The weather atop New Hampshire’s White Mountains determines the difficulty of this trek.
I woke in a slight stupor to my alarm ringing at 2 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 8 – almost exactly a year ago.
I was in the back of my freezing SUV at the Appalachia Trailhead in Randolph, New Hampshire, 31/2 miles below Mount Madison. My stomach was heavy with concern and the sinking reality of what I was about to attempt.
I find myself in this situation often, but unlike many of my endeavors, the winter Presidential Traverse has a gruesome history – one that is littered with death and misfortune. In fact, I first learned about it from a report about a hiker who had perished while attempting it a year earlier.
Backpacker magazine calls it “the most coveted – and riskiest – mountaineering feat in the Northeast.” Popularly known as the “death march,” the Presidential Traverse is a route that crosses the entire Presidential Range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, eight mountains in total (10, if you add two additional non-Presidential-titled peaks).
During the warm summer months, many hikers attempt this route as a multi-day trek. With the aid of the extended hours of light, a strong few will tackle the route as a day hike. But only a handful of daring individuals tackle the entire 17 to 21 mile traverse in the midst of winter, in one single day.
The challenge of this hike rises above the ability and experience of the athlete. The mileage is not long for an experienced hiker; the danger comes from the gamble with the weather.
Located in the center of three converging storm systems, the Presidential Range sees wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour on one out of every four winter days. When you hike the Presidentials in the wintertime, you ultimately roll the dice.
Decent conditions were forecasted for the date of my trek. Although any experienced hiker will tell you to trust your eyes more than a forecast, the weather observatory’s last report was palatable. My hiking partner, Chris, was in the next car over and, as I rolled out of my vehicle into the -6 degree darkness, I could see his headlight start to stir.
I quickly set up a stove and began boiling water for breakfast. As I put together my belongings and looked over my gear, a state trooper who was monitoring the highway from the same lot drove over to check on us. He was curious about why we were up at such an early hour and wanted to make sure we were all right. We informed him of our intentions. He clearly thought we were crazy, but enthusiastically informed us that the Broncos had won the Super Bowl just hours prior and wished us the same luck.
We downed some oatmeal, drank a quick cup of coffee and headed into the frigid darkness. I felt as though I was surrendering a bit of myself with every step.
Snowshoes got us to the treeline, where the wind-swept rocks demanded more precise traction. After switching to lighter and much more nimble Microspikes, we continued onward past the safety of the treeline and beyond the warning signs of the Appalachian Mountain Club. A sliver of light pierced the horizon as we made it to our first peak, Mount Madison. We were elated, well underway, and surrounded by a beautiful void, filled only with frozen air.
We rearranged our layers, snapped a few pictures and consumed an energy gel before heading onward. We made quick work of the descent, passing the Madison Spring Hut before heading up the facade of Mount Quincy Adams, a sub-peak of Mount Adams, the second tallest mountain in all of the New England.
Mount Adams is arguably one of the most impressive peaks of the journey, and it was here that we fell into stride. The skies were looking good. We had two peaks down and our pace was right where we wanted. We were able to follow faint crampon tracks after descending Mount Adams, through Edmunds Col and up to the base of Mount Jefferson.
As we ascended Jefferson, we lost sight of the trail. The wind-blown slope disguised previous tracks and made the cairns all but invisible. A little unnerved, but undeterred, we worked our way up the slope, separating to scout the best route, following the highest ground until we reached the top. Just below the summit, we paused for our first substantial break, rehydrating and consuming a few more calories.
From the top of Mount Jefferson, we could see how far we had come. It wasn’t even 10 a.m., and we had already summited three of our four hardest peaks. Our enthusiasm was dampened only by the massive expanse of the southern Presidentials, now visible in the distance.
We had already put in a tremendous amount of effort and now we could literally trace a line all the way to the finish – a distance that seemed absurd, but we couldn’t lose focus. We had to take it one peak at a time.
Before leaving the summit cone of Jefferson, we bundled up. The wind had picked up from its steady 30 to 45 mile per hour hold and was now gusting close to 55 mph.
