Tour 13: Sherburne Ski Trail
This is an excellent downhill ski trail packed with turns and steeps from the Hermit Lake shelters to the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.
Distance: 4.4 miles, Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to Hermit Lake Shelters, round trip
Elevation: Start: 2,022 feet; Highest point: 3,950 feet; Vertical drop: 1,928 feet
Maps: Winter Trails (AMC), White Mountains Trail Map (Map Adventures), Presidential Range/Gorham (Trails Illustrated), AMC/Washburn Mount Washington/Presidential Range, Exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountains (Wilderness Map), USGS Mount Washington
Difficulty: Most difficult
How to Get There
From the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on NH 16 (GPS coordinates: 44° 15.435´ N, 71° 15.166´ W), take the Tuckerman Ravine Trail 2.2 miles uphill to the Hermit Lake shelters. The Sherburne Trail starts across the wooden bridge that is next to the Hermit Lake caretaker’s building (HoJo’s).
Many skiers view the Sherburne Ski Trail as simply the run home after a day of skiing in Tuckerman Ravine. But the Sherburne is worthy of far more appreciation than that. It is a great downhill ski trail and a worthwhile destination in its own right.
The Sherburne Trail was designed and laid out by Charles Proctor and cut in 1934. It was named for John H. Sherburne, Jr., a well-liked ski racer and member of the Ski Club Hochgebirge of Boston. Sherburne was instrumental in starting the famous “American Inferno” races in Tuckerman Ravine. He died unexpectedly of tetanus in 1934.
The need for a descending ski trail from Tuckerman Ravine was becoming more critical as the popularity of skiing in the Bowl increased. Before the Sherburne Trail was built, the ravine was served only by the old Fire Trail, now known as the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Skiing was always prohibited on the Fire Trail because it posed a serious threat to unsuspecting hikers ambling up the mountain. But Tuckerman Ravine regulars insisted that an alternative be found to walking downhill with skis for more than 2 miles. The solution then and now was the Sherburne Ski Trail. The traffic rules that were established in the 1930s are still in effect today: Skiing downhill is strictly forbidden on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, while the Sherburne is reserved solely for downhill skiing and snowboarding (that is, no snowshoeing or hiking, uphill or downhill, is permitted on the Sherburne Trail).
The “Sherbie” is a wide trail that was cut with skiers in mind. There is ample room to choose your own line and ski it as you like. It catches many of the frequent storms on Mount Washington and is often replenished with a new layer of snow.
After climbing the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, you arrive at the Hermit Lake caretaker’s cabin, which is known as HoJo’s (so nicknamed because its roofline resembled that of the once-popular Howard Johnson’s roadside restaurants). After peering at the steep ski routes of Hillman’s Highway and Tuckerman Ravine that beckon in the distance, it is time to down some snacks, don downhill ski clothing, and begin the descent. The actual start of the Sherburne Trail is above HoJo’s at the base of the Little Headwall. This enables skiers coming from Tucks to ski a continuous route from the bottom of the Bowl all the way to Pinkham Notch. However, once the Little Headwall melts and becomes a cascade, which tends to be early in the spring, the short section of the Sherburne Trail above HoJo’s is no longer used. Most skiers gain access to the Sherburne from HoJo’s.
Directly opposite HoJo’s, see a sign for Hillman’s Highway and the Sherburne Trail next to a bridge over the Cutler River. On the other side of the bridge, turn left and you are on the Sherburne. The trail drops gently at the start. The views across the valley to the Wildcat Ridge and Carter Dome are worth stopping to admire. There are also impressive views back into both Tuckerman and Huntington ravines to the west and northwest, respectively.
As with many trails of its era, the memorable moments on the Sherbie were all given names by the early skiers. The trail runs parallel to the south fork of the Cutler River but turns sharply southeast away from the drainage 0.6 mile below HoJo’s. This turn is known as Windy Corner, and it was once the site of a cabin built by the Harvard Mountaineering Club. Windy Corner got its name because it was always blasted by wind from the ravines and was consequently icy and windblown. The U.S. Forest Service relocated the section of the trail at Windy Corner so it would be less exposed to the weather.
The Sherburne gets progressively steeper as it descends. At 1.6 miles, the S-Turn is reached. It is so named because the trail swings back and forth like the letter “S.” From here down was considered one of the most difficult points of the Sherburne when races were held on it. Just below the S-Turn is the Schuss, a sharp left-hand turn with a steep, straight drop. The trail then passes through a sharp, narrow right-hand turn called the Bottleneck; then it goes into the Glade, an open, moderately steep slope. The final drop is Deadman’s Curve, where the trail drops steeply and turns sharply to the right. This last section received its name in the 1930s when a skier hit a tree and was killed here. The tree was promptly removed.
The steepest sections of the trail (up to 24 degrees) are encountered in the last third of the route. The trail is as much as 60 feet wide at this final section, so you are still left with many options for how to ski it.
The Sherbie can be deceptive. More than 2 miles of linking turns is no small task at the end of a long day. This run can be a delight if you have the energy for it, and an endurance test if you’ve blown all your strength in Tuckerman Ravine earlier in the day. It has certainly caught me off guard. I have skied this trail smiling one day, and whining for my partners to wait up the next—hence, its well-earned nickname, the “sure burn.”
The Sherbie is an excellent introduction to backcountry down-mountain skiing for cross-country skiers who have learned to telemark at ski areas and want to try their skills in the mountains. Snowboarders will also enjoy this introduction to eastern trail riding. The trail is roughly equivalent to an intermediate trail at a downhill ski area, but it is ungroomed. The trail is wide enough to make long turns, will certainly introduce you to some unpredictable snow conditions, and will call for some creative thinking in your approach to some of the natural obstacles.
The Sherburne Trail is the gateway to the eastern mecca of backcountry skiing, Tuckerman Ravine. If you are a newcomer to this sport, a side trip into the Bowl to see what you can aspire to ski or ride should give you new incentive to keep practicing your turns. The thrill of the steeps awaits you just around the corner.