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Adventures: > The Presidential Traverse

Mt. Washington and the White Mountains

   by Peter Holleran

   "The road to Heaven may not be a road at all."    In September I took a trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to attempt in one day to run over nine peaks of the Presidential Range surrounding Mt. Washington, at 6288' the tallest peak in the northeast. Notorious for extremes of weather (including, at 231 miles an hour, the fastest recorded winds in the world), Washington has long held an attraction for me. On Memorial weekend in 1968 I trudged up with a high school friend and skied the famous Tuckerman Ravine Headwall, and in 1977 I got lost in the fog on a solo hike near the edge of the precipitous Great Gulf Wilderness. I longed to go back.
   The so-called Presidential Traverse is a rite of passage for long distance hikers and runners in New England, the relatively short 23 miles belying the difficulty of the terrain and the 8000’ of climbing. The trails of the Washington range are steep and filled with uneven stones, with the marked routes above treeline on the summit cones being little more than arbitrary routes through rock piles. The weather is fairly predictable - seven days out of ten will be cloudy, with fog (often thick) over the summits. Temperatures can drop at any time and long stretches of the route are on fully exposed terrain above treeline, where the impact of the wind must always be considered. More Deaths have occurred on Mt. Washington than any other peak in North America, from falls, avalanches, poor judgement bordering on stupidity, and hypothermia (frequently in summer and early fall when warm valley temperatures often mask the high winds and much colder conditions up above). A Presidential traverse in the winter encounters brutal arctic conditions and is considered one of the most significant feats for an alpine climber.
   Only intelligent, well-conditioned, and well-prepared individuals should undertake a PresiTraverse, especially if the weather isn’t perfect. Fog or drizzle will make the trip take much longer, both by making the ever present, often algae-covered rocks more slippery, and also by making trails harder to follow. Numerous cairns mark the paths in the White Mountains, but they are not hard to miss, and to venture out without a good map, and prior study of the various routes, is a dubious undertaking at best - but one that many, nevertheless, far too often seem to take. One such example was a man I met the evening after my climb. He was planning on finishing the portion of the Appalachian trail that goes over Mt. Washington, counting on following the white dashes of paint marking that route. His “plans” included staying at the Mt. Washington Hotel at the “top” of the mountain if the weather turned bad. I had to tell him that he was about a hundred years too late, there was no such hotel, and the white dashes were few and far between and totally insufficient for guidance in bad fog. Further, he had no understanding of the trails offering bailout points off of the ridges during extremes of inclement weather. I told him that he had a good chance of becoming a new entry in a future revised edition of the morbid but fascinating book Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, by Nicholas Howe.
   Duly warned, I carried a Camelback RimRunner stuffed with rain pants and windbreaker, tights, fleece, compass, water and food. The day I ventured out, however, was near picture-perfect, with mostly sunny blue skies and a balmy summit temperature of 62 degrees. (The average for mid-September is 34-46, the all-time high 69, and the low 9. The bitter winter conditions bring the yearly average down to just 27, and there is 200 inches of permafrost in the ground at all times). The week before had been in the 30’s and 40’s with rain, fog, freezing fog, zero visibility, so I was anticipating much less benign conditions. As it was I didn’t even put on a T-shirt until near the summit, and even with 50 mile an hour gusts of wind still felt a bit warm. This was a remarkable stroke of luck, for the day before and the day after my run it rained heavily.
   The traverse can be done in either direction; I chose to go north to south, beginning at the Appalachia trailhead (1306’) four miles west of Gorham at the north end of the Mt. Washington Valley. The standard route is to take the Valley Way and Osgood trail to the summit of Mt. Madison (5366’), then Gulfside trail past Adams, Jefferson, Clay and on to the summit of Washington, followed by the long descent on the Crawford Path (supposedly the oldest existing footpath in North America) past Mts. Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower (formerly Pleasant Dome), Pierce, and on down to Crawford Notch. I took eight hours, with an additional half-hour of mistakes and detours.
   A popular side trip I wanted to explore beforehand was the wild and rugged King Ravine midway up Adams, where an interesting formation called the Subway is located. Here you climb over, under, and through house-size boulders leading to caves which sometimes have ice and snow year-round. For New Hampshire that’s definitely unique. In my enthusiasm I ended up climbing 2400' vertical the afternoon of my arrival, getting down in the dark, a somewhat foolish move considering my ambitions for the following day.
