Friday, July 5, 2013

An America Day Presidential Traverse 7/4/13

Working title: A half and half day celebrating the birth of a nation

Peaks: Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, Mt. Monroe, Mt. Franklin, Mt. Eisenhower, Mt. Pierce

Trails: Airline, Airline Cut-off, Osgood Trail, Gulfside, Israel Ridge Path, Jefferson Loop, Trinity Heights Connector, Crawford Path, Monroe Loop, Franklin Loop, Webster Cliff Trail

Mileage/time: 19.6 miles, 8797 feet of gain, book time of 14:14, actual time of 11:46

Oh, America Day, so usually filled with gluttony and drunken debauchery. A sad state of affairs. You have to take the good with the bad I guess. My day turned out to be an atypical celebration of America, and it was heartening to see others out doing the same. Wednesday was sleep deprivation central, as usual. I got in a couple rounds of disc golf with some friends, ran errands in preparation, and passed out well before the sun was down. The alarm was set for 12:15am.

Midnight, and I was awake. I can't say I blame myself, I was pretty excited for this hike. Giving myself a chance to wake up a bit, and gathering my gear (forgetting my extra bandanas of course), I headed out at 12:45, Appalachia bound. Coffee and breakfast were had on the drive, slicing uneventfully through the darkness on empty roads. Once I arrived at the trailhead, I shut off the car and stepped out. It was humid, but cool, the sky was clear and the stars were out, and brilliant. A reddish crescent moon had only just risen over the eastern horizon, a truly stunning way to start a hike. Some folks came through just after 3, I thought they were spotting a car, but I couldn't be sure, they took off after a moment. Check the clock, 3:14am, headlamp on, let's do this!

I figured I'd take Airline, since there was a big section of it that I hadn't done, and who doesn't love redlining? So instead of taking the familiar left fork up Valley Way, I took the right and started up. I had checked the radar before I left, and saw a shower moving through the area around midnight. That had left the woods damp, and the rocks wet. No worries, a bit of water, mud, and slipperiness never hurt anyone. Right? The beam of my headlamp cut visibly through the moisture laden air, as I trudged upward, breathing heavily. My lungs disagree with humidity, but the steady wind kept me cool, and that made it easier on my body. Through many junctions I passed, but the one I was looking for specifically was the Scar Trail, that would signal the final approach to treeline, and with any luck, views.

Just beyond the junction, I was able to turn off the headlamp, as the eastern sky was getting bright and colorful. I soon broke treeline, and was immediately buffeted by a stiff west wind, blasting up out of King Ravine. Ahead of me was the base of the cloud deck, to my left the sun was near to rising, and to my right should have been King Ravine, where there was nothing but cloud. As I climbed higher in the open, I managed to get a series of shots as the sun rose brilliantly to the east.

The cloud deck was in constant flux, rising and dropping so quickly. It was amazing to watch it play out.

Sooner than expected, I came upon Airline Cut-off, and saw the hut a short distance away. A mere 0.2 miles, there I was, and all was quiet, excepting the sound of the wind. I pushed on to Madison, half a mile away. The lichen covered rocks were slick, and I took careful steps, as not to bite it. About halfway up, I ran into the first two people of the day, two gentlemen from southern New Hampshire, Brady and Jared (sp?), also out doing a traverse.

Pushing on, the wind started to push on me, incredibly strong. Washington reported gusts upwards of 50 mph at the time I was on the summit, and I believe it. The clouds were rushing by so fast, and the views that did appear, disappeared just as quickly. It was a struggle to keep my balance in the wind, and the slick rocks didn't help matters. I touched the high point and retreated. My glasses had started to collect moisture, thanks to the wind and clouds, which only made matters worse as I descended. Thankfully I dropped below the clouds about halfway down, and had some views down to Star Lake in the col. Shortly before the hut, I ran into two more guys headed up, they had stayed at Valley Way Tentsite, and were attempting a traverse as well. Glad to see I'm not the only crazy!

I went into the hut to refill my water, and take a short break. It was only 6:15, but there were two AT thru-hikers getting ready for their day, along with one Croo member, up and about. I had seen a couple folks in the vicinity of Star Lake as I came down off Madison, and saw them approaching the hut as I left. Now began the always interesting climb up to Adams, towering almost 1000 feet above the col, head in the clouds.

My views soon disappeared as I climbed up the Gulfside Trail, and turned back onto Airline for the push to the summit. The rocks continued to be treacherous, slick not only from the rain some hours before, but the constant wind driven cloud cover. Not being able to see didn't help matters any, and I took off my glasses at several points, just so I could navigate cairn to cairn. Squinting doesn't work! A couple figures emerged out of the fog, moving southward, and I saw the summit sign. Someone had dragged a folding camp chair up to the top, and left it right on the summit. I'll never understand. The wind was still whipping, so I only stayed long enough for a summit photo, and got the hell out of there.

