Hiking The Presidential Traverse Part 2: Leaving The White Mountains

To read part one of this, please click here.

The White Mountains are a completely different animal than the Appalachian Mountains. Even so, as I hiked up Craggy Gardens off of the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside of Asheville, North Carolina a couple of days ago, I was forced to remember the first stretch of the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

The climb was gradual at first, but steady, with a low hanging forest and a stream running not far off the trail. Not 10 minutes in I was having thoughts akin to, “Oh my god, what did I sign up for?” and, “I’m not going to be able to do this for days; this is already too strenuous.” However, I swiftly learned that “hiking legs” are a real thing. Your body adjusts and soon enough one foot is stepping in front of the other without much conscious thought given to the strain. (And poles help. A lot. Admittedly, I always thought they were superfluous until I actually used them. And now I wouldn’t do another huge climb without them.)


Our plan was to camp for two nights getting the elevation gain done in one day, and so far everything was going accordingly. We hiked below tree line until the late afternoon, the climb becoming much steeper, and relief washed over us as soon as we reached our campsite and threw our packs down. However, our day was not nearly over; not until we summited Mt. Madison. It would require some double backing, as it was beyond our campsite, but it was necessary to stay on schedule. In between Mt. Madison and our site was the tree line and the first view that very literally took my breath away. When you turn around that first time to see miles of landscape unfolding before you, mountains rolling into the skies, euphoria sets in as does a deep sense of accomplishment. The reward of the climb is a great one.

Northern mountains are not like the ones I had known, and I did not have any idea what ascending Mt. Madison would be like. We set out unable to see the summit, scrambling over rocks while cairn after cairn led us on. August didn’t prevent the need for us to don jackets and gloves as we got higher and higher and the wind grew steadier and more fierce. I became afraid to look at anything except what was directly in front of me. This was the first of many times that I was realizing what one wrong step could mean, which is such a part of the adventure of the White Mountains. Every day we are in situations that we don’t consciously and constantly perceive as life and death. When we are driving, or crossing a street, or even just entering a building. But the sense of life and death is real up there. There is nothing between you and one slip becoming your demise.

When we looked back on Madison the next day, the people climbing it could hardly be seen amongst the rocks and the incline was significantly more dramatic than it appeared when we were up close. “I’m glad I didn’t see it this way before we started,” I said. “I would have been too scared to climb.” The mood was light as we hiked on, realizing that the “trail” was not a trail but a sea of rocks (huge rocks) that we fondly named “the rocksies”.

Hiking The Presidential Traverse Part 2: Leaving The White Mountains - Clapway

As I write, I realize the magnitude of the stories within this trip and the hours I could fill telling them. Of the terrifying and adrenaline inducing non-technical climbing that Mt. Jefferson presents. Of running out of water (despite filling everything we had) miles from Mt. Washington and finding water to filter from a puddle in a boulder. Of hammock camping and talking to fellow hikers that always seemed so thrilled to see another human face. But if you fast forward through all the stories within stories, you will find us approaching Mt. Washington less than a few hours before dark. We’d hiked all day and covered roughly half the distance we’d planned to as miles in the rocksies were significantly slower than the miles of our southern mountains. Our options were limited. We could hike on, exhausted and in the dark, well into the night. We could hike on, also exhausted and most likely in the dark, to the Lakes of the Clouds hut and hope that we could work for our stay in a place they call “the dungeon”. We could walk down the mountain via the road, which would not only be illegal but also spit us out miles from our car, or we could take the Cog Railway down. In a matter of probably 30 minutes we took pictures at the summit sign, read the morbid posters of deaths that have occurred in the White Mountains, and had the employees at the observatory call down to Lakes of the Clouds and ask if they could accommodate us. The sun was sinking fast and they were making the last call for the railway as we finally got through to someone at the hut that told us there wasn’t any room. Two of us ran out and asked the railroad car to wait while others withdrew mass amounts of money from the ATM to pay our way down.

Hiking The Presidential Traverse Part 2: Leaving The White Mountains - Clapway

Once aboard the train, sitting with Anne, she and I fought hard to keep the tears from escaping our eyes. We felt like we’d failed, looking out the windows as the train crawled away from the peaks we’d just been engulfed in. But as we looked back, we also saw all that we’d accomplished. We didn’t finish the trip in the way that we wanted, but together we made the choice to come down. We knew going into the trip how dangerous it could be and agreed that we wouldn’t make brash decisions up there. We wouldn’t deliberately risk our lives for this adventure.

Instead of dwelling on our unexpected descent, we looked out of the train and back over the miles we’d covered. Five peaks in two days is not a small deal and we refused to look at such a feat as a failure. We’d hiked half of the Presidential Traverse, and the remainder of those peaks still waits for our return.

Upon waking at a campsite the next day, the idea of pancakes won out over trail food. We sought out a diner and talked over breakfast about how we’d spend our day. “Guys, look how close we are to Canada,” Anne said pointing at the map. We all exchanged knowing glances, said our silent goodbyes to the White Mountains, and headed on to Montreal.