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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- South Kinsman
- North Kinsman
- Flume, and back to Liberty
- Owls Head
- South Twin
- North Twin
- West Bond
- Mount Bond
- North Hancock
- South Hancock
- East Osceola
- North Tripyramid
- Middle Tripyramid
- Wildcat D
- Wildcat (A)
- Carter Dome
- South Carter
- Middle Carter
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.