As we made our way from Jefferson to the base of Mount Clay and onward to Mount Washington, we faced increasing winds and a substantial temperature drop. The Great Gulf, a glacier cirque just below us to the east, was doing a fantastic job at funneling the wind into a precise and consistent torrent. It was difficult staying on a straight course, the winds bullying and toying with us all the way. As we were blasted with blowing snow and powerful gusts, we pushed onward up Mount Washington.
We reached the Cog Railway on the upper slopes of Mount Washington and gingerly followed its rails until splitting off for a more direct route to the summit. We were early. Our travel plan put us on Mt. Washington at noon, but it was 11:20 a.m., and we were already halfway done. We took shelter behind one of the observatory’s buildings and quickly ate lunch.
We could only sit still for a brief 10 minutes before the cold started to bite through our layers and chill our sweaty bodies. In stark contrast to our experience, a tour of comfortable patrons stepped out of one of the buildings to explore the chilly summit. They undoubtedly had arrived by more convenient means and were impressed by our undertaking. We were wished luck once more before heading onward.
After reaching Mount Washington, what was supposed to be the hardest part of the journey was complete. By heading south, we had tackled the most strenuous climbs, and we would now spend more time descending than climbing. We enjoyed a brief break from the strong winds as we descended down the lee side of Mount Washington. We had a clear view of what still lay ahead of us and – although daunting – we were confident in our chances for success.
Once we reached the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, we treated our fatigued feet to a brief rest. There are not a lot of opportunities to get relief from the weather during the winter time, as all of the huts are closed and battened down to bear the harsh conditions. Taking shelter behind one of these structures was the best opportunity for a break and we couldn’t afford to pass it up.
To our surprise, as we made our way up the next mountain, Mount Monroe, we faced our most challenging conditions yet. The winds picked up substantially, so much so that we could no longer move efficiently under our own control. We assumed a crouched position and moved ever so slowly one foot at a time. The wind controlled our every step and quickly stripped us of any balance. We avoided ice to the best of our ability, as we crossed the short but barren summit, stepping rock to rock as to avoid being blown clean from the peak.
My anemometer only reads up to 60 mph and was easily maxed out. The wind blew so fiercely that it stripped my GoPro mount clean off my trekking pole into the abyss below. Had these conditions continued for the remainder of the hike, we would have been forced to seek shelter below the treeline, but fortunately for us, we were relieved from the winds once we crossed to the southern side of the peak.
After the excitement on Mount Monroe, we continued with a rush of adrenaline over Mount Franklin and onto the final challenge of the traverse, Mount Eisenhower. Eisenhower is not all that large in comparison, but after trekking nearly 13 miles through snow and ice, the climb up the peak seemed endless. It took the last bit of energy to make it up the winding trail to the large bald that is Mount Eisenhower. Drained, we took a moment to take in the fantastic 360-degree view and reflect on the peaks we had conquered throughout the day – now hazy in the distance.
From here, we would descend back below the treeline, securing safety from the elements and a smooth finish to our final presidential peak, Mount Pierce. We had crossed the line, taken the gamble and made it. The weather held clear and we were able to accomplish our goal.
With intentions to continue onto the final two non-Presidential-titled peaks, we decided our best choice was to head down. Chris’s feet were not fairing well; his stiff mountaineering boots had taken a toll, and the small patch of frostbite developing on his cheek was only worsening. Happy with our accomplishments, we descended via the Crawford Path, down to Crawford Notch.
We were elated to make it through the gantlet, exhausted after spending nearly 13 hours on the barren landscape that has claimed so many lives before us. In the end, our experience was one of comparable ease and minimal cost.
The traverse was undoubtedly challenging and strenuous, but the weather this time was fairly tame. Twenty days after our success, a New York man and experienced mountain guide would not be so fortunate, succumbing to the elements in a severe blizzard along the route near Mount Jefferson.
You may wonder why someone would pursue such an endeavor frequently resulting in such trivial risk of death, but it is only while feeling the full fury and power of nature, reaching for the unknown to see how far I can go, that I feel truly alive.