Sunday, July 14, 2013

Epic Hikes: Presidential Traverse

Knocking off 7 of the 4000 footers in one day is a pretty tall order and was the mission for this latest hike through the presidential range in the White Mountains.  The wikipedia article on the traverse describes it as follows:

"The basic Presidential Traverse begins from a trailhead on U.S. Route 2 or at the Dolly Copp Campground at the northern end of the Presidentials, crosses the great ridge of the range and ends in Crawford Notch at its southern terminus, or vice versa. A hiker making such a journey would travel about 23 miles (37 km), with 9,000 feet (2,700 m) of elevation gain

John and Angelika formulated a training regimen that we started in April. It involved doing several variations of Mount Monadnock (including one in which we summited Mondadnock 3 times on the same day) and culminated in a day-long hike across the Wapack trail (21miles of relatively flat hiking) in the first week of June.

The second and third weeks of June were our window for this hike, the intention being to do it as close to the Summer Solstice as we could.  The first of these weekends had perfect weather but both Bruce and I had things on: for me it was an opportunity to shoot the USA Woman's soccer team playing S. Korea as one of two US Soccer official photographers and for Bruce a family gathering in Maine.

The next weekend promised terrible weather.  The forecast was for continuous lightning and golf-ball sized hail on Mount Washington.  This mountain has famously erratic weather and John (who has hiked this traverse 5 times now) remembers hiking in driving rain and sleet in late July several years ago so waiting for good weather seemed like a good idea.  There is also a fairly high death count - around 135 deaths since 1849 on Mount Washington - many of them from hyperthermia, so it is not a mountain to be taken lightly.

The few weeks after our designated window of opportunity featured one stormy weekend after the other and a trip to Europe for John.  Four weeks after our last "conditioning" hike, while John was in Europe, Bruce and I did Whiteface and Passaconoway to try to keep up some of the conditioning.  This proved to be an energy-draining hike for both of us and left me wondering about how well prepared we really were for this one.

This week we watched the weather and were dismayed to see predictions of 30% chance of thunderstorms for Saturday and Sunday all the way through the week.  Bruce proposed on Thursday that we should drive up to the hotel that John had reserved on Friday as planned - weather be damned - and see whether things improved by Saturday morning.  I met John at Einstein Bros. in Concord on Friday afternoon and we made our way up to the hotel from there.

The hotel turned out to be a rather nice Swiss Chalet-styled series of bungalows.

We had Pizza at the Flatbread Pizza companywhere one of John's nephews works, and we couldn't resist a beer.  Feeling a little apprehensive about my hydration, I nursed my beer along with a lemonade and ginger ale before we headed back to the hotel for an early night.

Flatbread make their thin crust pizzas in these ovens that were built on the premises and took weeks to burn in.  I was fascinated by how their pizza makers deal with the rather imprecise task of judging when open-fired pizzas are ready to eat.

The plan was to wake up at 3:15am and leave at 3:30 for a 4am start on the hike and we set the room alarm and my iPhone alarm (although my battery was so low that I turned the phone off thinking it would wake up to ring in the morning).

At 3:35am there was a knock on our door.  Neither of the two alarms had worked.  In the confusion John opened the door and pointed out to Bruce that I was still asleep while admitting that until a few seconds before, he had been too.

What followed was a rushed and somewhat confused flurry to get everything in the car.  I'd only realize this after the hike, but the gatorade that I had brought for extra hydration and energy was left in the little fridge in the room.

We arrived at the trailhead near the Dotty Cobb campground at 4:20am and set off in the dark up a reasonably even path towards Mnt Madison, the first peak in the list for the day.

If you read the description of the Presidential Traverse in wikipedia you'll see a list of the minimum peaks for this traverse.  These are the mountains in the Presidential range that count towards the list of 48 4000 footers.  For the purists there are a number of additional bumps that are included in the traverse, but more on that later...

Our trip up Madison was uneventful, excepting for my headlamp turning off after a couple of minutes and then not staying on for more than about 30seconds at a time.  I thought it may be the batteries - but the lights were not dimming.  Not wanting to stop, I ended up turning it off and using the very faint light of pre-dawn to see my way.  With the ground underfoot fairly even this was not too difficult and by the time it did become uneven and wet it was light enough to see clearly without the flashlight.  Bruce slipped off a wet log soon after it became light and sunk his one leg down to the knee in mud.  Fortunately the insides of his boot didn't get wet and we were able to carry on without interruption.

We were too late to see dawn on the top of Madison - which we would learn later was an amazing sight - but we did see the pre-dawn light through the trees on our way up.

Not much later we were treated to the sunrise through the trees.