   The morning of my eagerly anticipated adventure dawned with fog all the way down to the road, and I hesitated an hour before going out. Taking the plunge, however, no more than 500 feet up the sky turned blue, the grandeur of Madison and Adams was visible, and a great day was underway. "Book time" for hiking to the Madison Hut is 3:40. I arrived in a pretty good 1:37. This was still, however, only 25 minutes per mile - a testimony to the steep and rocky terrain. Because of the need for caution the downhills, moreover, are not alot faster than the uphills on these trails. My main concern was to get a good workout and to finish in one piece. A careless moment with a slip and fall on the New England granite could mean the end of the trip. At the Madison Hut a few campers were just finishing breakfast and relaxing outside, admiring the beauty of nature. I said Hello, topped off my Camelback , scrambled up and down the summit cone of Madison , while spending a few minutes to admire the view across the Great Gulf to Mt. Washington, and then headed off to Adams on the Gulfside Trail (so-named because it skirts the awesome Great Gulf wilderness which separates Mt. Washington from the northern Presidentials). One peak down, eight to go!
   Mount Adams has earned the unusual distinction of being identified as one of nineteen holy mountains of the world by a UFO/yoga/new age group calling themselves the "Aetherians." Summer pilgrimages and ceremonies are held by them to direct energy from the mountains into the world to create peace. (Mt. Baldy and Mt. Tallac in California are two other such mountains). Be that as it may, from the top of Adams (5774’) one finally has a jaw-dropping glimpse of "the rest of the world" as one hiker put it. The view across Edmunds Col to Jefferson and Clay and across the Great Gulf to the summit of Washington is magnificent. From Adams to Edmunds Col (“col” meaning a low point or saddle between two peaks) is a significant descent of one thousand feet, followed by a one thousand foot ascent to the summit of Jefferson (5712’). Edmunds Col is emphasized in the guidebooks as a dangerous place in bad weather, fully exposed to the strong northwest winds so frequent on this range, with no easy escape routes below treeline into Great Gulf or over and down Jefferson or Adams. It is haunting to read of those who have died of exposure in or near this area, often en route to the Madison hut on the long alpine traverse from Mt. Washington. I did notice a pickup in the wind here compared to the placid conditions I had been enjoying to this point, and could only imagine the peril others had found themselves in after going on when they should have turned back.
   The climb up from Edmunds Col to the summit of Jefferson is steep and technical, and especially difficult to descend in bad weather. Jefferson itself is an impressive peak especially when viewed from the valley near the real Mt. Washington Hotel. Proceeding southward off the top one then crosses the Monticello Lawn (“lawn” in White Mountain terminology meaning a boulder strewn grassy area - still predominantly more rocks than grass), and the low point of Sphinx Col between Jefferson and Clay. The loop to the summit of Clay goes left while Gulfside continues to the right of Clay. Taking the summit loop is preferable because it affords nice views down into the colossal Gulf. (I took all the summit loops, which adds a couple of hours to the trip). Gulfside then continues up to the summit cone of Mt. Washington. Make sure to stay to the left of the Cog Railway for some distance after coming off Clay or one may find himself on the Westside Trail heading toward the Lake of the Clouds hut, a mistake I made in the fog at this poorly marked junction. I was prepared for this, however, having read the trail book cover to cover several times in anticipation of just such an event. The Cog Railway trestle is at a low point here and has been a sight of vandalism in years past, with rocks being placed on the tracks. Supposedly there is more security now but it must only be on the train itself because I was quite alone when crossing under the track. On September 6, 1967 eight people died when the train picked up speed and derailed after a switch was mistakenly set due to human error. An even more spectacular crash occurred in July, 1929, when a final celebratory run of the original locomotive “Old Peppersass” turned into disaster when its brakes failed on the descent sending it careening off the steep trestle known as Jacob’s Ladder and getting scatterred 900 feet across the mountain. Three jumped to safety but photographer Daniel Rossiter died after plummeting into space and dropping forty feet onto the jagged rocks below. Today the Cog Railway takes over an hour to travel the 3.5 miles to the summit. Early workers on the railway used to descend at speeds over 60 miles per hour on “slideboards” similar to the “trays” used on today’s alpine slide rides. (The record: 2 minutes, 45 seconds). Several high speed deaths put the kabosh on that form of travel, too.
   The summit of Washington has a weather building, museum, gift shop and cafeteria, a somewhat jarring interruption to the solitude of the rest of the range. All buildings are bolted deep into the bedrock to avoid being blown away in the winter. Cars, vans, motorcycles, as well as the Cog Railway brings lots of summer tourists. In the summit fog, however, I never even saw the parking lot, and the 50 mile an hour winds drowned out most of the noise. There are three annual races up the 7.5 mile auto road: bicycle race (record 49:24), a foot race (56:41), and an auto race (6 minutes). In 2002 the mid-June foot race ended at the 3000 foot level due to a snowstorm. Dipsea great Dave Dunham was once record-holder in this event.
