Earlier this spring I pulled out some maps and looked for routes in the Whites that would excite me. Last summer I enjoyed several point-to-point runs that took me from the outskirts of the WMNF and brought me back to the shop. I’ve always been impressed by how much ground we can cover on foot.
High on my list this summer was linking up a Presidential Traverse and Pemi Loop on foot and getting it done within 24 hours. I knew it would be up there in difficulty with any other effort I’ve put out there but that’s what I was after - that feeling of complete exhaustion when even your lungs are fatigued from breathing hard for 20 hours straight. Monday and Tuesday this week might not have been the best weather window and a few more weeks of training would have certainly helped as well.
That didn’t matter though, I had made up my mind and decided to commit to heading out first thing Monday morning. I spotted my truck at the Zealand Notch trailhead Sunday night, caching some items at Crawford Notch along the way. My pack list was minimal - A bag of Skratch (it was supposed to be one of the hottest days of the summer and hydration was going to be crucial), a few gels, PB & Fluff tortillas, chips, Swedish Fish, Snickers, and some money to buy baked goods from the huts. Other items included a small first aid kit, space blanket, windbreaker, hat, headlamp, and Garmin InReach. It was a tight fit but I carried all this in my Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest with a 2L reservoir. For shoes, I used a new pair of Hoka Evo Mafate 2 shoes.
It always takes a little longer to get everything dialed before a big effort and that meant I didn’t get to bed until late and forced me to sleep in until 6am and a 7am start at the Dolly Copp trailhead - I picked this trailhead because it offers a Presidential Traverse without the need to out-and-back Madison. It would have been in my favor to be at the trailhead at 4am but that wasn’t going to happen. The day started off slow, finding my rhythm on the Daniel Webster Scout trail never happened and my legs were flat. This was not how I wanted to start the first of many climbs. Fortunately the cloud coverage and prevailing northwest winds helped stave off the hot and humid weather I was experience at lower elevations. But when reaching treeline it also disrupted my balance slowing the pace beyond just having tired legs. You can only push through and see what the next sections bring. Those winds would continue on in the northern presidential but swing to tailwinds in sections and were non-existent on the leeward side of the ridge.
On Mount Washington I felt committed to the day. The legs were fine, and my mind was determined to lay it all out there and see this day through. After 4 hours and 15 minutes, I knew I could be at Crawford Notch in reasonable time before the day really started. The Southern Presidential were a breeze, I got out of the clouds and kept the pace smooth but intentional, jogging the flats and descents but making sure never to stress my heart rate as I’d need to save a lot of energy for later on in the route.
I arrived in Crawford Notch in 6 hours 25 minutes and Hilary surprised me with a cooler full of cold beverages and a sandwich. This was an awesome refuel and pushed me to get moving for the next section. The hike from Crawford to Zealand is one of my favorites but it’s a challenge to get over the Willey Range. The A-Z trail winds through birch stands on the western side and is stunningly green throughout the summer. During this section a light rain fell that cooled me off and helped take my mind off the 40 remaining miles.
Zealand Notch was a big refuel station for me and another mental test. If I wanted to bail, this would have been the easiest spot but I was feeling relatively good. I picked up some cheeze-its, and muffin, and filled my 2L bladder to the brim as the next 5.8 miles to Galehead Hut was going to be a big push. I knew once I was on the rim of the Pemi Wilderness, I’d feel more comfortable knowing on was on to the second objective. I crested Guyot at 5pm (10 hours elapsed). The weather was much tamer than the Presidential but Franconia Ridge was so far in the distance that for the first time I felt the race against sunset begin. If I could make it to Lafayette before total darkness I’d be in a good spot.
It was uneventful along the Twinway and down to Galehead hut. They were serving dinner at the hut so I made a quick water refill and kept things moving. The next stop would be Garfield spring to grab another 2L of water. The day started to catch up with me at this point. My pace slowed and I was losing my appetite. On the Garfield summit, I paused to enjoy the views and quickly continued on to Lafayette trying not to waste much time. This wasn't the section where I wanted to spend my golden hour but it was where I was and I enjoyed catching rays of sun burning through the openings of the lush green high alpine forest.