Summit #2 at 7am!
Nearing Thunderstorm Junction, I caught up with Brady and Jared. We chatted as we descended towards Edmands Col, they're some cool guys, and this was their first Presidential Traverse. I apparently read the AMC Hiker Shuttle schedule incorrectly, because they told me that the shuttle leaves the Highland Center at 4pm, and goes back to Appalachia. Unparalleled good fortune! With that in mind, I was bound and determined to make it. Some views appeared here and there, but were quickly erased by clouds.

Looking toward Jefferson Ravine from Gulfside
We reached Edmands Col, and started up towards Jefferson. I commented that the last time I did a traverse (in 2 days), that this was where I hit the wall. They told me that I could pass them if I wanted, then they proceeded to smoke me to the peak. I didn't so much hit the wall, as much as I bumped into it a couple of times. They were long gone by the time I hit the high point, and I got this nice view of the summit pin, and nothing else.

During my descent towards Sphinx Col, what I had feared, happened. I slipped, and fell. I've had worse falls, but this was different. My left foot slipped off the rock, and when I landed, I smashed my ankle off another rock. There was a loud crack, and instant sharp pain. My first thought was, "oh f**k, I'm done". After a moment or two of fevered assessment, I found the ankle to be alright, and gingerly made my way south. The pain subsided after a fashion, so long as I kept moving. I'd assess again when I got to Washington. I pushed on through the foggy Sphinx Col, and began the climb around Mt. Clay.

I had thought about hitting Clay, but the fog convinced me otherwise. Gulfside still gains quite a bit of elevation climbing around the peak to the junction of Jewell Trail, and while I knew there was one spring along the way, I didn't realize that there were two! I ran into a nice guy who was slackpacking the range, and was meeting up with his wife at Pinkham that evening, before heading north toward Katahdin. Some views opened up back towards Jefferson as I climbed, it pays to turn around every once and a while.

The final difficult climb of the day lay ahead, shrouded in mist. It probably would have been more demoralizing if I had been able to see it. Many groups were coming off of Washington as I ascended, and the sound of the Cog working its way up the mountain was off in the distance. I got a brief view down to the floor of the Great Gulf from Gulfside, and then crossed the Cog tracks for the final assault.

Almost before I knew it, the Tip Top House materialized out of the fog, and the summit was at hand. I waited a minute or two for tourists to take pictures, and even took one for them myself, then I managed to get a picture of the summit sign for my own purposes.

Whatta view!
I then retired to the cafeteria area inside, where a bunch of groups were huddled. Taking off my shoes and changing my socks was in order, along with assessing my ankle. A group from a summer camp was at the next table over, going back and forth to the gift shop, one of them buying a hat with fuzzy moose antlers on it, all the while saying "if you mess with the moose, you get the antlers!" and charging at his fellow campers. My ankle was slightly swollen, a bit tender to the touch, and the skin was broken from the impact, but I could still move on it. All in all, I probably took a 40 minute break inside, drank a bunch of water, refilled, and set off for Lakes.

Crawford Path
The rocks were drier on Crawford Path, for whatever reason, and I was grateful for them. My pace quickened, and my ankle held. I even found the Maine shaped rock that I saw a few weeks back, it made me smile. It's really all about the simple things. I passed many groups on the way up, asking how it was. Foggy was my response. A short way from Lakes, the clouds parted around Monroe, and my first real views of the day came into... view.

I took a brief respite at Lakes, refilling my water for the last time, and then set off for the steep ascent up Monroe. Looking back, Washington came out of the clouds. I should have promised those people a view!

The clouds continued to break up as I climbed, and the views from Monroe were awesome. There were a few people on the summit, one of which (I later found out) had just finished her 4000-footers! Their dog must have been thirsty, because it started drinking out of one of the small puddles at my feet as I talked to them. They quickly gave it some water. I passed on their offer of grapes, bid them farewell, and kept going.

Passing over Little Monroe, I soon rejoined the Crawford Path, and started to see more and more people. Since I'd never been there before, I figured I'd check out the unmarked loop that goes over Mt. Franklin, which sports nice views into the Dry River Valley, and back to Monroe.

By now, the sun had come out full force, and it got hot quickly. The winds died down too, which made it worse. Bugs, which I hadn't seen all day made their presence known almost immediately. I kept moving to avoid them. This section of the Crawford Path is fantastic, as it undulates southward in the open, the building clouds on the horizon made for a fantastic scene.

