I made two attempts to complete the White Mountain Challenge (a 230+ mile continuous hike over all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers) earlier this month. Blisters, the heat, and dehydration got the better of me, but my greatest hurdle was my inability to pace myself, slow down, and do less mileage and elevation per day.
I have this thing about unscheduled time, which in some ways is one of my strengths, but gets in the way when self-restraint is called for. I always like to keep pushing forward and getting stuff done in my personal and work life, and the same holds true when I hike solo. I don’t stop very often to rest and I don’t like stopping to camp before early evening. If there’s still daylight, I’ll keep hiking until just before sunset. Unscheduled time when I’m not doing “anything” makes me anxious. I’m a different person if I’m hiking with other people, but when I’m alone, I fill the time with miles.
I can blame blisters (under my caluses, a first), hot humid weather, and my body’s inability to keep pace with sweat loss, but the biggest challenge of the White Mountain Challenge for me is mental not physical. I can do the miles and climb the heights, but I push too hard when I hike solo. Hiking solo for me is like being able to eat as much of your favorite dessert as you want. I like doing it so much that I have a hard time stopping or pacing myself. I’m going to have to change that to finish this route and that’s my Challenge.
I’ve completed long hikes of similar length like the White Mountain Challenge in the past (twice on the TGO Challenge) in somewhat similar conditions, but when the weather is dangerous in Scotland or you feel like sh*t, you can walk around the big peaks and high mountain passes and thread your way through the valleys. Not so, in the White Mountain Challenge. You need to climb every single one of the 4000 footers to finish the hike. That ups the ante.
However, I’m a resilient guy. So much, my family likens me to the Energizer Bunny. I aim high, but when I miss my mark, I bounce back quickly and try again, learning and adapting with each attempt. That attitude – you can do anything if you work hard enough at it – is actually one of the core themes that runs through this entire web site. I’ll try this hike again in cooler weather, which should help ameliorate some of the issues I encountered on my first two attempts. I’m already trying to train myself how to slow down on solo hikes, which will be a summer project in preparation for my next attempt at this mega-hike.
Take One: South-to-North, No Resupplies
On my first attempt, I started at Kinsman Notch and climbed Mount Moosilauke first before heading north along the Kinsman Range to Franconia Notch. Moosilauke is the southwestern-most 4000 footer on the White Mountain 4000 footer list and it makes sense to climb it first so you don’t have to loop back later and tag it.
Here’s a PDF of my Moosilauke-to-Cabot route plan and an online map of the route. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned about planning a Challenge route if you’re interested in attempting this hike.
I stashed my food bags, two Ursacks with 28 pounds of food, at the base of Mossilauke and climbed the peak without them. Upon my return, I collected them and started climbing Mt Wolf on the Appalachian Trail. It was really hot and this section of trail is quite dry despite the fact that the treadway is often muddy. I was moving slowly with all that food, but made it to the Eliza Brook Shelter by late afternoon.
The next morning I climbed three more 4000 footers, South Kinsman, North Kinsman, and Cannon Mountain before hiking down the Lonesome Lake Trail to Lafayette Place, a state-run campground in Franconia Notch. I ran into a friend at the base of Cannon who climbed up to the Kinsman Ridge Trail with me, after I hung my food bags in the woods again to lighten my load. I was clearly fatigued, embarrassingly so, and had to take numerous breaks as we climbed up the steep and rocky trail.
Robbie had on his ultralight pack and 1 night of food but was very patient and kind to me as we climbed, pausing with me when I needed to rest. I was sad to see him head southwest over the Cannon Balls when we got up to the ridge trail and I headed east to the Cannon summit.
On the way down from Cannon, I remembered that Mats Roing, who finished a Challenge-worthy hike in 2007, had stopped for the night at Lafayette Place, which has showers. While this detour wasn’t on my route plan, having a shower and washing my clothes which were soaked through with sweat was a welcome relief. The next morning I hiked to the Liberty Spring Trail on the Franconia Bike Path, which is far easier and faster than following the Cascade Brook Trail down from Lonesome Lake.
