Can a teenage neophyte survive the Presi Traverse? How about her dad?
My daughter Cypress and I have a campaign to climb the state highpoints. We had seven done- all the little ones around the mid-Atlantic- when we talked about going to New England to try Washington and Katahdin. These two mountains were a step above anything she had attempted before, but we were optimistic. In the last two years Cypress had grown stronger and more confident, to the point where she began to relish the challenges that seemed impossible when we first started out.
Sometime before we left I told her about the Presidential Traverse, how it had been rated as one of the hardest dayhikes in the US by some magazine. Cypress is quiet and very modest but deep down she is very ambitious. Without me knowing it, she set her sights on us not only hiking Washington but doing a one-day Presidential traverse in the process.
For those who don't know, the Presidential Mountains are a range in New Hampshire about twenty miles long, with eight summits named after presidents and several named after non-presidents. To claim a presidential traverse you must climb all eight presidents, which include the five highest mountains in New England. Some people also climb some non presidents for a more complete and taxing experience. There are also several ways to get onto and off the range, which varies the details of the hike.
But even a minimal Presi Traverse involves something like 23 miles of hiking and 9,000 feet of vertical gain on some really steep and rocky terrain. These are not little climbs or gentle trails. And there is no such thing as an easy traverse.
That, of course, is why we tried to make it as easy as we could. We had ten days before she had to get ready for school, and I warned her several times that if we didn't get good weather we would not even attempt the hike. Our plan was to drive up to visit my sister Terry near Portland, Maine, run up to Katahdin, then attempt Washington and co. on the way home.
As it happened, when we left Philadelphia the August weather was looking good for the Whites. My sister agreed to meet up with us a few days later than planned. The next day we climbed New Hampshire's Mount Chocorua and watched the weather. The forecast the next day was for calm sunny weather throughout the White Mountains- a real rarity and a chance we couldn't pass up.
We woke in our campsite at 3:30 am and drove to Appalachia on the north end of the Presidentials. Hitting the trail soon after 4, we started a steep climb in the woodsy darkness. It was misty and about 50 degrees. The air felt perfect.
Unfortunately, I felt far from perfect. I had been sick for the last six weeks with a mysterious illness, and my usual fitness regime (mostly training for adventure races) had been suspended completely that whole time. Every time I exerted myself I seemed to get sicker.
Still, I have been an endurance athlete for 15 years, my teenage daughter had only recently gotten into any kind of sports. So it should be a piece of cake, right? There was no way I was going to pass up our only chance all year to deepen her love of the mountains!
Having taken all of the extra clothing and gear, I made sure Cypress had some water and food as we ascended about 3,500' in about 3 miles. My illness caught up to me before we hit treeline, as 7 am found me lagging behind my daughter to puke. After three or four times, I really began to worry. Finally we hit treeline and the Madison Hut. I didn't say anything to Cypress, but I privately wondered if I could do this hike.
At treeline the terrain became much rockier. Cypress had no experience for the steepness and especially the rockhopping, and suddenly I caught up to her. We tagged the summit of Madison and doubled back. That surge of standing on the summit dulled my pain for the next half hour at least. I had renewed hope that I would be able to climb the other seven presidents.
We stopped in Madison Hut and we very impressed. The White Mountain Hut System is really well done. They gave us water and had good food to sell at reasonable prices. And here we were on the largest area above treeline east of Colorado.
Next we trekked up Adams, where Cypress found the climbing too steep and rocky for her comfort. She started getting discouraged. Then, between Adams and Jefferson I started getteing discouraged. The trail was mostly flat, so we expected to make good time. But the rocks made for SLOW going, and the lack of food in my system started to weaken me. On the plus side, around Jefferson I was able to start eating and drinking again.
We had originally planned on doing Clay but after Jefferson Cypress and I agreed: if it wasn't a president, we weren't going to climb it! Even going around Clay was exhausting.
