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The White Mountains Challenge: A Self-Supported Journey Over the White Mountain 4000 Footers

Cabot to Moosilauke Diretissima Route
Cabot to Moosilauke Route

I have been dreaming about climbing all of the White Mountain 4,000 footers in one continuous hike (see Hiking a White Mountain Direttissima) since the winter of 2011. I’d hoped to give it a try in 2012, but my father passed away that spring and I had to spend time with my family instead. However, I’ve never stopped thinking about this hike and plan to attempt it in 2014.

Make no mistake – this is a difficult hike. There’s no well-defined route, it requires significant backcountry skills, and it is on par in length and elevation gain with hiking Vermont’s Long Trail or the Maine section of the Appalachian Trail. For example, the route plan for my upcoming 2014 attempt is over 240 miles long with more than 75,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain over the course of 15-18 days.

Why do it?  It’s a great excuse to spend 2-3 weeks fully immersed in the mountains and trails of the White Mountain National Forest  (WMNF), one of the United State’s most-visited National Forests. Larger than the state of Rhode Island, the WMNF is over 800,000 acres in size and has over 1200 miles of maintained hiking trails, making it a mecca for serious hikers and adventurers.

White Mountain Challenge Guidelines for Hikers

The White Mountain Challenge is self-supported adventure where participants, known as Challengers, must climb all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers completing the entire journey over and between these mountains by foot. There is no set route so Challengers must plan their own. Challengers can cover the distance on hiking trails, off-trail, or by road, by walking or running, but cannot use any motorized, wheeled, or tracked vehicles during their journey. Resupply is permitted but Challengers much be self-supported without external assistance. Finally, the White Mountain Challenge is not a race or an event and can be undertaken and completed year-round.

The rules are simple.

  1. Challengers can take any route as long as they summit all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers.
  2. Challengers must complete their entire route on foot. In winter, skis and snowshoes are permitted.
  3. Transportation by any motorized, wheeled, or tracked vehicle is not permitted between the start and end point of a Challenge route.
  4. Routes must begin on a maintained road and end on a maintained road. In winter, seasonal roads must be “open” when Challengers leave or arrive at them.
  5. Challengers must observe all US Forest Service Rules, White Mountain National Forest Rules, and New Hampshire State Laws.
  6. Challengers can travel alone, in pairs, or larger groups.
  7. Resupply is permitted but Challengers can only resupply themselves by means readily available to any other Challenger. (see FAQ)
  8. The White Mountain Challenge is not an organized event and does not have to be completed in a set interval of time.
  9. Participation in the White Mountain Challenge is at your own risk.

Frequently Asked Questions

How difficult is it to do a climb all of the White Mountain 4000 Footers in one trip?

Very difficult. You should expect to hike over 240 miles over the course of 10-20 days with approximately 75,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain depending on the route you plan.

Do Challengers need to use hiking trails?

No. Any overland route is permissible as long as it is accessible to anyone, does not violate US National Forest Rules, White Mountain National Forest Rules, or New Hampshire State Laws.

Can Challengers run their route instead of hiking it?

Yes.

Do Challengers have to camp during their entire route?

No. Challengers are free to camp, stay in shelters, at campsites, cabins, or other lodging, as long as they walk to and from each location along their route.

Is there a time limit on how long a White Mountain Challenge can take?

No. Challengers can take as long as they want to complete their route.

Can Challengers resupply during their journey?

Yes. As long as they travel to and from a resupply point by foot and the resupply point (the post office, a local store) is available to any other person undertaking the Challenge. Having a support team carry food in to a Challenger and meeting them along their route breaks the self-supported spirit of Challenge and is discouraged.

Can Challengers be resupplied by non-Challengers during their journey?

No. Challengers can only resupply themselves.

Can Challengers pre-stage food drops by caching food along their route, in advance?

No, this violates White Mountain National Forest Rules which prohibit unattended food storage for more than 24 hours.

Can Challengers be picked up by a vehicle and returned to the place where they left off the previous day to resume their route? 

No, all travel must be by foot.

Has anyone ever finished a White Mountain Challenge?

Yes, Mats Roing finished a hike of all of the White Mountain 4000 footers in 2007 over the course of 10 days and 14 hours that complies with the rules listed above. You can read a short description of Mat’s route on Views from the Top or the published chapter in Carol Stone White’s Peak Experiences: Danger, Death and Daring in the Mountains of the Northeast (Kindle). Note that removal of a foot bridge across the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River makes duplication of Mat’s route difficult. Mats carried all of his own food for the duration of the hike and camped out each night, except the last, which he spent at a B&B.

