This Holiday Season, Make a New Tradition Outdoors

Whatever you celebrate, do it up different.

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I slide my skis gingerly up the slick track, hoping my skins will hold on the rippled ice. New Hampshire’s Tuckerman Ravine Trail is a heady endeavor year-round, but especially when shellacked in hard rime. And the stakes are high when the traveler is carrying precious cargo. Slipping and toppling my pack would be disastrous, given the contents: eggs, sausages, pulled pork, a whole pepper, an onion, s’mores fixings, and bourbon, all mashed inside next to my sleeping bag. And a six-pack, of course, at the top, where it’s dangerously close to my head. Overkill for a two-night trip? Not a chance. After all, it’s New Year’s Eve.

We’re heading to Harvard Cabin, tucked on the eastern flank of 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, just below treeline at the base of Huntington Ravine. It’s privately operated and only open in winter, when it serves as a basecamp for hikers, climbers, and skiers who want to explore the frozen Whites by day and cozy up to a woodstove at night. And on December 31, it serves as a basecamp for hikers, climbers, and skiers who have more than outdoor adventure in mind. They feast, bust out costumes, and pop bottles. In short: They throw a New Year’s Eve party on Mt. Washington.

The celebration predates my hiking experience and its origins are unknown to those who participate today, but most agree that it just started happening, almost out of thin air, likely spurred by the college antics of the cabin’s owners—the Harvard Mountaineering Club.

A few years ago, my friends and I, unaware of the holiday tradition, showed up on New Year’s Eve to get an early start on a climb the next day. We weren’t prepared for the festivities, and let’s just say we’re still collectively known as “Mountain House” for our uninspired menu. But there was something infectious about the holiday stoke. Maybe it was the chin-up contest held on an axe handle hung from the cabin ceiling, or the nighttime ski jump
competition, or the Swedish meatballs made from scratch. Around the holidays, we’re hardwired to crave tradition—this one was unorthodox, sure, but it scratched the itch, in its own way. I was hooked, and celebrating the turn of the calendar in the backcountry became an annual ritual for which carrying a silly amount of good food to a tiny cabin was a no-brainer.

This year, when we arrive at Harvard Cabin, I dump my top-heavy pack on the floor and begin organizing my gear into two piles: stuff for our climb and stuff for our party. As I sort, snowshoes and skis periodically clank onto the logs of the cabin’s vestibule, announcing the arrival of more partygoers. Some I recognize as regulars. The cabin sleeps 16 (reservation required), and eventually, that’s how many people show up. Everyone has objectives in mind for the morning and piles of gear to dry out beforehand. They also have apple pie moonshine, steaks, lumberjack getups, and plans to defend their chin-up records.

As the night wears on, plate after plate of delicious food comes off the stove, refreshments flow, and beta is passed back and forth across the long table. The guy who wins the ski jump competition does so in his underwear. When the tiny, wind-up radio announces midnight, a round of shots go up, and we all clamber into the sleeping loft.

It’s hard to reject family gatherings and conventional celebrations, but once you do, spending New Year’s—or Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or the Fourth of July—in the backcountry feels like the start of a tradition you’ll never want to break. Happy New Year indeed.