Monday, September 9, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #8: Presidential Traverse, Part 4, NH

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.

Turns out, the parking lot we were in was about a quarter of a mile further than the trail sign led us to believe. So when we thought we were done, we found we had to keep going. And going. And going. When we finally emerged from the trail to the parking lot, we felt victorious and high-fived.  

This sign tells me I've been lied to,
and I have to keep walking. Not cool.

Exhausted, we threw our gear in the back of Sara’s Xterra and flopped into the seats for a moment. We saw the girls emerge from the woods and I went over to congratulate them. They were equally tired but happy. Unlike us, they didn’t have a hotel room and were contemplating next steps. I dissuaded them from driving all the way home for two to three hours, fearing they’d fall asleep at the wheel. The weather was fine and they had a tent, so they opted to pitch it and depart in the morning while I wondered when I turned into everyone’s dad, protective of three people around me, two of whom I didn’t even know.

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 Presi Traverse aftermath: 1 of 2 lost toenails.

I went on to lose two toenails. My knee turned out to be fine but I re-aggravated my heel injury. Oh, and my stomach turns now at the smell of beef jerky. My next couple of trips would be beach-facing, and I wanted some variety of activities. So it would be a while before I was back to hiking in the mountains. But there was so much that got packed into this hike that it would fuel me for a while, and I knew that I – and we – would be different for having done it.

My friend Melissa and I had hiked easily down the Crawford Path last September after a night at the Mizpah Hut.  I had remembered an easy trail, with good footing.  Well, the difference between my memory and my reality were clashing and I found myself mentally deteriorating as I struggled down the wet rocks and roots of the Crawford Path.  My ankle and knee ached and I was also fearful of injury.  Thankful that Jay knows my hiking style well by now, he left me alone so I could silently plod along, celebrating the fact that placing one foot in front of the other was the only victory I could attend to at the moment.

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 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #8: Presidential Traverse, Part 3, NH

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 already hiked 11.3 miles, gaining 7,206 feet of total elevation and bagging Mount Madison, Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, and now Mount Washington. We’ve been hiking since about 5:30 a.m., and it’s now 3:30 p.m. as we leave the Mount Washington visitors center. I’m a mess, Sara’s at least better than me. We’re rapidly losing time.

Leg 5: Washington summit to Monroe summit via Lake of the Clouds hut and Monroe Loop; 2.2 miles, 350 feet of elevation gain (13.5 miles and 7,556 total)
Alright, this sucks. We’ve set out again. The wind’s howling, I’ve got Goosebumps, I feel feverish and nauseous, and my knee’s really flaring up. In response to Sara’s question, it actually started hurting about five miles ago, but I could handle it so didn’t say anything before. Now, I’m using my hiking poles, having to step in ways to cater to it, and I’ve slowed way down. The rocky descent to the Lake of the Clouds hut wasn’t far, but it was painstaking. I felt like junk and slowed us down still further, although Sara was nothing but supportive.

Even when the trail briefly leveled out and wrapped around a lake before passing the AMC hut, I was still badly gimping along. At the hut, which was really nice, we sat at a long table. I downed more food and water, and talked to a guy and his daughter. She’d turned ten, the age of my oldest daughter. They were having a birthday event, recognizing her reaching double-digits. It was her first hike, and she was sipping the hot chocolate sludge at the bottom of her cup and munching on a brownie, looking through old logbooks for her dad’s entry when he stayed here about fifteen years ago. He was no longer single, nor as fit, and a lot of life had unfolded for him. But he was proud to be here again with his daughter, creating new accomplishments and memories that could be shared across generations and remembered for decades. It was touching, and more reason to linger appreciatively than my aches were. I always get sentimental when people are having nice moments in life, and this was sweet to witness and briefly join.

This was the last bailout point on the hike, with a navigable route down to the road for me if I needed it. But the scene I’d witnessed was really motivational. Having just seen one version of a memorable day winding down, I couldn’t stand the thought of stealing Sara’s version of today from her. Although she asked if we needed to get me off the mountain and was great about it, I was determined to soldier on. If we could continue to help each other, then we’d find some way to complete this hike and bond as we did so.
We can debate if I'm smiling or wincing on the summit
of Mount Monroe, with Mount Washington behind me.

It was a short but intense hike up to the summit of Monroe. The steepness led to potty words inside my head, but I was able to quickly be on summit #5, beyond the point of no return. I’d taken my second and last 5-Hour Energy, hoping it would aid me in making it through. Now after 5:00 p.m., the lengthening shadows warned me that finishing in the light was becoming increasingly unlikely. And by “unlikely” I mean no freaking way, but I’ll indulge in refusing to acknowledge that for a little while longer.

