By Michael Lanza
I shine my headlamp on my watch as we start up the Daniel Webster Trail: 3:35 a.m. My head has that squeezed, hungover feeling from not enough sleep; the four hours we grabbed on the floor of Mark’s van after driving up here last night fell a few hours shy of rejuvenating. But we don’t have the luxury of a later start. We have a bus to catch this afternoon. And nine mountains stand between us and the bus stop.
My friend Mark Fenton and I are attempting what is arguably the archetypal huge dayhike, the “Death March” of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Walking north to south, we’ll cover 20 miles and about 8,500 feet of uphill, tagging all nine summits along the way, from Mt. Madison to Mt. Pierce, including the Northeast’s highest, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington. But we’re doing it under circumstances that heap a fat dollop of uncertainty atop this three-scoop endurance fest.
We drove up here with one vehicle, Mark’s van, which we’ve parked at the hike’s start, the Daniel Webster Trailhead in Dolly Copp Campground, at the northern end of the Pressies. To get back to it, we’re planning to catch the last Appalachian Mountain Club hiker shuttle bus departing Crawford Notch, at the southern end of the range. That bus pulls out at 3:25 p.m. If we miss it, we’ll discover how long it takes for two very smelly men to hitch rides late in the day on rural highways that see little traffic. We’re trying not to think about how that might go.
Our plan seems ill advised, we know; even, perhaps, not very smart. And we also know that, to purists who disdain any form of speed hiking, putting ourselves on a schedule in nature is tantamount to blasphemy. But as we see it, setting out on a Pressies Death March is already effectively a form of surrender to the forces of absurdity. We’re only making it incrementally more absurd by throwing in the deadline.
Within minutes of setting out in the dark up the strenuously steep, rocky Daniel Webster Trail, we’re both panting and streaming with perspiration. I’d hoped that our ridiculously early start would at least give us few hours’ reprieve from the record heat up and down the East Coast this July. But that’s not the case today, not even in the middle of the night in the White Mountains.
It’s gonna be a long day.
A few miles up the Daniel Webster Trail, we pause at a sign that hikers encounter on virtually any footpath in the Whites upon reaching tree line, at around 4,500 feet. It reads: “Stop. The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.”
Some people might contest the “worst weather in America” claim—like, say, climbing rangers on Mt. McKinley, as one example. But few places could challenge the title and win. All hyperbole aside, that sign’s warning carries some weight when one considers the human toll in the Presidentials, especially on Mt. Washington, which ranks among the deadliest peaks in America. More than 135 hikers, climbers, and skiers have perished up here since record keepers began counting in 1849. Often the cause is hypothermia, a dangerously low body temperature brought on by prolonged exposure to cold, wet weather without being properly dressed for it.
Three major storm tracks converge at Washington’s barren summit, creating a climate largely inhospitable to life, human and otherwise. Temperatures on the summits are typically 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit colder than in the neighboring valleys, some 4,000 feet below. Visibility not infrequently drops to less than 100 feet. Winds average 35 miles per hour and exceed hurricane force an average of 110 days a year. For decades, the mountain held the world record for the highest recorded surface wind speed, clocked at 231 mph by staff at the Mt. Washington Observatory, which is housed in a summit building reinforced to withstand 300 mph winds. The average year-round temperature on Washington is below freezing: 27.2° F. You could call it a little piece of Siberia in New Hampshire.
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Over more than a quarter-century of hiking these trails, I’ve seen what these mountains can dish out: winds that toss an adult around like tumbleweed; whiteouts in which companions a few steps ahead of me faded like ghosts into the milky air; the snow-capped highest peaks jutting above a sea of clouds in a scene that looked almost Himalayan to me then, before I’d seen the Himalaya. I’ve learned to respect these little mountains and scrutinize the weather forecast before heading out into them.
Our greatest risk today, though, is melting away in the humidity.
A breeze delivers welcome relief as we scramble onto the rocky, open crown of 5,367-foot Mt. Madison—the first of our nine summits today—at 5:50 a.m. We’ve knocked off the day’s biggest climb, a relentless 4,100 feet spread over 4.1 miles, in two hours and 20 minutes—a good start.
But the Pressies Death March has a way of wearing you down physically and mentally in a sort of death by 50,000 steps. We have nine and a half hours to make that 3:25 shuttle from Crawford Notch. But from Madison, it’s still 16 hard trail miles away, visible to us on a hazy, far-off horizon. A lot could happen between here and there.