After Clay we had about 1,200' to get up Washington. At this point the terain changed; it's not as steep or rocky on Washington or points south.
In general I take great pride in making good decisions, especially as a navigator. But it was here of all places, just as things were getting easier, that I made a mistake.
As the trail approached the tracks of the cog railway, which came up from the valley to our right, the trail braided and we thought the main trail went under the tracks. We followed it this way for 20 minutes until we realized that instead of ascending we were skirting the side of the mountain! "Okay" I said, "the best thing to do is just go straight up until we see a trail"
This wasn't nearly as bad as it would have been just a mile to the north, but we were both dangerously tired at that point. It could have been getting off route or not knowing where we were or doubting her Dad or just bonking- but Cypress really got down at this point. She seemed on the verge of tears. My thought was the best way to comfort her was to get her out of this mess.
I tried to get her to fuel up, but she was really upset and had no appetitie. The next half hour was miserable for both of us. If at that moment anyone had offered us a ride down the mountain, I'd have gladly paid them fifty bucks to get us out of there.
Fortunately our back way led to the mountaintop just in time, the high point of New Hampshire, at about 1:15. And what should have been a triumph felt like imminent defeat.
I was appalled that we had been going for almost 9 hours and had only done four presidents. Beyond that I felt completely exhausted. The only thing that had kept me going since vomiting six hours before was willpower.
If I had my way none of the road, railroad, or visitors center would be on top of Mt Washington. But since it was we went into the cafeteria where I was finally able to eat. Very soon I was thinking "thank God for all the tourist crap they put up here!"
I had root beer, trail mix, more root beer, and two bowls of chili. After an hour inside I felt much better, and the rest was mostly downhill, right? Besides, the weather was perfect, with full sun and summit temps around 70 degrees. Here again I must emphasize the weather. The truth is, I was so weak that in bad or even questionable weather we'd have been forced to cancel the rest of the hike.
The hike down to Lake of the Clouds hut was gentle and gorgeous. Lake of the Clouds and its hut is one of the most magic spots I have seen in the East. If you have the $$$ and are so inclined this is a spectacular place to stay!
We just stopped in for a minute, then climbed the mountain right behind it (Monroe I think), and the hike became tiring again. Up and over a series of tiny rises in the ridge, each time thinking this must be the next president. I thought we had already done Eisenhower when we came upon it, and climbing that one was really demoralizing. The descent from this was actually kind of tricky (for hiking that is) and the slog toward Pierce seemed interminable. On the plus side, Cypress had gotten used to rockhopping and no longer seemed bothered by the climbs or descents.
As mentioned earlier, the northern Presidentials (Mount Washington and above) are steeper and rockier than the hills south of Washington. This is why most people start on the north end, to get the tough stuff out of the way first. It would have been a lot harder to start in the south and hit all the roughest terrain when we were at our tiredest.
We had caught up to a group of young guys who were quite impressed with Cypress' hiking speed, and found out they were going to cut down to Crawford Notch right after Pierce. Our original plan was to keep going after Pierce, over non-presidents Jackson and Webster and then down to our National Forest campsite, but on Pierce we checked the map and realized that after 14 hours of hiking the campsite was still 9 miles away!
Our dayhike was looking to be 30 miles long. This bummed us out like you wouldn't believe, until we remember the guys behind us, waited for them, and asked them for a ride. They generously agreed and we ditched down to Crawford Notch with them, where they had a cooler filled with ice cold water, soda, and beer! That's one of the best cans of soda I ever drank in my life.
So, the total tally was: 9,000 feet of climbing, 23 miles, 15 1/2 hours, eight presidents, way too much money spent at the summit, one tired dad, and one proud kid!
We would not have succeeded in bad weather. To anyone planning a Presidential Traverse: use whatever flexibility you have to syncronize your hike to the best weather forecast. Be prepared for the rockhopping to be harder and more extensive than you expect. But in clear weather the views are incredible. And psych yourself up for a long hike with a lot of climbing. Good luck!