Step Onto Rock. Repeat 50,000 Times: A Presidential Range ‘Death March’
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.
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.
“Do we go up it or around?” Mark says.
We’re staring up at the summit loop trail over Mt. Clay, an ascent of several hundred feet. By the arcane rules of a Pressies Death March, we could technically skip this unofficial summit, walking the Gulfside Trail around it and giving our legs a little break before the 1,000-foot hump up Washington. But we both know that Mark’s question is rhetorical; we have no intention of taking any shortcuts. With little pause or discussion, we start high-stepping over watermelon-size rocks on the trail up Clay.
The alpine zone here—far and away the biggest in the eastern United States, covering seven and a half square miles—is a no-man’s-land inhabited only by scattered patches of plants that define resilience: ground-hugging alpine wildflowers and grasses, moss, and lichen. You’ll never see a deer or bear up here; no animal larger than a chipmunk would bother with this fruitless stone sea. Above the upper limits of where trees can grow, soil becomes thin to non-existent, so the ground consists mostly of heaps of rocks, smashed by the ages into piles like the ruins of a 15-mile-long castle.
Traversing the Presidentials is really two hikes in one. There’s the macro hike, the sweeping vistas more typical of Western mountains than the thickly forested hills of the East, which makes the Pressies very unique on this side of the country.
But there’s also the micro hike, the intimate interplay with your immediate surroundings, and most intensely with the trail underfoot. For the entire 20 miles of the Presidentials traverse, your feet rarely land on flat ground. The perpetually uneven path, strewn with sloping, sharp-edged rocks, constantly threatens to turn your ankle at a violently unnatural angle, kick your feet out from under you, or drive a million-year-old blade of gneiss into your shin. It’s like walking on bowling balls, billiards balls, and axe heads, with everything watered frequently to maintain a treacherous greasiness. The micro hike commands your attention; you spend much of your walking time looking at your feet. Only when you pause, or commit the next few steps to memory, can you look up and admire the scenery.
Unlike in the West, trail builders in the Whites didn’t think about making these paths passable to horses. Trails here go straight up and down; the only relief one gets from the relentlessly steep, quadriceps-withering ascent is an interminable, pounding descent that puts quivering spasms in fatigued quads and drives needles of pain through weak knees. I’ve lived and hiked extensively in the West for more than a decade, but began hiking in the Whites. Despite having spent innumerable days on these rugged footpaths over the years, every time I return I’m reminded just how hard they are.
Assuming you don’t become a tragic statistic or abort your Death March attempt midway because of an early-autumn snowstorm (as I have before) or upon realizing a few summits into it that you forgot the keys to the car awaiting you at the finish (um, done that, too), the body parts hurting the most by the end of this long day are your feet and ankles. The foot tendons and muscles suffer atrocities rarely encountered even on many other trails. I’ll roll both ankles today, hours apart, badly enough to feel that familiar, sharp, radiating pain; but fortunately, not too badly. A short rest, a little therapeutic flexing of the violated joint, and we’re walking again.
So is the Pressies Death March the hardest dayhike in America? In a word: no. Not unless you exclude some more-obscure hikes that nonetheless have a history of ambitious ambulators ticking them off. Hikes like the Pemi Loop here in the Whites, which Mark and I did together a few summers ago—a circuit of 32 miles and some 10,000 feet over about 10 peaks from the Bonds to Franconia Ridge. There’s also perhaps the biggest feather in the cap of an obsessive-compulsive hiker, a one-day, rim-to-rim-to-rim double crossing of the Grand Canyon: well over 40 miles (depending on your choice of trails) and about 11,000 feet, almost indisputably the most spectacular monster dayhike in the country.
But having hiked all over the country for 30 years, I think it’s fair to call the Pressies traverse, step for brutal step, one of the hardest and prettiest walks on U.S. soil—and the granddaddy of mega-dayhikes. As the precursor of all big jaunts, it inspired and helped define them. It’s also better known than most, because of its long history and the glaring truth that 20 miles represents a more realistic goal for most fit hikers than 30 or 40 miles. Like a standout athlete from an earlier era,its raw stats may not match today’s benchmarks, but it deserves recognition for having pioneered the way.
And it’s not to be underestimated. Neither Mark nor I have actually completed a Pressies Death March, though we’ve both attempted and failed at least a couple of times.
We clamber over boulders to the summit of Mt. Washington—known affectionately to Northeast hikers as The Rockpile—and stroll into the mountaintop restaurant just before 10 a.m. We sit for a half-hour, our only real break all day, knowing we’re in a great position to finally add this classic hike to our life list.
Just 8.5 miles and four mountains to go.
From the crown of Washington to our hike’s terminus, except for short detours on trails to the summits, we follow the Crawford Path, first cut by Able Crawford and his son Ethan Allan Crawford in 1819, and today the oldest continually used footpath in the country. Dropping off Washington, we walk over a seemingly endless succession of stone steps hand-built by generations of trail crews.
We pass Lakes of the Clouds, tiny tarns reflecting rock and sky. A few steep switchbacks later, we’re standing atop 5,385-foot Mt. Monroe, which when seen from Mt. Washington resembles a giant earthen wave crashing over the broad ridge. The sun still shines on us, but dark clouds mass over the northern Pressies, threatening thunderstorms, and translucent veils hang elsewhere over the Whites, indicating scattered, localized showers, the closest of them just a few miles from us.
