Hiking The Presidential Traverse: Life Or Death In The White Mountains

To say that I was prepared to backpack the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is something of an overstatement, but to say that I was unprepared is not anymore revealing of the truth. We often find ourselves in the midst of things so much greater than us, and what are we to do? We dive in. We learn as we go. We find footholds in the dark that we’d only seen once or twice in the light. All my careful preparations sustained me, and yet none of them could have been sufficient enough to ready me for the adventure that was waiting. These mountains have a reputation preceding them, and last I checked Mt. Washington is still home to the world’s highest recorded winds. And then there’s me, delving into these peaks as my first-ever backpacking trip.

I remember the day, sitting around my dining room table with my roommate and our friend, Anne, when the idea was proposed. We’d all been dying to get out of town and multiple ideas had been thrown around. Take a train to New York? Go out west? Anne, who is an avid hiker and backpacker, proposed the idea and Kim and I made no hesitation to answer in the affirmative. Laptops were immediately flung open and the phrases “presidential traverse” and “white mountains” were quickly searched. I looked at picture after picture of these trails and the magnificent views they hold and knew I was going to fall in love. I just didn’t know how much.

Hiking The Presidential Traverse- Life Or Death In The White Mountains - Clapway

The Presidential Traverse is a trek over 11 peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They are known for rough terrain, unpredictable weather, and astounding beauty. We began preparing early, getting together (with our friend, Jesse, who also swiftly agreed to join us) to map out routes, list the things we’d need, browse gear, and go on and on about how excited we were. Our plan was to spend two nights camping, and three days hiking. Little did we know, the mountains had other ideas.

On a bright morning in August of 2013, we set out for the vast north with the highway rolling out before us. Sitting at my kitchen table this morning, I can still feel the intoxicating freedom that I felt on that day. Two days of driving led us to a perfectly picturesque, tiny New England town. There, we ate in restaurants attached to outposts with dusty shelves, and sought out grocery stores and scenic drives. We checked out the trailhead and took a tram up Cannon Mountain. We bought our remaining supplies, repacked our backpacks (and made sure we didn’t fall over from their weight), and fell asleep watching a show about wrestling alligators. Because what else would you watch in a homelike New Hampshire inn before you head into the mountains?

We woke to clear weather and had breakfast at the inn while we talked with other guests about our fast-approaching adventure on the Presidential Traverse and their own experiences in the White Mountains. It was time to go. The journey we’d been long anticipating was now waiting at our feet. With packs on, we left the car and walked to meet the shuttle that would leave us at the trailhead. That, for me, marked the point of no return. We were there, with only the provisions we’d packed, and many miles to go before we were back in the world. The one we know; the world that is so very different from the elevated one that we found in the mountains.

This story is long and, friends, this is only part one. Next week: The climb, the unexpected but necessary descent, and the breakfast over which we decided, on a whim, to go to Canada.

To continue to part 2 of this story, click here!