Mount Madison is named for the fourth president, but due to a geological mis-calculation is not the fourth highest mountain in New Hampshire (as was intended).  It is the fifth highest at 5,367 ft being only a few feet shorter than Mount Monroe which we were to climb in the second half of the day.

The climb is sustained and steep and is the hardest and longest climb of the day.  John pointed out later in the day when I asked that this is the reason for tackling the traverse in this direction, to get the hardest hiking over in the morning.

There are a couple of bumps and lookouts on the way up to Madison where we stopped to look back over where we had been.  The morning light and mist in the valley made for breathtaking scenery.

On the way, we transitioned into the Alpine zone.  This came with dire warnings about the deaths from exposure on this ridge and also a change in vegetation.  The plants at this altitude experience severe weather and you can tell by their stunted appearance that they get lashed by strong winds and extreme cold.  The little bushes are very resilient though and are quite beautiful in their bent and stunted forms.

One of the advantages of hiking at this altitude is that the bushes are no more than knee height so the views on either side are spectacular on days like this one.

Similarly there are small flowers that seem to be able to live in these harsh conditions.

Another of the few opportunities to take in the view behind.

The view from close to the top of Madison was worth the pause.  The cairns on these mountains seem to be so lovingly constructed and a feature on this hike were the number of cairns with a bright white rock second from the top.

From the top there is a great view of Mount Washington in the backround with Mnt Adams to the right in the foreground.

John said that it was unusual to see so few people on Madison.  The Madison hut is not far from the summit and we soon saw a few hikers come up from the hut to take in the early morning views before breakfast.

We met a party of several hikers at the top who looked to be roughly our age (well, ok perhaps a little younger than us).  They had hiked up Madison and were on a mission to complete the traverse in one day like us and they set off ahead of us while we took a short break.

The Madison hut is the first of four places on this traverse that you can stop for sustenance.  John and Bruce had arrived there at 7am last year when they did the traverse and were not able to get coffee because breakfast was being served to the paying guests. This time John came armed with chocolate covered espresso beans just in case but because of our late start we arrived at the hut at around 7:20 in time to get a cup of coffee and a short sit-down before continuing on to Mount Adams.

We left before the party we had met on Madison.  We figured since we had caught up with them on the way to the hut we'd probably be moving a little faster than them.

On the way to Mnt Adams, the next on the list for the day and the second highest peak at 5,793 ft we came across a group of young hikers who were taking a break and who told is that they were also doing the Presidential traverse in a day.  I assumed that they would be hiking quicker than we were and let them go before us but it soon became clear that they were hiking at a fairly slow pace.

After some chatting it turned out that they had been hiking since midnight and were on their way to the second peak of 7 for the day.  I speculated as we moved past them that they would probably be back home later on talking about these gnarly old codgers with grey hair and craggy faces who walked past them early in the morning a few hours ahead of their schedule.

With some time to think on the ridge, it occurred to me how alien the notion of me being a gnarly old codger was and yet how easily the label could be applied.

At the top of Adams we met a woman, hiking alone who was also in the area to prepare for a mountain race (running race).  Her objective was to qualify to run up the road to Mount Washington.  What a run!

Mount Jefferson is the third tallest mountain in the range (3rd President) at 5712ft and it was with some concern that I saw how much of a dip there was between the ridge line and this peak.

Despite my reservations, we were soon at the foot of Jefferson, taking in some of the high energy jelly beans and some gatorade (Bruce came to my rescue when I couldn't find the bottle that I could have sworn remembering packing in my backpack).

My mental acuity was falling, though.  I was trying to remember the names of some movies - in particular a pretty bad cult movie that some colleagues had told me about (and fits into the generational category of "you had to be there" to appreciate it).  Now, a day later with more energy I remember "Buckaroo" and can find the movie name ("The adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th dimension") but at the time all I could come up with was "it's a something, something and the something else".  Even worse, I own a copy of the movie - given to me by a former colleague interested in my cultural education!

The athlete we met on Adams was hiking both Adams and Jefferson and then cycling back to her car.  She joined us in recollecting bad TV series from yesteryear including "Underdog".  Bruce surprised me by quoting sayings from the show about small pills in his ring and only now when I look it up on Google do I find out it was a cartoon dog!

The top of Jefferson is interesting.  A large cairn stands at the top of the trail with a pile of rocks to the right which we clambered up to be sure we did summit.

Here we met a third party who were doing the entire traverse.  Also young (college-aged) and who had been on the route since 12:30am and taking a much more leisurely pace than we were.  I calculated that it had taken them 10 hours to get here and us five and a half.

Lest we get too excited about our speed, Bruce had spoken to one of the caretakers at the Madison hut who had told us that one of their staff had gone from that hut to the last hut in the Presidentials (Mizpah Hut) and back in 6 hours.  We would reach Mizpah at 6pm after 13 hours and 45min of hiking.

