Iconic, euphoric, dangerous, beautiful, and gruesome are all adjectives that can be used to describe one famous hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Presidential Traverse. To complete this traverse, hikers climb all of the mountains in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in one continuous hike that’s nearly 23 miles long with close to 9,000 feet of elevation gain. Our goal was to climb the 8 peaks over two days, getting there on a Friday night and finishing up on Sunday. Like mostly everything I do, it needed to be packed into a single weekend, and required a great deal of logistical planning to make it happen. So it’s taken my girlfriend and I nearly two years to plan this trip and convince someone else to do it with us during those precious summer weekends. That meant we had to lock in a date, rain or shine. We settled on hiking the Presi on July 28, 2017.
The planning for this trip felt nearly as tough as the hike itself. The plan that was recommended to us was to go north to south (SOBO), starting at Mt. Madison and ending at Mt. Pierce. Looking for some beta online, it was hard to find a post about someone who hiked the Presi under the same time constraints, weather, speed, and direction. What was really difficult to find was where people made camp while hiking on the ridge. The #1 backcountry camping rule in the White Mountains is that camping above tree-line is strictly prohibited to prevent any erosion of the precious vegetation that exists up there. And of course, the middle section of the Presi is entirely above tree-line, requiring you to either push further than you’d like to in one day around mile 14, cut your day of hiking short around mile 8, or head down near the middle to tree-line which adds unnecessary miles and climbing. But after weeks of prep, we finally had a plan to push as far as possible on the first day and reach tree-line at around mile 14, just below the summit of Mt. Eisenhower.
We recruited our friends Courtney & Eddie to join us on this adventure in the White Mountains, and met them at the end point of our traverse in the Crawford notch where we parked our car for the weekend. Now the four of us, two Courts, Ed, and I, headed all in one car to the Appalachia trailhead to start our trek. Surprisingly the weather forecast was looking good; warm, clear skies, and zero chance of rain (a perfect scenario). And in the hopes of getting the best start possible the following day, we decided to click our headlamps on and head up the Valley Way Trail and hiked into the night. We only walked up a mile, or so, before veering off the trail to find a place to camp. We figured waking up in the woods would get our butts in gear to hike for the day, and also prevent any unnecessary sluggishness we all face when getting ready near our cars in the parking lot. Ideally, we would have loved to make it up to the Valley Way Tent site, but space is pretty limited and the parking lot was packed by the time we arrived Friday night so we assumed all the spots would already be taken.
We woke up with the sunlight peeking through the trees, illuminating our tent. Boots tied, tent packed up, and gear on our backs at about 6:00AM. We were ready to go in a matter of minutes. I think Courtney & Eddie were a little shocked to see us not enjoying a slow morning and planning to eat our breakfast on the go. Nevertheless, we were headed off together for one of the longest days of my life. Up the trail we began to see a clearing through the trees and eventually reached the Madison Spring Hut. A flurry of activity was swirling around the hut, as it is a place for hikers to refill their water, stop in for a meal, or the lucky few to start their hikes if they got an open bed the night before. Since Mount Madison is technically out of the way from the traverse route, we planned to leave our packs at the hut and pick them up once we returned from the peak. It’s 1 mile round trip to top of Madison. The four of us began upwards and eventually found the true summit after a bit of disagreement. The panoramic view from the top of Madison in the crisp morning air was something I’ll never forget. To the north, it felt like we could see all of New Hampshire’s mountains and hills. And to the south, the ridge-line extended all the way to the midpoint of Mount Washington’s bald, dome-like summit. We headed down trail at 8AM and it was full steam ahead, back to the hut to dawn our packs again, and then onto Mount Adams.
Thinking the shorter route would be better to take, we passed the pristine Star Lake and headed up the Star Lake Trail. The further we hiked up the trail, the more and more exposed the trail became. Though, nothing unsafe or crazy, the side of the mountain dropped off a thousand feet to our left resulting in an expansive view of the Carter Dome ridge-line and Wildcat Ski Area. As our pace began to slow down with the ever increasing degree of the slope, we realized how difficult this trail had become. The pitch increased so much that we needed to lean forward and crawl up the rocky trail. Slowly but surely, we made it through one rock field after the next and onto the jagged top of Mount Adams. Just 0.8 miles from the Madison Hut, we took our summit selfies at the top of Adams at 11:20AM while we waited for our hiking buddies to meet us. Having no time to waste, we immediately headed south and onto our next objective, Jefferson.
