Hiking Mount Washington, and a Presidential Traverse

On Sunday my brother and I hiked through the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, doing pretty much a Presidential Traverse (depending slightly on how picky you are about the need to summit every mountain named after a president) and hiking Mount Washington along the way. It is, as Wikipedia says, an arduous hike with a lot of tough ascents and equally demanding descents, meaning that although the total distance is only around 20 miles, your legs never really get a break.

We started, as is generally recommended, in the dark at around 5:30am, doing much of the ascent up Mt Maddison by head torch. This is the largest single climb and, even done with fresh legs and fresh lungs, is a serious challenge. It’s not even a steady trudge up the path as much of the track is made up of a jumble of rocks that must be carefully negotiated, each foot placed with thought. On the plus side, as you get higher and the trees thin out a bit, the views are incredible.

The pre-dawn light on the trail up Mt Maddison.

We hit the first major milestone, the AMC hut at Maddison Spring, after about 2 hours of solid climbing, which was a better pace than we’d expected, although I was definitely feeling the effects of the climb.

Maddison Spring hut. In the summer, a welcoming refuge with beds and hot meals. In the winter, boarded up.

At that point you have the option to bag the actual summit of Mt Maddison by going a couple of miles out of your way, but as this was our first time on the whole trail and we didn’t have a definite idea of how hard we would find it or how long it would take, we elected to push straight on to the main path and hike up to the summit of Mount Washington. This also happens to be a section of the famous Appalachian Trail.

This took us, after about 6 miles and 3 hours of ascending, descending, rock-hopping, and ultimately scrambling up a section of loose scree, to the summit of Mt Washington, via some incredible views down into the valleys where the forests were on fire with the autumn colours that New Hampshire is famous for.

A view down into the valley from somewhere along the route between Mt Maddison and Mt Washington.

The arrival on Mt Washington was a really great feeling. Partly because it is the highest and best-known summit on the route, partly because it marks the mid-point and the end of (most of) the ascending you have to do, and mostly because I knew we’d stop there for lunch and I’d get a chance to rest my legs.

It’s quite strange arriving on Mt Washington after the isolation of most of the rest of the trail and having seen no more than a half-dozen people all morning. The Cog Railway, however, runs into late autumn and brings hordes of day trippers to the top for a hugely disappointing view (there was dense fog/cloud and no more than 10 metres of visibility) and what looked like an even more disappointing hot dog in the slightly weird visitors centre. It was a mix of a handful of serious hikers in technical kit, exhausted, paying $2 for a cup of boiling water to rehydrate their freeze-dried lunch because it saved going out into the 40mph winds and firing up the jetboil, and a lot of cog railway riders in jeans and jumpers eating hot dogs and clam chowder and buying summit tshirts from the gift shop. If I was less of a good person I might have felt a slight sense of superiority and perhaps a little resentment at the fact that there was a long queue to get a photo at the summit sign, almost all of which was made up of people who’d got there by train. But fortunately I am a very good person so I didn’t.

Anyway, we got our summit photo elsewhere and then headed back to the peace and quiet of the trail. (Just a note for anyone who is reading this with the intent of doing a traverse – the visitors centre is a great source of water, boiling water, coffee, snacks and toilets but is only open when the cog railway is running, the timings for which are on their website. In winter there is nothing open on the summit.)

The summit of Mt Washington. Shrouded in fog as is often the case.

After Washington the route continues, gradually downwards but with at least three more peaks of varying significance and challenge. Pretty soon after we got off the top of Mt Washington the visibility improved and the spectacular views opened up again, and we took the advantage of each successive peak to enjoy them and get some more photos.

This photo, from (I think) somewhere between Mt Monroe and Mt Eisenhower shows how isolated much of the route really is.

After Mt Eisenhower, the path descends into the treeline again, where the wind dropped considerably, and the path closed in. Although the views were gone, the autumn colours were beautiful, which was some distraction from just how exhausted I was. As I mentioned earlier, the downhills are not a gentle slope but an uneven staircase of jagged rocks and uncertain boulders, each heavy step down jarred my burning calves and shins. In some of the steepest parts it was almost necessary to sit and use both hands, or nearby trees and branches to get down safely.

Finally, after a brief stop at the last of the AMC huts, Mizpah hut, we pushed on the last three miles to the finish point. The less said about that last 90 minutes the better, I would say. Each step was pretty painful and, no matter how fast we tried to go, the difficult terrain kept us to a fairly steady 2mph, meaning that even such a short distance took forever.

In the end, of course, we arrived at the AMC Mountain Centre where our pre-booked ‘trail angel’ met us and drove us back to where we had left our car at the start.

Feeling like I might never walk again.

I’ll talk in Thursday’s post more about the kit I took for the Presidential Traverse, and some recommendations,  but in the meantime here are two key safety tips for hiking Mt Washington or any of the Presidential Range. The White Mountains are beautiful and exciting but also isolated and, famously, the location of the worst weather in America so should not be underestimated.

  • Obsess about the weather. The main reason the White Mountains are so dangerous is because of how quickly the weather can change, and the fact that some people don’t fully appreciate just how much colder and windier it can be above the tree line. Even for a summer hike, check the long-range forecast when doing your planning, and then check it again the day before, on the day, and if possible during the hike.
  • Take a buffer. Whatever you think the weather will be, based on your checking, be ready for it to be a good bit worse. I see it like in diving: if a diver comes back having used all his air, he’s messed up. Well, if a hiker come back having worn all his clothes, he might not have messed up but something has gone wrong, either he wasn’t prepared properly or the weather changed significantly from what he expected. You should have clothes you don’t plan to wear and food you don’t plan to eat. That’s your safety margin.

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