Hike #8: Presidential Traverse
Elevation: 5,367 (Mount Madison), 5,774 (Mount Adams), 5,712 (Mount Jefferson), 6,288 (Mount Washington), 5,384 (Mount Monroe), 4,780 (Mount Eisenhower), 4,310 (Mount Pierce)
Date: June 15, 2013
Location: a big swath of the White Mountain National Forest, NH
Distance: 20.1 miles
Time: 16:53 (50:24/mile)
Recap: We’ve been hiking for a hair under 17 miles already, having gained all 8,256 feet of elevation there is to gain. We’ve got a little over three miles to go, nothing but downhill. It’s after 8:00 p.m., we’re sentimental as we look back in the fading light over the mountains we’ve tackled. The world seems still, but we’ve still got miles to walk and misery to feel. Plus, there’s my newfound bear phobia to work through!
Leg 8: Pierce summit to parking lot by AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch; 3.3 miles, all descent (20.2 miles and 8,256 total)
Arriving back at the intersection at 8:08 p.m., the sign indicated we had 3.1 miles to go. If we made good time, with no elevation gain to contend with, we could be done by around 9:30. Sara had devolved and was a steamy mess, but I’d somehow found myself getting stronger mentally and physically than earlier in the day. I gave her some encouragement and we started down. As a sign of my emotional maturation since I used my feeling words on the first leg of the hike, my motivational conversation wasn’t a “suck it up” and a fanny pat as if I were a baseball manager. It involved asking open-ended questions to allow her to emote and not trying to problem solve. I figured Oprah Winfrey and Lifetime Television for Women would compete for me to share my techniques if they’d been witness to my support.
We made good time in the first leg, cruising through the first 1.3 miles in forty minutes. I knew Sara was hurting, and that silence would now work best for her. Asking a rhetorical “how ya doin’?” might be unhelpful as she dwells on explaining how miserable she is. Or a succinct “fine” indicates she doesn’t want to talk. So I opted to leave us alone with our individual thoughts for a while. But hitting a trail intersection at that point in the final leg, we had a last bit of food and donned headlamps. We’d now turned onto the Crawford Path. It’s the oldest maintained trail in the country at nearly 200 years old. It’s about the age I felt at this point. I’d been hiking forever and even seen three sunsets already, with the sun setting and reappearing repeatedly through the distant mountains as we wound our way along Crawford Path. But this sunset would be the final one of the day. And now that we were back under the canopy, darkness was coming on quickly.
Originally, I wanted to finish in the light for ease of navigation. Subsequently, my rationale changed. Every hut we stopped at noted that we were in bear country, and some signs along the trails reinforced the message. Since bears are nocturnal, and since I’m akin to an enormous bucket of KFC food, ready for eating, and only missing the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices, I didn’t want to be traipsing through the darkness only to find myself stalked by some enormous creature ready for dinner.
Periodically, I thought of an innocuous question or comment to throw out to Sara, ostensibly making momentary small-talk. But secretly, my goal was to make noise that would avoid startling the bear that we were destined to run across. I also worked out a game plan of using a lighter and bug spray to make a flamethrower. That’s right, some bear comes after Rock Hopper and I’m goin’ all MacGyver on him! Either that or they’d be clues of where the spot was for me to see a bear, drop what I was holding, wet myself, and fly past Sara, screaming in abject terror at a pitch so high that dogs would yelp.
As predicted, the darkness killed our progress. 9:00 became 9:30 and then 9:45. At one point, I thought I glimpsed an odd light far ahead, but then nothing came of it. But shortly before 10:00, we ran across two women sitting in the middle of the trail with a bright light. We’d seen them at the Madison Hut and a couple other times. They were two women who looked to be in their early 20’s. They’d undertaken the same challenge but were a train wreck and seemed to be contemplating sleeping in the trail. They didn’t have the gear for it and hadn’t seemed appropriately prepared when we ran across them earlier in the day. Now, they also didn’t have any energy, and were unable to figure out a plan. I was concerned and gave them a pep talk about how close they were. While I didn’t know the exact distance, I figured it was a little over a quarter-mile. If wrong, better to estimate low, since it would motivate them to continue, which was what was important. After they felt better, and Sara showed some life from running across people, we continued on and they gathered their belongings to do so as well.
|This sign tells me I've been lied to, |
and I have to keep walking. Not cool.
Sara and I headed back to the hotel, finishing our hike at 10:18 p.m., 16 hours and 53 minutes after starting it. By 11:00 we’d arrived back at the hotel, showered and had a celebratory glass of wine in bed, which I used to wash down some handfuls of Doritos. By 11:30 Sara had some residual energy from her success, but I was asleep.
