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Backpacking the Northern Presidentials

Worst Weather in the World Sign
Worst Weather in America

When I left The Perch on the 3rd morning of my Great Gulf and Northern Presidential loop, the wind had died down but I was still hiking in near white-out conditions with 1 cairn visibility. After quiting at 4pm the previous evening and hiking below treeline to camp out, I hiked back up the Israel Ridge Trail and the Randolph Path to Edmunds Col to resume my route from the previous day. I smiled a rye smile when I passed the “Worst Weather in America” sign, knowing that I was hiking back into the lion’s den. More ass-puckering good fun was in store.

The previous day had already been pretty dicey, with a mist occluded ascent of Mt Washington’s headwall (1600 feet in 0.8 miles) over a very “dynamic avalanche” slide, then up Mt Clay and Mt Jefferson in progressively worsening mist, wind, and rain. I’d known ahead of time that this route would be very strenuous, but doing it in white-out conditions, high winds, and horizontal rain was a bit over the top.

The Loop Trail Junction - Up to Mt Jefferson
The Loop Trail Junction – Up to Mt Jefferson

On the other hand, I know these mountains very well and was eager to put my navigation and judgement skills to the test. But I doubt I’d hike a similar route in an area that I knew less intimately. Even then, I had to repeatedly rely on my compass to make sure I was headed in the right direction and on the right bearing because the mist hid all of the visual cues I normally rely on. Good practice for when the shit hits the fan, next time.

The Great Gulf and Northern Presidential Loop
The  3-day Great Gulf and Northern Presidential Loop

The Northern Presidentials – Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and Mount Madison, are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest peaks in the White Mountains, after Mt Washington which is number one. They’re connected by the Gulfside Trail which runs continuously above treeline for about 6.5 miles from Mt Washington to Mt Madison, with short spur trails to each of the summits. Calling them trails might be generous, because all of these peaks are crowned by boulder fields and require extra careful footwork to climb. The trails up them are usually just marked by rock piles called cairns, with few blazes or signage.

Worsening Weather

When planning this trip, I really hadn’t expected such bad weather. The forecast had predicted a 40% chance of afternoon showers after 2pm, but no lightning, with wind speeds of 40 mph gusting to 70 mph, and nighttime temperatures of 40 degrees fahrenheit. Not a great forecast, but something I could hike around if I got an early start each morning.

But by day three, the weather had worsened and it was already raining when I broke camp at 6:30 am. Bailing out did cross my mind, but I was about as far from my car as you can get and had little hope of getting back to it within 24 hours unless I finished my route. I also didn’t want to come back and finish the third day of this trip later in August – I was getting paid, believe it or not, to hike it and log GPS coordinates. I had plenty of time on this final day and reckoned I could finish the route before dark, even if the weather wasn’t that great.

Self-Portrait on Adams 5
Self-Portrait on Adams 5

Adams 5

From Edmunds Col, I continued north on the Gulfside Trail up to Adams 5, a sub-peak of Mt Adams on the Trailwrights 72 list. I’ve actually climbed it before (but it didn’t count) so I had a decent idea where it was along the trail and found it without too much trouble in the mist. Although it’s not far from the Gulfside Trail, I couldn’t see the Gulfside from Adams 5 (less that 50 yards away), so I took a backbearing on my compass, just to make sure I could find my way back to the my intended route.

The wind was definitely howling on Adams 5, coming in from the northwest, so I climbed behind one of the rocks on the summit and snapped a photo of myself on the peak. The view from here is usually quite marvelous, but I couldn’t see anything but mist in front of me.

Mt Adams Summit Cone
Mt Adams Summit Cone

Mt Adams

After hiking back to the Gulfside Trail on my backbearing, I continued north to Thunderstorm Junction, a huge cairn and trail junction that is 0.3 miles from the summit of Mt Adams. With limited visibility, I decided to follow Lowes Path to the summit of Adams because I’ve always found it to be the easiest route through the boulder field to the top of the mountain. Mysteriously, the wind abated as I was climbing up Adams, but quickly resumed its fury when I descended.

Once again, I’d set a backbearing on my compass, which is good, because I did get disoriented in the mist. On the return trip, I could have sworn I was hiking the wrong way, but I followed the bearing right back to Thunderstorm Junction. There are a lot of trails that terminate on the summit of Adams, each with their own set of cairns, and I often take the wrong one down even when there’s blue sky out. It was good I was being extra cautious and that I trusted my compass.

