Trip Report: 2013 Presidential Traverse

I set two main goals for backpacking this summer:

  1. A presidential traverse yo-yo where I backpack the traverse from Highland Center, camp at Dolly Copp Campground, and traverse back the next day
  2. A one-day pemi loop
My attempt at the traverse yo-yo happened on July 4-5.  I had set the date several months ahead of time and done a lot of preparation.  My previous attempt at a traverse was pretty successful and was quite pleasant all around.  I figured that even though I was setting the bar a lot higher with the back-to-back traverse, with more preparation and my previous experience I would be up for the challenge.  The main thing I came to realize though was that tweaking a few variables actually made for a much harder hike.
In particular, the main differences were:
  1. I was carrying an actual 25 pound backpack vs. a 5-10 pound daypack
  2. It was raining with afternoon thunderstorms and had rained for a couple days
  3. I was hiking the traverse South to North
  4. I was including Webster and Jackson peaks
Any one of those things wouldn’t have been a serious problem, but altogether they made it a much more challenging experience that ultimately ended in “failure”.  For readers attempting this hike, I would advise at least for a first attempt to do none of the above things.

2013 Presidential Traverse at EveryTrail

Trip stats

Distance: 26 miles
Total time: 17 hours
Weight: 25 pounds max (with water + food)

I woke up at 3:30am at the Highland Center in a nice queen bed.  I had lucked out and gotten upgraded to a suite.  Unfortunately, I was in it for less than 12 hours so it was a bit wasted on me.  I was pretty anxious, like I generally am before a hike so I quickly filled my 3L platypus and headed out to my car for breakfast.  I found that I didn’t have much appetite at that early hour so I just popped electrolyte tablets into my water, took two gel packs, turned on my GPS and my music, and started the hike.

I had just started experimenting with electrolyte tablets with a few training hikes.  I get really bad muscle cramps after a couple hours of strenuous hiking and am always looking for ways to avoid them.  My latest theory was that it was exacerbated by hyponatremia so I was trying to never intake straight water.  In general, the experiment with them turned out pretty well but they didn’t prevent the cramps.

I was rocking a headlamp because it was pretty dark, especially under the trees, but still made pretty good time because I was so pumped up.  I was going up via Webster Cliffs to attempt the extra Webster and Jackson mountains since I hadn’t bagged them the year before.  Common perception these days online and from the hikers I met is that they are not part of the mainline “Presidential Traverse”.  I feel like they are still part of the range though and so it takes away a bit to not do them.  But they are a bitch going up compared to Crawford Path (the more common path to Mount Pierce).

About an hour into it my stomach started burning.  I think I had chosen poorly with the gel shots and there was just too much acid going on.  But I pushed on, planning to have my more hearty breakfast of tortilla and peanut butter at the first summit, Mount Webster.  I got scared by a couple of deer near the summit but otherwise it was an uneventful summit.  Clouds covered most of the top but occasionally you got glimpses of what was probably an awesome view without the clouds of the Crawford Notch.  I had my peanut butter, tortillas, and prunes sheltered down a bit from the summit because the wind was uncomfortably strong.

Pressing on with a recovered stomach, I made awesome time to Mount Jackson.  The trail between the two is quite short and compared to the rest of the trail, pretty easy.  It was even cloudier at Jackson, so I snapped a quick picture and kept moving.  Near the summit was a spot where there was still snow in early July.  I don’t think that’s unusual for the Whites but it still surprises me every time I see snow on a warm summer day.

From Jackson you descend down the trail a bit to Mitzpah Spring Hut.  That’s where I ran into the first hikers that I had seen all down, going the opposite direction as myself probably from the hut.  There are three huts on the traverse, Mitzpah Spring, Lake of the Clouds, and Madison.  Depending on how you go, you may or may not pass Mitzpah, but it was a welcome resting point.  It was pleasant sitting outside the hut and listening to the hustle and bustle of breakfast being cleaned up and hikers packing up their stuff.  There was a southbound thruhiker hanging outside so we chatted a bit about footwear (he had sponsored shoes from Salomon which is what I was wearing) and pace.

