June 21, 2017

Presidential Traverse 2017

After last year's successful Presidential Traverse with Katy, I decided to give it another go again this year.  This time, I did it with my brother Brian.  We put the date on the calendar (Saturday June 17) months in advance and didn't really have a rain date or alternative option planned.  Unless the forecast called for especially dangerous or complete washout conditions, we were going.  Also, based on how things went last year and our recent preparations, I knew adding the bonus summits of Jackson and Webster to the full traverse was an achievable goal.  So the plan was set, and the day had arrived.

We headed up from Massachusetts on Friday night in separate cars.  It rained the whole ride up and the Higher Summits Forecast for Saturday was calling for summits in the clouds with a chance of showers and drizzle throughout the day.  Typical!  At least it was supposed to be fairly warm with light winds, though.  Once we reached Crawford Notch to drop off a car, the rain had stopped and the skies looked a little more promising.  The lot on Mt. Clinton Rd. was nearly full and there were a couple other groups of hikers doing the same thing as us.  "You guys doing the traverse tomorrow?" asked one guy as he was walking by - "We are" I said.  "We'll see you in the morning then!" he called back as he power walked back towards his car.  He couldn't contain his excitement.  Traverse fever was in the air.

We continued on and stayed at a motel right down the road from the Appalachia trailhead on Route 2.  We were up at 3:30AM and at the trailhead at 4:00AM.  It was cloudy and a bit foggy but also quite warm and not raining.  At this point, it looked about like the forecast was going to ring true and we were in for a cloudy hike.  When we arrived at the trailhead, there were a couple of large groups of hikers and several other smaller groups in the lot gearing up.  It was clearly Presidential Traverse weekend!  We grabbed our packs, put on our headlamps, snapped a couple pictures, and headed off up Valley Way.

We started off at a reasonable pace and quickly passed the two large groups that had headed off just ahead of us.  We didn't see them again but hope they had a good hike!  Not long after that, a group of four guys motored passed us with the same guy we saw the night before leading the pack.  "Hey guys!  You guys doing the traverse?" he asked as they went by.  I'm not sure if he remembered us but he was still just as pumped as he was when we saw him in Crawford Notch.  "Yes we are" I answered again.  "Good luck!" he said as they sped off.  We continued at our pace as the skies gradually brightened with the sun coming up.  As we gained elevation, the fog we were in began to break and we began to see blue skies!  It was a welcome sight and the cloudy forecast for the summits turned out to be wrong.  We were in the clear all day with an undercast below, just a few wispy clouds above, and warm temperatures and light winds.  A top 10 day!

We took a left turn and took Watson Path directly to the summit of Madison.  That trail is pretty rugged and had some steep, bouldery sections.  Just before we hit tree line, we caught up to and passed the group of guys who passed us earlier.  We quickly gained distance on them and didn't see them for the rest of the day.  I hope their traverse went well!  We hit the summit of Mount Madison at 6:40AM and caught our first views of the Mount Washington summit way off in the distance.  We stopped for a snack and to take in the day it was shaping up to be.  Then we pushed on down towards Madison Hut.

We were at Madison Hut before long and stopped just long enough to refill our water and eat some more food.  One thing I told myself to do this year was to eat often and be diligent about the fluid intake.  It's easy to underestimate just how much fuel your body needs to make it through a day like this.  I kept readily available granola bars in the water bottle pouches on the side of my pack throughout the hike and just kept grabbing them and eating them along the way.  I also packed several PB&J sandwiches and a couple bags of trail mix to eat when taking longer rest breaks.  With readily available water at the huts along the route, I ended up refilling my 2 liter water bladder twice, and drank about three 32 oz bottles of gatorade that I made from powdered mix that I brought with me as well. That's about 9 liters of total fluids that I consumed during the hike.  Last year I ended up slightly dehydrated towards the end of the hike.  This year I did not.

After our short stop at the hut, we continued on towards the summit of Mount Adams, making it there at 8:00AM.  We chatted with a couple of other groups of Presidential Traversers at the peak for a few minutes.  Just like last year, at this hour, almost all of the hikers that we had encountered so far were making an attempt at the traverse.  We continued on towards Jefferson.  The route between Adams and Jefferson is straightforward but very rocky and not easy on the joints.  It's also quite long, about 2 miles, and we made it to the summit of Jefferson at 9:40AM.  There was one girl up there who was doing the traverse solo and she said she was on a schedule because she had to make it to the Highland Center before dinner.  We did not stay at Jefferson long, and continued on our way towards Mount Washington.

