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Two White Mountain Challenge Attempts

Philip at the start of his north-to-south White Mountains Challenge attempt
Philip at the start of his north-to-south White Mountain Challenge attempt

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.

Unscheduled Time

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.

Climbing Moosilauke via the Beaver Brook Trail
Climbing Moosilauke via the Beaver Brook Trail

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.

Harrington Pond, an alpine tarn, south of South Kinsman on the AT
Harrington Pond, an alpine tarn, south of South Kinsman on the AT

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.

Mount Wolf and Gordon Pond seen from the ledges of South Kinsman Mountain
Mount Wolf and Gordon Pond seen from the ledges of South Kinsman Mountain

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.

Lafayette Place Campground
Lafayette Place Campground

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.

Mail Drop
Mail Drop

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.

Trees of the Kilkenny
Trees of the Kilkenny

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.

Walking down Rt 2 towards the Northern Presidentials
Walking down Rt 2 towards the Northern Presidentials

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.

This is what the trails in the Northern Presidential Range look like
This is what the trails in the Northern Presidential Range look like

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.

Mt Washington from the Jefferson Summit
Mt Washington from the Jefferson Summit

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.

Highly Exposed Osgood Trail on Mt Madison
Highly Exposed Osgood Trail on Mt Madison

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.

17 comments

  1. Philip- congratulations on your accomplishment. When I read your posts of the various hikes you undertook throughout the winter and the training you did to prepare for this challange i am constantly amazed at the rigor and determination you possess. While I hoped for your success in meeting this challenge. I am not surprised that the heat we have had here in New England made it just too difficult.

    Your readers now get the benefit of reading about your next attempt which I am certain will be a success.

  2. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try sky diving. Sounds like you learned some things from this trip that will help next time. Not sure about up your way but it is turning into a brutal summer down south. Heat stroke is a distinct possibility in this weather. Best to wait until it’s cooler and to carry less food. As for pacing yourself, I think most of us have that problem when it comes to doing something we love.

    • This is a very tough hike even with resupplies. I figure I will still need to carry 9 days of food at a time which is still a lot. Still, the challenge is less physical for me than mental. I suspected that would be the case but I was still surprised by it. Once I started this hike, the “internal chatter” was very hard to turn off. It got somewhat better on my second attempt, but the “what if’s” are still very distracting. It will make a good story though!!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your challenges. It is strangely comforting for me to know that my ability to hike very slowly, and rest when I need to, could be a plus when hiking. That dehydrated sick feeling is the worst. Give me snow any day.

    • I envy you! Seriously, I wanted to do a slower hike to begin with and found myself speeding up and pushing myself harder unconsciously. My symptoms were far more advanced than dehydration as it turns out….More in tomorrows post.

  4. Phillip,
    I’ve been both enjoying following and very impressed by your planning process. Sorry it didn’t work out, blisters and heat have spoiled many well laid plans. I’m really impressed just by all the research and route finding alone. Under the callus blisters are rough! the only thing that worked for me is draining with a sewing thread wick through the blister, constant cleaning and plenty of painful walking – they go away eventually.

    Not sure if it will help you with your idleness problem, but mid morning and early afternoon I do a rough in my head calculation of what time I expect to be where I want to end up and adjust my pace and breaks accordingly. For those days that are flying by but I know I need to pace myself for whatever reason, an afternoon nap is a great time killer and helps your body recover. I got this habit from hiking in the desert to take a siesta in 100 degree heat was a necessity. Thinking about recovery is essential for long walks.

    • Good advice. I wish I could sleep during the day. I’m super sensitive to sunlight and can’t sleep when the sun is up (hence my trail name earlylite). But I’ve been stopping every 90 minutes or so and writing for 20 minutes which is a suitable distraction and I use a pencil when I do it! That slows things down. I’m also thinking about doing more chores in camp like showering (via a reservoir) and washing out my clothes more frequently, reading long books, etc. I’m not a big lunch person, but maybe I should pack cucumbers and gin!

  5. Philip,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. They are just as important as if you had completed your White Mt. Challenge, because of the solid lessons that you learned from your first two attempts. I look forward to your additional writing on the matter as you heal from your trek.

  6. Look how much you’re learning about your body that you never knew. I’m sure you’ll get it done in the fall with the cooler weather. Good luck!

  7. Hi Phil – I’m very impressed with your attempts, and the way you’ve approached these challenges! “Well done!” I have no doubt you’ll finish, and isn’t it terrific when we have a chance to learn with each attempt. The old adage, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” comes to mind – you’ll be stronger for these two attempts, and be down the road offer advice and encouragement to others of us as we make our own attempts. Thanks for the honest, insightful story!

  8. I was wondering how your challenge was going. I noticed you kept posting responses on your blog to various things and weren’t off it for very long. Now, I know. I wish you the best on it this fall.

    I was at an international convention this past weekend. One person mentioned in a part on the program how he’d like to go on a 25 year backpacking trip and see Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Australian Outback and camp wherever he happened to be on the way. Someone said, “Those are three parts of the world very distant from each other”, to which he replied, “Yes. Hence the 25 years!” I told my wife, “I can totally relate to a 25 year backpacking trip.” It might be just the right amount of time for me to conquer all those 4000 footers in the Whites.

    • Grandpa, my family attended an international convention also! Sadly, I had to stay home with my badly broken leg. It’s been 8 weeks and I am just able to walk with a walker. I like that someone talked about backpacking on your program. I believe I will need forever to do all the hiking I would like to do (and maybe a new leg). Could you email me? I would like to talk to you and your wife. lgruane at gmail dot com. I live about halfway between Wallkill and Patterson NY, and have backpacked the Appalachian Trail section that runs right near Warwick.

  9. Phil, thanks for sharing your experiences here. I echo Dan Smith’s comment above, and think it’s very hard for many to deviate from the initial plan. Kudos to you for rethinking not once but twice – great way to keep safe.

    Your note on going slowly is an interesting one – I think you’ve mentioned that before in winter hiking (so as not to overheat) – and I guess this had some similarities.

    Your heat exhaustion post (following this one) mentioned that “I’ve hiked the same and similar routes previously with no ill effects, so I really didn’t think I was at risk. I was drinking plenty of water, eating salty food during the day and felt that I was staying ahead of the salt depletion and dehydration curve.” Good reminder to us all that prior experience can mislead as well as inform.

    Glad you made it back safely and listened – both attempts – to your body in time.

  10. Great job Philip!

    And thanks for sharing the adventure. Some observations from my own experience:
    It’s important the feet get used to have 50+ lbs in the backpack. I worked in Boston at the time I did the 2007 completion and the 2009 attempt where my feet killed me with four peaks to go. I worked in a 42-story building and at lunch-time I went up and down the stairway with a 5-gallon water jug to practice with a heavy pack. Even if your feet are used to the weight, it’s a good idea to tape the feet before you start the hike on day 1. You usually know where the weak spots are on the feet. Also it’s better to wear two thin pair of socks than a medium thick one. It creates less friction for your toes. You could also put some Vaseline on the inside of the shoes. As you say, pacing is very important, and part of pacing is to take 2-3 breaks during the day and air out the feet. You could switch socks also to get a dry pair on during the day. And carry an extra pair of insoles so you also switch insoles at those breaks. I had several mini-biners and clips on my back-pack so I could dry out socks etc during the day. Extra socks doesn’t add much weight. One mistake I did on the 2009 attempt was that I used trail runners instead of hiking boots. You need that added ankle support with a heavy pack, not so much for the ankles but to prevent blisters from unnecessary friction when your feet moves around in a low shoe. It’s also a lot easier to stay dry with boots instead of trail runners. I hope to make another try north to south in 2015. It’s a great way to get to know oneself and figure out how to make things better for each attempt. In 2008 I bailed after two days on a north to south attempt. This challenge is done in somewhat of a semi-controlled environment – it’s pretty easy to bail and get a ride back to your car or call someone to pick you up. So it’s relatively safe to do this challenge. It’s not like being dropped off in Alaska somewhere to hike 250 miles in the middle of nowhere. Looking forward to 2015 and what mistakes I’ll make then :-) Maybe I’ll see you in 2015 on the trail?
    Mats

  11. Phil, My brother attempted this challenge last year and got to 8 peaks to go but ran out of food and had bad blisters. Hes hoping to make another attempt this summer. I am also looking toward an attempt in June.

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