August 2013: ‘Superman’ Trek Across the White Mts

When a legendary New England mountaineer who has led teams to the summit Mt Everest warns against attempting what he considers a “superman” trek across the White Mountains of New Hampshire, it’s prudent to listen.

So I listened. I relayed the advice. I contemplated. And still, I continued the trek, starting on the northern side of Mt Adams and emerging four days later from the wilderness below Mt Lincoln in Franconia Notch after hiking 47 miles and summiting 14 of New Hampshire’s 48 official 4,000-foot summits, including the eight tallest peaks in the White Mountains. My feet were blistered and swollen. My face was wind-burned. My stomach could not stop turning. Maybe that sounds masochistic. The trip was epic.

The Presidential Range in New Hampshire is considered among the most daunting set of mountains east of the Rockies, with deep ravines and brutal alpine weather that claim lives year-round. The range may not have the tallest peaks this side of the continental divide (those would be Harney Peak in South Dakota at 7,244 ft, and Mt Mitchell in North Carolina at 6,684 ft), but the Presidentials are fiercer, sharper, and deadlier—a magnet for hikers, ice-climbers, mountaineers, and adventurers.

The day before starting our extended Presidential Traverse (so-called because it crosses all the tallest presidentially named mountains), we stopped at the sporting goods store IME in North Conway for last-minute provisions and a weather report. I asked its owner, the legendary mountaineer Rick Wilcox, his opinion on our itinerary. He initially gave two thumbs up, until I told him that we intended to follow-up our 17-mile Presidential Traverse with an 18-mile hike from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch.

“It’s doable if you’re superman,” he said, “That’s not just a long hike, it also has some steep ups and downs around South Twin and Mount Garfield, plus you’ll be tired from the previous day.”

Rick Wilcox had laid down the challenge. We picked it up. And so the trek came to be dubbed “The Superman.” It began with a 3-mile “warm-up” hike to Crag Camp on the north face of Mt Adams, followed on Day 2 by the Presidential Traverse across Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce, followed on Day 3 with a decent into Crawford Notch and trek over Mt Tom, Zealand, Guyot, and South Twin. It ended on Day 4 with ascents of Mt Garfield, Lafayette, and Lincoln before descending to Franconia Notch.

Day 1: 3 miles. The trek spanned four days, beginning at Appalachia Trailhead (photo left) with a preliminary 3-mile hike up Kings Ravine to Crag Camp, which is run by the Randolph Mountain Club (RMC). Unlike the pricey and crowded huts of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which cost around $100 a night and book months in advance, the RMC is a much smaller operation that provides three simple shelters first-come first-serve. While AMC huts have electricity, indoor bathrooms, full-course meals, bunks and bedding, the RMC merely provides a roof over your head, a turn-off for less-enthusiastic hikers who don’t want to lug up a sleeping bag, pad, stove, food, cooking equipment… it also means a quieter experience.

Food always tastes better on a mountain, and Friday night’s dinner was no exception: diced tomato, zucchini and squash cooked with couscous and a block of sharp cheese—it could have been from the hands of chef Daniel Boulud. We ate and watched the sun set into oncoming storm clouds. Desert was dark chocolate washed down with Kentucky bourbon. It was a perfect antidote to that morning’s dreadful 6-hour traffic-filled drive from Connecticut (which had followed an equally numbing 6-hour drive from Manhattan the previous evening).

The next morning we boiled water for coffee and oatmeal while watching the run rise beside Mt Madison. Then the real hike began.

Day 2: 17 miles, 7 summits. Depart 6:20am, arrive 6:30pm. Our Presidential Traverse got off to an, ahem, rocky start. We intended to first summit Madison but I missed the turnoff and instead hiked straight up Mt Adams, the range’s second-highest peak but most difficult summit because of the uneven and sharp rocks that combine with gale-force winds to slow you down and throw you off balance (especially when carrying a 50-pound backpack). Oddly, none of these summits have markers that you’re actually ON the summit (with the exception of Mt Washington), just a cairn or a trail marker or a tattered flag, as was the case atop Adams (photo left).

