By Michael Lanza
Like two spooked deer, Marco and Liam bound ahead of us on the trail, pause to wait for us to catch up, and then sprint ahead again. Powered by the blindly stratospheric self-confidence of athletic teenage boys, they do this repeatedly as we hike a trail paved with rocks the size of bowling balls and dorm-room refrigerators. We are in the early hours of a marathon dayhike over the four peaks of New Hampshire’s Northern Presidential Range, but they are treating it like a short, interval-training workout.
Something tells me this strategy won’t carry them through our long day. But I say nothing. I’m just curious to see how long a pair of fit young bucks can keep this up.
My son, Nate, on the other hand, moves at a steady, moderate pace, apparently uninterested in their demanding regimen. Although younger than Marco and Liam, he’s done more hiking than either of them; he has earned a nascent understanding of personal limits, and realizes he will hover somewhere around his own today—either near enough to see it, or tripping painfully beyond that blurry line. But in reality, even though Marco completed one comparably long and arduous dayhike just a year ago, none of these teenagers can fully comprehend just how taxing a day they have embarked on.
Thus, however today goes for us, we are assured of one outcome: By sometime this evening, these three young lads will have acquired a bit more wisdom.
Nate, who’s 14, my 17-year-old nephew Marco Garofalo, his 16-year-old buddy Liam Lynch-Galvin, my good friend and ultra-hiking partner Mark Fenton, and I are dayhiking a roughly 17-mile loop from Pinkham Notch over the four summits of the Northern Presidentials: 5,366-foot Mount Madison, 5,799-foot Mount Adams, 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson, and the highest in the Northeast, 6,288-foot Mount Washington. We’ll go up and down a cumulative 6,800 vertical feet over some of the rockiest and, step for grueling step, hardest trails in America.
We’re here because these boys wanted to challenge themselves on a huge hike—something they know Mark and I have done many times. I’d originally considered taking these boys on the Northeast’s classic ultra-dayhike, a 20-mile, nine-summit “Death March” traverse of the entire Presidential Range. But that requires significantly more driving time and shuttling vehicles. Besides, today’s little outing will fulfill their desire for a challenge.
I’m also curious to gauge my Western-raised son’s reaction to these Eastern peaks that inspired my lifelong passion for the hills. More than three decades after I first stood on some of these granite boulder-pile summits, looking out over this now intimately familiar landscape of turbulent, forested mountains and valleys, of ancient upheaval and patient erosion, I still feel a pulse-quickening chill whenever I walk a trail here. While some of that feeling no doubt springs from many fond memories, I think the White Mountains, like other parts of the Northern Appalachians, possess a subtly majestic character that’s uniquely their own.
But Nate has led quite an adventurous life for someone his age, having already backpacked in numerous national parks from Mount Rainier, Glacier, Grand Teton, Sequoia, and the Grand Canyon to Utah’s parks; he has climbed Mount St. Helens, sea kayaked Alaska’s Glacier Bay, whitewater kayaked Idaho’s world-class Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and taken multi-day hut treks in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park and Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. And those examples all took place just in the past seven years. (Plus, less than a year after this Northern Presidentials dayhike, Nate and I would climb The Mountaineers Route up the highest peak in the Lower 48, California’s Mount Whitney.)
Given all that, can my 14-year-old possibly see these smaller mountains with the same awe I felt when I started hiking in my early 20s, years before my first visit to a Western national park? I hope so.
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Squadrons of black flies dive-bomb us as we emerge from the forest and enter the alpine zone on the Osgood Trail up Mount Madison. Marco showers himself in bug repellent, but acknowledges before long that it has negligible impact on these persistent creatures. Nate doesn’t complain except to point out that he prefers the bug-free air of most of our Western landscapes over the Northeast’s version of the Black Plague.
Other than the black flies, though, it’s a perfect day for hiking—not always the case in the frequently humid Eastern summer. The temperature was in the 50s when we set out from Pinkham Notch, and it will get up to around 70 by this afternoon, with just a few high clouds and a pleasant breeze. A fine day to hike oneself into a stupor of exhaustion.