The next morning, neither of us could walk. We needed time and assistance navigating to the front desk for the continental breakfast and coffee and back to our room, with an altruistic employee helping with the door. Another monumental effort was packing up and heading home, each of us stuck in a vehicle alone for three hours. It was Father’s Day, and Sara hadn’t told me that my girls wanted to help me celebrate by doing a fun activity such as all of us playing tennis. Ouch. But she also surprised me with a delicious all-you-can-eat buffet which allowed me to eat an obscene amount of food. I guess all’s well that ends well!
The Oreos I had part way down were the best I have ever eaten, reminding me of another reason of why I hike. Hiking, and backpacking, have a way of making you enjoy the little things in life.
We delayed putting our headlamps on for as long as we could. Although we didn’t talk much about it, I was wondering how Jay would fare with hiking in the dark. I remembered the first time I had done so, which was during a backpacking trip with my girlfriends in the Peru Peak wilderness in Vermont’s Green Mountains. We had hiked a few miles in on a Friday night to find our camping spot and I was rather freaked out. Because you can see less, the rest of your senses, especially hearing, stand up on alert. Jay didn’t say anything that night, but I later found out he was concerned about bears. At the time, bears were the furthest worry from my mind. For me, the gravest danger I faced was that of my body failing me, and me injuring myself as a result.
Having hiked the Crawford Path before was a bit of a curse, in that I knew that there was a waterfall near the beginning of the trail. If only we could get there, I knew that it would be a relatively easy hike out. I fixated on reaching the waterfall and its promise of completion. It seemed ever elusive.
Spying a few lamps ahead of us, I figured we were coming upon the two gentlemen that we had seen on Eisenhower, and how they’d tell us of Mount Jackson and Webster (at the time I did not realize that they would not be exiting the Crawford Path if they had done those). It turned out to be the girls we had seen at Madison Hut!
They sat along an erosion-controlling water bar in the middle of the trail. In complete survival mode like I was at Lake of the Clouds, I was in no condition to be social. I give Jay a lot of credit for being talkative and encouraging to them as they contemplated their options. I regret not saying more, but I was doing all I could to keep myself moving.
I didn’t cry on the exit along the Crawford Path, but I sure was close!
Eventually we came to the waterfall and, indeed, it is close to the exit. We hit the intersection of the Crawford Path extension which leads to the parking lot. Shortly after (it seemed to take a really long time...again perception messing with reality), we hiked to our car! Thank goodness I had the keys!
The girls behind us hiked out and I briefly congratulated them. Again, Jay was doing a hero’s job of being congratulatory. All I wanted to do was get my boots off. We celebrated a little by taking dark selfies at the exit of the trail and headed back north to Jefferson to stay at our motel.
|Done. 17 hours later, D. O. N. E. DONE!|
There was no way that I could go to bed on a meal of wine and Doritos, so I heated up some water and made a dehydrated dinner and relished the entire thing!
Jay fell asleep quickly, and I did not give him a hard time for it. Instead, I watched him sleep while I ate my Jamaican chicken. I was really proud of him and of us for tackling this together. Earlier in the day I remarked, “You must really love hiking to take on something like this!” It was a comment that was met with silence. So I amended it, “You must really love a hiker to take on something like this!” To this, he smiled and nodded, “Yeah!”
Completing (or even attempting) the Presi Traverse together, I felt very loved and my love for him grew in return. Not only did Jay take on hiking, he embraced an EPIC traverse that had originated from my passion and a goal I had set for myself. On my side, I had to welcome him into it (which I will admit was more than a little hard to do). It can be difficult to hike with someone else when they have different styles, strengths and weaknesses, and attitude from yourself.
The reciprocity of our relationship felt very evident. I had spent years investing time and energy into mountain biking - enduring extraordinary bruises and contusions as I did so. I greatly appreciated the sacrifice he made, as well, during this spring. Mountain biking took a complete backseat to our hiking training.
Not every couple feels like they need to share each other’s interests to the degree that Jay and I do. But I think both of us fancy ourselves as adventurers and I learned from this hike that there is a great reward in sharing your adventures together.
The next morning brought severe aches and pains. To say it was difficult to walk would be an understatement. I felt terrible about the tennis event the girls had planned for Jay in that I knew it would be physically painful for the two of us, but we had been working all spring with the girls to be more active and to see them embrace tennis in that way, I just didn’t have the heart to tell them that dad and I would be too tired. So I committed us to playing tennis with them that afternoon after lunch and before ice cream.
Remarkably, though, the soreness didn’t last long and the training seemed to pay off. In a few days, I was back to running and, again reflecting on the impact of perception; it was the easiest 5 miles I ever ran!
I welcomed a break from hiking after the Presi and we turned to mountain biking again, in advance of a trip we’d take to the Kingdom Trails in Vermont. Initially, I said I’d never do a Presi traverse again, but I think I could be talked into it. But first, other epic hikes await and I look forward to sharing the Pemigewasset Loop with Jay, hopefully next season.
For those who were able to endure all four installments of the write-up for this hike, thanks for following along! We’ll now resume our regular broadcast messaging, which are articles a fraction of this twenty-page tome.
See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper