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Planning A White Mountain Challenge Route

Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain 4000 Footers
Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain 4000 Footers

The game is on!

I am training for a continuous, unsupported traverse of all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers this year, a hike that will be 230 miles long with 75,000 feet of elevation gain.

I call this hike the White Mountain Challenge, in homage to the TGO Challenge, which is a coast-to-coast hike across Scotland of similar length that I’ve completed twice in previous years. Like the TGO, White Mountain Challengers must define their out cross-country routes. Resupply is allowed, but challengers must complete the entire route on foot without using any wheeled or tracked vehicle, including bicycles. For full details, see the White Mountains Challenge Guidelines for Hikers.

Motivation

Why would anyone want to hike all 48 White Mountain 4000 footers in one continuous hike?

I’m undertaking this hike because I want a deeply immersive solo wilderness experience in a landscape I know well and love. With over 1200 miles of hiking trails, six designated Wilderness Areas, and a lively hiking community, the White Mountains are a challenging but beautiful place to hike and backpack.

I’m not interested in setting any kind of speed records on this hike: finishing it will be sufficient. If anything, I want to savor hiking a route which I estimate will take 18 days to complete. My plan is to camp out and carry all of the food I need for the entire hike with me, so I don’t have to resupply in towns along the way and break “the spell” of the hike.

Lincoln Slide, taken from the Owls Head Slide
Lincoln Slide, taken from the Owls Head Slide

Cross-Country Route Planning Challenges

Planning a long distance, cross-country route is very different from following a blazed or signed trail, and my White Mountain Challenge route knits together over fifty hiking trails in addition to sections of off-trail hiking and road walking.

In designing my route, I’ve tried to minimize the hiking distance and elevation gain required to get from the 1st peak to the 48th, but there are all kinds of trade-offs that I’ve had to factor into that calculation, such as:

  • Is it easier to hike a bit further on hiking trails, than to take a shorter off-trail route?
  • Is it preferable to walk on a hiking trail when a road walk is more direct and better graded?
  • What’s the easiest route to hike when carrying a full load of supplies?
  • Is it worth travelling a bit farther in order to hike an easier trail with less grade?
  • How will above-average snowfall impact potentially dangerous water crossings?
  • What is the best season (or route) to hike in terms of daylight hours, temperature, seasonal weather patterns, and insect and wildlife activity.

All of these altenatives have made planning my route very complex. So has the fact that the different planning tools I’ve been using including maps, guidebooks, and several digital mapping tools don’t agree when it comes to computing the total mileage of the hike! (See Distance Discrepancies Between Digital Mapping Tools, Paper Maps, and Guidebooks for an interesting discussion.)

Still I am at the point where I’m fairly confident that I have a viable route plan, although I have a few upcoming training hikes to validate some assumptions about the parts of my route that I’ve never hiked before. Otherwise, I’ve hiked about 90% of my route before and climbed most of the peaks on the White Mountain 4000 footer list multiple times.

North Twin to Mount Hale by Firewardens Trail Bushwhack
North Twin to Mount Hale by Firewardens Trail Bushwhack

Route Overview

I plan to start my hike at the Ravine Lodge and climb Mount Moosilauke first. I’ll be carrying about 40 pounds of food and gear at the start of my hike. From there I’ll hike up to the Kinsmans, following the AT, and up to Mount Cannon, before crossing Franconia Notch and hiking the peaks along Franconia Ridge. From the ridge, I’ll descend the Lincoln Slide and hike off trail to Owls Head Mountain. From there, I’ll hike north past the 13 Falls Tentsite, bag Garfield, Galehead and the Twins before crossing the Little River and bushwhacking to the summit of Mt Hale by the old Firewarden’s Trail.

From Hale, I’ll climb to Mt Zealand and do the Bonds, before descending the Bondcliff Trail to the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River. Going off-trail again, I’ll cross the Pemi at a safe location, loop down to bag the Hancocks, and hike out to the hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway. After a short road walk, I’ll climb the Osceolas, Mount Tecumseh, hike up Livermore Road (which is a trail) and bag the Tripyramids, looping around the Sleepers to Whiteface and Passaconaway. Descending back to the Kanc, I’ll cross the Swift River and climb Mt Carrigan, hiking up to the Ethan Pond Trail to Willey, Field, and Tom before crossing Rt 302. From Crawford Notch, I’ll climb the Southern Presidentials and Mt Washington, before dropping down to Mount Isolation on the Davis Path.