The trek between Jefferson and Washington is a neat one for a number of reasons.  One, you really can start to see how far you've come, and how far you still have got to go.  You can see back to Madison and you can see all the way forward to Eisenhower and the southern end of the traverse.  You also have the imposing view of Mount Washington right in front of you, and because of where you are, there are very few day hikers who end up on this particular stretch.  We found ourselves spaced out between us and the other traverse teams of the day by this point and marched on.  We went up over Mount Clay, which has a few a modest scrambles but wasn't too difficult, and continued on all the way to the top of Mount Washington which we reached at 11:45AM.

The summit of Mount Washington was actually a really neat scene.  Just like last year, I ended up doing the traverse on the same day as the Mount Washington Auto Road Race.  However, this year we made it there before the race had ended so the summit was teeming with runners and spectators, music was blasting, and a race announcer was still announcing names of finishers as they came across the line.  With the rare weather conditions, it was warm, sunny, calm, and with amazing views of the undercast skies below - it felt like a true party atmosphere.  There was a massive line for pictures at the summit sign, so we just snuck in and tapped the sign and took a selfie off to the side.  We retreated to the summit building to take a break and fuel up some more.

After a decent break at the summit, we continued on, taking Crawford Path down to Lake of the Clouds Hut.  It was here where the true length of this hike started to set in.  I sat down for another snack in the hut and took out my map to look at the rest of our route.  Still 11 miles to go!  It was 1:30PM and we had been hiking for over 9 hours and we still had 11 miles to go!  Good thing Crawford Path is such a smooth trail.  I refilled my water and made myself some more gatorade before we headed back out.  We cruised along, hitting Mount Monroe at 1:45PM, Mount Eisenhower at 3:00PM, and Mount Pierce at 4:00PM.  We continued to Mizpah Hut where we refueled again and then it was on to Mount Jackson.

We hit Mount Jackson at about 5:30PM and it was amazing to take a look back and see how far we had come.  Onward to Mount Webster which we reached at 6:30PM.  At this hour the views were pretty cool with the sun shining through the clouds into Crawford Notch.  By this point, though, the grind was on and the trails began to feel a lot quieter.  I let gravity do most of the work on the way down, gutting it out on every step.  We saw one guy cruising down behind us when we were close to the bottom.  "Where did you guys start?" he asked.  "Appalachia".  "Nice!  I started at Dolly Copp."  He apparently did a traverse too but bailed after Jackson and did not do Webster.  There were a lot of people doing the traverse on this fine day but not many added the full bonus peaks of Jackson and Webster as well.  We finally reached Rt 302 but had to hike about a quarter mile on the road to get back to our car at the lot on Mount Clinton Rd. - walking on the pavement here was easily the most painful part of the hike!

It was nearly 8:30PM when we finally arrived back at the car with the sun starting to set, putting us over 16 hours for the full Presidential Traverse plus the Clay, Jackson, and Webster bonus peaks.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday if I do say so!  Once again, the Presidential Traverse did not disappoint, and I hope I get a chance to do it all again.  Until next time!

June 20, 2016

Presidential Traverse

The Presidential Traverse!  It's a benchmark day hike and one that Katy and I have been talking about for a long time.  Back when we were working on the NH 4000 footers list, it kind of reached joke status.  We would talk about it with each other and with our family and friends that knew about our hiking endeavors as if it was just some crazy thing that other people do.  Slowly, though, the joking became more serious until we finally actually put it on the calendar.  As the date on the calendar continued to get closer, it became more real.  We started preparing for it, planning it, anticipating it.  I guess we were really doing it!  The date of the hike, June 18, 2016, finally arrived this past Saturday.  And we did it.

A Presidential Traverse is a single continuous hike that hits all of the peaks named after U.S. presidents.  In all, there are 7 of these peaks, and the shortest route over all of them is about 20 miles long with roughly 8500 feet of elevation gain required.  Given these requirements, there are many variations to a Presidential Traverse, including whether to go north to south or south to north, choosing one of the many trails up (or down) Madison, and adding "non-presidential" peaks to the route like Clay, Jackson, and/or Webster.  We decided in advance that our goal would be the "minimal" traverse from north to south going up Madison from Appalachia on Rt. 2 via Valley Way and ending at the bottom of Pierce taking the Crawford Path out to Rt. 302.  We would also bypass the unofficial Mt. Clay on the way up to Washington.