The Osgood Trail is unquestionably one of the most scenic of the few alpine trails in the Whites that receive relatively little traffic. We ascend steadily, with a few short, steep sections, up the treeless ridge crest, with a 360-degree view that takes in Madison’s crown, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, the Carter Range to the east, and a rumpled green blanket of smaller hills rolling over northern New Hampshire and western Maine.
In mild, calm air and tiny clouds of black flies, we stroll up to the summit of Madison, having covered the day’s first 6.7 miles and the biggest chunk of uphill, some 4,000 vertical feet, in five hours. It’s an hour slower than Mark and I had planned on. He says, in an optimistic tone that belies the essence of his message, “We’re looking at a longer day than we thought, but that’s okay, we’ll be fine.” Still, he and I exchange glances that communicate: We’re in for a late night.
Nonetheless, we all sit on boulders at Madison’s summit and take the time to eat fat sandwiches, guzzle water, and enjoy a much-needed rest. Besides, one of the best vistas in the East unfolds before us: an arc of the tallest peaks in the Northeast forming a badly dented and misshapen horseshoe around as wild a valley as you’ll find to the right of the Mississippi River, the densely forested, steep-walled glacial scar of the Great Gulf Wilderness.
The boys look and feel good. The day is beautiful, the scenery magnificent. Such circumstances can convince a person that he can do anything.
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Ninety minutes later, after a brief visit at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Madison Spring Hut to refill water bladders, we finish the long, high-stepping-over-boulders slog up Adams. A dozen or more other hikers linger at the summit. Once again, the view energizes the boys. Mount Washington looks deceptively close, but in reality, lies about six very strenuous miles from us.
From the second-highest summit in the Northeast, we can see virtually all of the White Mountains. Mark and I point out and name several peaks, recalling past hikes we’ve done together, resurrecting great memories. Someday, these boys will do the same thing, remembering today and probably laughing over how much this hike kicked their butts. In that regard, they will hardly be alone among White Mountains hikers.
By mid-afternoon, as we’re climbing Jefferson, all three boys are visibly dragging. Nate tells me, “On Western trails, I’d be fine—we’d be done this hike by now. This constant rockiness is really tough.” My son has learned, firsthand, the defining characteristic of White Mountains trails.
Given the boys’ weariness, we decide to skip the spur trail over the top of 5,533-foot Mount Clay—not considered a distinct summit, but rather a shoulder of Mount Washington—and instead follow the lower route, the Gulfside Trail around Clay. Part of the Appalachian Trail, the Gulfside offers some of the easiest hiking we’ve done all day. This rejuvenates us as evening finds us still high in the Presidential Range, about as far from any road as we could be.
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At a trail junction where we face a choice to take an easier route around Washington or go for the top, all three boys are unanimous: We have to reach the summit of the Northeast’s tallest peak. Mark and I don’t object: The weather’s fine, they’re doing reasonably well, and while it’s later than either Mark or I have ever tagged the top of Washington, we have headlamps for descending in the dark, and we’re confident of getting through the more difficult parts of the descent, to the bottom the Lion Head, in daylight.
Trailing behind the other three on the Gulfside Trail up Washington, Nate and I walk along the brink of the sharp dropoff into the Great Gulf. Soft light suffuses all that we can see. We pause to admire it, and Nate says, “Wow. That’s amazing.” Even for this Western kid, the White Mountains can display some magic.
A little while later, we present five tired but beaming faces for a victorious summit photo on Mount Washington. Behind us, the sun slips below the horizon.
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A 15-Hour Day
Dusk settles in as we cross Washington’s wildflower-strewn Alpine Garden. Soon, darkness will engulf the White Mountains, turning the forest around us into black walls. We’ll face 90 minutes of downhill hiking by the beams of our headlamps before reaching our car in Pinkham Notch at 10:40 p.m.—more than 15 hours after we left there this morning.
I size up all three boys. Their legs look wooden as they plod downhill. They’re more physically spent than perhaps any of them has ever known.