From Jefferson there is a great view of Mnt Washington, the next on the list with Mnt Clay en route.

The walk from Jefferson to Mnt Clay is over fairly flat ground and offers a view of the Mount Washington Hotel, nestled in the valley below.  This hotel has fantastic views of Mount Washington.

A word about Mnt Clay and the other less significant Presidential traverse contenders:  The Presidential Traverse is said to include a number of minor peaks on the way that purists will describe as part of the traverse (and indeed might be good candidates if you are very fit and inclined to side trips).

For the record, though, these peaks are: Mnt Clay, named for a Senator from Kentucky; Mnt Jackson - not named for President Jackson but for a New Hampshire geologist, Charles Jackson; Mnt Webster named after an American statesman from New Hampshire; and Mnt Franklin named for the inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin.

So, although I agonized (just a little) over whether to take the Mnt Clay loop up to Mount Washington, I am now glad that I didn't.  I referred to him as a lesser president, not realizing at the time that he was a senator from some time back who no doubt deserved the recognition but seemed not worth extending a traverse that was already becoming hard.

The last mile up to Mount Washington - the tallest mountain in New Hampshire at 6288ft - was the hardest of the day.  In the image below you can see the towers and the visitor's center and the cog railway with one of the trains in the far distance.

The hiking wasn't particularly hard during this stretch but we had almost nine hours of hard walking behind us - my only sustenance: nuts, a bagel and some candy.  To make it worse, the water we filled up with in the Madison hut tasted of chlorine and left a bitter aftertaste and made me less inclined to take too many long drinks.

Bruce, whose natural gait is faster than mine, walked ahead of us - seemingly with a lot more energy than is good for you, but graciously waited for us to join him for the last short stretch into the welcome comfort of a bench in the cafetaria, where I had a delicious meal.

One thing that was a little disappointing on Mount Washington was that there was a line of about 30 people waiting for a photo opportunity at the sign marking the summit.  I didn't see any hikers among them and ended up just walking past the sign to "record" my summit instead of stopping for a photograph.  After hiking for 9 hours I didn't feel like standing in a line.

We looked at the timetable which John had of the "book time" for the hike and saw that we were around 20min early in the schedule but we didn't rest up for too long before heading down the Crawford path to the Lake in the Clouds hut on the way to our next destination, Mnt Monroe.

At around this time I was starting to feel some discomfort in my feet and my one knee which twinged occasionally when the step down resulted in a long swing of the leg.  Nothing too bad, just the beginnings of my body complaining about all the work I had put it through.

The Lake in the Clouds Hut is an easy downhill hike from Mount Washington and in a really lovely setting.
Beyond it is Mount Monroe - the 5th President who accidentally got the 4th highest peak at 5372ft.

Considering that if you had to pick off these peaks in a few separate trips how much elevation you would have to cover, doing it as a traverse is a bargain.  Of course the huts would make it a very pleasant two or three day hike but at $120 per person per night that is a pretty high price to pay.

Having trained and mentally prepared for doing it in one day, by this time in the hike, despite some aches and pains and fatigue, I was really enjoying the experience and Mnt Monroe was over before I even realized it.

The view back from Monroe over the Lake in the Clouds hut towards Mount Washington was very pretty with the greens really standing out in the slightly overcast afternoon.

The walk from Monroe to Eisenhower was along a fairly long stretch of more or less flat ridge.  This was very pleasant walking with great views on either side.

For some reason in a previous profile view of the hike, I had seen that Mnt Eisenhower had a big dip and steep climb before it.  It was pretty steep, but again after the day's activity it really seemed over before very long.

At the top of Eisenhower (4780 ft) we looked back at the path that we had taken and although the commentary by John is not really audible with the wind blowing, the video below is a review of the hike so far (illustrated in red on this image).

The last Mountain on the list is Mnt Pierce (4310 ft).  The NH locals call it "Clinton" after a NH Senator (not Bill Clinton).

John had said that you might not even realize you were hiking up it but it is a brutal end to the hike.  Brutal because it is quite a long stretch, back below the alpine zone and with an early false summit and the realization that we were running late.

We had predicted that we would be at the parking lot at 6:10pm but realized as we were going up Pierce that we would probably only make the Mitzpah Hut by 6pm if we were lucky.

We paused at the summit to record my 7th 4000ft peak for the day (I forgot to suck in my stomach)!

The walk down was steep and pretty painful.  I had some blisters from the Wapack trail that had healed but were starting to feel like I had a small stone under the ball of my foot.  Bruce walked at his pace, stopping to allow us to catch up, but John and I lumbered each in our own silent thoughts and pain.  In John's case - as it turns out - moving forward through sheer force of will and in mine finding my thoughts somewhat addled by fatigue and watching carefully where I placed each foot in fear of mis-steps.