We had spotted a car on Friday night in Crawford Notch at the base of the Crawford Path and stayed at a motel on Rt. 2 near the Appalachia trailhead.  Our plan was to be on the trail and hiking starting at 4:00AM.  We were a few minutes behind and made it the trailhead parking lot at 4:15AM.  The lot was completely full!  There were also several other hiking groups there at that time gearing up for obviously the same thing.  We parked on the shoulder of Rt. 2 and got ready to go in the dark.  After getting our gear and headlamps together, and snapping a few pictures, we began hiking up Valley Way.

The initial ascent was interesting and not quite what I expected.  For one, it was our first real experience hiking in the dark which was kind of neat, but different.  Also, there were at least four other groups and well over a dozen hikers who started at almost the exact same time as us.  Even though I knew this would be a very popular day to hike the traverse and we would likely see other traversers, I don't think I was quite expecting the train of headlamps ahead of us and behind us during that first mile.  The intensity in the air was also abundant with the other hiking groups starting and stopping frequently to adjust clothing, adjust water bottles, adjust headlamps.  We leapfrogged these groups several times right out of the gate.  After a mile or so, though, things settled down.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the ascent, though, was how I felt.  I basically felt like I was asleep.  Normally I am not awake at 4 in the morning and my body was letting me know this.  There was some initial adrenaline, but most of the hike up to the hut was a quiet slog.  We set a reasonable pace, though, as Valley Way is a fairly steady trail and before we knew it, we were at Madison Hut.  We continued right past the hut, after Katy briefly dropped her pack, and went right for the Madison summit.  I was starting to wake up at this point, and we were finally above tree line, with the sun having risen and it starting to feel warmer.  We could not have gotten luckier with the weather, as it was forecast to be in the 50's on the summits with clear skies, lots of sun, and not much wind.  We made it to the Madison summit at 6:50AM fully awake now, feeling good, and ready to tackle what's next.

We doubled back to the hut and decided to stop to eat and fill our water.  The hut was bustling with activity as the overnighters were all sitting down for breakfast.  After a short break, we continued on to Adams and were at the summit by 8:20AM.  For some reason ascending Adams this time seemed easier then any of the times I've done it in the past.  It was at this point in the hike that we were well ahead of our estimated schedule, feeling good, and thinking this Presidential Traverse is going to be easy!  Also, at this hour of the day, at this point in the hike, almost every other group that we bumped into was attempting a Presidential Traverse.  It would be a theme throughout the day as we continued to leapfrog several groups several times.  We did not stay on the summit long, and were back down off the Adams summit and back on the Gulfside Trail in no time.

The hike between Adams and Jefferson is long, but with some fairly flat sections.  We continued our steady pace, still feeling good and made it to the summit at 10:20AM.  A few pictures on the summit and on we went with the next stop Mount Washington.  It's over 3 miles from Jefferson to Washington, with Mount Clay in between.  We decided in advance that we would take the Gulfside Trail around Clay and save ourselves a couple hundred feet up and down of elevation.  Once we made it around Clay, we still had about a mile to the summit and 1000 feet of elevation gain to climb so we decided to stop for a bit and eat.  It was a good move and gave us the boost we needed to make it up Washington.  When we reached the summit at 12:45PM I was expecting huge crowds as the Auto Road race was happening in the morning.  However, the festivities must have just ended as it was surprisingly quiet with even lots of empty tables open in the summit building.  We stayed at the top for about a half an hour, long enough to use the rest rooms, eat some food, drink some water, and rest up for the rest of our journey.  We were over halfway done in terms of mileage and most of the climbing in terms of elevation gain was complete!

The hike down Crawford Path to Lake of the Clouds Hut was really quite easy.  This trail is as nicely maintained as I remember with easy footing and lots of rocks setup as stairs.  On the way down, we had a reunion with a couple of traverser groups that started the day with us way back at 4:15AM at Appalachia as they passed us going to the hut.  We caught up to them at the hut, though, as they were still taking a break when we arrived.  We quickly filled up our water and stayed for only a couple of minutes before heading for Monroe which was less then half a mile away.  We made it to the top of Monroe at 2:30PM, almost the exact same time as the two other traverser groups, and stopped just long enough for a picture.  On we all went, with one group taking off ahead of us that we didn't see the rest of the day, and one falling behind, that we also didn't see the rest of the day.  We hope they made it!