Before I knew it, I was upon the Eisenhower Loop, and the steep climb up to the top. I let a family pass me as they descended, and one of the kids said "the top is waaayy up there". I couldn't help but smile, and thanked him. Next I saw a father and son who were out backpacking, and the son told me that the summit was right there. I told him that it was better than what the last kid told me! The summit of Eisenhower was wide open, excepting another group of summer campers out on their last of four days of backpacking. I chatted with them for a while before heading out for what proved to be my last peak of the day.

Once I resumed climbing out of the col between Eisenhower and Pierce, the heat got to me, and I started running out of steam. Water and food didn't help matters, and my thoughts of going for a "full" traverse by hitting Jackson went out the window. I was relieved to hit the junction with Webster Cliff Trail, which meant only another 1/10th of a mile to Pierce. Just as I started up, I saw a lady I thought I recognized, and when the man with her said Karen, I knew it. I spoke up, and it turned out I was right. It was Karen and Dave from the 4000-footer Facebook group, along with Gina and Matt who were at the summit. Once I hit the summit, I hugged the cairn with joy, this was my first time cairn-hugging. I won't lie, I kind of liked it, not to mention it was pretty comfortable. As comfortable as a pile of rocks can be.

They were planning on descending to Mizpah Hut, as the clouds were starting to look menacing. I bid them farewell, and started down towards Crawford Path. Just before the junction, I ran back into Brady and Jared. I was surprised, because I hadn't seen them since the climb to Jefferson. They apparently saw me on Washington, and had been fairly close behind me ever since. I told them I'd see them down at the Highland Center, and started down.

I'd been carrying my poles with me just for this descent. They weren't always necessary, but it was nice to have something to lean into when I needed to take the pressure off my knee. The heat became oppressive below treeline, as there was no breeze to be had. I moved as quickly as I could, knowing that I'd make it down well before the shuttle left, but also because I'd given myself a goal to be done in less than 12 hours. After passing several groups, I soon passed the Gibbs Falls spur and the Crawford Connector, and started to hear traffic. I popped out on 302 at exactly 3pm, 14 minutes faster than goal!

I checked in at the desk to make sure all my ducks were in a row, and then settled into a chair outside and waited. After a few phone calls, and some conversation with the others that were waiting as well, the shuttle pulled in, and we all saddled up for the ride. Brady and Jared made it as well, sunburned, but no worse for wear. It's nice riding instead of driving, and I found myself gazing out the window as the woods and mountains zipped by. We soon arrived at Appalachia, and I disembarked, right in front of my car. Now that's service! I said goodbye to the guys, and got in the car to head toward Conway. As soon as I started the car, the rain began, and was steady almost all the way to Pinkham Notch Visitors Center. What timing!

The Moat was packed, and I didn't feel like dealing with the crowd, so I just went home. A nice shower, some food, and some ice on my ankle did me well, and I went to sleep just as the fireworks were going off. Not even a beer! I'll definitely be repeating this journey, hopefully on a clearer, less hot and humid day.


  1. Sounds amazing! Except for one thing: I should have been there. ;)

    Hope the ankle (and knee) are not too damaged. Let's run again soon, preferably when it isn't 9 billion degrees.

    1. You should have been, but it was a necessary solo day. Everyone needs some time alone. ;)

      Pick the non-9 billion degree day, and I'm there!

  2. Bill, This is a wonderful blog and the pictures that go along with this are great. 35 years ago, my husband and I hiked these trails. Now, our kids have taken an independent interest in hiking. Last night, I set up our slide projector and started to look at the 3 trays of slides we have from our hiking days in NH. Your photographs will help me remember some of the trail and mountain names. Thanks for sharing and I am very happy that your ankle is OK. Happy Trails! Jean

  3. There is an actual picture of him hugging the cairn on Pierce.

    1. It was totally worth it. +1, will hug again.

  4. Wow, what a great report! Mind if I tap into your experience in the region? I'm headed up that way at the end of September and am trying to pick a nice, challenging route to hike. What's your opinion of this idea: (I don't get into town until the afternoon so have a day and a half to work with). Park at Great Gulf TH and hike to Spaulding lake area to camp for the night (away from the lake as required of course). Then climb to Washington in the morning (1.5 - 2 hours??). Then traverse the ridge to Jefferson, Adams, Madison then down Madison Gulf or the Osgood trail to get back to the car. Anything about that plan that I should re-think? Any estimate on time to get from Washington back to the trailhead? FInally do you know where I can get .GPX files for the trails?? Any help/comments at all would be appreciated.

    1. Thanks David! I don't see anything wrong with your plan, though I wouldn't recommend descending the headwall of Madison Gulf, and going down Osgood instead. I'd estimate time from Washington to the trailhead, by this route, at about 7 to 8 hours (inclusive of breaks). That's an estimate for myself, not knowing how fast you hike. I'm not sure where .GPX files can be found, as I don't use a GPS myself. Hope you have a great hike!