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A Presidential Solstice

Mount Adams from the summit of Mount Madison
Mount Adams from the summit of Mount Madison

On Sunday, I co-led a mega-hike called a Presidential Traverse for the Appalachian Mountain Club. This is a very long one-day hike, on or close to the summer solstice for maximum daylight, that is started before dawn and usually ends after sunset. The route starts at the base of Mount Madison, the northernmost peak in the Presidential Range, and traverses all of the peaks in the northern and southern Presidential Range, a distance of 20-24 miles and about 9000 feet of elevation gain, depending on the routes taken

Besides the distance, this is a very difficult route to complete in one day because it requires about 10 hours of above treeline travel through an area that often has very high winds and bad weather. In fact, the weather for the day of the Solstice had been very bad,with  lightning, high winds, and heavy downpours. So we hiked the traverse on Sunday, instead. Our patience in waiting the extra day was well rewarded, with another bluebird day and clear skis, though the winds were blowing at 35 mph during the morning hours. Still, we couldn’t have asked for better weather.

As a precaution we’d spotted cars along the route the night before, at Webster Cliff, the Highland Center, Edmunds Path, the Ammonoosuc Ravine, and Caps Ridge Trailheads. I’ve been on other above treeline hikes where we’d had to bail because of thunderstorms, or hikers running out of gas, and having cars along the way is prudent on long hikes like this.

Anne Jarek on the Gulfside Trail
Anne on the Gulfside Trail

Our group started the hike at the base of Mount Madison at 4:30 am with headlamps. We had 21 hikers in our party, including 11 leaders. That’s a lot more people than I normally prefer on a hike, but I’d been anticipating this hike for a month and was really looking forward to meeting and getting to know them.

The rocky pyramid of Madison (5366′) is the fifth highest 4,000 footer in the Whites, requiring a 3.9 mile ascent with 4050′ of elevation gain. Despite having to wake up at 3:15 am, we made good time, setting a 1.5 mph pace for first hour. Everyone was excited to be hiking this route on what was shaping up to be an epic day.

We’d started at the Appalachia Trail head, so-named for the Appalachia train station, part of the Boston-Maine line, that used to shuttle hikers to and from the mountain back in the day. From there, we climbed the mountain via the Valley Way Trail, switching to the very steep and less hiked Watson Path, which brings hikers to treeline just below the summit.

Everyone made it up Madison, except for one hiker who was unprepared for the physical exertion of this hike. We try to screen participants very carefully, but this guy slipped through the process and had to be hiked off the mountain because he was so exhausted and out of shape.

Monticello Lawn at the foot of Mount Jefferson
Monticello Lawn at the foot of Mount Jefferson

One of the trip leaders on the hike volunteered to take him down, a glacial process which ended up taking nearly 10 hours (although he was eventually able to summit Madison before descending.) The rest of the group was long gone by the point where we decided to hike the struggling hiker out. Two of the leaders who’d been helping them, namely myself and my friend Anne, were given a chance to try and finish the hike. We’d been delayed by the incident for over two hours, so it was going to be a long shot.

Anne and I quickly climbed the remaining elevation to Madison and climbed down to the AMC Madison Springs Hut for more water and a quick food break. From there, we started climbing the GulfSide Trail to Mount Adams, the next mountain on the Traverse, but it quickly became clear that we wouldn’t be able to finish the entire route due to the delay.

We were both very disappointed, but decided to see if we could catch up to the rest of the group and at least climb the southern Presidentials, including Mount Eisenhower. The only way to do that was to skip Adams and Jefferson, which we’ve both climbed plenty of times before. We knew they were planning to take a long break at Washington and figured we could catch them there. (Cell phones don’t work in this area, so there is no way to communicate.)

Mt Washington Summit and Weather Observatory
Mt Washington Summit and Weather Observatory

Although Anne and I have done a few hikes together before this trip, we still didn’t know each other all that well. This hike changed that and we really kindled a friendship on that stretch of walking. If there’s a silver lining to this experience, this is it.

From the base of Adams, we hiked the Gulfside Trail past Thunderstorm Junction, through Edumands Col, and past Monticello Lawn at the foot of Mount Jefferson. I haven’t hiked this section of trail for a few years and it was interesting to see how it had changed.

The Gulfside is The Appalachian Trail, so we kept running into thru-hukers, who have started showing up in the White Mountains, about a month earlier than normal. Apparently last winter was very mild and a large number of thru-hikers started as early as February.

