New Hampshire

New Hampshire

On the summit

Mount Washington , 6,288 ft

Dates climbed:6/27/03, 2/5/05, 4/9/05, 9/24/05, 10/29/05, 10/14/06, 1/18/07, 9/8/07, 9/23/07, 12/2/07, 9/6/08, 9/20/08, 2/1/09, 2/16/09, 3/15/09, 8/22/09, 1/30/10, 1/30/11, 2/4/12, 2/5/12, 7/1/12, …

Total ascents ~35

Trip Report: A President’s Day Presidential Traverse

Matthew Gilbertson, Eric Gilbertson, Jon Hanselman
2:05am to 4:02pm

Author: Eric Gilbertson

More pictures on MITOC Gallery:

What better way to celebrate President’s Day than to climb every mountain in the presidential range? I read on the internet that a winter presi traverse is supposedly “one of the most difficult winter mountaineering challenges in the Eastern United States”, but Matthew, Jon, and I felt up for the challenge. We knew we could handle the distance (~22 miles) and elevation gain (~9000ft); we just had to get lucky with the weather. On Saturday there had been 100mph winds on Washington with fog reducing the visibility to nil, and it would have been suicidal to attempt the 11-mile above-treeline section of the traverse in those conditions. But the forecast for Presidents Day was only mostly cloudy with possible snow flurries, winds around 30mph and temps in the single digits. We figured we could handle that.

We rode up Sunday night with Aaron Yahr, who was doing a half-presi traverse the next day with Matt Boynton, and got to the Appalachia trailhead around 10pm. Matthew and I had done this traverse in February about 4 years ago and it took us 16 hours, so we knew we should get an early start. Sunset was around 6pm so we figured start at 2am and hopefully get done by sunset.

Now between the hours of 10pm and 2am there’s no chance anyone would be hiking, and the only compacted, flat area of snow that isn’t a road or a snowmobiler’s path is the trail, so we all three threw out our sleeping bags on the trail a few minutes in from the trailhead and went to bed.

Our alarms went off angrily at 1:45am and we were off hiking by 2:15. Unfortunately this sleeping-at-the-trailhead plan would force us to each carry our big -15F sleeping bags and pads over the whole ridge, but that was better than stashing them at the trailhead and having to drive all the way back up north at the end of a long day.

I was surprisingly alert for that hour, after putting 10 hours in the sleep bank the previous two nights in anticipation of this trip, though I’m not sure I can say the same about Jon and Matthew. We hit treeline around 4am and it was obviously still dark, but not too windy or cold. Our first president, Madison, was a half-mile hike to the north (but in the opposite direction of our traverse), so we dropped our packs and ran up to tag the summit. That’s probably not winter-school-approved behavior but Matthew and I had been up there so many times we could probably do it with our eyes closed.

By the time we got back down the moon was up. It provided almost enough light through the clouds to not need our headlamps, but not quite. Matthew took over the lead here and we made our way to president number two – Adams. It was still pretty dark on this climb and in those conditions a snow-covered rock looks a lot like a snow-covered cairn from a distance. Not surprisingly we got a little bit lost once, but Matthew whipped out the GPS and got us successfully to the summit, where we knew there would be more cairns.

It was civil twilight by then and the alpenglow was a red line on the horizon. The clouds even cleared out momentarily for us to catch a view of most of Washington (except the summit, which was still in the clouds as usual).

We finally got to turn off our headlamps around 6am after 2 hours of above-treeline night hiking. For the next few hours we had pretty limited visibility with clouds above and around us, and we could probably see just a couple cairns ahead at any time. However, by the time we reached Jefferson we were greeted with a phenomenon I’ve only experienced once before in the whites – undercast. It was amazing. The cloud level was at 5000 ft and we were above it. It was like we had just finished scuba diving and swam back up to an island sticking out of the water. There were more islands too: Clay, Washington, Monroe, and even Franconia ridge in the distance were all poking out of the clouds.

We snapped a bunch of pictures and headed on to Washington, reaching the summit just minutes after the last pesky little cloud rolled away at 9:30. As if the undercast scenery weren’t spectacular enough, there was virtually no wind at all on the summit. The little anemometer on the observation tower which usually spins like a helicopter blade was actually going slow enough to count the three wind cups. We estimated the wind to be 5mph max, maybe gusting to 10. Later I would read the observer comments that the day was probably the best-weather day so far this winter. That’s pretty lucky.

We took the obligatory shirts-off summit photo and posed for the webcam photo too. The temperature might have been in the upper single digits, but with the sun glaring down and almost no wind we actually walked around for about 15 minutes without our shirts on and didn’t get all that cold.

The original plan had been to meet up approximately at the summit with Aaron and Matt Boynton, who had started from Pinkham that morning. But after spending an hour at the summit we decided to just keep going and meet them at the end.

It felt to me like the traverse was almost over at this point, even though we still had over 10 miles to go. The southern Presidentials are so much easier than the northerns, though, and we had already done most of our elevation gain for the day. We descended down to Lakes of the Clouds and on the way passed our first group of hikers for the day. The exchange was something like this:

Them: “so, you hiked up Ammonoosuc this morning?”
Us: “well, actually we started at Appalachia”
Pause to recall where Appalachia is,
Them: “what!? Are you crazy?”

We hiked on to Monroe and sadly that was our last island in the clouds. One of our plans had been to build a snowman on the summit to signal to Matt and Aaron that we had made it there, but that’s easier said than done with 10-degree windswept snow and rocks. We called and left a message on their phone instead.

By noon we were on to Eisenhower and met another group of hikers. This time we told them where we started they responded something like “oh, that’s nice”. Obviously they had no clue where the Appalachia trailhead was.

Shortly after Eisenhower we welcomed the protection of the trees again before hitting our last official president, Pierce. It was only 1:30pm on the summit and we all agreed it would be lame to just end it there, so we pushed on to tag a final (unofficial) president – Jackson. (Apparently the mountain was named after a geologist, not the president, but at least the name sounds presidential).

The trail down to Crawford notch offered awesome glissading practice and we finished the last 3 miles in just 45 minutes, ending in 14 hours total.

We thought the day couldn’t end any better, until we found a buffet of free chips and meatballs at the highland center while waiting for Aaron and Matt to finish. If anyone at the highland center is reading this we thank them for their generosity to us hungry hikers.

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