The Moonlight Traverse
Like many in the East, I was drawn to the Presidential Traverse by its long distance above tree line, rugged conditions and impressive views. While researching the route for a traditional traverse, I came across a note
that some attempt the route at night under a full moon. The prospect of hiking the continuous 11-mile alpine zone with nothing but the silver moon above and rocky moonscape of the White Mountains underfoot instantly appealed to me. While there are many excellent accounts
of the daytime traverse, the purpose of this report is to focus on a traverse at night.
Recruiting and Warning
Earlier in the summer, I had the chance to make the Adirondacks’ Great Range Traverse
and had been itching for some time in the mountainous Northeast ever since. After sharing some pictures from my earlier trip with two of my schoolmates, George and Mckean, I had eager hiking partners to join me on the long drive to New Hampshire and longer hike through the Whites. The two had less hiking experience than I did, but were in far better shape. I convinced them to leave all things cotton at home, and warned them about the difficulty of the trek:
“It’s going to really
suck. It’s going to be dark and windy and cold and long and rocky and exhausting. It’s also going to be awesome! But it’s also going to suck.”
They later told me the warning didn’t quite capture the difficulty of the trip.
Madison by Sunset
After a long drive and a night at the Appalachia trailhead, we spent most of the next day napping in an effort to adjust our internal clocks to the night shift. Our plan was to start at 4:00 PM and end at either Webster Cliff or Crawford Notch depending on our pace. We would keep a close eye on the weather, and if it got too cloudy or hinted at rain, we would postpone the hike until morning and make a traditional traverse. Fortunately, the sky remained clear, and the forecast called for the same all night.
Mckean on Madison. I didn't have the heart to tell him it wasn't the summit...
Right on schedule, we shook from our slumber and started up the Valley Way trail. Spirits were high and we (okay, Mckean and George) raced up small sections of the trail. As the slope to Madison became steeper we slowed, reaching the summit by 7:30. It was a relief to rise above the trees to the glow of the coming sunset. We now saw much of the path ahead, culminating in the Washington summit far in the distance. It had just the slightest wisp of cloud lingering on its peak, the highest in the Northeast. Mckean was enthusiastic and George was cursing, though his tone was mellowed with my reminder that in the previous four miles we had knocked out almost half of the elevation gain for the entire trip.
We filled our water bottles at the Madison Hut, surprised that the faucet was inside rather than outside the building. We stocked up, recognizing that all would be fast asleep by the time we reached the next one. The flat light of dusk was darkening and the air was chilling as we emerged from the warm, boisterous atmosphere of the hut. Searching for our way forward, we turned on our headlamps but missed the route straight to Adams, reaching John Quincy instead. For some sections, we were blessed by quartz-topped cairns that shown brightly in our beams, for others we were not so fortunate.
Washington and Adams from the Madison summit at sunset.
Finding the proper route again, now thick in the dark of full night, we tried to navigate without the headlamps. But we found the cairns in this section of the hike too difficult to find even under the full moon. So we carried on as the temperature dropped further, the wind picked up, and intermittent clouds rolled over us. We topped Adams and then Jefferson, briefly ducking behind available boulders to escape the wind, check our progress and munch on granola, gummies and Pringles.
The moon over Star Lake between mounts Madison and JQ Adams.
Despite his earlier misgivings, George lead this section of the hike and we made steady progress towards Washington. After descending from Jefferson, we entered small sections of low brush, where the air was calm and we could manage some distance without our headlamps. It was this time without the lamps that we had come for, and it was this experience that really made the hike worth it. Just as I had imagined in planning the trip, the full moon shown brightly and the sleeping mountains dipped and rose around us. In the distance sat the observatory on Washington, its glowing lights serving as a beacon in this sea of wind and rock.
Summiting Adams by headlamp, with high winds and no tripod.
As notable as his time in the Senate surely was, we skipped the peak bearing the name of Henry Clay, “The Great Compromiser” in a compromise of our own, seeking to make up some time we had lost on our detour to John Quincy. Our pace had also slowed as George nursed an increasingly painful knee. As we started the long climb up Washington, the wind, rocky terrain, darkness and late hour finally started to take their toll. We shared dreams of hot food, the warmth of the long gone Madison hut, and the rest we would enjoy in the bright morning at trail’s end.
As the Gulfside trail neared the Cog Railway, we willingly lost the trail in favor of following the tracks themselves. Much easier to see than the endless string of obscure cairns, we again turned off our lights and climbed through the mixture of rock and discarded coal that bordered the rails. Paralleling the silent tracks under the moon’s glow marked my second wind, though Mckean cursed the loose debris over which we marched.
