Presidential Traverse: Redemption (Part 2)

In 2015, as David and I had started ascending the side of Mt. Clay, the exhaustion had hit me really hard and discouragement had set in. This year, our Presidential Traverse was an entirely different story.

My muscles were definitely moving a little slowly, but both David and I were easily powering around Clay. When we reached the base of the Mt. Washington climb, we both looked up at the summit ahead and groaned. The top was so close, yet so far.

Instead of following the Gulfside Trail that walks right along the edge of the Great Gulf, we hopped the cog railway and made our own trail; it gave us a little more protection from the wind that was hammering us from the side and threatening to blow us onto the ground when it gusted up.

Panting along slowly, step after step, we fought the wind and were soon standing atop all 6,288 feet of Mt. Washington. David and I snapped a couple photos at the summit then took shelter from the roaring winds on the west side of the summit building. We opened some new packs of hand warmers, drank some coffee, ate some food, and discussed bail-out options and how we were both feeling. Both agreeing that we felt strong, we were soon starting the downward journey of the Southern Presidentials.

As we walked away from Mt. Washington we started getting bombarded with ice chunks flying off the communications tower. After getting hit with a few small pieces, David and I watched as orange-sized chunks of ice whizzed past us at 40mph.

“Get me out of here,” I thought to myself, and we moved as quickly as we could out of range of the falling ice.

We made quick work of the smooth hard-packed snow on the descent from Washington to the Lakes of the Clouds hut, and I was soon standing at the edge of the lakes wondering if the lake ice was strong enough to hold a 29 year-old male. Thankfully, I had enough intelligence to not test it, and instead simply made my way to the backside of the hut to seek shelter from the increasing wind.

Monroe had marked the beginning of the end for us the previous year. Since David was in pain we had opted to traverse the side of Monroe instead of taking the Monroe loop over the summit. We slowly crept, white-knuckled, around the side of the mountain in a situation that I would safely describe as one of the most nerve-wracking moments I’ve ever had in the mountains.

This year both of us were feeling strong, and we made quick work of the short ascent. As we reached the top the 60mph winds started ripping past us. I was caught off-guard on one flat section and a gust blew me onto my side. Standing back up, I kept pushing forward while seeking as much protection from the wind as I could. As we approached the summit I insisted that David pose for a photo on top of the mountain that bested him last year.

Heading down, we proceeded along the Monroe loop and soon joined up with the Crawford Path again. David and I chatted happily as we made our way along the miles of relatively flat terrain. As a light snow began to fall, we approached the bottom of Mt. Eisenhower.

Mt. Eisenhower had always been just-out-of-reach for me. We had skipped it during the 2015 traverse. In the year following, my summit plans had always gotten derailed. Sometimes life had gotten in the way, and sometimes it was 80mph winds and freezing fog keeping me from getting up Ike. I had never been able to stand on top of the mountain that so many people described as one of their favorite summits in the Whites.

So as we ascended the side of the dome and the trail leveled out, I started singing and dancing in-step. I saw the rock pile and let out an enormous cheer. In a way, Eisenhower represented the entire failed traverse last year, and here we were, standing atop it as the last light faded from the sky. I couldn’t stop smiling as I danced atop the rock pile.

We pulled our headlamps out of our bags and switched them on for the second time in one day. We had hiked from sun-up to sun-down.

Once we descended below tree-line past Eisenhower the wind died down and I stopped to take a break and switch some layers. I stood off the trail so that David could pass, removed my camera from the holster on my hip belt, and CRACK. My Nikon d600 had dropped three feet, landing directly on a rock and bouncing into the snow.

“Is anything broken?” David asked as I quickly examined the camera.

“It doesn’t look like it,” I said.

“There are a bunch of scrapes and marks near the memory card door but that’s... ah crap.”  I had just noticed the hole in the front of the camera.

I took the lens cap off, pointed the camera at the sky, and took a shot. Looking at the LCD preview, I saw a big black square in the center.

“Yup, it’s broken,” I said. “Oh well.” 

David decided to keep moving, and I took a little extra time to assess the damage. I muttered a few curse words then tossed the camera inside my pack, changed to lighter layers, and started onwards again.

