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I Dared the Headwall - by Toni Matt

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  • I Dared the Headwall - by Toni Matt

    As an addendum to my earlier Matt story of his famed run in ’39 (by Joe Dodge), I thought I’d post another from a few years later. Interesting pieces of the puzzle not found in his first recounting, and a nice piece to share for my 700th post!

    I Dared the Headwall
    By Toni Matt - as told to Bruce Sherman
    Skiing Magazine April, 1964 -Vol. 16, No. 6

    Back in November, 1938, Harvey Gibson, who owned Cranmore Mountain at that time, brought me to America to teach in Hannes Schneider’s ski school. Actually, Hannes was still being held by the Nazis when I arrived, but he came over four months later.

    I had my 19th birthday coming over on the boat, and of course that winter I started racing in this country. I won every downhill I entered during the 1938-39 season, and I even won a few slaloms, too. I never practiced that event, though. I just wanted to go fast.

    I won the downhill at the Harriman Cup, then I won the National Downhill Championship at Mt. Hood and then came back east again in the spring. That’s when they held the Inferno Race at Tuckerman’s Ravine.

    Everybody in those days was over-awed by the mere fact that the Ravine existed and that you could ski it if you had the nerve. And, of course, even today you can’t ski over the lip at the headwall of the Ravine until late in the year, as lots of snow is needed to cover the cliffs.

    I had never seen Tuckerman’s Ravine until the weekend before the race was finally held. I think it was the first weekend of April. The weather was clear when we started up from Pinkham Notch, but when we got to the bottom of the Ravine itself the weather started to sock-in as it so often does up there. We couldn’t even see to the lip of the huge bowl. The race was cancelled because of poor visibility, so we went back down to the valley until the following weekend. When we all started the long climb back up again the weather was clear. It had snowed the night before and conditions were excellent.

    The course started right on top – right smack at the summit of Mt. Washington, the east’s highest peak. We actually started on one of the terraces of the old hotel up there, went down through the snow fields on the east side of the cone, then curved to the right, over to the headwall. One gate had been set on top of the headwall to guide us, because if we went too far right or left we would have skied into dangerous crevasses or deadly rocks. That was the only gate on the whole 4.2-mile course.

    From the summit’s snowfields, the course extended down the headwall to the floor of the ravine, then down the little headwall and along the Sherburne Trail, which winds through forests, to Joe Dodge’s place at Pinkham Notch.

    I had never skied down the headwall nor had I ever been above its rim. I had only skied the Sherburne Trail once on that one weekend before. The day of the race we climbed up over the lip of the headwall, onto the snowfields on the cone-shaped summit. Naturally, there was deep snow and no tracks. We tried to make tracks to follow when speeding down, but we actually didn’t know exactly where we would be going on the way down.

    I had number four, and Dick Durrance – we were always the two biggest competitors – had number three. We knew that number one wouldn’t make a straight track and neither would number two, because we knew the temperament of those two racers. Dick, I’m sure, figured that if he had to go ahead of me, I would benefit by following his track, so he fiddled around with his bindings and when his turn came he said he wasn’t ready. Walter Prager, who was the starter and the course setter, looked at me. I was ready to go and he said, “Well, why don’t you go?” I said, “Why should I go? It’s not my turn. It’s his turn.” Instead of letting the minute go and making Durrance run last, he talked me into starting first.

    When I left the starting gate I didn’t have any idea that I would dare schuss the headwall. The decision was made on the spur of the moment. Not having ever run the upper part of the mountain before, I had no idea how much speed I would build up or whether I could stand the strain. I had figured on making at least two or three turns while going over the lip, which, even at slow speeds, feels like going down an elevator shaft. Then I planned to schuss straight from as high up under the lip as possible. I knew the winner of the race would be the one who shot from the highest point, the runout below the headwall was quite flat. I would need all the speed I could get to carry me across the flat, into the little headwall.

    During the race, when I got to the top of the headwall I was moving much faster than I had expected. I knew the lip was fast and treacherous and if I made a false move I would take a terrible fall. I figured it would be safer actually to run straight than to turn. So on the spur of the moment I decided to go all out – to schuss the headwall.

    End of part one.
    Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.

  • #2
    Part Two

    I came over the rim at the point called the lip. Going over the lip is a terrifying experience, especially for the first time. Remember, I had schussed from the very top of the mountain, which is at least a thousand feet higher than the lip, and then made only one turn into the headwall. I was coming into the sudden drop-off at 40 – 45 miles an hour. That’s not at all like coming in from a dead standstill. It’s more like jumping into a 600-foot deep hole from a speeding car.

    The transition from the headwall to the runout is the real problem. If I hit any bad bumps on the flats, that’s where the speed would show on me.

    I was lucky it had snowed the night before and the wind had packed it in firmly so conditions were excellent and there was no washboard on the runout. Many a time when I skied on the headwall afterwards I looked at the transition and said, “Well if anybody tried to shoot it today they couldn’t possibly stand up.” That day the conditions happened to be fairly smooth coming out of the transition and into the flat. It was always rough there, but that wasn’t so bad because, once I’d pulled through the curve at the bottom of the headwall and stood up, I knew I more or less had the rest of the course made.