“They’ve got Coke!” I declared as we crossed the tracks to the fully lit portion of the summit compound. Not a quarter among us, the shining vending machine and wooden benches reminded us that there was, after all, civilization in these mountains. Home of the “World’s Worst Weather,” Washington’s peak was uncharacteristically calm and we rested a full twenty minutes among its buildings. It was now well past two in the morning.
"They have Coke!" The bright lights of the Washington Observatory served as a shining beacon in the dark night.
Descending Washington, George’s knees became much worse. Taking the awful, predictable course injuries like this often do, the pain started in one knee and migrated to the other as he favored the “good” leg. The trail here was clear and we hiked under the beautiful moon, but my concern was now on George’s knee rather than the picturesque surroundings. Our pace had slowed to a crawl by the time we reached the hut at Lakes of the Clouds.
Call of the Indoors
Upon reaching the hut, we saw that we were running low on water, but not alarmingly so. We needed a break in any event, and I tried the door so that we could top off our bottles. It was open, so we slipped inside and filled up. But after leaving the hut and checking the map, mutiny set in. It was now almost 5:00, it was cold, we were well behind our intended pace, George was in pain, and the comfortable hut was right there. It was only an hour until sunrise, but the lure of the warm indoors was too much and we headed back inside. We passed out in the common room along with two hikers who turned out to be walking the AT.
We woke at 6:00, apologized to the hut crew for the intrusion and paid for the night. They were polite but understandably unhappy with our decision to crash there. We put our packs back on and continued on our way, tails between our legs. Embarrassed as we were, the rising sun was beautiful… and warm. The trail was flatter and George’s knee was feeling somewhat better.
Crawford Path and Highland Center
In the new light we got our first daytime glimpse of the lower section of the range. The view was beautiful and we filled with the optimism of a new day. Given the state of George’s knee, we skipped the remaining peaks and made slow but steady progress towards Crawford Notch and Highland Center. The trail eventually became steeper again, and it spelled bad news for George’s knee. He picked up a make-shift walking stick and hobbled the rest of the way.
Heading past Mount Monroe in the early morning and welcome sun.
We reached the Crawford Notch trailhead just before noon, and still in plenty of time to catch the 1:00 shuttle back to our car. I went ahead to Highland Center to save us a spot on the bus and George and Mckean shortly followed. We debated over where we would catch a very large, very late breakfast then fell asleep on the ride back to Appalachia.
I got a text from Mckean a couple days later asking when we were taking our next hike. George eventually admitted that there were parts of the trip he did actually enjoy. He made the admission at about the same time he started to walk normally again.
Recommendations for a Moonlight Traverse
Beyond the challenges that always accompany a Presidential Traverse (length, elevation gain, foot placement, pummeling wind and unpredictable weather) the moonlight traverse has additional challenges with navigation, foot placement, and even more unpredictable weather. But even stronger than the objective challenges posed by the darkness are its effects on morale. More than the injury of one of our members, I see this psychological drain of a dark, cold, windy night as the largest challenge our group faced.
As far as the weather is concerned, the Washington Observatory
keeps excellent records of both historic weather trends and current forecasts. Even in early September, we experienced temperatures into the low 30s, and it has gotten down to the low 20s on the date of our hike in years past. We would not have attempted the night traverse had there been significant cloud cover or chance of rain.
Also, do yourself a favor and don’t try to repeat our late night visit to one of the huts. Not only is it a rude intrusion, and not what the huts are there for, but it ruins the mojo of the trip.
– We each wore midweight baselayer tops and bottoms and midweight fleece tops under shell jackets and pants. They kept us sufficiently warm while moving, but we all agreed that that a light insulating jacket would have made our snack and map breaks far more comfortable. We each wore tennis shoes which posed a greater risk to our ankles, but we had light loads and none of us suffered from blisters.
– Even under the full moon, we still found robust lighting systems necessary for navigating sections of the trail. Mckean and I both had headlamps with 40-50 lumens, but it was George’s 100 lumen flashlight that found the most obscure markers.
– a map and compass are even more important on this hike at night than during the day. There were several times where these tools were the only way we found our way back to the trail.
– We each carried bladders and bottles with at total capacity of 4 L. This may have been overkill, but again, the hut faucets are inside the buildings and may be unavailable if it’s late (in either the day or season) and they are locked. There are streams before Madison and springs on the way up Washington. There may have additional water sources on Crawford Path, but we were not looking for them.
StarDate Online has a handy moon phase calendar
that can be used to find the perfect night for a traverse.
Additional photos and a wind-censored video of George cursing can be found on my blog