JQ Adams in the foreground, Mt Madison beyond
JQ Adams in the foreground, Mt Madison beyond

 Mt Madison

Once back at Thunderstorm Junction, I continued north on the Gulfside Trail again, popping in briefly at the AMC’s Madison Spring Hut for some water, before climbing Mount Madison. On the way up, I heard distant thunder and then it started to hail. That’s always a really bad sign in my experience because it means that a storm is fast approaching. I quickened my pace and got over the most exposed part of the summit as soon as possible, before heading down the Osgood Trail.

The Osgood Trail
The Osgood Trail

Lightning and Hail

The Osgood Trail runs from the top of Mt Madison all the way down to the Great Gulf Trail which would take me back to my car. But there’s one particularly dicey 1.2 mile section of the Osgood Trail from the summit of Madison down to treeline that is completely exposed to the elements. The trail along this stretch is a long curving ridge that runs over a half dozen mounded hills that are capped with huge rock cairns. The ridge and the mounds are part of a huge boulder field and careful footwork is required to hike through it.

I was probably 10 minutes into this section when it started to hail again, but this time, I could also see flashes of lightning in the mist. I had no idea where the lightning was striking, but I wasn’t about to temp fate. So I ran down to a short section of krumholz between two of the rocky mounds and threw my backpack into the bushes, before sitting down on the rocky trail and curling up into a tight ball to wait out the storm. The sky got real dark and it started to rain and hail heavily. The wind was howling and I was getting cold sitting on the ground with water flowing all around me.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been caught in a hail storm so I knew what to do to minimize my risk. But I was feeling very exposed. I had no idea how long the storm would hang around, and there was no place to go to find safety.

But the storm blew over in about 20 minutes because the wind speeds were so high and I descended the remaining above-treeline section in gradually clearing skies. Within 2 hours I was back at my car and drove back to boston in sunny weather. What a contrast to the weekend!

Camping at The Perch
Camping at The Perch

Final Thoughts

That was one hell of hike in fairly difficult weather conditions, but I really enjoyed using the skills I have developed as a hiker to finish the entire route. I also did this hike entirely solo and saw surprisingly few people in the mountains last weekend, especially considering the fact that August is usually such acrowded time in the Northern Presidentials. I hate to say it, but if you want some solitude in the high peaks in summer, get good at hiking in lousy, cool weather. You’ll have the place all to yourself.

The total distance of this trip was 22 miles with 9,ooo feet of elevation gain.

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  1. Epic! That’s about all I can say about that.

    I was going to ask which tent you were using for the trip, but I see the answer in the last picture of this post. It seems a free standing tent with a small footprint is one of the keys to backpacking in the Presidential range. Even if I could manage to set up my tarp on the wooden platforms, I’m not sure I would trust it in serious thunderstorms that high up. Down low, it’s fine, but the Presis are not the most forgiving area ;-)

    • Exactly. I thought long and hard about which shelter to bring, but decided that I’d bring a freestanding tent despite the added weight because it was likely that I’d have to pitch on a platform at The Perch or The Valley Way tentsites. I’ve used a tarp in those circumstance before and it’s sub-optimal because of the drainage issues, when you are expecting night-time rains. So I went the luxury route and brought the tent. It’s under 3 pounds, but it made the trip fairly luxurious in the shitty weather. After being battered all day by the wind and rain, it was nice to escape inside and zip up the door.

  2. Wow quite a trip, sounds like you were more than up to the challenge. I am actually planning a Presidential traverse next week, and now I’m actually a little more nervous. I don’t really have much in the way of compass skills. How problematic do you think that is? I’ve done plenty of hiking in the Whites and never had a problem, but now I’m second guessing myself…..

    • If the weather is crappy like this, don’t go. I’ve cancelled numerous trips up to the Northern Presidentials because of bad weather, including Presi traverses (which take 19 hours on average). The most important skill you need to hike the northern presis is some basic weather forecasting knowledge (so you can decide to hike someplace else when the weather is shitty) I track the high summits forecast (mt wash Obs) and the weather charts at noaa.gov for Mt washington, NH for 5-6 days before a trip to see what the weather trend is and what it will be during my time above treeline. I pay particular attention to the lightning forecast and the predicted wind gust speeds.

      In good weather, you can hike the Presidentails safely. But if there is low cloud and zero visibility or the winds are more than 50 mph sustained, they’re best left for another day. Temperature is also a factor, but less so in summer. I should add that I was wearing a base layer, fleece, and rain shell my entire time above treeline on this trip. It was pretty cold with the wind chill even in August.

