On March 31, 2009, I finally pulled off something I had wanted to do for a long time: a traverse of all the northern Presidential Range plus Mt. Washington, done as a big loop around the Great Gulf. The route goes as follows. Park at the Great Gulf Wilderness lot. Take Great Gulf Trail to the Osgood Trail to the Gulfside Trail via the summit of Madison. Follow Gulfside all the way to Mt. Washington, making loops over the summits as desired. From Washington, descend the Auto Road to Route 16, then walk a final 2 miles back to the Wilderness parking lot. The total distance is roughly 22 miles, with an elevation gain of about 7000 feet – slightly more if doing all of the summits. The idea of walking down the Mt. Washington Auto Road particularly appealed to me because I had never done this before, and it was only possible in the winter, when the road is closed to traffic. I had also never done even a solo winter hike before, or even a partial winter Presidential traverse in a single day. So, lots of firsts. I do, have, on the other hand, hiked in the Presidential Range extensively in all seasons, am very familiar with the geography, and generally felt up to the task. It was my last week off before starting a new job, and I wanted to do something big – something to remember for a long time. A deliberate epic? Maybe not quite...but something like that. At least something worth writing a trip report about.
Unfortunately, the window of opportunity in terms of weather was quite limited that week. The forecast called for periods of snow on Monday, clearing on Tuesday but with clouds rolling back in Wednesday afternoon, and then rain for the rest of the week. Due to a tight budget, I didn't want to spend the night, so I would have to drive there and back from Boston (3.5 hours each way) the same day. This made a super-early start unfeasible, which effectively made Tuesday my only option, since it was the only day where I'd have a realistic chance of decent weather for most of the day. This was not ideal, since I was still in the last stages of a cold and would have preferred to have another day or two to recover, but it didn't look like I had a choice.
Since the forecast called for relatively warm temperatures and moderate wind – summit highs in the 20s with 15-30 mph winds – I decided to go as light as possible. For footwear, I would wear my regular summer hiking/approach shoes, with a thick sock and EMS microspikes for traction. I'd take two poles, plus one long mountaineering ice ax, just in case. I decided to forgo snowshoes. I didn't anticipate any problems with deep snow above treeline or on the Auto Road, which was where the bulk of my route lay. The only section I was concerned about was the Osgood Trail up to the treeline. I knew that the Osgood is not a frequently-traveled route to Madison in the winter like the Valley Way, and it might have had little recent traffic. However, since it would be early in the hike, I figured that with a reasonably early start (8:30 or so), the snow pack would still be sufficiently solid to get me past the worst of it. I reasoned that the overall benefit of not carrying the extra weight of boots and full crampons on my feet for 22 miles, not to mention the snowshoes which for the most part would have been useless dead weight, would outweigh the potential hassle of a couple of miles of postholing and wet feet. For clothing I took the standard stuff – two insulation layers for top, one for bottom, shell jacket and pants, plus a TNF Nuptse down jacket – again, just in case. Lunch was two PB and J sandwiches and six granola bars, one .75-liter thermos of hot tea, and one 1-liter bottle of water mixed with apple juice, and one beer stashed in the car – for inspiration on those final miles. I did not plan to really have lunch, however, but instead told myself I'd do the right thing and eat and drink small amounts at regular intervals, during rest stops. With a good breakfast, I should be able to get by well enough, I thought.
I set the alarm for 5 AM, with a goal to be on the road at quarter past, no later. The pack was ready, the coffee on the stove, and breakfast already prepared. I'm a very lazy person by nature, and this level of planning and preparation was very impressive! I left right on target and was at the trailhead at 8:30 as planned. It was on!
The Hike, Part 1: Wallowing
I took a brisk pace along the mostly level 1.7 miles of the Great Gulf Trail to its junction with the Osgood Trail. The trail was well-packed and still icy in the morning chill, so I put on my microspikes right after the suspension bridge over the Peabody River.
