Mt. Washington has always held a fascination for skiers, and it wasn't long after the turn of the 20th century that the first descent of New England's highest peak was attempted. The adventurous soul was Norman Libby of Bridgton, Maine, who climbed to the summit on February 16,1905, making the return trip on a primitive pair of homemade skis.
The sport of skiing was in its fledgling stage in those years, but its popularity was growing. Shortly after Libby's feat, several Dartmouth College students organized an outing club, and began the mastery of downhill skiing. The hills around Hanover soon lacked challenge, and inevitably the Dartmouth Outing Club members were drawn by the mystique surrounding Mt. Washington. In 1913, Fred Harris, Joseph Cheney and Carl Shumway became the first college students to negotiate the mountain on skis, and many were soon to follow.
As the young skiing enthusiasts became more proficient, the spirit of competition naturally emerged, though it wasn't until the early '30s that sanctioned events were staged on Mt. Washington. The first was held in March of 1932, organized by the legendary Joe Dodge and the Nansen Ski Club of Berlin, and aptly named the Mt. Washington Spring Snow Fest. The climax of the festivities was an eight-mile race down the Auto Road. Sanctioned by the Eastern Amateur Ski Association, the event attracted the top ranked skiers of the day.
But the weather failed to co-operate, as so often happens atop Mt. Washington. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds were gusting over the summit, and snow fell heavily. Still, five skiers insisted on racing, among them E.J. Blood, Nils Bachstram, and Bob Reid, three members of the 1932 Olympic Ski Team, who swept the top three places. Blood made the descent in an awesome 12 minutes, 20 seconds.
The next step in the evolution of racing on Mt. Washington was to negotiate its eastern flank - the 1,000-foot drop over the headwall into Tuckerman Ravine. Only a handful of skiers had managed the feat, but in the spring of 1933, the snow lay so deep that the angle of the headwall was perceptibly less. In fact, that year there was so much snow in the bowl that skiing continued in the Ravine well into the month of July, a record for the mountain.
The conditions seemed so auspicious that the Ski Club Hochebirge of Boston decided the time was right for a summit to base camp race, and named it the American Inferno after the famous race course at Murren, Switzerland. Easter Sunday, April 16, was selected, and even though the day dawned with rain, fog, and very heavy snow conditions, 14 racers entered the event, leaving the summit and dropping 4,300 feet in four miles, using only a single gate at the top of the headwall. After the abrupt drop over the lip and headwall and hurtling into the basin, the racers descended the newly constructed Fire Trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club's base camp.
Joe Dodge was chief official for the first Inferno, and every precaution was taken against accident. Expected times were three minutes from the summit to the lip, one minute down the 1,000 foot drop to the bowl, and three minutes from Hermit Lake to the Pinkham Notch Camp.
Because of the wet conditions, however, times were much slower than initially anticipated. Hollis Phillips, representing the AMC, won the event in 14:41:3, a full three minutes ahead of the rest of the field.
The second Inferno was held the following year on April 15, though again the snow was wet and the times relatively slow. Dick Durrance took the 1933 Inferno, managing to cut two minutes off Phillips' first effort with a time of 12:35.
An even more remarkable performance was put in that day by Bob Livermore of Harvard's Stem-Like-Hell Club. Livermore was one of the first contestants over the headwall, and discovered there had been an avalanche shortly before his descent. He turned abruptly to try and avoid the debris left behind but near the bottom of the basin snagged a ski and was thrown into it with terrific force. Livermore turned a perfect triple somersault and landed with unbroken skis to go on to finish the race. Only afterwards did he discover that he had sprained both ankles during his landing.
The Inferno has been studded with amazing performances, the most legendary belonging to Toni Matt in 1939. Conditions had been unsuitable for the event during that five-year interim, but Matt more than made up for lost time in the 1939 Inferno.
Toni Matt, then 19, had been born in St. Anton, Austria, the home of Hannes Schneider. By the time he was 14, Matt's abilities were so widely recognized that Schneider invited him to join the staff at his internationally famous ski school in St. Anton. When Schneider fled Austria in 1939, Toni Matt joined him, and began teaching at the Skimeister's school at Mt. Cranmore. That winter he also blazed a trail of ski victories that carried him through many of the major downhill and slalom titles in the United States.
Naturally, Matt joined the field of 42 skiers who registered for the third Inferno, held on April 16 following two postponements. Sunday the 16th was nearly ideal, though, with bright skies, cold temperatures on the summit, and corn snow below. The conditions were an essential factor in aiding Toni Matt in halving Dick Durrence's previous record of 12 minutes. the other was simply Matt's incredible performance.
Up until 1939, the headwall had generally been handled in a series of turns. Matt, however, traveling at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, took the headwall in a single long arc, leaving the 4,000 assembled spectators literally awestruck. He roared over the little headwall and down the Sherburne Trail, finishing in a record 6:29:2, a full minute better than second place Durrance. The record still stands today, and to the best of anyone's knowledge, Matt remains the sole skier to ever schuss the precipitous headwall in quite that manner.
Matt went on to other outstanding accomplishments, including the national title in 1940 and '41, and the world championship downhill race in 1940, but none of his other wins were quite as unique as the Inferno. Today, Toni Matt* directs the ski school in Whiteface Mountain, New York.
In a sense, the Inferno fell victim to World War II, and not until after the war years was another race planned. One attempt was made in the late '40s and again in 1951, though both were cancelled by inclement weather.
It was actually 30 years before the Inferno was to be held again, and 4,000 racing fans climbed into Tuckerman Ravine on April 26,1969, to attend its renewal. They were rewarded by a duel between Franconia's Duncan Cullman and Tyler Palmer, best among a field that included Steve Lathrop, Bob Cochran, Greg Bartlett, Ron Beiderman, Sheldon Perry, Scott Daigle and Peter Carter. Cullman edged out Palmer by a mere 71/1000 of a second.
The 1969 Inferno was an abbreviated version, starting at the summit but concluding on the floor of the Ravine. "With the improvements in equipment and increased speed during the 30 years between Infernos, it would have been too dangerous for those skiers to try and run the Sherburne Trail," recalls Arthur Doucette of Jackson, chairman of the 1969 Inferno. The race did take in the toughest half of the course, however - down the 50- to 55-degree headwall itself. Rather than a downhill, it was set as a loose giant slalom, including some 46 gates.
Despite attempts at revival, 1969 was perhaps the last Inferno. The combination of difficult ski conditions and unpredictable weather make scheduling an event of its caliber extremely difficult. As Arthur Doucette noted, "There's a tremendous amount of work involved - literally weeks - and with one bad day the whole effort can be cancelled."
With modern equipment, skiers can attain such great speeds that safety is also a major concern," he added. Of course, there's always the possibility of another race, but it's not that likely."
Still, the legend of the Infernos survives, and perhaps some group of skiing enthusiasts will decide to revive the institution in the years to come. In the meantime, skiers will continue their pilgrimage to Mt. Washington and Tuckerman Ravine each spring for the mystique and majesty of skiing the Northeast's highest peak.
*Editor's note:Toni Matt passed away in May 1989 shortly after visiting the North Conway area to attend the 50th anniversary of Mt. Cranmore.