My friends and I recently attempted to end the fall hiking season in epic fashion with a semi-presidential traverse. The Whites dished out plenty of epic in the form of unpredictable weather which kept us from our goal but still created an unforgettable alpine experience.
The presidential traverse is one of the most legendary hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The full traverse tags 8 4,000 + foot peaks, including Mount Washington, in around 20 miles with 10,000 feet of elevation gain. All of these numbers add up to create one of the most stunning hikes east of the Rocky Mountains. However, all of this awesome comes with plenty of risk since above tree line weather can be downright ruthless with whiteouts and 100 mph winds at any time. We were about to get a full taste of that.
Our plan was to spot a car as the Castle trailhead and another at the Crawford Connector near the Highland Center. We would ascend via the Castle Trail and Israel Ridge trail to make camp at The Perch. From there we planned to traverse Mount Jefferson, Mount Clay, Mount Washington, Mount Eisenhower, Mount Monroe and finally Mount Pierce. We knew there would be nothing easy about this one. Thankfully the weather forecast seemed to be on our side; keyword seemed.
We began the hike with classic New England fall conditions of temps somewhere in the 50s and overcast skies. The Castle Trail started out nice and flat with a fairly challenging stream crossing only a few minutes from the trailhead. After that the trail becomes classic White Mountains with plenty of roots, rocks and leaves. 1.3 miles later we came to the junction with the Israel Ridge Trail and things started to really get interesting.
The trail morphed into a root, leaves, moss covered boulder and mud strewn behemoth with a steep and sustained pitch. Some spots were steep enough to justify ladders but the rungs were so slippery that they were basically slides.
On top of all this we had to negotiate a few more challenging stream crossings. I had not seen a trail this challenging since the attempting the north side of Owl’s Head. After 2.4 miles we were more than delighted to see the sign for The Perch shelter which would be home for the night.
The Perch is a 3 sided log cabin managed by the Randolph Mountain Club (RMC). It also has an outhouse and a good water supply which makes it downright luxurious by mountain standards. We had the whole place to ourselves so we spread our gear out, ate a hot meal and went to bed as the sun began to set and the temperatures dropped into the 30s; we knew that tomorrow would be a long day.
We awoke with first light, put down a hot breakfast and hit the trail as soon as possible to maximize daylight. We quickly cleared tree line to find the sun shining and clouds swirling around us. As we continued to climb, the clouds thickened and wind gusts starting slamming us. I actually had to stop and add a layer which I almost never do while climbing.
We reached the Gulfside trail and were met with sustained winds and almost no visibility. We all donned our shell jackets, gloves and hats. The cloud cover and winds seemed to intensify with each step as some gusts threatened to knock us off our feet. We could only see the frosted ground in front of us and from one carin to the next; I felt like I was on a different planet from where I had woken up that morning. Our group kept a close formation because getting lost in these conditions could have been catastrophic. We went over Mount Jefferson and Mount Clay without stopping because it was getting colder and there was definitely no view. Our next summit was Mount Washington which made me a little nervous since the weather was going to get more intense.
We crossed over the Cog Railway tracks and began our ascent to the Mount Washington summit encased in clouds. By now the wind gusts had begun to assault us with freezing rain. My glasses became so encased in ice that I actually put them in my pack and hiked without them.
We could not see the Mount Washington summit until we were only a few feet away. By now the winds were at a constant howl and the temps were down into the teens.
Mount Washington is a world of contrasts as it is home to the world’s worst weather and several buildings such as the Mount Washington State Park Visitor Center. We entered the visitor center to find a museum, music blaring and a cafeteria serving hot food. I enjoyed a hot bowl of chili and the weather outside suddenly felt like it was a world away. We knew we could not stay in the visitor center’s comfort for long if we wanted to get off the trail before dark. We also knew that the only way back to the car was to walk through 8 more miles of above tree line hiking in conditions that were only getting worse. So we packed our gear and h headed back outside. After only a few steps the building was hidden from view by the thick fog.
We knew we only had a few hours to cover a lot of miles so we somehow kept the pace over 2 mph which isn’t bad on slippery rocks with full packs. Conversation was kept to a minimum; the only sound we could hear was the howling wind and the sleet pelting our jackets. We bypassed Mount Eisenhower and Jefferson to minimize exposure to wind. At times the wind would stop for just long enough to convince me to take off my hood but then it would slam us harder than before; weather can be so cruel.
As we approached Mount Pierce we could see sun in the valley below and the wind began to die down. This gave us the motivation to summit pierce and to take a quick break. From here it was just a 3 mile hike to the car under the protection of the trees. With each step down the temperature increased and the winds slowed and we got back to the car just a few minutes before dark. This was definitely not the hike I was expecting but it was a challenging experience and I am glad that everyone made it down safely.