Presidential Traverse: Redemption (Part 1)

On April 6, 2015, around 11:15PM, David Savoie and I stumbled into the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, in the middle of a snowstorm. We were out of food, out of water, and our feet were screaming in pain. We both agreed that we would never do the Presidential Traverse again.

Less than a year later, at 3:45 am on February 8th, 2016, we both climbed out of David’s VW Jetta at the Appalachia trailhead on the Northern end of the Presidential range. Despite all the suffering of 2015’s attempt, David and I were back for another attempt.

Earlier this season, as I started planning out my tentative itinerary for the 48in1winter goal, David was quick to jump in and say he wanted to give the Presidential Traverse another shot. It would serve as redemption for both of us, as well as a great opportunity to knock off up to 8 4kers in one go. We spent many hours discussing where we had gone wrong the past year and where we could make improvements to our itinerary. The biggest change would be the timing. Because weather is so hard to predict in the Presidentials, turning the traverse into a one-day hike seemed like a smarter plan; it provided less of an opportunity for the weather to take a dangerous turn.

By the middle of January we decided on a weather window of February 4th to 12th. David arrived at my house on the 4th and we eyed the 5th and 8th as potential dates. The weather for the 5th was looking above average for February, but not pleasant. Alternatively, all extended forecasts were calling for a relatively calm day on the 8th, with low easterly winds and clear skies turning to clouds as the day went on. Assuming that the forecast stayed the same, Monday would be our day. On Sunday morning we awoke to a great prediction from the Mount Washington Observatory calling for calm and dry conditions. Round 2 was a go.

We packed all of our gear and headed North. After leaving my car on Route 302 in Crawford Notch I hopped in David’s car and we drove to our hotel in Gorham, NH. After a trip to grab dinner and last minute supplies, we were exhausted from nervous energy and ready to hit the hay.

At 2:45am, our alarms started ringing. We filled our bottles with boiling water, finished stuffing our backpacks, and donned the gear we would be wearing for the day. There wasn’t much talking going on amongst the bites of microwaved sandwiches and bananas on the short drive to the trailhead. Both of us were nervous about the task that lay ahead of us. Last year it had kicked our ass.

10 minutes after pulling out of the hotel, we parked the car in the Appalachia parking lot, next to four other cars. We sat inside the warm car for a couple minutes, relishing the last bit of warm shelter we would have for 16 hours. Taking one last glance at the thermometer reading 13 degrees, we stepped outside to face the cold, windy air.

The Valley Way Trail is not the most difficult trail in the White Mountains, but it’s certainly not a walk in the park. The trail rises about 1,000 feet per mile for a little over 4 miles until it levels out at the Madison Spring Hut. The ground under our feet was a mixture of hard-packed snow and slippery sections of ice, and we found ourselves stepping gingerly to avoid the latter. Eventually David paused to put crampons on, but I left mine off. I wanted to keep my feet happy for as long as possible.

One by one the miles fell away under the light of our headlamps. The pace was deliberate and we were moving faster than the previous year. Even as we motored along, we heard a small crew cruising up behind us. We stopped to let them pass, and took a few minutes to chat. The group of three was also planning on a Presi Traverse. We wished them good luck, and as they quickly walked away they yelled, “see you at the Madison hut!”

Not long after our encounter, David stopped to fiddle with his gear and told me to go ahead. He knew that I had to still get my crampons on, so we agreed to meet at tree-line. I turned and headed uphill.

I soon came across the group of three, stripping out of their wet clothes, changing into dry shirts, and adding more layers before they hit tree-line. A little ways up the trail I stopped to do the same. I broke out the chemical hand warmers, put another layer on, donned my Gore-Tex shell, put my goggles on, switched to my warmer gloves, and attached my crampons. If all went according to plan, this would be the only wardrobe change I would make until we hit tree-line on the Southern end of the Presidentials.

David soon came up behind me and together we headed towards the Madison Spring Hut. It was a little concerning that the group of three hadn’t passed us again. They had been moving at a very quick pace when we saw them, and I had taken about 10 minutes to change into my gear. David and I chatted about it as we were reaching the hut, and hoped they had just decided to take a longer break.

Arriving at the hut, we dropped our packs, stuffed a couple Clif bars and other supplies in our pockets, and started the ascent of Madison.

