On the steepest learning curve

Rock by rock, crew remakes famed ‘Tuck’s trail’

At left, Jeff Amari (top) and Dan Kurnick teamed up to move a boulder as part of the restoration of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The popular route on Mount Washington is under construction. At left, Jeff Amari (top) and Dan Kurnick teamed up to move a boulder as part of the restoration of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The popular route on Mount Washington is under construction. (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / July 24, 2011

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MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. - Boring thumb-sized holes into solid rock is a two-person job: One leans against a heavy industrial drill, another pumps bellows to clear clouds of rock dust from the drill bit. It is backbreaking work, with the added element of danger that comes with working on a ledge, steps from what would be a fatal fall from a mountain that has claimed more than 100 lives.

For the next three to four weeks, the steepest quarter-mile of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail on Mount Washington, one of the premier hiking routes in the Northeast, will be a high-country construction site while a four-man professional crew from the Appalachian Mountain Club restores a ribbon of trail that is slowly eroding into the ravine.

A major section of what is affectionately called the Tuck’s Trail will be closed during the work, which for many hikers is like the Louvre throwing a tarp over the Mona Lisa.

“Tuckerman Ravine is not only an icon of the White Mountains National Forest, but for all of New Hampshire,’’ said Marianne Leberman, recreation and wilderness program leader for the national forest.

Cutting off such a popular route for the bulk of the summer hiking season is an unusual step, but the US Forest Service, which controls the trail, says the danger from falling debris during construction is just too great to hikers lower down in the ravine. Several alternate routes up Mount Washington remain open for hiking, said Rob Burbank, Appalachian Mountain Club spokesman.

The trail work in the ravine must be done in the summer, when the most experienced reconstruction crews are working and Mount Washington’s notoriously bad weather is at its mildest.

On a bright and breezy day last week, the four-man crew was spread out along the cliff. From their work site, they could see straight across Tuckerman Ravine, a steep-rimmed bowl carved by glaciers in the flank of the 6,288-foot mountain. The ravine’s headwall has been challenging skiers for decades. Many more mountains rise in silhouette in the distance, growing ever fainter in the summer haze.

The Tuckerman trail scales the ravine wall on ledges and over boulders, along a 4.2-mile hike to New England’s highest peak.

The men working on the trail are fit and slim. Each was shirtless and tanned, dressed in dusty boots, work pants, and dandelion-yellow construction helmets.

Dan Kurnick, 21, of Lovell, Maine, and Jeff Amari, 26, of Braintree, ran the rock drill, which is powered by a generator they had lugged to the work site on their backs. They move rocks with cables and a hand winch. Having set a boulder into place, the crew intended to pin it there for eternity - or close to it - with a long iron rod, drilling deep holes to nail the chunk of schist to the bedrock.

A short climb down the trail, Nico Azel, 21, also of Lovell, swung a pickax on a muddy section of trail beneath water cascading from high up the cliff. He was preparing the trail for the placement of large rocks to help channel the water and provide hikers a dry place to step.

Higher up, 22-year-old Mike Saucier of North Yarmouth, Maine, gingerly replanted clumps of Alpine Timothy, a mountain grass that had to be moved to accommodate the trail restoration.

The crew is working to reverse decades of erosion by nature and boot traffic. Portions of the trail’s original route are now impassable, having been taken over by plants that have gradually pushed hikers closer to the lip of the ledges that carry the trail. Those plants, along with fallen rocks that have also rerouted hikers, will be moved, and the trail rebuilt in places with rock steps.

Grumbling on the Internet about the closure of the trail has been mild, and last week a steady flow of hikers scrambled up the Lion Head Trail, one alternative summit route the Appalachian Mountain Club recommends while its crew is working in the ravine.

The club’s professional trail crew, dating back to 1919, attracts outdoorsy college students on summer break, as well as young people still figuring out what to do with their lives. Monday through Friday, small teams of four or five camp together in the backcountry near their assigned work sites. They make minimum wage for long, hard days, often in bad weather, dragging quarter-ton boulders up mountainsides - and that is what they like about the job.

“The work makes you feel like a badass,’’ said Azel, who in the fall will begin his senior year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. “It’s definitely a lifestyle.’’

The perks of the summer job include room and board. It also can be easy to save money when there is no place to spend it most of the time.

“You get to build something and work on your tans,’’ joked trails supervisor David Salisbury, the team’s boss, during a visit to the Tuckerman work site. “You guys are spoiled.’’

Salisbury, 47, a native of Westford, started on the Appalachian Mountain Club trail crew in 1981 and then climbed to higher positions in the organization. He left for several years to explore the bottom of the world, working construction at the science facility at the South Pole and at McMurdo Station, also in Antarctica. He came back to the club a year ago.

For the right kind of person, there is no better job than working on a trail crew, he said. “Would you rather find some piddly job back home? Or do this?’’ asked Salisbury, spreading his hands toward the gaping ravine and the scenery beyond.

The full trail crew this summer has 19 people, including four women, he said. Several other teams were off completing other projects last week on a to-do list that will never be finished, Salisbury said.

The US Forest Service is contributing about $23,000 to the Tuckerman project, said Leberman, the forest program leader. The money came from the federal stimulus program.

In supplying the labor for the technically challenging project, Salisbury assigned an experienced team, most of whom have worked past summers on the trail crew.

“Halfway through the season last year, I had already made 18 of the best friends I ever met,’’ said Saucier, who worked while he talked, slathered in mud and sweat. “That’s the reason I came back.

“You can’t do this for a long time, though; it takes a toll on your body,’’ he added, recalling a warning offered by a veteran trail worker last year. “On trail crew, we age in dog years.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at