We slowly descended Adams, quickly tagged Madison (photo left of me with arms raised high), and then took our first break in-between the two peaks at the AMC’s Madison Hut, which had $1 coffee and free leftover pancakes. The hut also sold basic provisions such as moleskin, headlamps, gloves and winter hats—which Sarah eyed longingly. She’d forgotten to bring a hat, and the temperature at night dropped into the low 40s. Considering the windchill, it was freezing once the sun set.

Warmed from the hut, we trekked across the Gulfside Trail to Mount Jefferson, a more gradual summit with easier footing.

Our goal was to summit Washington before lunch, so we began the 3-mile hike from Jefferson across a high and windy open-faced ridge to Washington. The final slog included a quick jump over the tracks of the Cog Railway. The 150-year-old carries hundreds of tourists to the summit daily, and many more simply pay $26 to drive a car up the equally old 7.6-mile Auto Road.

The road and train have contributed to the Disneyfication of Mount Washington. A 20-person line waited to simply to get a photo beside the summit post, as we had to wait alongside dozens of others who hadn’t walked more than 20 feet from their cars to the summit post. A food court sold pizza and other greasy foods. It all made the summit seem to much more trivial. So it felt somewhat satisfying to me when a huge cloud enveloped the entire peak in white, reducing the entire view to mere white and ruining photos for all those posers beside the summit post sign. When before we could see dozens of miles in every direction, now not a single other mountain was visible.

With half the traverse completed, we felt good about finishing the final three peaks before sunset. We descended Washington on the Crawford Path and popped into the AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut, then quickly summited Mt Monroe, followed a few miles later Mt Eisenhower (photo below, of Sarah leaning against the summit cairn).

We continued descending the ridge on Crawford Path, which we later learned was America’s the oldest maintained footpath, built in 1819 by Ethan and Edna Crawford, who used the path to become the first person (and woman) to summit Washington on mounted horseback.

The trail led to our final summit of the day, Mt Pierce, where we met two young hikers aged 21 and 25 who said they were trekking the entire 2,300-mile Appalachian Trail (AT), which overlaps with the Presidential Traverse. This was their “day off” and so they had decided to attempt a 51-mile hike from the AMC’s Lonesome Lake Hut to the Carter Notch Hut. It was 5pm, they’d been awake since 1am, and they still had another 25 miles to go. If you thought that I had a wacky idea of fun, that’s all the more crazy.

We descended Pierce to the AMC’s Mizpah Spring Hut, refilled our waterbottles, and pitched tent at the nearby Neuman Camp. There’s a camaraderie among hikers in the White Mountains, especially at these backcountry camp sites, where we all have to carry our own tents and cookware and provisions. In a tent beside us slept Patrick and Kevin, two dads from New Jersey who drove up that morning and intended to summit Washington the next day. That night, after cooking dinner (instant soup, cheese, chocolate, bourbon) we all climbed into our sleeping bags and struck up a four-way conversation through the mesh of our tents about work and career, the mountain version of pillow talk.

Day 3: 18 miles, 4 summits. Depart 7:20am, arrive 7:00pm. I woke with puffy eyes. Sarah’s could hardly open. The previous day’s high winds and constant dust along the open-faced Presidential Traverse had done a job on us. I stumbled out of the tent, almost falling over from the soreness in my quads. Blisters had developed on each foot, leaving them swollen and oozy. I felt apprehensive, wondering how we could possibly hike further than the previous day if we now felt so much more tired and sore than the previous morning.

What had we gotten ourselves into? Maybe we should have listened to Rick Wilcox. He had been the first New Englander to ever lead a group to the summit of Mt. Everest, after all. He might have known what he was talking about when he suggested our “superman” itinerary was a tad overly ambitious.

Nevermind that. Soreness be damned. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (although what doesn’t kill you can still leave you scarred, deformed, paralyzed…). We skipped breakfast, packed quickly, and descended the final 2.2 miles of the Crawford Path to Crawford Notch, where Rt. 302 cuts through the mountain range. We were like armadillos with our big backpacks, like wild-eyed New England possums avoiding becoming roadkill, as we scurried across the highway to the AMC Highland Center, which had clean indoor bathrooms, hot running water, and Adirondack chairs for reclining. Time for overdue coffee and oatmeal.