Time and distance when hiking, and your perception of both, is always an interesting phenomenon to me.  Above tree line, it is often difficult to judge distance.  Sometimes, the time flies by and at other times, it progresses exceedingly slowly.  

Mount Washington represented the half-way point of our journey and, by all accounts, we were beyond half-way in time.  At this point, we’d gone about 11 miles and had been hiking for nearly 10 hours.  We had about 9 miles left and definitely wouldn’t be hiking for 10 more.  We had gotten almost all of the vertical climbing out of the way, and the vertical climbs for the remaining peaks were but a small fraction of the total.

So the half-mile hike down to the Lake of the Clouds hut should have been a breeze.  

Oh. My. God. I have never hurt so much. It took forever.

The Lake of the Clouds hut is an alpine oasis.  When we finally arrived, I welcomed another opportunity to rest and refuel.  I was fully in “survival mode”.  While Jay spent time chatting amicably with a gentleman and his ten year old, I began an internal withdrawal that I knew I’d have to fight.  I’m not sure I spoke to anyone at the hut, even though there was clearly some heartwarming moments happening. I didn’t want to pull away from Jay during the pinnacle moments of our trip that were just around the corner: in a few short hours we would be on our last peak and then on the Crawford Path, declaring victory.  I needed to stay plugged in.

We left Lake of the Clouds and almost immediately began climbing up Mount Monroe.  And before I blinked, we were at the summit, with very little perceived effort!

As tired as I was, the second half of the Presidentials was proving, as Goatman predicted, to be much easier than the first.  My body and mind had been used to the large climbs, like Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson, and these peaks were, at least to my perception, proving to be much easier.  Thoughts of mere survival were turning into optimistic anticipation.  We can do this!

Leg 6: Monroe summit to Eisenhower summit via Monroe Loop and Eisenhower Loop; 2.1 miles, 500 feet of elevation gain (15.6 miles and 8,056 total)
Monroe to Eisenhower felt like an eternity. We were both hurting now, even on flat terrain. We actually made good time, covering over two miles in under two hours at this point of the hike. But we didn’t feel celebratory. We encountered a couple of guys who were doing well. But they were debating, one wanting to finish off the hike and the other wanting to add another side peak or two. Their pace far surpassed ours, so after chatting at the Eisenhower summit, we quickly lost sight of them, not knowing if one had his fun cut short or the other got dragged along for a couple more hours. My toes were now hurting with every step. But, miraculously, my knee pain had diminished, the first time ever that it didn’t keep getting worse. I wasn’t a pretty sight, but acknowledged that it could be worse. Sara usually enjoyed the grind, so watching her wearing down mentally was this leg’s real development in my mind.

The shadows on Mount Eisenhower are growing longer.

We continued checking in on each other, showing that this effort would be accomplished through partnership and mutual support. It kept a little conversation going, and it was helpful because we’d tend to be a bit honest but not complain too much.  We could acknowledge, “my feet are really starting to bother me, but I’ll be okay. Thanks for checking.” But we wouldn’t indulge in a, “my toes feel like they’re being held by pliers; my legs have more jelly than a Smuckers factory; and every time wind blows under my shirt I get a scent of hours of accumulated BO that’s triggering my gag reflex. I’m a vision of abject misery!”

Knowing we had a single summit left, with the bare minimum 200 feet of elevation change required to count as a legit peak, we pushed on. It was almost 7:00 p.m. when we left Eisenhower’s summit. I knew the odds of finishing in the light, with navigation being easier and the pace able to be quicker, were as long as the shadows.

My emotions are as up and down as are the peaks.  My optimism from the top of Mount Monroe collided with the reality of the situation.  We still had two peaks and about 5 miles left.

When you are this tired, a single decision can carry a lot of weight.  We made an energy-conserving decision to skip Mount Franklin, a shoulder peak that sits just below Mount Monroe.  Neither named for a president nor an official 4,000-footer, we reasoned that it was wise to skirt around it.  Emotionally, however, I still feel a bit of disappointment in myself that we skipped Clay and Franklin – after all, I love the grind.  However, I know intellectually that these were great decisions.

My feet ached at this point and my ankle was being rubbed raw by my hiking boots.  To compensate for the pain in my ankle, my gait changed slightly, with cause the opposite knee to twinge.  This was going to be a long slog.   

It was hard, too, to keep my spirits up as our shadows got longer and the sky’s colors began to change.  My dreams of hiking out while still light were vanishing.  An 8:00 exit was slipping away (as was any hopes of having enough night left with which to celebrate).  

