The Presidential Traverse: A One-Day Death March that Definitely Earned its Name
Updated: Aug 17, 2018
21.1 miles, 9 summits, and 8,400 feet all in one day. Most people say it's crazy and they're 100% correct. Yesterday, three friends and I did the Presidential traverse which includes five of the tallest mountains in New Hampshire. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done but it was absolutely amazing! It included seven official 4,000 footers (Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce) so I'm now at #28 on my mission to hike all of the NH 48 in a year!
The journey started with the typical horrendous Friday afternoon traffic coming out of Boston. I had been checking the Mt. Washington Observatory weather report almost obsessively, and it called for cloudy weather and afternoon rain showers with 15-25 mph wind for our hike. I was crossing my fingers that somehow the forecast would be wrong and we would have a beautiful clear day! The four of us had two cars and met for dinner on the way up to the mountains. I had to pick up my new hiking boots, and I know this is not a great idea for a break-in hike but I didn't really have a choice. We then dropped a car off at Crawford Station, our final destination, and made our way to the trailhead at the Appilachia parking lot. We got there around 10:00 and had planned to camp in hammocks a little ways away from the trailhead. After setting up our hammocks and settling in, an owl started hooting at all of his owl friends in the trees right above us. After a little while we decided that sleeping in the car might be a quieter option so we went back to the parking lot. At this point it was almost midnight, and with a 2:00 wake up time we tried to get in as much sleep as possible before the big day ahead of us.
The 2:00 am alarm came too soon, but we all knew that we had to get up and be on the trail early so we could watch the sunrise at the summit of Madison. I had been coming down with a cold, so I wasn't feeling too well with the lack of sleep. The AMC book time for Mt. Madison via Valley Way is just under four hours, but we were hoping we could make it up there a little bit before sunrise at 5:45 to see the colors. I was nervous because Valley Way has so many trail intersections and in the dark it's much easier to get lost. We hit the trail at 2:15 and made our way to the summit.
It was pitch black almost the whole way up to Madison Springs hut, but luckily there were lots of signs and we took our time at trail crossings to make sure we went the right way. I led the group for most of the way to the hut, so I was trying to keep a good pace and not slow anyone down. When we got there we didn't stop and took the Osgood Trail to the summit of Mt. Madison. At the summit, the horizon was just starting to turn orange and pink. I looked at my watch and it was only 4:40am! I was really surprised that we had hiked almost four and a half miles in under two and a half hours, beating the book by an hour and a half.
The sunrise was beautiful. I've never seen anything like it! There were clouds in the valley making for an amazing view. There were a few other people at the summit that we chatted with while we ate some breakfast and watched the sunrise. I took some cold medicine in the hopes that it would help my breathing for the difficult next leg of the hike. We stayed at the summit of Madison for about 40 minutes but ended up leaving before the sun peaked up from the horizon because we were getting chilly. Our next stop was Madison Springs hut to refill water since the next source wasn't until Washington. Mt. Adams was next and we knew it was going to be one of the hardest climbs of the day.
From the hut, we took the Star Lake trail up to the summit of Mt. Adams. This was the hardest climb we did all day with 900 ft of elevation gain in just 0.7 miles. We were basically climbing straight up the face of the mountain so it was a real struggle. My friends didn't have as much of an issue, but I'm 5'2" so finding hand and foot holds within reach was a bit of a struggle. Although this was the hardest part of the day, I thought it was the most fun too! I really like a good scramble, and even though it was a real challenge I had a great time! This being said, it took a ton of energy to get to the summit so we were all pretty gassed by the time we got up there at 6:30. I was also having a hard time breathing because of my cold. We took a ten minute break for pictures and snacks and then kept on going.
Our next summit was Jefferson via the Gulfside trail leading through Edmunds Col. This spot is known to be where some of the worst weather in the White Mountains is located. The way the mountains form around it makes a wind tunnel, and there's no easy way in or out of it making it very dangerous in bad weather. Luckily, the weather for us was absolutely beautiful! We made it to the Edmunds Col around 7:30, but by this time I was really feeling the lack of sleep. I don't know how my friends had so much energy, but they were really moving quickly on the way up to Jefferson! We got to the summit at 8:20 and took a short break for some pictures. We anticipated the summit of Mt. Washington to be crazy busy with people, so we wanted to get pictures now to avoid waiting in line later.
After Jefferson we decided to summit Clay because although it's not technically a 4,000 footer but we figured we would grab it while we were up there. In retrospect I'm really glad we did because I think it made the climb to the summit of Mt. Washington easier and more gradual. Well, as easy and gradual as climbing Washington can be I guess!
At this point pretty much every part of my body was hurting, especially my feet. I was in the back of the group for most of the rest of the hike just trying to keep up! I hate feeling like I'm slowing people down so I was going as fast as I could without getting hurt. I felt really bad making everyone wait on me but I was doing my best and they were all really nice about it. It's hard because the trails in the presidentials are completely made up of rock. And it's not the kind of nice, flat rock that you can just hop across. They're all pretty sharp and jagged. On top of that I'd say about half of them are loose, so you can't just jump to the next one or it might move under you, throwing you off of it. I'm super clumsy so I was trying to make sure that I placed my feet correctly with every step as to avoid rolling my ankles. It really takes a lot of energy and focus just to figure out where to put your feet! Although the weather tower of the observatory looked close by, the trail to the summit of Washington seemed to go on and on. We saw a few of the Cog Railway trains making the ascent to the summit, and one of the steam engines came up ahead of us. It was cool to see, but breathing in the coal emissions was less than pleasant. I was already having a hard time breathing from my cold, so even a little bit of that dust made my cough worse.
We finally summited Mt. Washington at 10:25. At that point we were kind of a mess and it was pretty busy with tourists up there. The weather was still gorgeous, nearly bluebird skies and hardly any wind. It was the perfect hiking weather! There was a long line to get a picture with the summit sign, so we skipped it and went inside to sit and eat instead. We went downstairs to the hiker's room, a happy departure from the noisy upstairs cafeteria. Taking off our shoes and relaxing felt amazing. We ate an early but well deserved lunch and filled up our water bottles here. The water was freezing cold and I had been sweating since 2:00 am so washing my face was really refreshing. This was the halfway point of our journey and we were feeling pretty accomplished with the hardest parts being over. At the summit of Mount Washington we had gone 11.2 miles and 7,500 ft in 8 hours and 10 minutes. There were 11 more miles to go but only 900 more vertical feet, so we were feeling hopeful that the rest wouldn't be too bad.
We left Mt. Washington at 11:40 and no, we didn't wait in line to get the picture because we didn't want to spend any extra time on our feet standing around with the long hike ahead of us. This is the closest I got to my summit sign picture. I always say, "the mountains are always there," so I guess I'll have to hike Washington again for the picture! Honestly I was just really glad to leave all of the crowds and get back on the trail. Feeling refreshed, we headed over to tackle Mt. Monroe. By the time we got to Lakes of the Clouds hut, I was hurting again. We stopped for a minute to use the bathroom and grab some cookies and then kept moving.
The summit of Mt. Monroe was probably my favorite of the day. It was nice and quiet when we got there at 12:25. On the way, we had constantly been moving over and yielding for all of people hiking up Washington. I can't blame them it was an awesome day to do it! The crowds were kind of exhausting though because I always like to say "good morning," and "have a good day," to fellow hikers. I've met some really amazing people while hiking so I like to try to make an effort to be happy and encouraging to others when I'm out there! At this point, I was so tired and in so much pain it was hard to put on a smile to greet them. Monroe was a nice quiet break from all of that and the view was gorgeous! We didn't stop for long, but we got a few pictures here just because it was so amazing.
These are the last pictures I have until we reached Crawford Station at the end of the trip. I was really tired and a little cranky for the last leg of the hike, so I kind of forgot to take any at the other summits! I have a ton from the northern presidentials though, so I'll put some of those in to make up for it! :)
After Monroe, it was mostly downhill from there, but let me tell you it was not easy! Downhill is hard for me because I have some issues with my ankles and knees. This kind of downhill in the rocky terrain was super difficult and took me a long time because I was trying to be really careful. We went over Franklin and kept on pushing. At this point we were on Crawford Path, the oldest trail in America! I know, I have to stop reading the AMC book in my free time. I've turned into a hiking nerd! It's okay though I like knowing as much as I can about the trails before I step foot on them. Being over-prepared is kind of my thing!