File that detour away for the future.
I’d been carrying a heavy pack for several months already and doing lots of training hikes with a full Challenge load, including a 24 mile/4500 ft of elevation training trip to the Bonds just a week earlier, but I was mortified at how much of an impact carrying a full food bag was having on me, just two days into my Challenge attempt. Although I was keeping up with the pace required to finish the hike in 15 days – about 15 miles per day with 5,000 feet of elevation gain – I knew there was no way I could sustain this pace for 18 days, even including 3 rest days. A simple 1-day weather delay along the way, such as thunderstorms over Franconia Ridge or Mt Washington, would scuttle my schedule and make it impossible to finish before I ran out of food.
Resupplying part way was an option, but I decided I’d rather abort and re-plan my route around resupplies rather than try to wing it two days into the trip. Most of the food stores in the White Mountains are located on the periphery of the 700,000 acre National Forest and not inside of it, so staging the timing of resupplies and making sure you have enough extra food to wait out bad weather is important. Replanning at home would also let me take advantage of mail drops at local post offices or guest houses along my route.
I was also just exhausted by the heat and the exertion level of the past two days, as well as demoralized by the fact that I wasn’t having fun. I wanted to finish the Challenge, but have a wilderness experience doing it,not blow through it like a race horse or a pack mule.
So, when I got to the Liberty Spring Trail head, I kept walking right past it to Rt 3, where I was able to hitch a ride all the way back to my car in Kinsman Notch from Nancy Kaily, the owner of Sport Thoma, a local ski shop in Lincoln, NH. Trail Magic.
I have new respect for the fact that Mats Roing was able to complete his Challenge route in 10 days without a resupply. I don’t know Mats personally, but the guy hiked 25 miles days for 10 days, climbing close to 87,000 feet of cumlative elevation. He must be an animal.
Take Two: North-to-South Route, with Resupplies
I was back for a second Challenge attempt the following week, this time starting at Mt Cabot, the northern-most peak on the White Mountain 4000 footer list, located in the Kilkenny Range. Like Moosilauke, Cabot and its neighbor Mount Waumbek are outlying 4000 foot peaks, far from the concentrated mass of mountains in the center of the White Mountain National Forest.
Cabot and Waumbek are also the only mountains on the 4000 footer list that require a road walk to get to the other 4000 footer mountains ranges, which are all connected by the 1500+ mile White Mountain Trail System. Most White Mountain peakbaggers have never encountered extended road walking, which is relatively common on long adventure hikes in other places.
In addition to hiking from North-to-South, I also planned three resupply stops, and planned to stop at all of the AMC huts I came across to buy snacks or have a meal if one was available. Many of the huts have left over pancakes in the morning, or bread, soup, lemonade, coffee, and cake available during the day for passing hikers who want to take a break.
Here’s a PDF of my Cabot-to-Moosilauke route plan and an online map of the route. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned about planning a Challenge route if you’re interested in attempting this hike.
Earlier that morning, a friend had met me at Kinsman Notch where I left my car and shuttled me up the York Pond Trailhead next to the Berlin Fish Hatchery, which is the main trail head people use to climb to Mt Cabot. I was on the trail again shortly before 9 am and easily bagged Cabot in mist and light rain. While I had planned a short 8 mile day, I reached my destination by 3 pm and felt odd about stopping for the day.
I told myself, I’d just climb the next mountain (North Weeks) to get it out-of-the-way and make the following morning easier. Things went downhill from there: I ended up climbing another 5 mountains including another 4000 footer Mt Waumbek, only stopping when the sun set. The only saving grace was that I was carrying 3 days of food instead of 18, so I could really move fast and the temperatures were reasonably cool.