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Although I doubt that a bus schedule has typically factored into this traverse historically, hikers have long regarded the Presidential Range as a one-day test piece. The first to pull it off were Eugene Cook and George Sargent, of Randolph, N.H., way back on Sept. 27, 1882. According to the definitive anecdotal history of Northeast hiking, Forest and Crag, by Laura and Guy Waterman, Cook and Sargent started from Randolph and walked 24 miles and 10,000 feet of vertical over the mountains to Crawford Notch. They had dinner at the White Mountain House, then laced up their boots again and walked the Jefferson Notch Road 18.5 miles back to Randolph, finally calling it a day just before 1:30 a.m.
In 1904, Warren Symonds raised the stakes, making a stout, one-day double traverse of the Pressies: Crawford Notch to Randolph for lunch, then returning over all of the peaks again, reaching Crawford at midnight.
No wimpy bus ride for those guys.
Many have followed in their footsteps. As the Watermans wrote: “To this day, superhikers relish the Presidential traverse as a proof of prowess…”
The allure is obvious to anyone who’s ever reached a mountaintop under his or her own power and contemplated continuing on to the next one, and the one after, wondering how far they could ramble in a day. Trails link the nine peaks of the Presidential Range (including Mt. Clay, though it’s officially considered just a shoulder of Mt. Washington), following a north-south ridge that stays above tree line for 15 miles, with uninterrupted 50-mile panoramas. Standing atop any of the summits, you can see all or most of the others—where you’ve been and where you’re going, a perspective that can be either inspirational or spirit crushing, depending on whether your legs are still brimming with stamina or quaking from exhaustion.
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In the eyes of a hiker, the Presidential Range embodies aesthetic perfection. And the distance and difficulty hit a sweet spot: reasonable enough to be within reach for fit people, hard enough to fire aspirations. There’s simply no other hike east of the Rockies that compares to it, and few in the West with so much history and resonance.
As we carefully negotiate a path of lichen-coated boulders, it occurs to me that if you reduce the Pressies traverse to its base experience—swap today’s lightweight trail shoes and waterproof-breathable membranes for the heavy wool clothing and leather boots of yesteryear, and take away today’s far greater numbers of people up here and the handful of huts and summit buildings—I imagine it remains virtually identical to what it must have been like a century or more ago. Time certainly hasn’t altered the shirt-drenching humidity of July, the annoying ear buzzing of black flies, the daunting chill and force of the alpine wind, or the sting of a September snow squall on frozen cheeks. The ancient, fairly stable talus carpeting the Presidential Range probably hasn’t shifted all that much in recent geologic time. Many of the very same boulders that Mark and I step on today undoubtedly once felt the boots of Eugene Cook, George Sargent, and Warren Symonds, among hundreds, maybe even thousands of other death marchers.
Fifteen minutes below Madison’s summit, Mark and I stop briefly in Madison Springs Hut, a stone building at 4,800 feet managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC has another seven huts spread out a day’s hike apart along the Appalachian Trail across the Whites, including two more in the Presidentials: Lakes of the Clouds Hut sits above 5,000 feet on the tundra-covered southern slopes of Mt. Washington, about halfway through the range, and Mitzpah Hut offers shelter high above Crawford Notch. Their spacing indicates how long people normally take to walk the rugged miles we hope to cover today.
We scramble up the blocky talus of 5,799-foot Mt. Adams, reaching the second-highest point in the Whites at 6:45 a.m. Pausing just long enough for a few quick photos, we drop a knee-crunching, ankle-wrenching 700 vertical feet in a mile to Edmands Col, a wind-whipped saddle between Adams and Mt. Jefferson, then regain that elevation in a half-mile climb to the top of Jefferson, at 5,716 feet.
It’s 8:04 a.m., the sun’s shining, a pleasant breeze keeps us cool and subdues the black flies—and we still feel surprisingly strong. We’re starting to think that our prospects of catching that bus are looking good.
Or I’m thinking that, anyway. Mark seems a wee skeptical. “No way we’re going to make it,” he mutters. I think he’s joking, but I’m not sure.
Map/Guidebook The AMC White Mountain Guide describes all trails and includes topographical maps, amcstore.outdoors.org.
Contact Appalachian Mountain Club Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, (603) 466-2721, outdoors.org.
See all of my stories about the White Mountains, including “Big Hearts, Big Day: A 17-Mile Hike With Teens in the Presidential Range” and “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains.”