Slow and steady, a 1400' climb to gain Franconia ridge as the sun set to the northwest. At this point, I started to realize it was going to be a minimum of eight hours to cover the remaining milage but that didn't take into consideration how slow it was going to be navigating in the dark. I pulled out my small running headlamp at Haystack and put it on the lowest setting in hopes of conserving power. Clouds were flowing over the ridge so I held it by my waist as I dropped down into the saddle before climbing Liberty and Flume.
Descending down the Osseo trail into Lincoln Woods I felt the long day setting in. Forty miles down, twenty to go, including a 3,000' drop into the darkness. I was starting to run low on water and my stomach was beginning to shut down. Running my headlamp on its lowest setting was also lulling me to sleep. Lincoln Woods (Mile 44) was my last chance to bail. In the low moments, you have to remind yourself why you're out here doing this in the first place. For me that was to dig myself out of the rough patches, persevere, and see what's on the other side. It was going to be another five plus hours on the trail which seemed unfathomable and I was starting to nod off. Sometimes you just have to listen to your body. I laid my windbreaker down on the trail and used my pack as a pillow, turned my headlamp off and stared up at the stars. It was a beautiful night with high clouds passing through. I shut my eyes and gave my mind and body an opportunity to reset.
I tried this strategy on my 100 mile attempt through the Whites last summer, it didn't work. On that effort I had exhausted myself on the climbs in similar heat, leaving me both sleepy and physically spent by the time I reached the halfway point. Tonight I was just tired and knew I had to get up and knock out the rest of Lincoln Woods. It felt like torture, trying to stay awake under so much stress and I did everything possible to focus on getting through these easy miles. Shuffle for a minute, walk for a minute. Three miles of flats, and a two mile gradual climb got me to the last stream crossing en route to Bond Cliff. There was a flat rock that called to me to take another nap. I laid down again, collecting myself and calculating remaining mileage and how much darkness was left in the night.
The Bond Cliff trail traverses for nearly a mile before punching up to the summit. The moon was occasionally breaking through the clouds but not providing enough light to fully illuminate the trail. My headlamp was fading and served me well for the last five hours. As I skirted the edge of Bond Cliff, the moonlight silhouetted Mount Bond. This climb is usually done on fresh legs but in the early hours of the morning, I felt every foot of vertical gain while making the final push.
At 3am, you could already see the eastern horizon starting to light up. I sat on the square bench summit rock for a moment while grabbing a few Swedish Fish to chew on (the only thing I could stomach at this point) and forced myself to get back up and make my way to Guyot. I had to continue to make incremental goals along the way, carrots to get me back to my truck. Completing the "loop" by getting back on the AT and heading down Zealand Ridge was another major crux. My headlamp finally dimmed to the point where I had to take out my phone for some additional light. At this exact moment I managed to smash my knee on a rock and tumble off the trail. It could have been worse but my knee was bruised and pooling blood. I couldn't get off this trail soon enough.
The sunrise didn't warrant photos as it quickly hid behind a low cloud layer as fast as it appeared. Checking my watch, it was a race to duck under 23 hours. I passed Zealand Hut 22 hours 30 minutes elapsed with 2.7 miles left. The trail out is incredibly smooth and fast. I took this opportunity to open it up (9 min/mi pace at that point) which my mind appreciated by my knees did not. I'm not sure why we put these arbitrary time goals on things like this but it was satisfying to put a nice bow on the effort.
And that was it, a satisfying journey through the White Mountains that left me wondering why I put myself through these monster efforts and are they really worth it. This was ultimately a training day to see if I really want to put myself through longer efforts like a supported effort of the 48 4,000 footers. For that, I'll spend a few weeks recovering and re-evaluating summer goals for 2021.