Our crampons were not suited for the approach. Normally in the winter, the ascent can be a little rocky at times, but most of it is filled in with snow and ice. Due to the minimal amount of snow that had fallen, the ascent had turned into a rock scramble.

One of the main problem-points we had targeted from last year’s suffer-fest was Mt. Madison; it had taken us a full hour to ascend Madison from the hut, and another full hour to descend. We had decided that this mountain could serve as a great place to make up a bunch of time, but here we were, stumbling over rocks in crampons at a very slow pace.

As we fumbled our way up, the crew of three passed us once again. As they passed, one of the guys told us what happened. When they had stopped to change clothes he couldn’t seem to get his fingers warm again, and they spent so long trying to warm his hands up that by the time he was ready to go his toes were dangerously cold. But nonetheless, they had soldiered on and now everyone was in good spirits as they scrambled up the side of the first peak of the day.

We followed a moderate distance behind their group as they reached the summit first and then quickly turned around and headed back down, loudly yelling over the gusts, “this sure doesn’t feel like the predicted 20mph wind!”

I watched proudly as David made his way to the top. The previous year, David wasn’t feeling comfortable enough with the strong winds to walk all the way to the summit, so this was his first time standing atop Mt. Madison. We quickly celebrated the first 4ker of the day, then headed down.

The pace was slow-going on the way down as well, but we eventually made it to the bottom to chat with the group of three once again. We wished them well as they took off for Adams, and one of them joked that we would be leapfrogging each other the entire day. Later on we would see them ascending Jefferson in the far distance, but our conversation at Madison would be the last time we would talk to them.

David and I drank some water, ate some food, and reassembled our packs. The weather report had predicted clear skies and light winds for the AM out of the east. We had hoped for a great sunrise on the top of Madison, but it had never materialized and grey clouds already surrounded us as far as the eye could see.

We pushed on from the Madison Spring Hut and began our ascent to Mt. Adams via the Airline Trail. Much like Mt. Madison, Adams was covered with large rocks that drastically slowed our approach.

Deliberate step after deliberate step, we made our way up the side of mountain, trying to find patches of snow or ice to dig our crampons into. Halfway up, a golden retriever came sprinting down, eager to greet us. After some enthusiastic petting, he began to roll around joyfully in the snow as his owner swung by to say hi. After we exchanged a few pleasantries, the two of them went on their way and we continued up.

Pushing our way over and around each rock, we continued scrambling up the side of Adams until we were standing at the summit. Checking my watch, I realized that despite our slow footwork, we were still only about 30 minutes behind our target pace.

As we descended the icier side of Adams, both of us started to feel a little stronger. The first third of a Southerly Presidential Traverse is tough; it's almost all uphill until you hit Adams. However, past Adams is a fairly long stretch of rolling terrain. We took this time to get our heads in the right place, snap some photos, and start chatting some more.

As we walked, I was struck by the difference between last year’s conditions and this year’s. Rocks, grass, and bare ground was visible everywhere we looked. We walked between 6-foot tall evergreens that had only existed as hidden spruce traps last year. The cairns, often buried in 2015, were visible for miles. And while the minimal snowpack made for fast travel, it also reminded me just how disappointing this winter has been.

We made quick work of the two miles between Mt Adams and the base of Mt. Jefferson, and we soon found ourselves standing in the raging winds at the Edmands Col, looking up at our ascent to Mt. Jefferson. In summer the trail is steep but relatively easy to follow, however in the winter the northwesterly winds wind-load the entire east side of Jefferson with dangerous sections of snow. Last year, the massive amount of fresh snow gave us pause and massively delayed our progress. This year, due to the minimal snowfall, we were able to ascend directly up the trail and safely cross the snowfield.

Once we made it past the steeps, we slogged on towards Jefferson. Some people may love Jefferson, but neither of us do. The approach from the east is long and continuous and there are multiple false summits along the way.

We eventually reached the rock pile, cheered, and sprinted up to the small hill just behind. Enjoying the view and the strongest winds of the day thus far, we took a summit photo then butt-slid back down to the summit cairn.

We were both looking forward to Jefferson lawn, a very flat section of rocks and ice just south of the summit. In 2015 we had been able to gain a lot of time here, and by moving quickly we both were able to warm up. The same proved to be true for this year. We sped along the lawn while occasionally looking up at Mt. Washington ahead of us, keeping an eye on our target.

To be continued in part 2