What is the difference between the White Mountain Challenge and a Diretissima?

You can make use of motorized, wheeled, or tracked vehicles during a Diretissima but not during a White Mountain Challenge. This was the case when Henry Folsom completed a Diretissima in 1970 over the 46 White Mountain Four Thousand Footers (there were two fewer peaks on the list then) where he climbed all of the peaks and walked the distances between them, but drove home each night to sleep in his own bed (Henry T. Folsom, The Four Thousand Footers, “Diretissima”, Appalachia, 38:#4, p.65, 1971.)

How hard would it be to complete the White Mountain Challenge in Winter?

It would be quite difficult, perhaps even impossible to do without support or resupply.

Can you stop for meals or lodging at any of the AMC huts along your Challenge route?

Yes, provided that you don’t use motorized, wheeled, or tracked transport, and travel to and from them by foot.

What do you mean by “tracked” transport?

Snowmobiles, snow cats, or dog sleds.

Can you hike a White Mountain Challenge with a dog?

Yes.

Doesn’t allowing Challengers to resupply during their journey, sleep indoors, or stop for meals make the White Mountain Challenge to easy to complete.

Perhaps a little, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many Challengers attempted to do unsupported routes where they carry all of their own food with them and sleep outdoors all of the time. Still, you’d be surprised at how hard the Challenge is to complete even if you resupply and enjoy creature comforts along your route. Relaxing some of the austerity conditions also means people of different ages and fitness levels can attempt or complete a Challenge and lets them do it on their own terms.

Why can’t mountain bikers participate in the White Mountain Challenge. 

Mountain biking is prohibited in most of the White Mountain National Forest.

Can you complete a White Mountain Challenge without crossing any roads?

No. You’ll need to cross a few roads.

Can you walk along roads on a White Mountain Challenge?

Yes. In some cases it might be the most expeditious route, although not the most scenic.

Can you hike off trail along your Challenge route?

Certainly, but there are always trade-offs when hiking off-trail in the White Mountains. Plan carefully.

Is the White Mountain Challenge a race?

No. Personally, I’d just be happy to finish.

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38 comments

  1. Sounds Challenging, to say the least. Three weeks is probably doable from a logistics standpoint. Though, you will not care for the additional weight at first. Weather could be a real pain, especially near Mt Washington. Wet wood is always difficult to deal with.

    Lets see, 18 days? and 75000′ total elevation? Over 4100 feet, a day! You know the western crowd is going to start laughing. They don’t know north country terrain…

    Good Luck!

    • At my age, I expect to take a few rest days along the way and a lot of Vitamin I. Now tell me about that Magnesium-framed pack you own. I’m looking for a heavy hauler that remains lightweight when it’s empty. I’ll be humping a lot of food.

  2. Man that sounds like fun. I need to improve my off trail skills so I can do these types of trips. Have a great time and I look forward to your trip report.

  3. Wow, sounds like an epic hike! What season would be best to do this?

    • Probably in spring or Autumn. There are a lot of factors to consider. Snow lingers into May. Maximum daylight per day is in late June. There are no bugs in Autumn. It isn’t a trivial planning task.

  4. What % of this hike would be off trail?

    • Depends on the route you choose. Probably less than 1%. You could do more, but there’s a cost to it.

      • I’m trying to picture your route in my head…the only off trail section I could imagine would be owl’s head via Brutis/black pond. However this is assuming you don’t approach owl’s head from Garfield and just go up the slide.

      • My route is a bit fluid in that area and I’m still fiddling with it but I don’t expect to do the black pond bushwhack. The Lafayette – Lincoln slide has some merits to it. I’ll post my final route plan before the hike – although these things invariably change when you hike the hike.

        I would think this kind of trip would appeal to you. Alex even asked whether he could come with me last week although I plan to do this solo.

      • This stuff definitely appeals to me but unlike you and Alex I have extremely limited vacation time(only a few years out of school). Maybe in a few years once I’ve established myself a bit more I can consider such a trip

  5. One word summary …. YOUSA!

    Question about resupply being allowed but not “support”. Does that include “caching” supplies with people in structures that you walk to. Or mailing supplies to yourself (general delivery) where you walk to the PO?

