.
                        In any event, as far as I know, ’52 was the last real Inferno. The first Son of Inferno, on 4/21/01, wasn’t a real Inferno, neither were the races in the ravine in the 60’s.
                        Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.


                        • #13
                          Am I the only one amazed by the fact that we are still talking about this mountain and this one run 60 years later? What makes us this fascinated by it? Don't get me wrong, I can't get enough of it and stare at a print of Tux over my desk at work every day. I've tried to explain Toni Matt's run and the fascination to friends who have never been there, but always end up just saying - "you have to get up there to understand"


                          • #14
                            It's easy, really

                            When you think of our shared obsession here in this forum, it's no wonder that the (far & away) number one bonafide LEGEND of Tuckerman's is Matt's run. It's just the sheer absurdity of pointing 'em straight over the Lip and not turning until the far side of the floor that makes us all blanch. The fact that someone had the b*lls to do it on 1939 equipment only adds to the head-shaking.
                            For me, as the Toni Matt Clubhouse Curator, I feel it is my solemn duty to pass along these articles, these motherlodes of gold that I find from time to time, for the enjoyment of all of you.
                            Last edited by Harkin Banks; 10-01-2009, 10:57 PM.
                            Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.


                            • #15
                              I for one thank you for passing on those motherlodes, Harkin. I love reading the accounts.
                              "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." T.S. Eliot