Standing on the SE side of Mt. Monroe, we stared ahead at the path in front of us. The cairns had suddenly ended, and their trajectory led us directly over an icy slope to the southern base of Mt. Monroe. I thought to myself, “this can’t be right.” After checking the map, looking at a compass, and consulting Google Maps on our phones, we discovered that the path did indeed lead directly over the icy slope. It wasn’t until much later, when I was back in the comfort of my home, that I stumbled upon this quote from a 1969 AMC White Mountain Guide:
Do not attempt to pass Mt. Monroe to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. The Crawford Path slabs the SE side of Monroe; in winter this face is generally a sheer slope of hard snow, reaching far down into Oakes Gulf, and it is difficult and dangerous to cross.
I dug into the snow and ice with my axe a bit to test the stability; my main concern was the angle of the snow and its willingness to slide down into the Oakes Gulf as soon as we stepped onto it.
To our good fortune the slope was almost entirely ice and coated by a thin layer of crunchy snow. If there was ever an avalanche-prone section of terrain, this wasn't it. Darkness was coming, and faced with the other options of descending the Ammonnousac trail with 8” of new snow without snowshoes or descending the technical Tuckerman Ravine section under potential darkness, we decided to push across the slab. Gripping our axes tight with our adrenaline pumping, we traversed the slope and made it to the Southern base of Mt. Monroe without issue. After taking a couple minutes to allow our heartbeats to slow and our knees to stop shaking, we began walking again.
The going was slow and our feet were killing us, but we kept moving. We hit the base of Eisenhower around dusk, watched the final glow in the sky disappear above the lights of Bretton Woods Ski Resort, and decided that it wasn’t safe to be above treeline after dark in potential low-visibility conditions. We opted to bypass Mt. Eisenhower via the Crawford Path. Being one of the most traveled trails in the Presidentials, I figured it would be tracked in at least a little bit.
It may have been previously tracked in, but NW winds and the 8” of new snow that we had over the day had loaded the entire SE side of the mountain. The snow was waist-deep at times, and the depth of the snow made it near impossible to spot any trail or markers. Our pseudo-bushwhack went very slow as we continually found ourselves off-trail with a wall of trees in front of us. We kept moving in the right direction, relying on maps, compasses, and iPhones when possible.
As the sun went down I started to get very uncomfortable. I didn’t view us as in any real danger, but after approximately 10 hours of hiking, I simply wasn't happy to be post-holing on the side of a 4,000 footer only by the light of our headlamps. David, on the other hand, was completely in his element.
The dynamics of having David as a hiking partner were rewarding and comforting. Both being driven individuals, we pushed each other to even do this in the first place. But when any pair is put to a test in a challenging environment it’s bound to not be smiles all the time. Our compatibility was really tested when we found ourselves in difficult situations; when one of us started feeling uncomfortable it was up to the other person to be strong and help the other through it, either by talking them down or by leading by example.
It was David’s turn to take the reigns. I was freaking out, and David calmly kept pushing on (while probably thinking “why the hell is Brent making such a big deal out of it being dark?”) We pushed around Eisenhower, found ourselves above tree line for a small section, and finally headed into cover.
At this point the path to the Highland Center is fairly straightforward. It’s essentially just a ridge walk with barely any elevation change. In the summer the trail is marked by white AT blazes, and the path is very clear and easy to follow.
But like every section we had encountered since descending Washington, what should have been a straightforward walk turned into a more difficult adventure. The gaps between the trees that are very evident in the daytime become quite difficult to see by the light of headlamp. At times we would find ourselves with no cairns or markers in site; we would wander around until one of us found the way.
Once again the frustration crept up in me. We were moving and now that we were in the trees we weren’t in any danger, but progress was so slow that it felt like we would be up there for another 4 hours. At this point we were also talking much less, as both of us were so exhausted that there didn’t seem like there was much to talk about besides our thoughts of bacon cheeseburgers.
We found ourselves in the middle of a clearing searching for the trail, once again. I screamed out in frustration, and just sat down in the snow. I was so done with the Presidential Traverse. My mind drifted to thoughts of sitting around a fire drinking hot chocolate. I wanted nothing more than to just sit down. We were so close, but I just… wanted... to stop... walking…
“I found the trail,” David yelled out. I slowly stood up, composed myself, and met him at the clearing in the trees. At this point we came across a pair of snowshoe tracks and followed it whenever we could. The compressed snow made for easy traveling, but when we would wander just a couple feet off the trail we would sink down to our hips. Many swears later, we would be back on trail and walking along at what felt like a decent clip.
We finally arrived at our next marker, the intersection of the Webster Cliff Trail and the Crawford Path. From here, the summit of Mt. Pierce is about 500 feet up Webster Cliff Trail, a quick scramble that normally would have marked the final summit of a successful Presidential Traverse. We both looked at each other and said, “nope, fuck that.”
The descent down the Crawford Path was painful. My feet were swollen and my toes were slamming into the front of my boot as we descended. We were both parched, but knowing the Highland Center was just a couple miles away, we decided to keep pushing rather than stopping to melt snow. We chatted more in this section than we had done the entire day leading up to this descent. It made the miles go by much faster.
Around 11pm, we finally walked out of the woods across the street from the Highland Center and cheered. We had made it.
We meandered into the building, asked if they would be so kind as to open the kitchen so we could get some water, and drank to our heart’s content.
“Where are you guys coming from?” the host at the entrance asked us, with a quizzical expression on his face.
“We just finished a Presidential Traverse,” we said. We were met with an appalled look.
After thanking the host, we slowly wandered the 1/4 mile back to the car, got in, and headed back to the hotel. But first, we stopped at McDonalds to get some cheeseburgers. A lot of cheeseburgers.
(to be continued, once more)