5 AM on Saturday morning, I crawled out of bed and drove down route 2 in New Hampshire with Nick Crawford to attempt a Presidential Traverse. If you’ve never tried it, a Presi traverse is something like a 20 mile hike, hitting the summits of most of the highest peaks in the Whites. We were hoping to finish in something like 12 hours, and avoid thunder and lightning despite the 60% chance of rain and storms. Between the two of us, we carried four liters of water, 10 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, rain gear, and a map.
By 5:35, we were on the trail and hiking up towards our first peak, Mount Madison. After an hour of walking, we were about halfway there, but had already been passed by three French Canadians and a lone hiker carrying what appeared to be a large suitcase. By 8, we’d made it to the top, and were hoping to walk the remaining six or so miles to Mt. Washington in time to see the finish of the bicycle hill climb, which happened to be taking place that day.
The next mountain we tackled was Mt. Adams, which according to Nick is the highest roadless peak in the entire northeast. Very exciting. From the summit of Adams, we headed down towards the next peak, Mt. Jefferson.
Coming down from the top of Adams, a familiar-looking girl blew by us, as did three more fit, college-aged students soon afterwards. Using our powers of deductive reasoning, Nick and I determined that these were probably cross-country skiers, which was confirmed after we introduced ourselves. It turns out that it was Kathleen Maynard of Colby, along with three of her friends, two of whom were also skiers at Williams–and they were attempting the same hike as us. Not willing to be outdone by Colby or by girls, Nick and I matched their pace and tagged along towards Mount Washington.
Apparently Mt. Clay doesn’t count as an official presidential peak due to weenie distinctions of height and elevation, but we decided to summit anyways, as it only added a little distance to our route. A quick history lesson: Mt. Clay is named for Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. A prominent congressman in the early 19th century, Clay came up with numerous plans that allowed for new states to be formed without upsetting the balance between slave states and free states. The most important of these by far was the Missouri Compromise of 1820–the act that created the state of Maine. Thus, I’m glad to say that we honored the memory of Mr. Clay by summitting the mountain that bears his name.
Between Mount Clay and Mount Washington, the weather started to get gnarly. Rain started falling, and I was dumb enough to comment that “at least it’s not snowing.” No sooner had those words left my mouth than pebble-sized hail began pelting us. Then, to make matters worse, we started hearing thunder and lightning. Above treeline, half a mile from the summit, this was about the worst place in the world to be for us to be during a thunderstorm.
The danger of our predicament was reaffirmed after one lightning strike where I actually felt a very, very mild snap through my body (does this count as being hit by lightning?). At that point, we ran just about as fast as we could to the summit of Washington, avoiding any further lightning strikes. At the top, there are a whole bunch of antennas and other apparatuses, so we walked over to quickly check out the stragglers still struggling to finish the bike race (the finish clock said something like 2:40 at this point, making for an average speed of like 2.5 mph up the 7 mile auto road). Amusingly, and perhaps sadly too, people were falling off their bikes on the steepest stretch up to the finish line (I think it’s 22%–so says Nick, who has raced it twice), because the hail had made the pavement quite slippery.
For lunch, it was 3 PB+J’s apiece in the visitor’s center, which we unfortunately had to share with the aforementioned stragglers. The weather improved a bit, so we headed out quickly to the next safe point on our route–the Lake of the Clouds AMC hut, which is a mile and a half from the Mt. Washington summit. We made it there with no real problems or lightning strikes, took a quick water break, and headed towards the next peak–Mount Monroe.
As we were leaving the hut, I was preoccupied with the large, dark, threatening storm clouds making their way towards us. I was pretty concerned, but nobody else in our group seemed to mind, so we continued on. Over the top of Monroe, we were quickly enveloped in fog/cloud, which was actually pretty cool–we couldn’t see more than about 10 yards in front of us. It got darker and darker, though, and then started to rain, and then lightning, and then thunder. And then the thunder started to sound like it was getting really close.
At this point, we were faced with a tough decision–three more miles of really exposed hiking until we reached the beginning of the descent and treeline, or a quick mile back to the Lake of the Clouds hut. And when I say we were faced with a tough decision, mostly I mean there was a lot of heated conversation, hand wringing, head shaking, etc. We finally decided to head back to the hut, and amazingly escaped any lightning strikes on the way there. Fortunately, the family with four children all under 12 years of age caught in a similar spot to us also made it to safety (if I ever have kids, I don’t think I’m taking them outside unless there’s 0% chance of rain).
We hung out in the hut for a while, debated whether to head down to the valley on a nearby trail, and ultimately decided to keep going when the weather cleared. The sun came out for a bit, and it the weather seemed promising again, so we prepared to depart again. As soon as we stepped outside though, a bunch of us saw a huge bolt of lightning jump across two relatively innocuous looking clouds heading our way, so we decided to hike out.
One of the Williams skiers’ mom met us at the bottom of the trail down from the hut. A few of us wanted to run to our car to finish the hike, so the friendly mom agreed to drop our packs off at the car. Forty five minutes and five miles later, we arrived at the parking lot in full, bright sunshine.
Totals for the day: something like 15 miles hiked, 5 more run, one-half lightning strike, and a lot of peanut butter and jelly. I had three really good pieces of bacon pizza at the Mallard Mart in Bethel on the way home (highly recommended). Bottom line–the Presi Traverse will have to be attempted again before the end of the summer, as we were tantalizingly close to completing it. We’ve got a few pictures, but I don’t have them yet–I’ll put them up when I do…
Also–”travers” in the title is not a typo–we almost finished, but didn’t, so I left out the e….