Supreme Survival: The Presidential Traverse
I grew up in New England. At all times Colonial history surrounds me as do the rooted and rocky trails that connect the small states in a patch-work from New York to Canada. If you’ve ever spent time here you’ve tasted this country’s seasons in its fullest of flavors: long, cold Winters, bright and muggy Summers, colorful Autumn, and a brief, mild Spring thrown in for good measure. No place in our small six-state region exemplifies this more than the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Rising from the heart of New England, the Whites command a presence unlike anything east of the Rockies. At first unimposing, the faces climb quickly and top out above the tree line leaving ridge lines exposed to some of the world’s harshest weather systems. Nowhere in the Whites will you find a greater utilized trail than the Presidential Range, an extension of 13 summits each named for a US president. Within this 23-mile collection of mountains hides a hot-bed of outdoor secrets and surpises. The trail ambles through pine groves, over rooty ground, and opens to tricky footing over bare-boulder scree with gut wrenching drops on either side. The cumulative rise tops out at 10,000 feet of elevation gain, a formidable climb for any experienced hiker. Then add the factor of weather. The Presidential range has clocked the fastest known surface winds on the planet, routinely sees dramatic temperature shifts, and averages over 180 emergency rescues a year. Most hikers take between 2 and 3 days to complete the Presi-Traverse. It has become a gold standard for trail runners in New England, many of whom could finish it in under 12 hours. I hiked the Presi many years ago as a kid - it took me 3 days. Being a New England trail runner who likes to run fast, I figured it was time to make an attempt for myself. So one Friday in July my friend Mike and I set out to crack the 9 hour Presi Traverse.
The ground was still wet from the rain the night before as we toed the trail at the base of Madison. The forecast called for another wet evening but for now the air was cool and calm. As we climbed, the trail cut along the lip of a canyon; the sound of falling water followed with each step. The range is dotted with a series of manned huts, complete with shelter, provisions, and toilets. We’d made a plan to push the first ascent up to Madison and then bypass the first hut before continuing to Adams. As soon as we stepped out of the trees into the open air it became apparent we couldn’t wait very long to add that second layer. After hitting the summit pylon at Madison the sky began to spray erratic drops into the wind. We picked up the pace and rock hopped down to the hut. We tossed our plan out with the wind and took 5 minutes to add the few insufficient layers we had in strapped to our backs: arm sleeves, a buff around the ears, glove liners, and a light windbreaker. We both took in some calories and leapt out the door to make time.
The trail from Madison to Adams is short, less than a mile in distance, but this is where the trail turns it up. The footing narrows as the rocks get large and the grade grows steep. What had been a run was reduced to hand-over-foot climbing over boulders and precarious stones. On any given day this wouldn’t pose a problem for us but the sky had begun to flex its muscle. With a high five and a shout to the wind we passed the Adams summit and into the menacing clouds ahead.
I am typically not an overly cautious person and fear is not in my vocabulary. Mike and I have shared plenty of danger on our many past adventures. In that stretch from Adams to Jefferson, however, I started to feel the seeds of worry sprouting within my runner’s soul. Had we made a mistake in reading the forecast or was it a sudden weather system that would pass in time? At that point we were halfway between our start at the Madison trailhead and the Mount Washington Summit Visitor’s Center. In the shelter of a rock outcrop just below the Jefferson summit, we both agreed that we’d push ahead rather than turn back. Knowing full well we’d face 5 more miles of sub-40 temperatures, whipping winds, and freezing rain, we upped our pace and began sprinting down the mountain towards Mount Clay.
With reckless pace we sped down the mountain towards Clay’s ridge line pushing through the mist in the distance. Our feet barely touched the rocks as we tripped over ourselves to keep up our pace and our falling body temperatures. We cut out the Clay summit entirely and took the trail around the backside of the mountain face. It saved some time but the ridge was steep and open to the prevailing winds. As we rounded the hillside we encountered the first hikers we’d seen all day, a troop of Boy Scouts slowly plodding through in the rain. They were in equally dire shape as their guides did all they could to muster energy and excitement. At their pace they were still looking at another 90 minutes in the elements before reaching shelter. Unfortunately, we were in no position to slow down as we raced by dripping wet in our racing shorts and thin windbreakers.
By the time we reached the final push to Washington the early stage of hypothermia had begun to show its ugly head. The climb is steep and slippery making for a slow approach to the summit. As soon as we switched from a run to a hike our bodies began to shake uncontrollably in the pounding wind. Visibility shrank in a tunnel of fog and water. Marching only steps behind, Mike came in and out of view with each passing gust. After an eternity in 30 minutes of hiking we spotted our bastion of survival, the Mount Washington Visitor’s Center. A well of hope rose up within me, I would live to run another day.
I can only imagine the sight we must have been to the large room full of tourists, eyes wide and jaws to the floor. Dripping wet and shaking from head to toe we went straight to the men’s room and exchanged turns at the hand dryer. After 3 cups of hot chocolate and an oversized hoody from the gift shop the shaking eased and feeling returned to my fingers, face, and legs. In time we worked up the energy to purchase tickets to the cog railway and effortlessly rode down the mountain in a haze of shock and gratitude. Tired. Cold. But full of life.
You learn a lot about yourself under force of life or death situations. In a moment risk turns a crisis and in the blink of an eye a crisis becomes a disaster. You discover the limits of your body and the mind’s ability to push it passed any assumed breaking point. With every adventure comes a new revelation of experience. But isn’t that what makes experience so rewarding? To weigh risk on a scale of uncertainty, to stare it in the eye and walk away a stronger person with a story to tell.