By this point, we had been on the move for about 6 hours, and the July sun had finally warmed up the air on the ridge. Constantly eating granola bars and fruit snacks, I was already at the point of insatiable hunger that would last me the rest of the day. Only 2 miles separated us from the peak of Jefferson, but traveling on the rocky terrain with a 40 lbs pack really hinders any sort of fast pace. In that two miles, the distance between our friends and us began to increase. Court and I began to worry about what this meant for our schedule and potential sleeping arrangements. See, we were entering the point of no return for places to make camp, and it wasn’t looking good.
There are about 5 options for camping during a 2-day, Southbound Presi Traverse. The goal is obviously to go as little out of your way as possible when making camp so that you don’t have to tack on more miles and elevation than you have to. Since after Jefferson, the treeline is further and further down trail, more miles would be required to hike to make camp down below treeline. Our original plan was to make it to the base of Mt. Eisenhower at mile 15, where the treeline came back up to the trail and finding a spot would be easy. Otherwise, we would have to cut our day short at mile 8 at the Sphinx trail where a spot to camp is easily found close to the trail; however, that would leave us with 12 miles to complete on the following day. Not taking into consideration how fatigued we would be after hiking the previous day, it’d still take us 8-12 hours to complete the remainder of the traverse not counting the 4.5hour drive home afterwards (not ideal). Our other options were to head down the Jewell Trail before Washington, Tuckerman’s Ravine after Washington, or the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail near the lake of the Clouds. Each would add at least 2 miles round trip and another 1K-2K of elevation. Still shooting for our original plan, we realized that all of us might not make it that far in the daylight.
Still separated, Court & I were almost cresting the top of Jefferson while still in view of the trail behind us. There was a fork in the trail that either went around the summit loop or over it. Planning to make the difficult decision and tell our friends to go around, we tried to get their attentions when they came into view at the fork. We never got it; but as luck would have it, they went around. Optimistic about our chances to make camp tonight, we quickly summited Jefferson at 2:00PM where a group of people all sat and ate lunch. We decided to follow the trend and eat a delicious snack of Jack Links beef jerky while taking shelter from the wind behind an 8 foot tall Carin. Slowly beginning to feel the exhaustion creep in, we headed down to the ridge line trail and set our sights onto the midpoint that now towered above and ahead of us. Mount Washington was now 2.3 miles away.
When the summit loop trail met back up with the main trail we rejoined with Eddie & Courtney. We wanted to figure out how they were feeling and how far they thought they could make it by nightfall. Less hopeful, they were shocked to hear we had already eaten our lunch at the top of Jefferson and were planning to pass through Mt. Washington after we refilled our camelbacks. Rather than making any decision at that point, they told us they’d eat some food real quick, push on, and then make a decision at the top of Mt. Washington to go from there or not. So we hiked ahead, now passing more and more people out for day hikes and the tourists who went for a small hike down from the summit. Passing Mt. Clay, we could see our last bit of uphill in sight. We crossed the train tracks of the infamous Cog Rail and ground out that last 0.3 miles to the “joyous” summit. But anyone who’s been up there knows how far from “joyous” the top of Mount Washington is for those who earned their way up.
We reached the top of Mount Washington at 5:33PM and witnessed more crowds than I had ever seen on the summit before. The line for the actual summit must have been 50-60 people long, and not a single backpack was to be found on any of them. Skipping the true summit, we headed into the visitors center to refill our waters as planned. Figuring we had time to kill, we indulged in some hot soup and candy from the food court (when in Rome, right?), before heading back out. Right on time, we ran into our friends who told us that they had decided to not to go on with the rest of the traverse. They made an incredibly tough decision and chose to take the Cog Rail down and try to Hitchhike back to their car at the trailhead. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved, but at the same time I felt completely dreadful. I was bailing on my friends. I was such an a$$ for convincing them to come on this trip, only for me to leave them. Wasn’t the goal of this trip to finish or to finish all together? This moment haunted me for the rest of our traverse, and still does today. But with little time to debate, we still took a photo at our own summit facing north to the view of what we hiked earlier that morning and then said our goodbyes.
Court and I hopped onto the Crawford path towards the Lake in the Clouds as the sun began to creep lower and lower in the sky. Concerned with our own pace, we tried to compare our trail times to that of the guide we had printed out. The guide said we’d make it down from the summit of Washington to the Lake of the Clouds Hut in about 30 minutes, and it took us about 40 minutes. So we knew we were close to the pace. We quickly tried to adjust our pace to the times in the guide and figured we had enough time to make it to Eisenhower before sunset at 8PM since it was only 6:30PM. As we passed by the Lake of the Clouds Hut, sounds of laugher and the clanging of food dishes filled the air. Everything in my body wanted to stop right there to join them over a few beers and recount our day’s struggle and successes, but we had to push on.