While one could argue that my “unscheduled time” pathology was at work again, I was also enjoying myself immensely. The Kilkenny Range is my favorite place in the White Mountains, a very remote and wild place, often shrouded in mist with spooky moss-covered trees and fern-choked birch glades. The hiking was tough in places because the winter blowdowns haven’t been cleared yet by the RMC trail crew (I came across about 50 trees over the trail), but I know the trail very well and feel extremely comfortable hiking it even though it’s a very isolated and remote place.
The following day killed me though. I got to the town of Jefferson, NH on Rt 2 by about 9 am and crossed the road to resupply at the Jefferson Old Corner Store and Deli. They had a pretty lame food selection, about what you’d find in any mini-mart/gas station store along the Appalachian Trail. I loaded up with 7 days of cakes, candy, nuts and peanut butter and started walking east along Rt 2 as the day turned very hot, humid, and sunny.
It’s 8 miles from the town of Jefferson to the base of the Northern Presidential Range and I wanted to make it up to a high level campsite on Mt Adams called The Perch by nightfall, a 3000+ foot climb at the end of the road walk. I knew that bad weather was expected two days in the future, so I needed to get across the Mts Jefferson, Adams, and Madison which are 3rd, 2nd, and 4th highest mountains in the Whites (all over 5000 feet high) to avoid being pinned down for a day or more waiting for high winds or thunderstorm activity to clear. It was a tight weather window and meant I had to do the miles while I had the chance.
I have a history of getting blisters on road walks, particularly in Scotland, where I’ve done my fair share of back road miles. I think my feet sweat more when walking on hot pavement and that the even surface concentrates friction in sensitive places rather than dispersing it, like when you’re walking on a rough trail. I walked about 5 miles down Rt 2 and then Rt 115 until I came to the Presidential Rail Trail, a cinder covered path that parallels Rt 2 and mainly used by snowmobilers in winter. It was just as hot walking along it as Rt 2, but there was zero traffic to worry about.
I reached the Castle Trail at the base of the Northern Presidentials by 2:30 pm and started climbing up to The Perch, unexpectedly meeting my friend Theresa who was hiking down from Mt Jefferson. I was hot, thirsty, and tired when I met her. She’d just had a harrowing experience on the Castle Trail while climbing Jefferson which she described as “more of an experience than a trail.” The trails are definitely rugged on the north face of the Northern Presidential range.
We chatted for a while before I started climbing again and she continued down the Israel Ridge Trail. I finally made it to The Perch after 3 hours of climbing but I was bonking the entire time, taking 20 steps forward before resting, and the taking another 20 steps. The heat had done a number on me.
The next morning I climbed Mt Jefferson with renewed vigor and powered up Adams after that. But it was another hot day and I was sweating like crazy again, so I stopped into the Madison Spring Hut and grabbed a bowl of soup and two big pieces of buttered bread. That meal got me up and over Mount Madison and down the highly exposed Osgood Trail to below treeline, where I started looking for a decent camping spot close to water. The Osgood Tent site at the base of Madison was uninspiring so I kept on going, crossing Rt 16, and camping at a stealth site east of the AMC Camp Dodge Volunteer Center.
But the previous two days had taken their toll and I knew I was on the verge of heat exhaustion. I bathed myself in cold water and kept replacing my fluids, but I felt nauseous at dinner and had problems eating. I fell asleep well before dark, waking up later when a violent thunderstorm arrived around midnight.
My condition didn’t improve much overnight. It looked like we were about to have another hot and humid day and I decided to throw in the towel and try my route again in the autumn when temperatures cool down. Summer had arrived and I’d missed the early spring weather window, which seemed unusually short after the heavy winter we’d had this year.
Despite this setback, I’m still confident that I can complete the North-to-South While Mountain Challenge route with resupplies, that I’ve developed. It will be a tough hike even then, but if I can excercise a little bit more patience and hike more slowly, I should be able to finish the route.
If it was easy, everybody would be hiking a White Mountain Challenge.