It was dark. We were out of fresh water and out of food. My feet, swollen in their plastic mountaineering boots, had been hurting for the last 8 hours. We were lost, wandering around a clearing trying to find a trail through the evergreens by the light of our two headlamps. We had just post-holed and bushwhacked for 45 minutes trying to bypass Mt. Eisenhower and we still had 5 miles to go. All I wanted to do was to sit down and cry from exhaustion and frustration. This wasn't the Presidential Traverse either of us had in mind when we left the trailhead at 8am on Easter.
I honestly can't remember what inspired David and I to do the Presidential Traverse. I guess if you look at enough Jimmy Chin photos, you’re bound to want to try a crazy adventure sooner or later.
I grew up around snow and have been skiing or snowboarding since I was 7, but at that point I hadn’t done a massive amount of winter hiking aside from backcountry skiing and snowshoeing Tuckerman’s, Washington, or miscellaneous mountains throughout NH. David is from a completely different background. He has been a competitive athlete his entire life, but his passions previously involved more liquid water and less snow and ice. However, if I had learned anything over the past 4 years of knowing David, it was that he was always game for anything. To put it in perspective, there aren’t many people in this world who would photograph an event with me from 10am-10pm then get in a car and drive 7 hours to another event, sleep for 10 minutes, then shoot another 4 hours with me. David had done exactly that.
Both being sports photographers, we had both simultaneously decided we wanted to explore the world of adventure photography. After geeking out over many jaw-dropping photos via Facebook messenger, we concluded that in order to be adventure photographers we should actually engage in some ridiculous adventures. We also realized that the best adventure photos were shots of things very few people had the chance to witness personally. A Presidential Traverse over some of the tallest mountains East of the Mississippi in winter seemed like a great place to start.
After months and months of watching the forecast, scoping out a window, planning our route, coordinating our schedules, and training with the correct gear for traveling above tree line, our opportunity finally came. We decided we would attempt the two-day traverse starting on Easter Sunday and finishing the next day on April 6th. The forecast was calling for mostly clear skies but colder temperatures and stronger winds for Sunday, so we decided to get a later start and complete most of the elevation gain and approximately 1/3 of the traverse (Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams) the first day. We would sleep at a shelter maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club on Sunday night then get an early start the next day and complete the remaining 2/3 (Mt. Washington, Mt. Monroe, Mt Eisenhower, and Mt. Pierce) before sundown. The weather was forecast to be cloudier with a chance of snow on Monday, but lower wind speeds and higher temperatures.
The first day went according to plan. We summited Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams in high winds under a bright sky, then headed to the RMC Perch for a projected early arrival. We descended down the SW side of Adams until we hit tree-line; at this point we came to a halt.
We had neglected to bring snowshoes in order to save on weight and move a bit faster across the wind-blown peaks, but none of the trails leading to the Perch were even remotely tracked in. It’s true what they say about hindsight.
After struggling, swearing, and sweating to move a little less than a mile over an hour, we finally reached The Perch and the broken-in trails surrounding this little slice of heaven. After eating our meals, watching the sunset over the ridge, and planning the next day, we headed to bed.
Monday started very slowly. It was warm inside our bags, but single digits outside. Just as we had expected, the winds outside had died down a bit. This was perfect, and was the reason we had decided to summit Mt. Washington today rather than the previous day.
The thought of having to struggle back up to the top of the Edmands Col before pushing on towards Jefferson loomed. Once we finally got moving after eating breakfast and melting snow for drinking water, we were behind-schedule and feeling a tad sore. We backtracked a bit on the broken-in trails to ascend closer to tree line and avoid the same post-holing adventure we had encountered the day before.
We quickly discovered we were both moving much slower than the previous day. After struggling on some technical terrain on the col, we started the approach towards Jefferson as the clouds rolled in. We tagged Jefferson, the winds and snow picked up a bit, and we began the slog towards Washington.
It hadn’t quite become white out conditions, but the swirling snow and clouds made it difficult to see more than one cairn at a time, and as such there was a lot of stopping and evaluating directions. Eventually we came upon The Cog Railway and used it as a guide towards the summit. We kept pushing, knowing that we would soon be done the hardest part, but still wondering when the uphill would end.
The enormous Mt. Washington communications tower suddenly appeared through the snow, looming over us. We had made it to 6,288 feet. We were both so happy to be done with Washington that we quickly popped a couple ibuprofens, grabbed a selfie at the summit, and began our descent towards the Lakes of the Clouds AMC hut.
It wasn’t until we reached the hut that we took a moment to stop and assess our situation. I had a Nalgene full of spring water, but as I went to drink it I realized that, despite keeping my water filter inside my jacket, the membranes had frozen up. As we started digging through our packs for more food, we also came to the sudden realization we had left our extra bars and gels in a duffel bag in the back of the car. A quick check of the clock showed that it was much later than we thought. Nonetheless, we decided that we were capable of pushing onwards. If we moved quickly, we could be below tree line before dark. If we needed water, we would melt snow. We would ration what little food we had left.
David’s knee was in some pain and he didn’t feel comfortable going up Monroe, so I sprinted up the short ascent to the summit, then backtracked and met David at the base. We decided to bypass Monroe, and in doing so encountered the scariest moment of our Presidential Traverse.
(to be continued, dun dun dunnnnnn!)