The previous year on this section of trail I had to fight the urge to lie down and cry from exhaustion in the middle of a snowy clearing. The story could not have been any different this time around. Met with a sudden burst of energy from the caffeine in my Clif Shots (and probably the adrenaline of dropping a $1k camera on a rock) I put my earbuds in and commenced rocking out to my Spotify playlist. I started jogging along the trail while singing at the top of my lungs. I could see David’s headlamp bobbing on the trail ahead, and I continued to speed towards him.

I soon reached him, and after quickly chatting, we formulated a game plan for the rest of the evening. Since David was familiar with the Crawford Path and I was familiar with the Webster-Jackson Trail and we both had emergency beacons, we would separate here. David would summit Pierce to complete the traverse then take the Crawford Path to the Highland Center, and I would hit Pierce then continue onwards, passing Mizpah Hut and tagging Jackson before descending into the notch. We wished each other good luck, and then I sprinted off, belting out Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” as I went.

I was shocked when I came across the sign towards the Pierce summit so quickly. Again I thought back to last year and just how unpleasant the Crawford Path was between Eisenhower and Pierce. This time around, it had flown by. I turned left, ascended the 100 meters of bare rock face to Pierce, tagged the summit, and continued onwards as fast as I could.

By this point the snow was beginning to fall heavier, but I didn’t even notice. I focused on placing my feet accurately with every quick step through the trees, up rocky rolling hills, and down ladders. The balls of my feet were beginning to hurt, but I kept moving. I was at Mizpah Hut before long, and I took a quick break in the clearing to grab some food and water. I downed the rest of my coffee, popped some ibuprofen, and then I was moving again.

1.7 miles separate Mizpah Hut and Mt Jackson. As I jogged along, the miles started to drop away more slowly and my feet began to scream in pain. A recurring pain, I knew that the balls of my feet would start hurting eventually but I didn’t think that it would come on this quickly and this strongly. I stayed on my heels when I could, but each step on my right forefoot was met with agony.

I turned the music up, tried to focus on how close Jackson was, and continued onwards. By now the snow was falling so heavily that I was getting wet, and I donned my rain shell again.

After a mile an a half I found myself standing at the bottom of a few steep rock faces. I knew what this meant; the Mt. Jackson summit wasn’t far ahead. I threw my axe into the ice, gained some purchase, and front-pointed straight up. I was almost there. The woods opened up into a clearing and the wind picked up. I pointed my light ahead and couldn’t see anything but rock and the sky. So close. I scrambled up the side of the rocks, the trail flattened out, and I was standing on the summit of Mt. Jackson.

I cheered as loudly as I could. So much planning, so much energy, so much worrying, and so much pain went into finally finishing this traverse, and now the final summit was done.

I started the descent to Crawford Notch, stepping gingerly on the sketchy rock faces near the top of Mt. Jackson. After slowly making my way off the steep sections, I was in the woods again and moving quickly, still rocking out to my music.

And just like last year, the final descent seemed to take forever. When 20 miles remain in a hike, each mile passes quickly. However, with only 1.5 to go, time behaves in a much slower manner. I was speeding downhill at a 15-minute mile pace, but just like the Pemi Loop, the trail just kept going and going and going…

I did mental calculations in my head, and thought to myself, “only two songs to go.”  As I ran downhill, navigating my way between boulders and over brook crossings, the first song ended and the second began. “Almost there,” I thought. I didn’t want to look at my watch. The second song ended, and I saw lights through the trees.

As I stepped onto Route 302 at 8:00pm to First Aid Kit’s “My Silver Lining” blasting in my earbuds, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was over. Our journey had started at 3:45am. We had summited 7 peaks together and walked 22 miles. Much like last year, my feet were killing, I was completely exhausted, but it was over. I walked over to my car, brushed off the light snow that had accumulated, tossed my bag, crampons, and ice axe in the trunk, and drove the 200 yards up the road to the Highland Center.

I walked in the door to a quiet reception area, and glanced left into the main room. David was sitting next to the fireplace, his gear scattered along the floor across the room.

“We made it,” I said, as I walked over to sit down next to him.

“Yup,” David responded. “But now we are REALLY never doing that again.”