We stared at the map and divided the rest of the day into sections: another 5 miles before lunch at the AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut, then 5.7 miles before an afternoon break at the AMC’s Galehead Hut, and then a final 2.7 miles to our campsite atop Garfield Ridge.

Zealand Falls, which is an actual 25-foot plunging waterfall with plenty of pools for dipping and wading, exceeded expectations in size and beauty. Sarah jumped in (frightening a hermit-like AT thru-hiker in the process), and afterward we relaxed with lunch (almonds, apples, granola) on the nearby AMC hut’s porch overlooking the Bond mountains.

The afternoon was grueling, with unexpectedly tough summits of Mt Zealand, Guyot, and South Twin before hitting the final rest stop of the day, AMC’s Galehead Hut. From there we had the final push to the campsite on Garfield Ridge just below the summit. We passed an elderly couple that must have been in their late 60s also carrying big backpacks. They said they were headed toward the same campsite as us. I was impressed that they had courage and strength to be doing this at twice my age, but I seriously doubted they’d arrive given the setting sun and difficult terrain, especially when the train became incredibly steep up what seemed to be a dried waterfall.

We arrived around 7pm, dead. We were close to completing the “superman” hike, and the fact that Rick Wilcox himself had called it superheroic made the journey all the more rewarding.

After setting up tent and starting dinner (dried soup, the remaining cheese, and the last dregs of bourbon and chocolate), I called my Uncle Steve. We’d talked the previous week about potentially meeting the next morning at the summit of Mt Lafayette. Now we had to reconnect and set a meeting time.

Sarah turned on her phone and found two bars of service, which was just enough to connect with Uncle Steve where he was eating dinner about 15 miles away with his son Aidan and their dog Chloe. They’d driven up that day from Connecticut and were camping at the highway below Mt. Lafayette, he said. We agreed to meet at 10:30am atop Lafayette.

But the plan still seemed a long-shot.

Day 4: 9 miles, 3 summits. Depart 7:30 am, arrive 2:45pm. I woke feeling better than the previous morning, surprisingly. No puffy eyes for either of us, as we’d hiked below tree-line much of the previous day, and my blisters had stopped growing. We fired up the stove and finished the last of the oatmeal and instant coffee packs, then hit the trail for our meet up with Uncle Steve.

A half-mile outside of camp we passed the same elderly couple from the previous day. Somehow they’d crawled up to the Garfield Ridge Campsite after us, probably after sunset, and then left camp before us to get a jumpstart on the day, probably before sunrise. Again I was reminded how actually un-superman my hike actually was.

The summit of Mount Garfield offered great views of our final section of the trip: Lafayette and Lincoln (with Little Haystack Mountain to the far left, although it’s not an officially recognized 4,000-footer because it’s less than 200 feet below Lincoln).

Minutes after summiting Lafayette, I looked down the other side of the ridge to see a white and brown English Springer Spaniel charging up the mountain—it was Chloe, leading the way for Steve and Aidan. We all threw up our arms in recognition and amazement.

It’d been only a week since I’d last seen Uncle Steve, but the reunion was filled with the oddity and novelty of meeting atop a windy mountain in upstate New Hampshire. What a place to meet! So many events had to go right for that to happen: perfect weather, no injuries, smooth driving for Steve and Aidan and then efficient hiking without even having a map! Yet we all found our ways to the top of the same mountain peak at the same time of the same day in the same month of the same year.

We walked the 2.5-mile Franconia Ridge to Lincoln and Little Haystack, and then hiked down Falling Waters Trail to Dry Brook, where we all stripped down and washed off in the icy mountain runoff, my first bath after four days nearly 50 miles in the wilderness without deodorant. Considering the circumstances, I think I smelled pretty good.

The photo at bottom is from atop Lafayette and pointing to the far off mountains where we’d begun our trek. It was a 45-minute drive from the base of Lincoln back to the base of Adams, where we’d parked three days earlier and begun our trek into the White Mountains.

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