    Then I schussed down the small headwall, going like the wind, and into the Sherburne, where I had a close call on the S-turns. These turns were way down near the bottom of the trail, and of course by that time my legs were like putty. On the last of the S-turns my speed pushed me way out toward the edge of the trail and I headed right for a tree. I have a picture that someone took and sent to me later, showing the tips of my skis just inching by the tree. You know, I still remember the terrific effort I had to make to get back up on the trail. After about four miles of downhill I was nearly exhausted. But I got by the tree and finished the race.

    Meanwhile, Durrance had just started down. He schussed the top cone, but once he got to the headwall, he slowed down before going over the lip and then, like everyone else, he skied way across and traversed, losing much time, so that at the end of the race I beat him by 59 seconds. My time was 6:29 and his was 7:28.

    He held the record before that race, which was about 13 minutes. Now we had both cut the record in half, and I had beat him by a minute – which was only because I ran the headwall straight and he didn’t. I’m sure that on the summit cone and in the trail he was just as fast.

    With the coming of World War II, the Inferno was dropped and never really picked up again. Once we sent out a questionnaire to all the colleges and racers in the east to find out why they didn’t want to race, and it was a funny thing to me that all these hotshots decided they weren’t in shape to ski down all right. But since they hadn’t done any walking they felt they couldn’t hike up for three or four hours or whatever length of time it takes, and then race down. In the days when I raced we were used to walking, because we walked practically everywhere anyway. When we raced in Stowe, or the U.S. Eastern, there were no lifts. We had to hike up the Nosedive. Today a downhill racer doesn’t walk any more. That was the reason most of the modern racers gave; they felt they couldn’t climb up and then race down too. Otherwise they would have liked to race the Inferno. Nobody has tried to organize this race any more. So my record still stands.

    What have I done in recent years? Well, I stayed at North Conway for one year after the war. Then in the fall of ’47 I went to Idaho as head instructor at the Sun Valley Ski School. From there I went to Whitefish, Mont., because a new area had started there and I felt I wanted to get into something on my own. I had my own school there and my own shop, where at Sun Valley, after all, I was only working for Union Pacific – even though it’s a nice place to work and all that. But I guess I was too early at Whitefish. Montana skiing developed late because it’s kind of far out of the way and the area then was small and hard to get to. I stayed there until ’56.

    What brought me back east was my bad leg. In ’53 I had broken it at the Harriman Cup and couldn’t get a satisfactory mend out of it. Then, Lowell Thomas, whom I knew and had skied with many times, sent me to his doctor who had satisfactorily fixed a bad hip for Lowell. The doctor grafted a piece of bone in my leg, and it was okay after that. I spent a year in a cast, then I had to wear a brace. The doctor wouldn’t let me ski for two or three years, so I worked at the Carroll Reed Ski Shop in North Conway during the winter and as a greenskeeper in the summer up at Pawling, N.Y. When the leg got strong enough to ski again, I went to Catamount where I am now completing my third season as director of the ski school.

    End of story, addendum next post...
    Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.


    • #3

      So, a couple of things to point out:
      It’s not surprising that the starter of the race, Walter Prager, talked him (Matt) into going in front of Dick Durrance. Despite the fact that both Matt and Prager were both Swiss, which one would think would be enough for Prager to have a slight national motive to help Matt, Prager had actually been Durrance’s Dartmouth ski coach for the past four years! No wonder he was trying to help Durrance by getting Matt to go first!
      Secondly, it must have been because the ’52 Inferno (the last one) didn’t start from the top of the mountain as the previous three Infernos (because of inclement weather above the headwall), that caused Matt to say: “With the coming of World War II, the Inferno was dropped and never really picked up again.” He certainly MUST have known about the only post-’39 Inferno to have been run, and its shorter length HAD to have been his reasoning behind his statement.

      Hope you all enjoyed another nugget from the vaults... I just got it off Ebay a couple weeks ago.
      Happy New Year one and all!
      Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.


      • #4
        Great find!

        The History Detective stikes again
        Go for adventure, take pix, but make certain to bring'em back alive!


        • #5
          I love this kind of sh*t! thanks, Harkin!
          we're all living proof that nothing lasts


          • #6
            Originally posted by boardman View Post
            I love this kind of sh*t! thanks, Harkin!
            Thanks BMan! One of the best reads I've ever had about Tux history! Yeah, and I think this particular account lays to rest any idea that Matt didn't actually beat Durrance by a minute, despite previous posts regarding Durrance's reminisces in his book Man on the Medal.
            Next up (although I'm not sure about when exactly it'll be, since I'm moving this week and not sure when I'll have a 'net hookup) will be a 1930's Joe Dodge article on avalanches.
            Fools run schuss where angels fear to stem.