      People will say, “how hard can it be? AT thru-hikers do it all the time”. That’s not quite true. The AT doesn’t go over the summits but stays on the Gulfside trail “trunk”- which can still be hard to follow in the mist because there are so many cairns at the trail junctions that belong to different trails. Hiking up each summit is where the difficulty lies in low visibility.

      The trickiest peaks requiring compass use in bad mist are Adams, Jefferson (very confusing trail system on top), Clay Loop/Jewell Trail to Washington summit, and the route from Washington to Lakes of the Clouds hut. While it is always safer to stay on the cairned routes, you can simply hike a bearing over the boulder fields if you know where you are and you can use a compass. The only downside to this is if you break a leg and you’re going solo because the searchers won’t find you until the weather clears.

      But all this can be avoided if you simply postpone your trip until the weather gets better. July and August weather is very difficult and probably the worst time to find a good weekend weather window in the whites due to thunderstorm activity, I think June and September are by far the best time to hike the Presidentials.

  3. I have a question for you although it may sound like a no-brainer to you. It’s my feeling if anyone is hiking about treeline that the best thing to do is lay low in a ball and wait it out. If below treeline, I personally wouldn’t lay low on a hiking path with numerous trees lined up along the trail. My feeling although just as nerve racking, is that I would keep hiking as fast as I can in a safe way (tough to hike fast when the trail is full of exposed rocks + roots) to get to a safer place (car, hut etc). What would you do below tree line in a bad lightning/thunder storm? My feeling is that it’s a catch 22 scenario. One of those, damned if you do and damned if you don’t type of situation. I also heard in a scenario of hiking in a storm that fellow hikers should be around 50 ft apart during a storm. Can you give me your opinion on this? I realize that no matter which way a hiker chooses to deal with this type of situation that there is always a chance of getting hit. thanks

    • I think it’s a perfectly valid question. It’s really a judgement call about whether you hike as fast as you can for the trees or you wait it out. Sort of depends on how close the lightning strikes are and how close the trees are. Even then, there’s a chance you will get zapped. I threw my pack into the bushes because it had metal tent poles inside. But if lightning had struck the pack, I probably would have been dead anyway or hurting because the current would have traveled over the rocks and zapped me too. You have the same problem with forests that have thick root systems.Rocks and roots act like cables and conduct the energy out to a wider area.

      If the storm is above me and the lightning is close and I am in forest, I get down as low as I can and make like a slug. I’ve been caught in a couple of bad storms like this in the Mahoosics and on the Long Trail and lived to tell the tale. I also know people who have been struck by lightning, so I know that it can happen. They’re never really the same afterwards…

      The best prevention is to not hike in hail and lightning. On hindsight, I probably should have turned around and hiked down Madison back to the hut instead of trying to top the mountain and get down the Osgood Trail. That would have been the safest course of action. The only reason I didn’t do it is that was I hoped the first hail storm would blow through. The weather was being very dynamic – rain one moment, sunshine and rising mist the next and I hoped the trend would be in my favor. It wasn’t and I probably should have known better. Plus holing up in the rocks at the top of the trail provides no safety at all. That’s why getting into a cave or under an overhang provides no safety in a lightning storm.

      Regarding multiple exposed hikers – you’d think that spreading out would help – and it probably would, but I’d hate to expain to the group that we’re doing this to reduce the odds that any of us wil get struck by lightning by increasing the odds that one of us will. Follow me?

  4. Agreed about bad weather and solitude. My first time up Adams it was sleeting/raining sideways and just all-around lousy weather. And wouldn’t you know I had the summit entirely to myself. The same was not true on Jefferson, despite similar conditions. There were two 20-something guys huddling behind a rock and smoking (!) cigarettes.

  5. Sounds like a crazy trip Philip! Glad you could trust your compass skills.

  6. See I would have thought that July and August would have the best weather, shows what I know. Any suggestions for a diff. option for a trip that’s 4 days and 3 nights in New England? A loop would be great. Second question do you have any map and compass training courses coming up?

  7. I’m hoping to do the Presi-traverse next Saturday, hopefully the weather is more like this coming weekend than the weather you got!

    you are a brave man, lightning and all, hopefully your wife doesn’t read this entry =P

  8. Great Trip report and good advice on lightening. My wife and I summitted Jefferson and had planned to hike to Washington when the Weather turned nasty on us. Hail turned to lightening and we had to retreat back to the Cap trail and hide under some rocks until the storm passed. It was awhile and my wife hated me for dragging her up there, but I think both of us remember that hike fondly. It taught us that all those signs about “Weather changing quickly above tree line” arn’t just to scare tourist.

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