It’s 11:30 a.m. Again, we linger for just a few minutes, snapping a few photos, and move on.
But 90 minutes later, when we stride up to the four-foot-tall pile of stones marking the top of 4,761-foot Mt. Eisenhower, we’re grinning like basketball teammates riding a 25-point lead with two minutes left in the championship final. Just one summit—Mt. Pierce, about 40 minutes ahead of us—and then a short downhill stroll separate us from Crawford Notch. It would appear that we’re a cinch to make that bus.
Except for one minor miscalculation.
A little while later, Mark and I stand at the junction of the Crawford Path and Webster Cliffs Trail. From there, we’ll detour several minutes to tag the largely wooded summit of Pierce, then double back to descend the Crawford. And we discover the lone fly in the ointment of our—admittedly—somewhat casually planned outing.
The trail sign notes that it’s 3.1 miles to Crawford Notch—twice as far as we’d thought. Oops.
Our date with absurdity has come full circle. We realize, a little sheepishly, that we’ve been relying on our memory of distances between the mountains. Knowing the route well, and maybe a bit overconfident in our ability to cover the miles quickly, neither of us had actually looked at the map to confirm the length of each of the traverse’s segments.
Still, we don’t even consider skipping Pierce. After coming this far, we couldn’t not complete the full traverse, even if it means missing the bus by minutes.
So we run up Pierce, grab the requisite summit photo, and then take off on a mad dash down the rocky, slippery, ankle-turning Crawford Path. Like deer trying to outrun a catamount, we hop, slip, stumble, and all but roll downhill. When we trot up to the trailhead sign in Crawford Notch and glance at our watches, we discover that we’ve hammered the last three miles in an hour—finishing our epic day with 40 minutes to spare before that 3:25 bus will depart with the two of us as its only passengers.
The Presidential Range Death March doesn’t quite represent the pursuit of the impossible; with people today completing 100-mile ultramarathons, the concept of the “impossible” pedestrian challenge seems quaintly obsolete. But this hike is, in its way, a manifestation of our fascination with the implausible—a fascination that continues to link hikers across generations. While hundreds if not thousands have come before Mark and me, and someday even more will have followed us, we can still count ourselves among a small fraction of avid hikers who’ve pulled this off—not to mention an infinitesimally tiny percentage who’ve knocked it off in time to catch a bus.
And I can’t help but wonder: Would the two guys who made the first Pressies Death March, Eugene Cook and George Sargent, have been pleased with our effort? I’d like to think so. But just to be sure of it, if I was telling them this story, I’d leave out the part about the shuttle bus.
At the moment, though, I’m thinking mainly about one final item of business. Feeling the hard miles in our legs and especially our abused ankles and feet, Mark and I hobble into the AMC’s Highlands Center to do what I suspect Cook and Sargent did when they reached the White Mountain House 128 years before us: have a celebratory beer.
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.”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very fit hikers with experience knocking off long day trips in rugged mountains with fast-changing weather. It requires the knowledge of how to prepare with the proper clothes, nutrition, and fluids, and an eye for anticipating changing mountain weather. While you’ll need the ability to read a map, trails here are obvious and well-marked—unless covered by fresh snow, which makes navigation much more difficult. See my story “Cranking Out Big Days” for tips on how to pull off long dayhikes.
Make It Happen
Season The Presidential Range is generally free of snow from June through October, though early-autumn snowstorms are possible.
The Itinerary Hike the traverse north to south to do the harder northern section first. Get an early start and plan on the traverse taking 12 hours or more. While we began on the Daniel Webster (scout) Trail, there are several other trails up Mt. Madison that you can start on. The most common start for the traverse may be the Air Line trail from the Appalachia Trailhead on US 2, a direct route to Madison Springs Hut, from which you can hike a short out-and-back to Madison’s summit. After tagging Madison, follow the Gulfside Trail along the crest of the Northern Presidentials, with detours onto the summit loop trails over Adams, Jefferson, and Clay; the Gulfside ends at the top of Washington. From there, follow the Crawford Path south, with detours onto the summit loop trails over Monroe, Franklin (a short, unmarked path goes to its summit), and Eisenhower. At the junction of the Crawford Path and the Webster Cliffs Trail, make the 10-minute out-and-back side trip to the summit of Mt. Pierce, then descend the Crawford Path to US 302 in Crawford Notch, across the highway from the AMC’s Highlands Center.
Getting There Either plan to use the AMC’s hiker shuttle (see below) or leave one vehicle at the southern end of this traverse, in the Highlands Center parking lot on US 302 in Crawford Notch State Park. Then drive US 302 east to NH 16 north to the U.S. Forest Service Dolly Copp Campground (between Pinkham Notch and Gorham). About a quarter mile before the end of the campground road, park in a turnout across the road from the Daniel Webster (scout) Trailhead, which is where this hike begins.
Shuttle Services 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. See the schedule at outdoors.org/lodging/lodging-shuttle.cfm.
Permit No permit is required for dayhiking or backpacking.
Map/Guidebook The AMC White Mountain Guide describes all trails and includes topographical maps, $24.95, (617) 523-0655, amcstore.outdoors.org/amcstore.
Concerns Weather is the biggest hazard, including thunderstorms, strong winds, rain, snow, and whiteout conditions on the exposed ridge. Check the forecast for the summits, posted daily at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and available from the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory, mountwashington.org/weather.
Contact Appalachian Mountain Club Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, (603) 466-2721, outdoors.org.