    Looking forward to living vicariously on this one;-)

    • You can mail food drops to structures like the post office, huts or B&Bs.I suppose I should spell that out more. That is different than meeting a resupply team at a camp site or a hut because the Challenger isn’t resupplying themselves – someone is carrying the food in food for them in order to get around the spirit of the Challenge. I can bullit-proof the rules further to stop this kind of behavior but that’s probably a waste of time because it will all come out in the court of public opinion when Challengers describe their routes.

      Caches are illegal in the WMNF.

      • Jim – How’s this.

        Can Challengers resupply during their journey?

        Yes. As long as they travel to and from a resupply point by foot and the resupply point (the post office, a local store) is available to any other person undertaking the Challenge. Having a support team carry food in to a Challenger and meeting them along their route breaks the self-supported spirit of Challenge and is discouraged.

      • That’s much clearer.

  6. Philip, a worthy challenge to your advanced skills. Could you please follow up with an article on the set of skills required to take on this challenge? What are they and how are they developed? What will your planning involve? And how will the skill set affect the success of your journey? That would inform your readers on what it takes to accomplish this kind of mixed hiking challenge.

  7. Is Mats Roing really the only person to ever complete such a trip? I find that surprising, given the number of Gridiots-in-progress I know and all of us who are addicted to the Whites. I guess it’s because it’s tough to find a three-week chunk of time to take off into the hills, huh?

    • Most gridiots are day hikers. Things get much much harder when you link the peaks together in a continuous journey. Hopefully some of them will rise to this Challenge. Imagine, you could finish the Grid in 12 months!

      If others have done this hike, hopefully they will come forward, but I’ve spent considerable time in the Appalachian Mountain Club archives researching this quest and couldn’t find mention of anyone else.

      • Imagine if you could finish the Grid in 12 months! If only the weather would cooperate….

        I’m going to forward this blog to a thru-hiker/Gridiot friend of mine and see if she might think about doing such a hike. I know she was looking to do something closer to home this year and a bit shorter than your average six months away from home.

      • By all means – I’d like more people to try this.

      • I wouldn’t mind giving it a go but if I am planning on three-four weeks off for hiking, I’m doing JMT first. :-)

  8. This sounds like a lot of fun, though difficult and challenging. And as it’s more localized it seems more practical that some other ideas like hiking the entire AT. It could be something I aspire to. I will follow the succeeding posts as you plan and undertake this eagerly.

  9. Did you write the rules or were they already in existence? If you wrote them, why the change in opinion from your early direttissima post?

    “That’s the appeal for me, but I’d like to think that anyone attempting a hike like this should be able to complete it the way they want without regard for any kind of set rules.”

    I guess I just don’t understand the need for “rules” on how to hike…clearly the opposite approach from HYOH…unless it’s a race or something. I tend to agree much more with your comment from 2012.

    • Most of the rules are copied from the ones governing hikes over the White Mountain 4000 footers and administrered by the Appalachian Mountain Club (which are nearly universal on all Northeastern peakbagging lists). These are the same rules that were “implied by peakbagging conventions” in my 2012 post on the topic. The only one I added was the one about resupply to prevent corporate teams from sponsoring athletes and turning this Challenge into a race. You’re welcome to ignore them all of course, but they follow local convention.

  10. Envies as heck. You’re planning a superb walk Philip and go for it.

  11. I was trying to see if Medivac helicopter rescue violated the rules but then I found the “no motorized transport” section. Now, I’m thinking hot air balloon extraction…

  12. Philip,

    What method you’ll use to protect your food from wildlife?

    Good luck!! :)

  13. How much will your pack weight at the start? What is your base weight?

  14. The first fully unsupported New Hampshire 48 that I know of is reported here:
    http://arlettelaan.wordpress.com/
    11 days 19 hours flat, trailhead to trailhead
    pretty stout effort.

  15. Any thoughts about attempting this again?

    What big adventures do you have in mind for 2015?

    • Possibly. I haven’t decided. For 2015: I’m in the preliminary stages of planning a GR20 trip in Corsica and I hope to get back onto the AT for a few weeks next year. Other than that, I expect to do a lot of off-trail hiking in northern New Hampshire, near the Canadian border. I’ve got canister fever!

  16. The GR20 looks awesome. I’ve never heard of it before.
    Good luck Philip, we’ll be sure to follow your adventures.

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