During my drive the weather was not quite as nice as I had hoped for, with some light snow in Franconia Notch and along Routes 3 and 115, but it now looked to be improving, with snow-clad Presidential summits appearing through the clouds. It was quite warm, and pretty soon I was hiking in just my polyester t-shirt. I even took off my shirt briefly during rest stops to dry out; evidently, the recent cold plus some extra pounds from the winter hibernation were taking their toll. The solid-looking trail turned out to be deceiving, and within minutes I found myself falling through holes knee to waist deep. I soon figured out that the trick to avoid this was to stay in the middle of the trail as much as possible. This was the famed spring monorail in its embryonic stages. Though overheating and more winded than usual, I reached the junction soon enough, and continued without pause toward the first major destination of the day – the summit of Mt. Madison.
I was relieved to find that the Osgood Trail was packed out with snowshoe tracks. Relief soon turned into dismay and frustration, however, as I discovered that tracks made by snowshoes don't work quite so well when you don't have them. Before I knew it, postholing became the rule instead of the exception. My pace slowed to a crawl as I grunted, cursed and thrashed my way up the ever-steepening trail. I stopped frequently to avoid overheating. After a final long and steep section, the trail emerged on the crest of the Osgood Ridge and left the forest. At this point, the problem of snow disappeared: the ridge was almost all bare rock, with just enough ice to make me want to keep the mircospikes on.
Unfortunately, the weather was getting worse rather than better.
The ridge was now completely in the clouds, and battered by a steady wind: not unbearably strong, but saturated with tiny ice particles, and causing a constant stinging sensation on the part of my face to which it was exposed. My hopes of a bluebird day disintegrated into the harsh White Mountains reality of gray and white. Thank you National Weather Service and Mount Washington Observatory!
Higher up, the rocks were no longer bare, but covered instead by feathery rime ice: beautiful in its own way, but very slippery.
I was particularly glad now to be wearing the microspikes, because they provided the necessary security on the icy rocks without the clanging bulk of full crampons. I was not so confident now, however, in the wisdom of my other choice of equipment for the day: my trusty summer approach shoes. The two-mile slog-fest up the Osgood Trail had left my feet completely drenched, and there was nothing now that I could do about it. I lamented not bringing an extra pair of socks: that, at least, could have provided some temporary relief. Truthfully, I was beginning to doubt the feasibility of my whole endeavor. I hadn't yet checked the time, but it was obvious from my pace that I was behind schedule. The weather was going from bad to worse, my feet were soaked and I hadn't even reached Mt. Madison, which in terms of distance was less than a quarter of the route, though more than half in terms of elevation gain. If the temperature dropped, or if I had to stop for a long time, I knew I'd be in trouble. And of course, I was alone with no sign of other human activity, and no reason to expect any. And yet, there were signs of hope. I could tell that the clouds were not thick: every once in a while, they parted to reveal patches of blue or glimpses of Mt. Washington in the distance.
I told myself that I would get to the summit of Madison and then decide: if the weather showed signs of improvement, I would continue; if it didn't, and my feet felt cold, I'd turn around and call it a day (hey, at least not without a summit). Having made the decision to postpone making a decision, I now felt free to appreciate my surroundings. I had been in these mountains countless times, yet this time it was different: the combination of solitude, strange weather and conditions made for a very unique feeling. Just below the summit cone of Madison, the rime-covered rocks gave way to a steep snowfield capped by huge drifts, and the wind picked up dramatically.
Suddenly, it was a totally different environment: much more alpine and unforgiving. I snapped a few pictures, then covered my face to the max, and proceeded to the summit.
The Hike, Part 2: On – and off – the Gulfside
Shortly after the summit of Madison (the actual summit was a windswept hell, and there was absolutely nothing to see), I paused to rest, have a snack, and make my decision. It was already close to 1; I had hope to be here an hour earlier. I tried to call my girlfriend, as promised, but there was no signal, which I found strange because it seemed like a straight shot from here to the town of Gorham, which definitely has reception. I'm not sure what made me decide to continue, but it certainly wasn't the improvement in the weather – the fog was as thick as ever. In fact, I don't really remember making the decision at all. I do remember the descent to Madison Hut – though less than half a mile long, it felt like it took forever, long than going up. It was steep, and there was no longer a well-defined ridge, so the trail was much harder to follow, weaving back and forth, over and around huge boulders. At the hut, the second part of my route began – the Gulfside Trail.