The Gulfside is also an interesting trail because it was built by the great trail maker, J. Rayner Edmunds. Many of his trails look like tightly fitted cobblestone roads, fashioned out of the immensely heavy granite boulders that line the mountainsides in the Whites. They’re the only sections of trail in the Whites where you can walk relatively easily above treeline without having to hop from boulder to boulder, or getting jabbed by sharp-pointed rocks sticking out of the treadway surface.

Ascending Mount Monroe
Ascending Mount Monroe, Mount Washington in rear

Anne and I arrived at the summit of Mt Washington by about 2:30 pm, arriving just 10 minutes after a big group from our original party. I rehydrated and ate two ice cream sandwiches as we caught up with our friends, who were delighted to see us. We recounted the travails of the struggling hiker and the events of the morning, while planning out the rest of our hike through the Southern Presidential Range and back down below treeline.

From Mount Washington, we descended the Crawford Path, the oldest hiking trail in the United States. It’s also part of the Appalachian Trail and is the main route used to traverse the Southern Presidential Range, which includes Mounts Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower. Pierce, and Jackson. After climbing Mt Washington, there is very little elevation gain left in the Southern Presidentials and we found ourselves at the top of Mount Pierce, just 3 hours later.

Cairns on Mount Eisenhower
Cairns on Mount Eisenhower

The black flies were fierce though, so we beat feat down the Crawford Path to our cars in Crawford Notch, including an hour of hiking down a dark rocky trail illuminated by headlamp. The total hiking time for the group we’d caught up with was 17 hours and 30 minutes, followed by another hour of so of picking up the shuttle cars left at trail heads. It was a long day!

Although, Anne and I didn’t get a full Presidential Traverse out of this hike, we still had a glorious day above treeline with friends, hiked about 18 miles, and summitted six 4,000 footers, including Madison, Washington, Monroe, Franklin, and Eisenhower, and Pierce. All in all, not a bad days hike or adventure.

Of our original group of 21, 17 hikers completed a full traverse. This was the first time that many of these hikers had ever climbed these peaks, so it’s a doubly splendid victory for them. A hearty congratulations to all.

Onwards summer!

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20 comments

  1. Great pics, greater accomplishment.

  2. Well done. Extremely well done.

  3. Great write up, Philip. The Presi Traverse is one that’s at the top of my list for NH… Some day, I hope! My backpacking group has at times struggled with participants being ill equipped (either physically or gear-wise) for trips, despite our efforts to screen… Does the AMC have a more structured screening process?

    • A big part of the AMC leader training program is on how to screen participants. I wasn’t responsible for screening the hikers on this trip, so I’m not exactly sure how he got through the process, but chances are he would have failed my “what have you hiked lately test.” In the absence of references from other leaders, recent trip performance is usually an excellent indicator of a hiker’s stamina.

  4. Excellent day! The hardest one day hike I ever did was Adams via Airline and Valley Way, so I can attest to the difficulty that one hiker had. I walked like Gumby for days after…

  5. Nice! I’m glad you guys waited until Sunday. I was at Galehead Hut Saturday and while we missed the worst of the storms, I bet the Prezzie Ridge was hit hard. Next year I want to do this hike, so I’m going to train for it for sure.

  6. Very nice, great photos too. I’m looking forward to hiking this section in a few weeks

  7. If our vacation plans hadn’t been vacated by my wife’s unexpected stay in the hospital, I might have seen you there. I’d hoped to drive up Washington last Sunday and spend much of the day hiking the ridge. The wife is fine now, the doctor cleared her to travel and we’ll reschedule our vacation up there.

  8. Now I’ll have to pack more protein bars…

  9. Hi Phillip, it was great to meet you on the traverse and beautiful pictures, and nice write up, really enjoyed it!

  10. Hiking up Pierce is easier then hiking up Valley Way. Now that you did the Traverse, what is your opinion on starting with Pierce and hike North.

    • I’d rather get the big stuff out of the way than start at Pierce. The northern presidentials are so much higher risk than the southern, I’d rather do the north first because I’d hate to come down Valley way, or any of the other northern bailout routes, in the dark.

  11. We dropped a truck at Appalachia Sunday before taking the AMC Shuttle to the Flume to start a 5 day trek back, and the lot was full at 8AM. I am guessing this event explains the overflow (and expected the crowd).
    The hike from the Greenleaf to Galehead Huts in the rain on Monday was, mile-for-mile, the toughest hike I’ve ever taken. No amount of training I can do in the Virginia mountains will prepare me for that hike. (And yeah, I’ve done that trail up Waterfall Mountain in the Massanuttens and think that it doesn’t come close to the steepness coming down Mt. Garfield east of the tentsite…) I’ll remember that day for a long time to come.

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