This weekend I’m going to attempt a Winter Presidential Traverse, one of the big winter routes we have up here in the White Mountains. This route – 19 miles with over 10,000 feet of elevation gain – is typically hiked end-to-end in June in one calendar day when there’s maximum daylight. But hiking it in winter is a completely different story and not something a lot of people get the opportunity to attempt. Fewer still, complete it.
We’re not trying to do this hike in one day. Instead, we want to savor it, and drag it out over three relatively casual days and two nights, hiking and camping above-treeline the entire time.
Day 1: Madison and Adams
The first day will be the hardest, climbing up to the Northern Presidential ridge and summitting Mount Madison (5367′) and Mount Adams (5774′). The winds on these peaks can be vicious and are comparable to those on Mt Washington on the other side of the Great Gulf, the glacial valley that separates the peaks. We’ll hike more than 7 miles that first day with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain before finding a place to camp for the night. My pack is pretty heavy, with two days of food and fuel and full above-treeline winter gear. I hope I can make it.
We’re expecting 30 mile per hour winds this weekend, which is a so-so forecast, so hopefully the weather will be on our side for the hike: 50 mile per hour winds would force us off the peaks. If not, we’ll turn around and bail. That’s not too uncommon on this route and I know I’ll still feel a sense of accomplishment even if we have to turn around or quit part-way.
Camping Above Treeline
Camping that first night will be an experience. None of us have camped above treeline before so we’re all curious to see whether our tents will be able to withstand the wind at night. We’re hedging our bets and bringing avalanche shovels and a snow saw along in case we need to build a snow wall to block the wind.
Temperatures will be warm enough that I plan to use an MSR Reactor Stove to melt snow for drinking and cooking. This is an amazingly efficient pressurized stove with a flameless heat source, built-in wind screen, and heat exchanger pot that burns canister gas. We’re actually bringing 2 of them with us to share among 4 people with one 8 oz can of gas per person per day for fuel.
We’re bringing 4 tents on this trip, two free-standing Black Diamond Firstlight tents and a Hilleberg tent – I’m not sure which model. We’ll be using the Firstlights as solo shelters because they’re such a tight fit for 2 people. One member of our party had to bail today due to illness and he would have brought a third Firstlight – now that would have been a sight!
Anchoring the tents at night may be a challenge since parts of the Presidentials are so windswept that snow does not accumulate very deeply on them. We’re all bring snowstakes to use as deadman if we have to bury them, as well as plastic shopping bags which make excellent ultralight anchors that you fill with snow and simply bury if its deep enough.
I’ve treated myself on this trip to some good prepackaged meals from my friends at Packit Gourmet, and beef stew and hearty shepards pie will be topping the dinner menu at night. All in, I’m carrying about 5 pounds of food for the 3 day trek with packaged breakfasts and dinners, and gorp, chex, and cheesits for snackfood during the day.
Eating a lot of food keeps you warm on winter hikes, so I plan to eat pretty constantly. Because I probably won’t be able to stop on this hike, or even expose any skin if the wind is blowing to prevent frostbite, I got myself a 16 oz Nalgene to hold my snack food during the day. It’s binered to my hip belt and a convenient way to carry a lot of at-hand food that I can get at without taking off my gloves.
Day 2: Jefferson, Clay, Washington
The second day, we plan to climb Mt Jefferson (5712′), Mt Clay (5533′), and Mt Washington (6288′), before descending to camp near the Lakes of the Clouds. This will be a much easier day than the first with less than 5 miles of hiking and only 2,000 feet of elevation gain. That’s the trick to climbing these peaks – once you get up to the alpine plateau, the individual peaks are far easier to climb in sequence than if you were to try to climb them one at a time.
Jefferson is probably the toughest of these peaks because it is notoriously windy, but Washington will undoubtedly be the climax of the day, even though I climbed it just a few weekends ago. There’s something about Mt Washington that makes you respect and even fear its brutality in winter. The highest peak in the Whites, it is a massive mound that dominates the Presidential Range.
After we descend from Washington, we plan to camp somewhere amound the alpine tarns in the Lakes of the Clouds area. The Lakes Hut is closed in winter, in fact half buried, So I imagine we’ll pitch our tents a few hundred yards east of the hut amidst the boulders below the Tuckerman Lawn. I imagine a freestanding tent will come in very handy here and hope to find a site that is sheltered from the wind by a large piece of stone!
Day 3: Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce
The final three peaks of the traverse, Monroe (5384′), Eisenhower (4780′), and Pierce (4310′) should be pretty easy if the weather cooperates. Most Presidential Hikes proceed from North to South to get the hard climbs out of the way while you are still fresh. After two winter nights – think 12 hours of sleep in a super comfortable -25 degree down sleeping bag, we should hopefully be well rested enough to zoom over these southernmost peaks and quickly hike down to Crawford Notch to our cars.
My pack is packed and I’m ready to leave tomorrow afternoon for the drive up north. Here’s hoping we have a good time and a safe trip over the next few days. Until then.
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