But first, I had to make a bit of a detour over the summit of Mt. Adams. My initial goal was to climb all five summits – Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay and Washington – along the route. I was no longer certain that this would be possible, but I decided to try anyway, and then skip whichever ones I didn't have time for. From Madison Hut, Adams is nearly 1000 feet of altitude gain on steep and rough rocks and snowfields via the final section of the Air Line trail. Even in the summer, this trail is not really a trail but just a series of cairns marking the route over rocks. Now, in the fog, and with the cairns covered by rime ice which made them really hard to distinguish from the surrounding boulders, it was almost impossible to follow.
I finally reached the summit pretty much by going uphill until it was no longer possible to do so. I recognized it only by big trail sign that I remembered from being there a few weeks before, on a clear day – though you couldn't make anything out on the signs due to the thick layer of rime ice covering them. The summit of Adams was an even less hospitable place than Madison, being higher and more exposed, and I unceremoniously passed it without so much as a pause, and continued down to Thunderstorm Junction (the saddle between Adams and its western spur, Mt. Sam Adams), where I rejoined the Gulfside Trail and pressed on toward my final destination.
A little past Thunderstorm Junction there is a flat area with small trees (and deep snow in the winter) where one can usually find shelter from the wind. Here, I took a longer break, drank some tea and ate one of my sandwiches. While I was resting, the sun made some attempts to come out, and I tried to take some pictures of the fleeting views, with limited success – the mountains went back into hiding in the time it took me to get out and turn on my camera!
Once I continued, things began to get really interesting. The trail became increasingly difficult to follow, crossing a series of large snowfields where some cairns were almost certainly buried under drifts. The cairns that did exist were hard to spot because of the low visibility and the problem I already mentioned with the rime ice. To make matters worse, the moisture in the air stuck to my glasses, covering them in a layer of ice as it did with everything else. I had brought an extra pair along, and tried to mitigate this problem by alternating the two pairs, but this was time-consuming and frustrating, since the fresh pair of glasses would freeze up within minutes. Eventually, I gave up and took them off altogether. It was better than looking through a sheet of ice and stopping all the time, but my ability to spot cairns was even further reduced. Before long, I was completely off trail, with no sign of it anywhere.
The topography indicated that I had gone too far to the southeast (left) – that is, to close to the edge of the Great Gulf. There were steep slopes dropping away to my left – slopes that I did not recall being visible from the actual trail. To correct my error, I angled right, but continued going forward as well, so as to save time. After a while, I saw cairns again: I was back on the trail. I continued, taking care to stay on it. I should mention, by the way, that the post-holing was by no means over: some of the drifts on the ridge were nearly waist-deep. But this faded into insignificance as the overriding concern became simply staying on the trail. Had the weather been clear, this would not have been so critical– after all, the trail between Thunderstorm Junction and Edmands Col more or less stays on the ridge, and the exact line you take probably doesn't matter that much as long as you end up in the col. But the ridge is wide, with many spurs, and in whiteout conditions losing the trail can land you into some serious trouble – like off a cliff, or some other place you really don't want to be. This becomes all the more acute when you're by yourself and have no way of communication thanks to AT&T's coverage you can count on. So I really put in my best, most sincere efforts to stay on the Gulfside Trail.
Now, if you've been reading up until this far, you probably already know where this going. Sure enough, I lost the trail again. Or, to be more precise, it simply ceased to exist. I don't recall the precise moment when this happened, but in helping reconstruct the sequence of events, it's helpful to recall that I was without my glasses this whole time, and may have mistaken some rocks for cairns. Anyone who has been in a severe whiteout knows that it can play tricks on the eyes and the mind; add to that a bit of wishful thinking (it's nicer to believe that you know where you are), and the result is that you push your way steadily up shit creek and by the time you realize you've lost the paddle, it's too late to determine how you got there and how to get back. I stopped, tried to collect myself and to use the few clues I had to go by to try and get at least some idea of where I was. The increasingly steep, dropping terrain suggested that I was no longer on the crest of the Presidential Range, as I should be, but somewhere to the northwest – this I could deduce by looking at which way the slope dropped in relation to where I had been going. Realizing that descending any more is probably a bad idea, but not wanting to expend unnecessary time and energy into going all the way back up to the ridge, I took a middle course and began traversing, taking care to maintain a more or less constant altitude, in the general direction of what I assumed to be Edmands Col. Since the ridge drops as it approaches the col, I figured that traversing like this will eventually take me either back onto the Gulfside Trail or into the col.
After some undetermined period of stumbling through the snow like a blind kitten, I finally came upon several cairns – an enormous relief! Their layout was roughly perpendicular to my route of travel, which led me to suspect that this was the Castle Ravine Trail. I knew it couldn't be the Randolph Path because I had recently been on that trail and remembered very distinctly that it traversed for its entire length, whereas this trail looked to be clearly going up and down. It also didn't appear to be the Gulfside Trail because it seemed to follow some sort of gully rather than a ridge top, but this was less certain because given the almost zero visibility, it was not hard to imagine that a portion of the Gulfside Trail would look like that. This uncertainty presented me with a dilemma. If it was the Castle Ravine Trail, I had to go up; but if it was the Gulfside, I had to go down. My instinct leaned toward the former, and besides, even if it turned out that I was mistaken it would be easier psychologically to have to descend, rather than ascend, after finding this out. So, up I went. Meanwhile, the whiteout only seemed to be getting worse, and the higher I went the less certain I got that I had made the correct choice. For one thing, I knew that Caste Ravine is generally quite steep, so the low angle of the terrain told me that I must be very close to Edmands Col, yet I kept going and going and it still wasn't there. Finally, doubt got the better of me, and I turned around to go back and at least have a look a little below the spot where I had initially found this as yet unidentified trail. But the ever-steepening snowfields, becoming less and less secure in my microspikes and summer hiking boots, finally convinced me once and for all that this cannot possibly be the way to Edmands Col and that whatever trail this is, the only reasonable course of action was to go up the trail until I got to some sign, intersection or other place where I could finally determine for sure where I am, and then decide how to proceed next – to continue and finish the loop, or to go back. At this point, I had no problem with the second option, so long as I knew where I was going. At long last, I found what I had been looking for: a lone, barely visible and totally illegible trail sign, plastered with rime and snow on all sides. A considerable amount of excavation finally revealed what I needed to know: that I had indeed come out on the Castle Ravine Trail, and was now in Edmands Col, standing at the triple intersection of that trail, the Randolph Path, and the Cornice Trail which goes over the western flank of Mt. Jefferson. From here, a short walk took me to the Gulfside Trail on the other end of the col. I took off my pack, ate a granola bar, drank some tea, and looked at the time. It turned out that for all that I had gone through, my little detour had only cost me about an hour. I was surprised, because it had felt like an eternity, but at the same time relieved. It was only around 4, which meant that wherever I chose to go, I would still have plenty of daylight left. I felt I could relax at last. The ordeal was over; from here on, it was a matter of getting home.
Later on, at home, I looked carefully at the map, and my conclusions as to what happened to me is as follows. After initially getting off trail and wandering too far east and then correcting my course my going west, I missed the Gulfside Trail, crossed it without realizing this, and unknowingly ended up on the Israel Ridge Trail. This makes sense because I don't remember ever seeing the Israel Ridge intersection, yet I am pretty sure that I lost trail trail somewhere close to it. I then lost that trail as well, and proceeded to also cross the Randolph Path (!!) without realizing it. I must have descended a good way into Castle Ravine, maybe 1/3 of the way down, before finally suspecting that something was wrong, because the place where I stumbled upon the Castle Ravine Trail was a considerable distance from its junction with the Randolph Path – and then of course I managed to go down even deeper when I thought I was on the wrong trail!
The moral of this whole story is that one should never, EVER venture above treeline without a GPS or at least a compass (preferably both), especially alone and especially in the winter. My excuse that the forecast called for mostly sunny skies is a flimsy one: I have been above treeline in the Whites enough times (at least once in every month of the year) to know better. Hopefully, I won't ever make this mistake again...and I hope no one reading this will, either.