Sara, seemingly walking of the peak of Mount Eisenhower
into the nothingness beyond it

I wish I could say that I enjoyed this part of the hike.  The summit of Eisenhower felt perfunctory.  We met a pair of Presi Traversers.  My silver lining was that one of the guys was similarly exhausted and wanted to exit at Pierce, rather than continue with his buddy to Mount Jackson and Mount Webster, neither of which are named after US Presidents.  I felt validated with my own exhaustion.

Leg 7: Eisenhower summit to Pierce summit via Eisenhower Loop and Webster Cliff Trail; 1.3 miles, 200 feet of elevation gain (16.9 miles and 8,256 total)
Eisenhower had a plateau that allowed a glimpse beyond it to Pierce. It looked like a cliff, and I figured I’d be good with either walking off it or trusting that it would lead me to the final summit. Unfortunately, the cliff and free fall never materialized, so I had to endure the down-and-back-up to the Pierce peak. Truthfully, there wasn’t much elevation change, and we had a seemingly quick pace which somehow didn’t translate into a quick time. I began regaining some strength, although Sara continued wearing down. It was the first time I’d seen the grind outlasting her.

Conversation and check-ins had slowed. But we were a bit confused on the trail intersections, so this gave us a distraction from our internal dialogue. We luckily talked that through to choose our route correctly. Pierce’s summit was on a spur from our route to the parking lot, and we were unclear at first where the actual summit was. But a huge cairn gave us the necessary indication and we snapped our final photos of the summit and its views.  

As the sign says, I've climbed Mount Pierce and am totally spent!

Sara backtracked to the previous intersection as I lingered, photographing her with much of our traverse in the background and sun hanging low in another direction. I couldn’t believe the distance we’d covered. Whatever the details, I had no doubt we were finishing, and that we’d complete the hike in the dark – at this point it was 8:00 p.m. The odds of finishing, as they say, were slim to none. And my boy Slim had just left town. So I afforded myself a moment of appreciation. We saw almost no one since leaving the Lake of the Clouds Hut. From what we understood, the time around the summer solstice was best for this hike to provide the most hours of light. But maybe not as many people shot for this goal as we’d speculated? Maybe the March of the Crazies wasn’t much more than a two-person parade? Whatever the deal, I felt proud of what I was accomplishing. I’d never tried anything like this before and learned a lot about what I could endure, how to push myself, and how to approach it mentally over so many hours. Similar to other efforts with mountain biking and skiing, I knew today created a new perspective such that future hikes would be easier, because I could compare some event against this effort and know that wouldn’t seem as hard. And I knew that accomplishments such as this and the lessons learned carried over into other aspects of my life. 

Taking a moment to appreciate Sara and the Presidentials as we bag the last Presi peak

Watching Sara navigating a short, narrow bridge, I also loved her for bringing me along and sharing these moments. Hiking, downhill skiing, and snowshoeing were originally more her sports than mine, and mountain biking and cross country skiing were more mine than hers. But sharing each other’s activities has allowed each of us to build up the necessary skills to let the other have that outlet we crave, to learn about each other, and to learn about ourselves in the process of coming to enjoy those sports in our own way. It’s also led to a lot of experiences and bonding. Sharing major life experiences and adventures with a lifelong partner allows our lives to feel more integrated and our partnership to feel richer and fuller. Not every couple needs to have so many overlapping interests, but our chemistry works so well because our adventures are truly our adventures.

The hike from Eisenhower to Pierce felt like a very long one, again perception really messing with the reality of the situation.  Part of what seemed to take longer is that Jay began snapping pictures.  At the time, I really didn’t appreciate that...I wanted to be done as quickly as possible.  What I can say now, is that I cherish the pictures of our traverse along the plateau between Eisenhower and Pierce.  The pictures capture one aspect of why I hike.  There is remarkable beauty in nature and you only get this type of vantage point by earning it.  

Sara, appreciating the (visible) summits she's conquered today

We meandered along the trail, heading in and out of tree line.  We paused at the intersection to Pierce to fully ensure we were going the right way and then took a left at the intersection to Pierce and quickly reached the summit.  I asked Jay to take another picture of me as I hiked away from the Pierce summit.  Indeed, as Goatman predicted, sun was setting as we summitted Pierce and I looked back across the ridge and the peaks we had just crossed.  Tears filled my eyes as it was at this moment where I knew, with complete certainty, that we had done the one-day Presi traverse.  This picture captures another reason I hike: for the personal reward of working towards overcoming physical and mental challenges.  I cried knowing that there was only option left at this point and that was to hike out and be done, having completed our goal!

A touchy-feely point like this seems appropriate for the last break for the readers. We’re not done hiking yet, but we’re close. And since we’re averaging about a page of writing per mile of hiking, you, too, can feel like you’re on a never-ending odyssey. Stay tuned for the final installment!

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper