David and I pause to catch our breath in quiet forest of wind-stunted conifers at the junction of the Old Speck Trail and Mahoosuc/Appalachian Trail, near the northern end of Maine’s Mahoosuc Range. Since we started hiking shortly after 6 a.m. from the Old Speck Trailhead on ME 26 in Grafton Notch, we’ve climbed 3.5 miles and nearly 3,000 vertical feet up this relentlessly steep trail in under two hours. Given our seemingly absurd objective today—to complete a 30-mile, north-south traverse of the notoriously rugged Mahoosucs before we sleep tonight—our strong pace on the day’s biggest uphill buoys our hopes.
I tell David, “I’m not worried about us being able to finish this in the amount of time we expect,” which we’ve estimated at 16 hours.
Those words emerge from my mouth—despite my deep experience with the uncertainty and brutal difficulty of long, really hard hikes—because in that small but confident moment, feeling as good as we do and seeing tangible numbers that seem to validate our confident analysis, it’s remarkably easy to forget how bitter a taste hubris has when you’re forced to eat it.
But before this day—this very, very long day—is over, I will eat those words. And they will prove about as easy to swallow as would the innumerable, massive rocks we will high-step and scramble over today.
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My good friend and longtime partner in adventure, David Ports, with whom I’ve spent uncountable days hiking, backpacking, climbing, and backcountry skiing over the past 20-plus years, and I are here to attempt an ultra-dayhike we’ve been plotting for a few years—one that seems, even for hikers like us who’ve logged many dayhikes over 20 and 30 miles, to fall in the gray and nebulous border zone between barely feasible and shake-your-head wacko.
Our planned, 30.2-mile traverse of the Mahoosucs involves over 10,000 vertical feet of uphill and over 11,000 feet of downhill—most of it on the Mahoosuc/Appalachian Trail, which rarely resembles a well-graded, biped-friendly path, and frequently demands true third-class scrambling. (The venerable White Mountain Guide, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club, estimates the total hiking time at over 21 hours, but with an implied presumption that people are backpacking it, generally over three to four days.)
David and I will demonstrate, to our unfortunate dismay, that a couple of old dogs can occasionally learn a new lesson. In that sense, the story of our one-day Mahoosuc Range traverse holds valuable lessons not only for other ultra-hikers and runners, but for anyone experimenting with any personal limits on a trail or a mountain, including children and adults of any age.
‘The Hardest Mile on the Appalachian Trail’
Buoyant at our strong uphill pace on the first three-and-a-half miles of the day, we start hiking south from Old Speck on the AT, descending toward Speck Pond. With only stubby trees flanking us and an unobstructed view straight ahead, the Mahoosuc Range rolls out before us, a thickly forested, curving spine of tightly packed peaks with occasional rocky crowns—with a conspicuous abyss, Mahoosuc Notch, looming not far ahead. It looks like the jaws of a beast that feeds on backpackers—not to mention hapless hikers who actually believe they can traverse this range in one day.
Under the bluest skies we’ll see today—clouds are slowly moving in, threatening rain—we can see the Carter-Moriah Range and Presidential Range of the White Mountains in the distance. While the Mahoosucs do not stand as tall as those ranges—there’s just one 4,000-footer here, 4,170-foot Old Speck Mountain—or harbor as much alpine area, those stats mask the cumulative, extreme difficulty, step for step, of hiking the length of this range.
Here, the AT follows steep granite slabs, forcing us to weave side to side, tracing the lowest-angle sections of rock and seeking small footholds and ledges to find traction on this “trail.”
It occurs to me that, in the Mahoosucs, we might actually hike some downhill stretches slower than we hike some uphill sections.
Read about my family’s endurance challenge, “Three Generations, One Big Volcano: Pushing Limits on Mount St. Helens.”
The Mahoosucs are best known for harboring “the hardest mile on the Appalachian Trail” in Mahoosuc Notch. But the rest of AT through the range constitutes something of a granite obstacle course masquerading as a hiking trail. I’ve dayhiked or backpacked large portions of the AT, including most of it through New England, where you’ll find most of the trail’s toughest miles. I think it’s fair to say that the full Mahoosuc Range constitutes the hardest section of the entire Appalachian Trail.
We don’t undertake this challenge as novices. We’ve done crazy-huge hikes enough times—including the 32-mile, 10,000-vertical-foot Pemi Loop in the White Mountains, as well as the comparably “tame” 20-mile, 8,500-vertical-foot Presidential Range “Death March”—to know what we’re getting into and, importantly, our limits. We know that we’re both capable of pushing ourselves deep into the red zone of exhaustion and getting through it. Plus, critically, we have a bailout plan if we can’t complete this full traverse.
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The greatest risk facing David and I out here is an abject lesson in humility—well, okay, that and widespread and considerable physical soreness—but not any significant danger of a disaster.
We are confident of this much: Barring an accident, we will make it to our car awaiting us at the southern end of the Mahoosuc Range. The open questions are when, by what route, and how absolutely pasted we’ll be when we get there.
See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at my blog.
Find menus of gear reviews, expert buying tips, and reviews like “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets” at my Gear Reviews page.
Lodging There are numerous options in the area. I stayed at and recommend the Town & Country Inn in Shelburne, N.H., which has comfortable rooms and good food a short drive from the southern end of the AT in the Mahoosuc Range, http://townandcountryinn.com/.
For more travel information, see Visit NH at https://www.visitnh.gov/ and https://www.visitnh.gov/the-regions-of-new-hampshire/white-mountains.
Contact Appalachian Mountain Club, outdoors.org. Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, White Mountains, (603) 466-2721.
See my expert tips in “How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking” and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.”