The Hike, Part 3: Out of the White and into the Blue
But, back to my trip. Finding the trail again by no means meant that it was over, and now came time to decide what to do next. While lost I made peace with the idea of going back, but now that I had rested, eaten and relaxed a little, I began to think otherwise. There were compelling reasons for completing the loop beyond the mere desires to fulfill a goal and avoid repetition: even though the distance was considerably longer (14 miles versus 8), over 10 of these miles were on roads – eight on the Auto Road, the rest along Route 16 back to the parking lot. That left only the 3.5 miles along the rest of the Gulfside to the summit of Mt. Washington as “real” hiking; the rest would just be a very long downhill walk. Recalling the horrendous post-holing on the Osgood Trail, and having little reason to believe that the snow would any better with time (despite the clouds it was still quite warm),the option to keep going now looked more and more attractive. Without wasting further time, I put on my pack and continued south.
While I may have no longer been lost, I had yet to negotiate the most difficult planned portion of the loop: the traverse of the east flank of Mt. Jefferson. Even in good conditions, this steep slope intimidates many Presidential Range hikers in the winter, and most prefer to carry an ice axe even if they don't use it anywhere else. Boy was I glad I had brought mine! Two weeks before, hiking here on a sunny weekend with my girlfriend, the traverse was short stretch of trail with good tracks, and we managed just fine with only trekking poles. Now, the trail was completely blown over with fresh snow, and where it actually lay was anyone's guess.
I tried to pick what I thought was the safest path, taking the shortest stretches of steep snow between rock outcrops. Still, it was a bit unnerving at times, with thick slabs of windblown snow over a steep, hard icy crust – classic avalanche conditions.
Had the slope been a little longer, I would have been very seriously concerned. As it was, I managed to cross without incident and then...lo and behold, I looked up and saw blinding blue!
I was out of the clouds – or, rather, above them: the clouds were still there and, for the rest of my trip until sunset, would provide the most spectacular undercast I've ever seen in the Whites, if not in my entire life.
I've said already that I've been to these mountains many, many times, but in all seriousness, I had never seen anything like this before. Maybe it had something to do with not seeing more than 10 feet in front of me for the past several hours, but, either way, I felt more than rewarded for all of my previous suffering.
My new ability to see revealed that I was once again somewhat off trail and again lower than I should be, but this time I could very clearly see where it was, even though the cairns were a considerable distance from where I was.
From this point until the Auto Road just below the summit of Mt. Washington, I followed the Gulfside trail intermittently, taking shortcuts where possible since the snow conditions on the trail were no different from everywhere else.
The remaining half of my hike was long and very beautiful, but basically uneventful. For a short while, as I descended into Sphinx Col between Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Clay, I re-entered the clouds.
This time, however, it was only temporary, and soon I was treated to even more dramatic views.
After my debacle in the fog I felt no particular need to take the loop over the summit of Mt. Clay, so instead I followed the regular Gulfside trail along Clay's west flank, and stopped to eat my second PB&J sandwich shortly after the junction with the Jewell Trail.
Now, just one major ascent remained: the final stretch of the Gulfside Trail up the summit cone of Mt. Washinton.
I did this part very slowly, at times following the trail
and at other times the Cog Railway.
It was now late afternoon and the light was simply incredibly, so in addition to being tired, I stopped constantly to mess around with my camera.
At 6, I reached the high point of my trip, a couple of hundred feet below the summit of Mt. Washington.
I did not follow the Gulfside Trail all the way to the summit, but instead crossed over to the Auto Road where the trail passed close to it.
I didn't care about the summit – I had been on it enough times, and today was not about it. I stopped again, called my mother and my girlfriend, told them that I was all right and about to experience one of the most beautiful things ever - walking down the Auto Road and watching the sun setting behind the Presidentials.
I felt incredibly lucky to be alive and to be able to experience such astounding beauty so close to where I live. The Auto Road, as I had suspected, was nicely packed from snow machine traffic, and I made very quick progress down it, slowed only by the constant need to stop and take pictures.
Once the darkness, or treeline, or my camera running out of batteries (not sure which) put a stop to this, I scampered down to Route 16 and was back at my car by quarter to 9 – 10.5 miles in 2 hours 45 minutes! On the final stretch, a nice local girl stopped to give me a lift – as it turned out, for about a hundred yards that I had left! Well, it's the thought the counts, right? I sat in my car and drank the 12-ounce reward that I had stashed while listening to flamenco guitar. 22 miles, 17 hours, 7000 feet, a whiteout, getting lost...all in all not a bad day!
The Northern Presidentials
Mount Madison and Mount Adams