Acquiring wisdom is exhausting.
But they’re obviously pleased with their accomplishment. Broad smiles crease their faces; their spirits are in the clouds. Liam seems giddy with disbelief over the scale of our day. Marco will text me tomorrow: “My legs are really sore and I’ve just been resting today, but it was definitely worth it.” Nate will talk—proudly—about the rigorousness of this day for months.
Will taking teenagers on a grueling hike encourage or discourage their appetite for more outdoor adventures? Or does this encourage—as some hikers would say—the “wrong” attitude toward the outdoors, turning what some maintain should be a patient experience of appreciation into an athletic contest?
From my experience of my earliest ultra-hikes and watching these kids, I believe that, yes, for now, they’re focused on the accomplishment—their bragging rights. But I don’t believe enjoying the outdoors must follow any strict set of rules; that’s probably the best way to turn off young people. I see today bringing these boys multiple benefits, like building self-confidence, expanding their knowledge of themselves, and ultimately developing in them a love for being outside and enjoying nature in myriad ways.
Does it really matter how we inspire kids to spend time outdoors? I don’t think so. By simply getting them out here, under whatever premise, we inevitably expose them to moments of pure beauty that they will carry with them. That will help shape and mature their perspective on why they want to do this. Eventually, that perspective will broaden, and their pleasure will arise from more than just feats of athleticism. They will come to the outdoors for the pure beauty of it.
As we’re descending the Lion Head Trail, I overhear Marco talking to Liam, and I expect comments about how tired they are. But instead, Marco expounds on how he loves hiking in the evening. “It’s so quiet,” he says.
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See all of my stories about the White Mountains, including “Step Onto Rock. Step Down. Repeat 50,000 Times: A 20-Mile, 9-Peak Presidential Range ‘Death March,'” “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” and all of my stories about ultra-hiking, including “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb” and “Cranking Out Big Days: How to Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs.” And see all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR fit, experienced dayhikers and backpackers, and novice dayhikers and backpackers who are fit, well prepared and, ideally, accompanied by experienced people. Challenges include extremely rocky, steep trails, and weather that can get hot and humid and produce a thunderstorm. The trail is well marked, so route-finding won’t be a problem for anyone with solid map-reading skills.
Make It Happen
Season The prime hiking season in the White Mountains is June through mid-October. Winter hiking skills and gear are usually required from November through mid-spring, and deep snow can make hiking difficult in late April and May.
The Itinerary Our roughly 17-mile, 6,800-vertical-foot loop from Pinkham Notch followed the Old Jackson Road, the Madison Gulf Trail, the Osgood Trail to the summit of Mount Madison, then the Gulfside Trail south to the summit of Mount Washington, with spur trails to the summits of Mounts Adams and Jefferson. Then we descended the Lion Head Trail and Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Pinkham Notch.
Getting There Start this loop hike at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on NH 16 in Pinkham Notch, about 20 miles north of Conway, N.H., and 11 miles south of Gorham.
Where to Stay We spent the night before our hike at the AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch, so we could hit the trail without having to drive in the morning. Joe Dodge Lodge and the AMC’s eight mountain huts are popular; make reservations at least a few months in advance, and further in advance for summer and early-fall weekends, at outdoors.org/lodging/lodges.
Shuttle Service The Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiker shuttle bus operates daily from early June through mid-September, and on weekends and holidays from mid-September through mid-October, stopping at several trailheads throughout the White Mountains. There is a fee. See the schedule at outdoors.org/lodging-camping/lodging-shuttle.cfm.
Permit No permit is required for dayhiking or backpacking in the White Mountains.
Guidebook and Maps White Mountain Guide, amcstore.outdoors.org.
Concerns Weather is the biggest hazard, including thunderstorms, strong winds, rain, snow, and whiteout conditions on summits and exposed ridges. Check the forecast for the summits, posted daily at all AMC mountain huts and the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and available from the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory, mountwashington.org.
Contact Appalachian Mountain Club, (617) 523-0655, outdoors.org. Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, White Mountains, (603) 466-2721.