It was another couple of miles before Eisenhower, and as we approached the final ascent, it was at this point that the hike began to take its toll.  I began developing a dehydration headache and we stopped to eat again and drink more water.  The refueling helped and we continued to the summit of Eisenhower, getting there quicker then it looked from the junction of the Eisenhower loop trail at 4:10PM.  We were 12 hours in to the hike, with only one more peak to go!  The hike over to Pierce is not a difficult, but we were slowing down at this point with so many miles and so many feet of elevation under our belts.  We made it to Pierce at 5:10PM with the final summit complete!

It's a running joke that Katy has stated her life goal is to be able to do a "5K at any time."  My sister Maureen insists that this can't possibly be a goal since there's no way to really achieve it.  Well, it's 3.1 miles (or 5K) from the summit of Mount Pierce back to where we parked our car.  At this point, we were tired, hungry, and in plenty of pain so if there's ever a time to "achieve" this goal, it was then.  This was easily the most difficult part of the hike with our knees and quads speaking to us on every downhill, rocky step and my headache still a dull pain in the background.  The Crawford Path is an easy trail by most definitions, but that easy 5K took us over 2 hours to complete.  Any time though!  We made it back to the car at 7:30PM, tired, sore, hungry, but it didn't matter because we had done it.

The Presidential Traverse was a goal that we had set for ourselves years ago, and it was finally in the bag.  We had prepared for it, we were ready for it, and everything finally came together for us to make the attempt on an absolutely perfect day.  Add to that the intangibles of the day: the anticipation of the event, the excitement of the goal, the intensity of the morning, the instant camaraderie on the trail, and just like that it was an instant classic.

June 1, 2016

Mount Washington

Traverse training continues!  Over Memorial Day weekend, my aunt and uncle were kind enough to host the whole family at the condo in Bartlett, NH.  My parents also came along and they offered to watch Toby and Tyler for a day while Katy and I head off and do a hike.  With our planned Presidential Traverse in only a few weeks, we decided that Mount Washington would be a good warmup hike to get us ready.

After getting the kids up and fed on Sunday morning, we headed off to the main Pinkham Notch trailhead and arrived there at about 9AM.  The lot was filling quickly but we found a space and headed off.  The forecast called for a mostly cloudy day with a chance of showers, and as we started up the trail, it was overcast with low clouds.  It looked like we were in for a viewless hike.  We continued on nevertheless.

The first half of Tuckerman's Ravine Trail from Pinkham Notch is a very wide, gradual, easy trail.  As usual, it was a busy trail with many other hikers going up and coming down.  We made good time and eventually came to the trail junction for Lions Head.  We opted to go up Lions Head trail as that had the main steep section at a lower elevation and we were unlikely to encounter any leftover spring snow.  As we continued to climb, surprisingly, things began to clear up.  Just as we popped out onto the ridge we began to emerge out of the clouds and were treated to an undercast below.  It's not a terribly rare weather phenomenon in these mountains but you don't see it everyday and it is a neat view.  We plodded along, taking a few breaks along the way as the summit began to become visible ahead.

As we traversed the ridge, we could see into Tuckerman's Ravine and noticed a few skiers taking runs down the last few patches of snow high up the headwall of the ravine.  It was quite the sight as there was very little snow left and it looked like quite a challenge to avoid crashing into the rocks when the snow comes to an abrupt end halfway down the headwall.  As we continued on, we soon made it to the trail junction where Lions Head Trail meets back up with Tuckerman's Ravine Trail.  Trail traffic picked up as we made the final push to the summit.

We made it to the summit at around noon, and stopped for lunch.  Conditions at the summit were better then expected, with mostly clear skies and a partial undercast below.  As usual, it was busy at the summit with tourists and hikers, and we stayed for maybe a half hour.  We began our descent back down the way we came, and opted to take Tuckerman's Ravine Trail down instead of Lion's Head.  The trail was steep as usual but in good shape.  However, there were two snow fields left that we were forced to cross, one of which was on a severe side slope.  We didn't use or bring any traction, so they definitely required some caution.  We made it down, though, and continued into the ravine.