Crossing Rt 16, I’ll climb up to Wildcat D on the Wildcat Valley Ski Trail, a backcountry ski route that should be a moderate off-trail hike as steep climbs go. From there, it’s over to Wildcat A, Carter Dome, The Carters, and Mount Moriah, before descending the Imp trail to Rt 16 again.

In the home stretch, I’ll climb Madison, Adams, and Jefferson, taking the easy way down to Rt 2 via Caps Ridge and Jefferson Notch Road. I’ll head west when I get to Rt 2 and road walk to the Starr King trail head before climbing Waumbek, and finally Cabot, the 48th peak on the list. But the final peak doesn’t count until I hike down to York Pond Road at the Berlin Fish Hatchery, per the 4000 committee peakbagging rules. I have no idea how I’ll get back to my car from there, but I figure I’ll be able to hitch a ride somehow. Worst comes to worse, I can walk back to an AMC shuttle stop.

Wildcat Valley Ski Route
Wildcat Valley Ski Route

Peak Sequence

Rather than list the dozens of trails I need to hike (I will publish a detailed route plan after the hike), here are the peaks in the order that I plan on climbing them. If you’re familiar with the White Mountain 48 and the White Mountain National Forest trail system, you’ll probably be able to figure out most of my route from this information alone.

  1. Moosilauke
  2. South Kinsman
  3. North Kinsman
  4. Cannon
  5. Liberty
  6. Flume, and back to Liberty
  7. Lincoln
  8. Lafayette
  9. Owls Head
  10. Garfield
  11. Galehead
  12. South Twin
  13. North Twin
  14. Hale
  15. Zealand
  16. West Bond
  17. Mount Bond
  18. Bondcliff
  19. North Hancock
  20. South Hancock
  21. East Osceola
  22. Osceola
  23. Tecumseh
  24. North Tripyramid
  25. Middle Tripyramid
  26. Whiteface
  27. Passaconaway
  28. Carrigan
  29. Willey
  30. Field
  31. Tom
  32. Jackson
  33. Pierce
  34. Eisenhower
  35. Monroe
  36. Washington
  37. Isolation
  38. Wildcat D
  39. Wildcat (A)
  40. Carter Dome
  41. South Carter
  42. Middle Carter
  43. Moriah
  44. Madison
  45. Adams
  46. Jefferson
  47. Waumbek
  48. Cabot
Mt Adams, the second highest peak in the White Mountains (5774')
Mt Adams, the second highest peak in the White Mountains (5774′)

Timing

I plan to do this hike in early summer, which is the finest time to hike in the White Mountains. I’m not sure exactly when that will be because we had a lot of snow in the mountains this winter and I need to wait for it to melt and for the rivers levels to drop before I can start my hike. I have plenty to do though in the meantime, from training to carry a much heavier (40 pound) backpack than I’m used to, to finalizing my gear list and food menu.

Big hikes start well before you ever reach the trail. I’ve been planning this one for years.

37 comments

  1. Wow, sounds incredible! I’m really curious about the food you’ll take. How many calories per day? Will you be pulling a five gallon bucket of olive oil on a cart? ;-)

  2. An interesting hike. I well understand the need to get out in spring. A three week hike will put your needs to rest for a bit.
    Clearly, 20 days of food (assuming a couple zeros, one for each week) @ 1.5-1.75 pounds per day will give you MANY options. Looking forward to your pack list.

    • I’ve cut it down to 1.5 pounds a day. Can’t carry much more. Still 3300 calories per day, so I won’t lose more than ten pounds. Details to follow in subsequent posts.

  3. Sounds awesome! I am looking to do a weeklong hike in the Whites this fall. Maybe I’ll be able to cherry pick part of your schedule to use as my base. Will keep an eye on this.

  4. The “carry ALL your food” thing seems like you’re punishing yourself. You must have a really good reason not to do a cache or two along the route….