The stretch of Crawford Path between Mt. Monroe and Mt. Eisenhower seemed to go on forever. It was felt like the longest 2.6 miles of my life. Eisenhower and Pierce are commonly hiked together and are easy to moderate so I figured it wouldn't be that hard. It was pretty tough because we had been above treeline walking over rocks all day and we were so tired. When we finally got to Eisenhower at 2:05 it was a relief. I don't think I fully appreciated the views or the beautiful summit because I was so tired at that point. I had also rolled my left ankle pretty badly somewhere between Franklin and Eisenhower so that was not helping my case. I was looking forward to dropping below treeline and putting my feet on some solid ground instead of moving rocks. It had become pretty cloudy and there were some darker clouds off in the distance so we wanted to keep moving and hopefully avoid those forecasted afternoon showers. Looking back at Mt. Washington it was completely socked in. I began to really appreciate the amazing weather we had all morning!
The hike over to Pierce was slow going because my ankle was in a lot of pain. I still felt really bad that I was slowing everyone down, but I was doing my best and trying to push through to the end. I hate hiking with people who are whiny and complaining the whole time, so I tried my best to not be that guy and just shut up and deal with it. When we tagged Pierce at 3:05 I got a little bit of a second wind. Walking off the pain from rolling my ankle was starting to work. We got back on Crawford Path for the walk back down to the car and it was a gradual decline. My friends were going really fast on the way down, so I ran down a good portion of the trail to keep up. It took all of my concentration to figure out where to put my feet, and even though this portion of the hike is a hazy in my mind I remember telling myself, "the faster you go, the faster you'll be done." Crawford Path was really wet and muddy, but we finally ended up making it back to Crawford Station at 4:45. This put our total time at 14 hours and 10 minutes! The book time for the whole hike is 15:10 so we beat it by exactly an hour including our three hours of breaks! We were really moving!
Stretching and sitting down at the end of the hike was heaven. It was such a great feeling being done! I felt so accomplished and proud that we made it! We all ate a Choco Taco in celebration. The tricky part now was that halfway through the hike we realized we forgot the keys to the car we had parked at Crawford Station in my car at the trailhead. We ended up getting a ride with these really nice people who did the whole traverse in like 10 hours. They do lots of trail running and ran basically all of the downhills after Jefferson! I can't even imagine running down the steep rocky sections, so I was in awe. We were really thankful for the ride and they were so nice!
This was by far the hardest hike I've ever done. It was really tough both physically and mentally and honestly I still can't believe I made it! Many parts of this hike stand out as really amazing moments for me! It's so hard to pick a favorite! I'd say my top three were the sunrise on the summit of Mt. Madison, the climb up Star Lake trail to Mt. Adams, and the summit of Mt. Monroe. I've never done a hike this long in one day, and I'm going to be honest and say that I wasn't having very fun for some portions of it. That being said it was an amazing experience, and it really pushed the limits of what I thought I was physically capable of. I'm going to do this traverse again with at least seven hours of sleep, without a cold, and in hiking boots that are broken in. I think those three key aspects will make the whole thing much more enjoyable next time! I'm now over halfway done with the NH 48, and I'm hoping to finish by June of next year. I started on June 16th 2018, and my goal is to finish them all in one year. My love of hiking grows more and more with every hike, and this one really took it to the next level!
The Presidential Traverse [21.1 mi, 8400 ft, 14:10] via. Valley Way, Osgood Tr, Star Lake Tr, Lowe's Path, Gulfside Tr, Mt. Jefferson Loop, Mt. Clay Loop, Crawford Path, Mt. Monroe Loop, Mt. Eisenhower Loop, and Webster Cliff Tr.
#22 Mt. Madison (5367 ft), #23 Mt. Adams (5774 ft), #24 Mt. Jefferson (5712 ft), Mt. Clay (5533 ft), #25 Mt. Washington (6288 ft), #26 Mt. Monroe (5384 ft), Mt. Franklin (5001 ft), #27 Mt. Eisenhower (4780 ft), and #28 Mt. Pierce (4310 ft).
Click here for mileage and time splits!
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