Before I left, I spent a couple minutes mixing up my first bottle of Perpetuem.  This was another nutritional experiment like the electrolyte tablets.  While I probably am not to the athletic level to need to tune my carbohydrate intake to this degree, I thought it would be easier to have a measured intake of easily digestible calories to keep me going after I got into the fat burning phase of the hike.  I had been going hard for 3-4 hours already so at this point your body starts to do weird things with its digestion.  This powdered stuff is supposed to be the right concentration for your body at that point.  Anyway, it’s a bit hard to get used to mainly because I have not found a good way to mix it up completely so you’re always chewing on little powder chunks.  However, by the end of the hike this was about the only thing that I desired to consume while I was walking (possibly because it was in liquid form), so it clearly had something good going on.
The climb up to Mount Pierce was intense to start out but was much shorter than I remember it being climbing down it the year before.  I snapped another picture of a rock pile in the clouds and kept moving.
Between Pierce and Eisenhower is where you start to lose treeline.  It’s a little unnerving wandering above treeline in the clouds, but they didn’t feel very threatening and I knew there wasn’t supposed to be rain until the afternoon.  I was also distracted at this point because I had hit my wall.  My legs had begun their telltale sign that I’ve been using them harder than the muscles can handle.
Each hike it’s usually a slightly different muscle, but the quadriceps are obviously a popular one and this was the one that started tightening up in between leg raises.  At this point, I know that I can continue for maybe another half an hour at the same pace and then the muscle will completely cramp and will generally lead to a chain reaction that cramps other muscles.  In the worst case scenario, which has happened only once, I was completely incapacitated for about two hours lying prone on the ground.  Any movement that I made would rock my whole body in spasms, the worst being when my abs start to cramp.  I eventually had to crawl out to a road and hitchhike to my car.  I’ve been a lot more careful since that happened, both in hydration and in listening to my body.
With that in mind, I slowed down my pace.  Ironically, at about that same time I caught up with the first hiker I had seen going in my direction.  He was headed to Madison that day.  Even with a slower pace, we played leap-frog for a little bit and then I pulled ahead when he stopped at Lake of the Clouds.  He was not peak-bagging so I think he could have made it, but I was a bit worried for him given his pace. 
I also met a male-female pair of hikers going southbound who were worried that I wouldn’t beat the thunderstorms on the northern presidentials.  At this point, on Eisenhower, it was between 9 and 10 so that was a valid concern.  They were predicted to roll in the afternoon, but it’s hard to know whether that means 12:01 or 4:00.  I started to get worried but couldn’t really increase my pace.
Because of that, I barely ran up to the top of Franklin, didn’t pause going over Monroe, and smiled and waved as I walked past Lake of the Clouds, not stopping at any of them even to take a picture.  I may not have had a great pace, but a slower pace made it easier to not take breaks.  And the trail was only moderately difficult.  I met up with the only other Traverse attempt-er I met on my hike on the approach up to Washington.  We chatted for a bit about the traverse and the Webster/Jackson decision he would have to make coming from the north side, congratulated each other, and moved on.
As I approached Washington I had another more local concern.  Apparently, my choice to have prunes was a pretty bad one and I was struck by a pressing need to make it to a bathroom.  This alone carried me up the pretty tough rock climb up the final part of Washington.  I made it just in time, the whole while trying to figure out how I was going to take a dump above treeline without someone seeing.
I’ve been to Washington a number of times before and know several things about Washington:
  1. It will suck you in if you sit down and start relaxing, eating pizza and chili dogs.  These days I always eat my own food, use the facilities, fill my water, and move on.
  2. Don’t stand in the line to take a picture on the summit…you’re a real hiker, go stand on a mountain without a road
I had actually caught up on some time getting to Washington and found myself leaving only a bit after noon.  This was still an hour or two behind schedule, but I hadn’t lost more time.  I felt pretty awesome after my brief rest on Washington and pretty positive about my chances.  At this point, I was still planning on a second day, but I was going to skip Webster/Jackson on the way back.
As I approached Clay, the cloud systems started getting more interesting.  On one hand, there was more sun peaking through the clouds and I was able to start testing my new solar charger that I hang from my backpack.  On the other hand, the clouds were getting darker and moving very fast.

