Extreme Day Hiking the Presi Traverse
White Mountains, NH
Oct 15, 2004
Originally published in The Tuck Times, Oct 2004
“It was a trail walked by an idiot, full of rain, wind and rocks, signifying nothing.”
So here it is, the latest dose of outdoor adventure served up to you in your favorite newspaper. The Tuck Times recently sent me off into the wilderness to get a first-hand scoop on a growing fad in the outdoors – extreme day hiking.
The principle of extreme day hiking is simple, as put succinctly by hiking website dayhiker.com: “Go early, go light, go fast, go far, go high and achieve your personal best in one day.” No need for heavy backpacks loaded down with tents, sleeping bags, and sundry other camping supplies – this is long-distance hiking stripped to the essentials.
Over the past few weeks, a slew of emails flying around Tuck eventually filtered down to a short list of A-level hikers (Asinine-level, that is). The group settled down to Jeff Emig, Nina Kemppel, Michael Smith, Tim Grein, Carolyn Sousa, Gonzalo Montenegro, Richard Williams, Gad Nestel, and me. The goal: extreme day hike the entire High Presidential range in northern New Hampshire. Known as the High Presidential Traverse, or just the Presi Traverse, this hiking route is a popular challenge for Asinine hikers. The typical route hits all of the High Presidential summits and entails 20 miles of rough, twist-your-ankle rock-hopping. Add to that 8,500 vertical feet of climbing and you’ve got yourself an extreme day hike.
Our high-octane group of nine arrived at the trailhead at 5:30am (just as The End Zone was shutting down) and with headlamps donned set off into the darkness. A steady rain quickly soaked through our several layers but an unrelenting ascent of steep boulders managed to keep us one step away from hypothermia. Sunrise was nothing more than a lightening of the thick cloud mass that had enveloped our reality. The wind picked up, the rain blew sideways, our boots filled with water, hour faded into hour, we scrambled along. Someone said, “This is so stupid.”
Zero views all day, a blur of rocky summits, wetter than a sponge, visions of pizza and beer – that’s how it was as we bagged each President in the series. Madison, Adams, Jefferson – see ya wouldn’t wanna be ya. Now Mt. Washington posed a serious challenge. Lactic acid bogged down my legs, each .1 mile became a test of willpower.
But eureka! The Mt. Washington visitor center was open. I’ve never been a fan of hiking up mountains with parking lots and tourist traps on the summit, but this time it was a godsend. The place was full of tourists who’d taken up the Cog Railway to peer into an impenetrable sea of fog, and the horrified looks on their faces when they saw our soaking condition almost justified the entire trip. That and a hot chocolate (only a buck, best deal ever) combined to rejuvenate our spirits. After squeezing out all of our clothes and flooding a section of the floor, we packed up and headed out once again into the gusting wind and driving rain. Half way there.
Most of the big ascents had already been covered; now we meandered through alpine meadows and tagged the summits of Monroe, Franklin (not a president but annoyingly in the way), Eisenhower, and Pierce. It was now 6pm and we had a little over three miles of descending to go. The daylight quickly diminished and it was headlamp time again.
Things started to get a little grim. Richard’s headlamp ran out of juice and his backup battery was dead so we had to lead him down the trail with the light of our lamps. Tim injured his right leg and he started limping along like a madman coming out of the hills. Several of us developed severe altitude sickness and had to tap into our emergency oxygen bottles. Suffice it to say we had all reached the point of wanting this hike to end.
We reached the car around 8pm after nearly 15 hours of hiking. It had never stopped raining, we had never seen a view, and we had been thoroughly beat down. So, was it worth it? Although the situation started to get a bit dicey at the end, once we were all dry with pizza and beer we all agreed that yes, it was. The challenge was immense, the effort intense. We had worked together and achieved something extreme. That said, I think it’ll be a while until any of us attempt another one of these things.
But to you first years, don’t waste any time, get out there and start hiking!
Soaked to the bone at the end of a long day.
L to R, back row: Tim Grein, Scott Kendall, Jeff Emig, Richard Williams, Carolyn Sousa.
Front row: Gad Nestel, Nina Kemppel, Michael Smith, and team dogs Bugs and Bula (photo by Gonzalo Montenegro)
Elevation profile from our trip (a little off due to altimeter calibration issues)
Site with a ton of detail on the Presi Traverse