   In contrast to the wild and rocky northern presidentials, the long ridge of the southern peaks is gentler. Still, the long, exposed section from Washington to Eisenhower is potentially one of the most dangerous sections of the Whites and the site of a number of deaths. Signs warn climbers to return to shelter below treeline whenever weather threatens. A light drizzle can quickly turn to driving horizontal sleet and there are few places to take cover. One such marginal and inadequate place was a small scrub patch of dwarf spruce between Franklin and Monroe where in July of 1910 William Curtis and Allan Ormsbee tried to wait out a storm only to give up in despair and finally meet their death fighting the much harsher elements further up on Mt. Washington. I felt a chill passing that location. Stories like this were on my mind as I made my way down the windy and fog-covered upper half of the Crawford Path over the southern peaks. My estimate of a two hour descent for the 8 miles proved too ambitious. As on the northern peaks, the 1.5 mile section of the Crawford Path from the summit of Washington to the Lake of the Clouds Hut at the foot of the summit cone of Mt. Monroe was another rock-hop, needing even more caution due to the diminished summit visibility, and there were many more difficult sections further on. Temperatures were still favorable, while the landscape was Brigadoonish, with the blustery wind heightening the sense of adventure. Although the climb to the top of Monroe (5384’) seemed obvious enough, somehow I couldn’t find it and took what I thought was a longer way to the left around the mountain’s two peaks, but which turned out to be the actual Crawford Path itself, before backtracking up to bag that summit.
   Past Franklin the Crawford Path descends for another mile, somewhat technical in places, to the base of Eisenhower (formerly Pleasant Dome, because that’s how it looks), where the path goes left around the cone while the summit loop goes straight up. Hikers were now few and far between. From the top of Eisenhower I felt like I was stepping off into the unknown but was secure in my ultra conditioning that I could go the distance. The view looking back towards Washington (and, in the far distance, the northern Presidentials) was commanding, while the next peak, Pierce (4310'), was starting to look farther away than its supposed 1.5 miles. Once there I detoured 0.8 miles and 600’ down the Webster Cliff Trail to check out the Mizpah Spring Hut, which acommodates 60 guests and is a popular stop on the Appalachian Trail. This section began modestly but soon descended steeply for what seemed like a long way and I began to get uncomfortable, worrying that I had gone farther down than I should and perhaps was on the nearby Mt. Clinton Trail which descends very deeply into the Dry River Wilderness, which alone and at the end of the day is not at all a good place to get lost. Finally, however, the hut came into view and I went inside, the only one there besides the caretaker. Sunlight was fading and I still had 3 tricky miles and 2000’ to descend followed by the 25 mile hitch to my car. Taking the Mizpah Cut-Off I returned to the the Crawford Path where I met a woman half my age hiking up who had seen me at the Madison Hut earlier that morning. She seemed impressed with my run, having herself taken the lazy way around by driving from one end of the Mt. Washington Valley to the other. " 'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky," I thought of saying, to emphasize what she had missed.... The remainder of the historic Crawford Path is steep, rutty, and still quite rocky, a bit annoying and bone jarring after a long day picking through much of the same, but all in all well worth it.
   The next 30 minutes I spent on route 302 trying in vain to bum a ride. The skies were darkening and, feeling the first few drops of rain, I began to curse each passing motorist. This was hiker country, and I was standing across from a hiker hostel, no less, dressed in hiker - er, running, gear (maybe that was the problem). Anyway, realizing anger would do no good I momentarily let it go, saying, “ O.K., Lord, a little more faith, a little more faith.” A moment later a car pulled up behind me and a man rolled down his window and asked where I was going. “North, I said. “Oh, I am going south,” he replied. I told him that was too bad, that I had missed the last hiker shuttle back to Appalachia (which left at 2:40 P.M. - it was now 5:45) and had to get to my car. “Is it far?” he said. “Yeah, pretty far, about 20 miles.” (I minimized the distance, it was really 25-30). At this point I was willing to offer serious bucks for a ride. After a pause, however, he quietly said, “O.K.” Without hesitation I got in the car and we headed north. It turned out he was from Germany, on vacation, with no real plans for the next few days, or even that night for that matter. When I asked what he did for a living he hesitated, then somewhat shyly said, “I am... a priest.” Wow! No sooner had I petitioned the higher powers when I get picked up by a priest who takes me miles out of his way and refuses any money for doing so. I’d say that was a small miracle. In the words of Jack Haas, on the spirituality of hitch-hiking, “The ride you are supposed to have will stop and pick you up, you need not worry but only have patience, and confidence, and ...faith, because God is directing the show and what should be, is what will be.” When he dropped me off I thanked him and insisted he at least take $10 in gas money. I resisted joking, “here, use this for the priests' legal fund,” and instead simply said “You saved my life.” “Well, not ALL of it,” he said, before driving away.
   For more logistics on the Presidential Traverse, see http://home.earthlink.net/~ellozy/faq2.html.