As I moved from Clay toward Jefferson, I remembered something.  The Northern Presidentials are much tougher than the southern ones.  I had known this going in, but you don’t really believe it until you gaze with tired eyes up an endless sea of boulders.  Or look at a steep downhill that quickly climbs back up to the same elevation you’re currently at.  The terrain is just much more wicked.  I had thought this the year before and then my legs had been much more fresh.  My legs this year were already painful, painful jello.
What did get me moving, however, was the group of high school students from Canada that came marching by.  Whenever I see a group of people who look like they just tumbled out of school and onto a mountain, I mentally give myself a kick in the pants.  Once when I was alternating between whining to myself and congratulating myself on a climb of Katahdin I came on this group of young girl scouts that had just done the same climb and were relaxing nonchalantly.  It made me feel ridiculous, not because of their physical ability but because of their less dramatic attitude.
If I was tormented by Jefferson, the worst was still yet to come.  Adams, in my opinion, is the worst mountain in the world.  Not only is it literally just a pile of boulders, but you come to the top and both of the years that I’ve done this, the top is covered in bugs.  I’m not sure if you can get a high enough resolution of the picture below to see them, but there are literally bugs on every rock.  Beetles, flies, all sorts.  I’m not sure what the deal is with this mountain but it appears to be plagued.
Then when you get to the top you then have to take a longer path down the other side on steep boulders.  If I had remembered this, I probably would have walked back the way I came and followed the bypass trail.  By this point in my hike I was really, really exhausted and mostly limping because of knee pain.  I had given up on actually doing the peaks again, but was planning on doing the traverse the second day without the peaks which would cut out a lot of the worst terrain.
I rolled into Madison Hut and took this really boring picture of the door and some one fixing the solar panels or something on the roof.  The hut was bustling with day hikers and people getting ready for dinner.  I still had a long hike before I had dinner so I didn’t sit there long but started up Madison as most people were coming down from an afternoon day hike.  It was a beautiful late afternoon.
Or at least it was when I started the climb.  I had pretty much given up on the thunderstorms and assumed that they were not going to happen.  About 100 yards from the summit, suddenly things looked very different than they had at the hut.  This big black cloud started coming toward me really fast from the west.
As some background, I had been seriously fretting about thunderstorms for the week before this hike.  I’ve never really been above treeline even in rain so the thought of being in a thunderstorm in the cloud is terrifying to me.  I had all sorts of elaborate ideas on how to outrun thunderstorms.  I don’t think I had realized that thunderstorms move VERY fast.  It would be like running from an avalanche down a mountain.  It’s not effective in the least, so you do actually have to make a different choice.
Turns out this was not a thunderstorm, but it was a torrential downpour.  I didn’t know that, however, and panicking almost killed myself in an attempt to get off the top of the mountain.  For future reference, as exposed as you feel on the actual ridge, you will not move very rapidly if you try to hike on the side of the ridge.  Because of my panic, I actually managed to miss my trail turn off (for the Daniel Webster Scout Trail) and proceeded to spend more time exposed on the ridge hiking down the Osgood Trail.
This wrong choice cost me a couple miles when I figured this out and almost an extra hour.  By the time I got to the registration window at Dolly Copp Campground, it was 9pm and too many things had gone wrong.  One of my poles had broken, I was out of batteries early on my phone and GPS, and my zippers had broken on my pants.  I crawled into my sleeping bag content in the knowledge that I would not be hiking back the next day.


The next day I made it back around to Crawford Notch by hiking the six miles or so down Route 16 and getting the AMC shuttle back to Highland Center where I promptly locked my keys in the car and got to spend an extra couple hours sitting in the sun in the parking lot.  That was a nice capstone to a grueling experience.

Leave a Reply