As we neared the Mizpah hut we came across two men hiking - one with a large pack that still had the stapled instructions dangling from it.  One of them looked really beat - each step resulting in a heavy lean against the nearest tree.  I was grateful that I felt a little better than that but realized that it wasn't much better.

At the hut, dinner was almost ready and I had a couple of glasses of lemonade while Bruce called his wife to let her know that we were running late.

The last 2.6 miles were hard walking - fairly steep at first and then mostly even but on sore feet with legs that at one point felt like they might start cramping.

The car was a welcome sight and unlike my two fellow hikers I was ravenous - fantasizing about the various meals that I might be able to eat all the way back.

As it happened the Delis we visited were all closed until we came to one where the owner pointed us in the direction of Kringles which is open till nine.  Cheese burger with bacon and fries (hmmmm).

Ironically, as I mentioned to John and Bruce on the walk, hiking is not something that I have been driven to initiate - I can probably list on my fingers the few hikes I have initiated - but I have always been very happy to participate.

In this case I am not sure whether Bruce or John would have done the Presidential Traverse had it not been on my list of remaining 4000footers so I feel I owe them for the egging on and forward planning.

As it happens I have 9 4000footers left and it is a tribute to John's fortitude that, despite the pain in his legs and feet which left him almost unable to walk from the car to the Deli, he sat on a chair at the hotel cabin when we got back and opened his map to look for routes to Mnt Isolation which we saw has some of the paths closed following Hurricane Irene.

Roll on the next one!

Our GPS track shows the total distance as 17.96mi.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Epic Hikes: Passaconaway and Whiteface

Two more of the 4000ft high peaks in New Hampshire under the belt today but these didn't come without cost.

Like the Pemi-Loop that John and I did in 2011 the temperatures and humidity were way up.  In the valley, the temperatures got into the 90s (32C) and the humidity close to 80%.  Up in the mountains when we were hiking on the lee side it felt like the temperatures were in the 80s and there was no relief with humidity levels that high.

We started at 7am at Einstein Bros in Concord (pronounced like conquered not con-cord as my traveling companions were quick to point out each time I said the town name) and made the 90 minute drive up to the trailhead in early morning temperatures in the mid-70s.

Our friends, Mike and Tony joined us for the trip and though there was a bit of a breeze across the open field near the car park, we were already pretty overheated when we started out.

The hike actually starts on farm property, a lovely house nestled in under the Whiteface mountain behind it.

The breeze that seemed so promising was not blowing in the foothills though the hiking was relatively easy.  On a fall day it would be a very pleasant hike but in the heat I found myself wondering how well we would handle the relatively steep sections that were inevitable near the top.

The steep climbing was quite impressive with a wall followed by some rather large slabs.  There were plenty of places to hold on to and despite some concern over footing, we were able to get up these slabs rather easily after taking a bit of a break below them.

After this the going got tough.  The mountain is not much harder a climb than the many other 4000ft peaks we have done but the heat and humidity sapped our strength relentlessly to the point where there was a discussion about not doing the side trip to Passaconaway.

Being as close as I am to getting all 48 (32 done by the end of today) I found myself making insisting that I wanted to complete the hike as planned and at the junction after some hesitation everyone decided to go on to the final push.

To be fair, Mike had said all along that he was not sure about doing both peaks and Bruce has done them already.  Tony was somewhat indifferent, these being his first 2 of 48 (Bruce somewhat ruthlessly suggested that he should not count the peaks they had bagged during their college years if he does decide to go ahead and get them all).

Anyway, the short of it was that I was the only one who really felt the "need" to carry on so I took it as a very kind gesture from them all.

A small breeze had picked up along the ridge after Whiteface and some B12 and Omega3 chews from Mike, along with the gatorade that is now a constant supplement in my bag during hikes helped to fuel the last push.

We came down the Diceys Mill Trail and Mike pointed out that this section of the trail passes through some of the original forest.  Most of the woods in New England were cleared between the Settlers arrival in the 1800s and the 1930s.  The wood was used for timber for homes, textiles and paper over the years.  This section of the forest still houses trees that have been around for about 300 years.

We exited across a the river close to the farmsteads at the trailhead.  We were somewhat in a hurry to get to the car and the beer and thwarted Mike's desire to get his feet wet in the stream.

We "wet our whistles" instead in a tavern in the town of Merrill, NH and had sandwiches to keep the wolf from the door until we got home later.

Oddly, despite suffering through this we did it 30min shorter than John and Bruce had taken a year ago...

Another great, if hot, day in the hills.