MT. WASHINGTON, N.H. – The frustration, fatigue and rain finally were getting to me as I paused, breathing heavily, on the eastern slope of Mount Clay.

Seven hours of attempting to step gingerly across slippery, lichen-encrusted rocks had taken its toll. My planned one-day trek across New Hamphire’s Presidential Range was not even halfway complete.

A combination of light, but persistent rain, sore muscles and a building wind had helped make my morning a rather miserable experience. And there was still another 1,000 feet of elevation and 2 miles to go before any kind of relief was available.

I’d managed to avoid any serious injuries thus far, though I had passed another hiker who had taken a tumble coming down Mount Adams and severely gashed his finger, thus ending his attempt at crossing the Presidentials.

Stopping really wasn’t an option, I realized. The Forest Service doesn’t look kindly on people who want to be choppered off the mountain just because they’re tired.

Nevertheless, as I bleakly looked up at the disappearing, fog-enshrouded hiker in front of me, I wondered if I’d soon be heading to a bailout point as well.

The Presidential Traverse, as it’s commonly known, consists of a grueling 20- to 23-mile haul over as many as eight official “4,000-footers” in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, stretching southward from the 5,367-foot Madison to the 4,052-foot Jackson. (A couple of other peaks technically don’t qualify for the list, which totals 47).

Roughly in the middle sits Mount Washington, the Northeast’s highest peak at 6,288 feet and home to the highest wind speed recorded on land at 231 mph.

While many guidebooks advertise hikes that cover the distance in two or three days – indeed, National Geographic Adventure magazine promoted such a trip as one of its “Adventure 100” in 2000 – dozens of people every year attempt to tame the boulder-strewn trail in just one stretch.

Since my father corralled me into the hike as a teenager, I’ve made at least a dozen attempts at the trip, more than half of them successful.

Fatigue is always a factor – you can expect at least 14 hours on the trail if you’re a fast hiker, up to 17 or 18 if you’re slower. But weather usually turns out to be the primary determinant. Except for the beginning and the end, virtually all of the hike is above tree line, where you are completely exposed. Wind gusts of 60 mph to 70 mph are possible, even on a summer’s day, as are rain, sleet and snow: a perfect hypothermia cocktail.

Last year, a combination of sleet and sustained 40 mph winds along with the prospect of thunderstorms moving in later in the day forced us to bail out after only a few hours on the trail.

The nine-member group I was hiking with this year ranged in age from the mid-30s to the early-70s, including Peter Tremayne, a New Zealander recovering from prostate cancer surgery, and hike leader Tom Chan, who had completed this trek roughly 20 times before. Our group was well experienced, with only one person attempting the Traverse for the first time.

Nevertheless, each year brings with it different challenges.

This year’s was the rain, and lots of it. The previous few days had been filled with intermittent showers throughout the entire region. That kept the annoying black flies at bay, but saturated the landscape.

And when it’s raining in the valley, it’s almost always worse up on the summits.

Thus, when we hit the trail in a steady drizzle just before 4:15 a.m, it didn’t look promising.

“We’ll see what it’s like at Madison Hut,” Chan had said earlier, before departing from our base at North Conway’s Nereledge Inn.

It took five minutes before I had sweated through my shirt and Goretex outer jacket; removing the jacket let me wick away the sweat more easily, but the tradeoff meant that I quickly was soaked by the rain.

Sixteen hours to go and it didn’t look promising.

As the day gradually brightened, however, my spirits lifted along with the clouds. Making our way up the Valley Way trail (no one wanted to head to the top of Madison first off, so we bypassed the summit), the light rain didn’t seem to be as much an impediment as it was a refreshing accompaniment to a tromp in the woods.

But after reaching the hut – one of only a few places on the trip you can get something warm – the news from other hikers was not encouraging.

While the Valley Way consists of a snarled combination of rocks, roots, dirt and streams, the increase in elevation is gradual, with few places where you need to use your hands. Thus, it was a fairly pleasant hike.

The next several hours on the trail were marked by large rock slabs and boulders, however, where scrambling was commonplace. In wet, hazardous conditions, the only way to move safely is by taking slow, careful steps. The downhill climbs promised to be especially treacherous; I was a bit leery about the traction on my aging L.L. Bean hiking boots.

Still, as a group, we decided to press forward, though many decided to bypass the upcoming northern peaks – Adams, Jefferson and Clay – and opted for a slightly safer route.

Years of experience had led me to respect the yellow warning signs that dot the many access trails to the Presidentials. “Stop,” the signs read in weather-beaten black letters. “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.”

This year wasn’t as bad as some other conditions I had seen, but it meant we all had to be careful.

After last year’s disappointing experience, I was determined to bag at least one peak this year in case we bailed out, so I headed up the trail to Mt. Adams.

The subsequent scramble wasn’t as taxing physically as it was mentally. This wasn’t a race, so I could afford to take my time. But each step, especially after reaching the summit of Adams and making my way back down to the main trail, was like a game of chess. I had to look at rocks two or three steps ahead, and then be able to adjust my trajectory as my feet slipped and I was forced to look mid-air for another landing spot.

Only one other member of our group climbed Adams, and she was well ahead of me, so for the next hour, I was hiking alone with my thoughts. Gradually our group began to coalesce again, and we decided that the next bailout opportunity would be Washington.

The next few hours were a slog, pockmarked by grunts of effort as we pulled ourselves up the rocky terrain. At times, the clouds seemed about to lift, before plunging downward and covering us again in mist and rain.

First Jefferson, then Clay dwindled behind me, though the fatigue remained. Somewhere ahead was Washington, the high point of the trip.

Then the sun came out for about 10 seconds. A dim ball of light, somehow penetrating the clouds. The rain stopped, and while we remained in clouds – perversely, the rocks seemed to become more slippery – the summit of Washington and hot food were only moments away.

“No excuse now not to do the Southern Prezzies,” quipped Tremayne, marching in front of me.

Actually, I could think of several. I was soaked. I was chilled. I was hungry. And while I had some additional gear in my pack, I was fairly confident that I’d continue being soaked and chilled the remainder of the day.

A bowl of clam chowder later at the Mt. Washington summit building, and it didn’t seem so bad, however.

The second half of the Traverse was almost anticlimactic, though water continued to be a problem.

It wasn’t the rain, specifically, or the lack of enough to drink. Rather, it was the water on the ground. The trail had become a stream, and in many cases, we had no choice but to slog through giant puddles as best we could.

We made good time, though, motoring over Monroe and Eisenhower before heading off the range. Going all the way over to Jackson was dismissed due to the late hour and the trail conditions – in the best of times, much of the trail between Mizpah Hut and the Jackson summit consists of crossing waterlogged areas. Today, it certainly would be worse.

Twenty miles and 16 hours after we started in Appalachia, we came off the trail just outside the new Highland Center in Crawford Notch. As we reached the road, we were greeted by an awe-inspiring mix of blue sky, puffy clouds and the best (actually the only) views of the day.

Despite the body aches I felt as well as the overall sensation of being waterlogged, I recalled the note I’d left behind in the Madison Hut log book earlier that day.

“Doing the Presidential Traverse. … Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”


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