Before long, we had made it to the Hermit Lake Shelter at the base of the ravine, and continued down the rest of the trail back to our car.  It was a nice hike on a nice day and perfect for traverse training!

May 18, 2016

Mount Lafayette

The date for our Presidential Traverse is drawing nearer, and with that, Katy and I are working on our hiking training missions. Last week, I planned a hiking trip with Brian to go up the classic Franconia Ridge loop over Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln. Given our schedules, Sunday was the only day that would work. We've had good weather lately, so I didn't think weather would be an issue. However, this early in the season, I knew we would have to be prepared for potential spring snow and ice so would need the appropriate gear. As the hike drew closer, we had been monitoring the weather forecast in Franconia Notch and noted that it called for a fairly dreary day with chilly temperatures and rain. It didn't matter to me - the hike was still on.

The day before the hike, I checked the Mount Washington Observatory's Higher Summits Forecast. Even though we weren't going up Mount Washington and Franconia Ridge is a little ways away, it would still be a pretty good indicator of what we would experience above treeline. The forecast called for temperatures in the 20's, 50-70 mph winds, and a couple of inches of snow. I talked it over with Brian and we decided to stick with the plan, but vowing to make good decisions once we decide to go above treeline. It was 80 degrees and sunny in Massachusetts while we were talking, but I packed up my full winter gear, hats, gloves, microspikes, etc. in preparation for the hike the next day.

Per our usual routine, I met up with Brian at the Park and Ride in Nashua, NH at 6AM. It was cool but nice out at the time with skies mostly clear in southern NH. We continued on together to the trailhead in Franconia Notch where conditions were different. Temperatures were in the 40's and raining with low clouds/fog as we geared up for what was sure to be an interesting day. As we started our way up Mount Lafayette in the rain, we couldn't help but talk about a 2004 backpacking trip that we did with our friend Bob where we hiked up this very same trail and it just down poured on us the whole day. Will this hike be a similar experience?

Lafayette is a big mountain but Old Bridle Path is a trail that sees significant traffic and trail maintenance and is fairly steady in steepness all the way. We moved right along taking almost no breaks. The rain continued to come down, but after only about a mile or so, it changed to snow. The snowfall was actually a welcome change as you are less likely to get soaked through. We continued on, passing several large groups coming down that had clearly stayed overnight in Greenleaf Hut. Several people expressed their disbelief that we were actually going up the mountain and not down. "You just couldn't stay away huh?" said one. "It's going to be pretty windy up there today you know." said another. My favorite comment was from one of the kids in a boy scout troop that was coming down from the hut: "Woah! These guys are actually going up!!"

By the time we made it to Greenleaf Hut, it was full blown winter. Snow was falling at a decent clip with about an inch of fresh snow that had accumulated and it was cold. There were a couple patches of ice just before the hut, but it wasn't significant enough for us to put on our microspikes. We ducked into the hut for a quick break and to have a snack. At this point, we had to make a decision. Do we go above treeline and head to the summit of Lafayette? Should we do the full loop and hike exposed across the ridge to Lincoln? There was no question that danger could lie ahead, but we were prepared and opted to head to the top of Lafayette and make a decision about the ridge from there. We put on all of our layers, hats, and gloves, and were about to head off. But wait! Brian packed two hats instead of a hat and gloves! Well for some reason I decided to pack an extra pair of gloves. Crisis averted. Into the blizzard we went.

Heading up from the hut was cold, snowy, and windy, but the wind was at our backs which made it not bad overall. Visibility was low but not full whiteout as we were still always able to see to the next cairn. As the summit drew closer, conditions became very severe. The wind really picked up speed and it became more difficult to navigate. We made it to the summit but were in universal agreement that we would not do the walk across the ridge and would instead head straight back down. On the hike back down to the hut, the wind was directly in our faces and it was very cold. With a few inches of fresh powder on the trail, though, we were actually able to make really good time and we booked it back to the hut. As the hut drew closer, the wind gradually lessened as we escaped the unforgiving Alpine Zone.

We took another break at the hut, before heading back down the way we came all the way to our car. It rained, it snowed, it was cold, it was windy, but this was a fun hike. I love summer hikes with clear skies, and perfect views, but it's only a hike like this one where you can fully experience all that these mountains have to offer.