Climbing up the steep, but surprisingly well-maintained, trail to the summit of Monroe, we stood on the top by 7PM. Now in the golden hour of light, the white mountains of New Hampshire all shined with a wonderful golden warmth. The colors of the reds and oranges in the soil lit up the landscape for miles all around. It was a perfect moment, knowing we were past the half way point on our traverse and only having a little over 2 miles until we could rest our heads for the night. I was all smiles from ear to ear as we climbed down from the Monroe Summit loop and began to see fellow backpackers making their camps for the night. In the distance, we could pick out bright colored tents nestled on the shoulder of Mount Washington’s South face and Mount Monroe’s east facing shoulder. All of which are far above a treeline. At the moment, on my high horse, I couldn’t understand why people would disregard the strict backcountry camping protocol at such an early time of day with so much light left to hike.
We crested the summit of the unofficial Mount Franklin at 7:46 with talks of what we’d be having for dinner. Would it be a rice pack, buffalo chicken burritos, or just some jerky and granola bars. The sun was now inches above the horizon, illuminating the world perfect shades of purples and blues. My finger never left the shutter of my camera as I could not stop taking photos in the most incredible light I’ve ever seen. We only had a mile to go when it happened. Once the sun set completely below the horizon, the temperature in the alpine zone began to drop drastically. And simultaneously, Court was hit with a wave of exhaustion to the likes of which I had never seen. I constantly reassured her she could make it one more mile to the trail that would drop us below treeline where we’d make camp. But then she looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Zach, I don’t care. I need to stop now.” At that moment I knew it was serious. She had hit her point of exhaustion and there was nothing that could be done to fix it except stop and keep her warm.
I ran ahead to try and find a spot, climbing up and around every large boulder near the trail to find a 6 foot by 3 foot plot of round that was flat enough for our tent. I didn’t care what a ranger would say to us if she found us trying to make camp up here. Eventually, the trail had a grassy drop-off on the east side that looked just big enough for a tent. We slid down, quickly unpacked the tent and our sleeping bags. Erected our two person backpacking tent and jumped in as quickly as possible, right as the wind began to pick up and whip across the ridge. In a matter of, what felt like 10 minutes, the temperature dropped from a reasonable 60 degrees, down to 40. Court was shaking from the cold and I couldn’t seem to help at all. I attributed it to the lack of calories since we still had not eaten dinner, but she was too cold and tired to stomach anything else for the night. Luckily, she had candy still in her jacket pocket that she was able to consume and she was able to warm back up enough to stop shivering in her mummy sleeping bag.
All night, the wind whipped and smacked the tent. If I had any plans of sleep that night, they were quickly dashed within the first hour of lying there. Plus, I think we were both so nervous of a ranger catching us that we kept thinking ever sound were footsteps coming for us. Luckily, the ranger never came, and we got up before the sun at 5AM. We quickly broke down our tent in the fridge morning air, and began to make our oatmeal breakfast. A true breakfast of champions on a cold morning in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As we threw our packs over our shoulders and took that first step, we both realized how sore we were. At the same time, we realized how fortunate we were to only have about 6 more miles to go on that Sunday morning instead of the 12 we could have been left with.
Hopping onto the Eisenhower loop trail, the peak became illuminated with the rising of the sun. We reached the cold summit of Mount Eisenhower at the prompt time of 6:21AM where the wind whipped top lay barren of any vegetation. It made the summit look way cooler in pictures. Continuing with our trajectory, there was no time to enjoy the summit and we were back on the trail headed for the last peak of the Presidential traverse, Mount Pierce. Only 1.3 miles ahead of us, the elevation really drops off on the surrounding peaks. Most lay below 4,000 feet, we descended further and farther until we reached treeline. For the first time in two days, we were now on a trail that the trees shadowed over us. It was a claustrophobic feeling, not being able to see all around you anymore. But the feeling was soon lost as we reached the final fork in the trail. We dropped our packs and nearly ran up to the summit of Pierce without the weight that we’d come so accustomed to holding us back. Alas, the final summit. A patch of rock and dirt surrounded by evergreen trees to the south, and an incredible view of the entire ridgeline facing north. We’d done it. All that was left was the 4 mile downhill trek to Crawford Notch and back to our car.
After years of planning and hoping, we’d finally pushed ourselves to the end and it was completely worth it. To say it was the hardest single event I’ve ever done would be an understatement. But when I look back at pictures from this trip, I can’t help but hear that little voice in the back of my head telling me I should do it again!