    • It’s illegal to cache food for more than 24 hours in a national forest. I just assume do this hike without “cheating”. The hikers who originally created the trail system in the Whites didn’t use food caches….back when everything was off-trail bushwhacking. I also think pre-placement of caches would reduce the sense of wilderness I want to experience. Not really a wilderness if you’ve placed a food cache previously.

  5. That looks to be a very exciting and challenging hike. Are you hitching rides?

  6. Good Luck Philip! I spend as much free time as I can in the Whites and completely appreciate how beautiful and how unforgiving they are!

    This is something I had never heard of before you posted about the idea last year! It sounds extraordinary and I can’t wait to read about the trials and tribulations of such a unique challenge.

  7. Wow, this is what I would call an epic hike! Maybe I’ll run into you on the trail as I plan to do a lot of hiking in the Whites this year.

  8. Sounds like a splendid ambitious hike. I my-self am coming to the White Mountains in August to section hike the AT with the Warrior Hike program. It is my first time on the AT, and I am really looking forward to experiencing the US version of my own neighbouring Nordic Mountains. I will follow your blog with interest.

  9. Sounds like a great trip. With 27lbs of food those first few days will be interesting. Are you able to fit it all in a bear bag? I could get nine days of food in my Ursack but not much more. Will keep an eye on your progress.

    • The nice thing is that the food weight does drop daily and I’m been carrying a similar amount of weight all winter. I’m actually thinking about using the same approach on AT section hikes down south to avoid wasting time at town stops. Not totally decided about whether to hang my food or not. There are a fair number of bear boxes along my route which will help, but with that much food, hanging is problematic and time consuming. Two ursacks are a distinct possibility.

      • Yes, for two-three week hikes, I usually use two bear bags. Of interest may be a small caribiner to help with friction over a tree limb, though two lines weighs about the same as one with a caribiner/loop type pulley. That way the loads are not on the tree bark to saw through and get stuck. It takes about 50-75′ of line, though, and is easily tangled in scrub. I usually slip it through the D-Link on the dry bags I use for food rather than use a second caribiner. Setting two lines is often just as quick, unless you are like me and forget till it starts getting dark ;)

  10. Finishing on the Killkenny range is brutal. Once you are over the Weeks(blowdown central) though the Terraces are much easier…

    • The Kilkenny is great. One of my favorite trails in the whites and my pack should be very light by that point. But you raise a good point about spring blowdowns…forgot about that. :-)

  11. Not sure why my comment was deleted, but thanks for making the changes to your post.

  12. You are inspiring me… I would love to do this, but not quite yet. I will be following your progress.

  13. Phil, sounds exciting! Good luck training up for the weight. Is this the same endeavour as the “Direttisima” you’ve mentioned before?

  14. Good luck with this Philip. A wonderful hiking destination, and to aim to do the best it has in one trip is a worthy goal. Train hard, plan well and enjoy.

  15. Sounds like quite the hike. Bushwhacking with a full pack is hard work. Use a trail even if it’s twice the distance. Good luck!

  16. You have me totally intrigued. I think I want to try to do this as a 9-10 day brutal sufferfest of a hike next year… I’ll have to pull out my maps to think a bit about modified splits. I don’t know about the lack of caches, though. I might have to find a way around that.

    I’ve been looking at an 80+ mi 4-5 day route doing the Presidentials, Wildcats, and the Pemi wilderness, and I think that’ll be my testing ground this summer to see if I’m up for the punishment of the full Directissimo.

    Exciting stuff!

  17. Sounds like my kind of fun, but the budget will not pay for the gas right now for a 3000 mile round trip. But as far as trip planning and your questions of snow, I find that Google and the Satelite photos I look at on the Wunderland weather site, tend to be changed every 15 days or so..So you might check on that to see if that is true for whatever website you access current satelite photos for your prep work…

  18. Philip will you be publishing a gear list? What are your plans for shelter?

  19. I’m going to be particularly interested in the 18 day menu you come up with. That will be a big help in planning some shorter outings myself.

  20. Fantastic article and good luck!!

  21. I would like to hike the New Hampshire portion of the Appalachian Trail. I did a portion of it when I was a Boy Scout and remember one part where we could ride a stream that carried you down a smooth granite chute into a deep pond. Have you ever see this? Do you know where it might be? Thanks for any information on that.

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