White Mountain Hut Traverse, Part 2 (Full Story)

I had a really busy work week. Until today, there had been very little time to recover from last weekend’s one-day White Mountain Hut Traverse. My body is going to need another week of rest to return to normal. The worst damage is to my right quadricep and iliotibial band. I’ll survive.

Hut Traverse History
Debbie and I first experienced a Hut Traverse back in 2003 when we witnessed a traverse while staying at Galehead Hut with some Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) friends. We learned a bit about this AMC Hut Croo tradition. We did a little research leading up to our trip. This blog post was very helpful. As was Mohammed Ellozy’s webpage. His site was also very helpful when we were hiking the New England 4000 Footers. Debbie and I have had a several one-day epic adventures over the years. Our 4000 footers were completed with a multi-day crazy trip across the Rangeley Range that also included a bike leg. In Yosemite, we did a marathon day from the base of Mt. Hoffman to Yosemite Valley that included Half Dome, and finished in the dark. Several years ago, with Matt Schomburg, we did a one day circumnavigation of the Grafton Trail Loop. Those all seem short compared with our modern version of the Hut Traverse, which took us from Carter Notch Hut to Lonesome Lake Hut.

Preparation/Gear/Packing List
We went as light as we could. I don’t think we could have carried less gear, but we could have carried more food. Debbie and I both used Nathan packs. Mine was an older model pack that fit more gear, so I carried the extra food, the bottles, and a few extra things. Hers was a HPS #020 Hydration Vest. Each pack integrated a bladder, which we filled with water at each hut. My pack, with food and water, weighed about 12 pounds and felt fine. Debbie’s was lighter because it is smaller and she carried less fluids. We both used our new Black Diamond Z-Pole Ultra Distance Trekking Poles, and they were awesome. We both wore Vasque Mindbenders, which were fine, but slippery on the wet rocks. I carried my Leica V-Lux 30 camera.  I used a Petzl headlamp and Debbie used a Black Diamond. I wore my favorite cap and Debbie wore her visor. We carried ultralight Patagonia jackets, but never needed them. I changed my shirt twice. I started with short sleeves, went to sleeveless, and then finished with long sleeves. All three were different models in Patagonia’s Capilene line. Debbie wore the same short sleeve Patagonia Capilene shirt all day. I wore tri-shorts to minimize chafing, and Debbie wore knickers. We both changed our Darn Tough socks once. I wore my fleece hat on the walk up to Lonesome, but I was cooked at that point and couldn’t keep in any heat. It was also pouring rain at that time.

Fueling/Hydration
Unfortunately, we could have planned our food better. We were fine on fluids because we filled our bladders at every hut but Madison Spring and Grenleaf. I carried two “five-hour” bottles filled with Hammer Perpetuum, which we refilled once. I carried the extra powder in Ziploc bags. We each had a flask of Hammer Gel. I ate two Raw Food Bars. We split a Bobo Bar. Debbie had a couple Clif Z-Bars. We both had some Apple Sauce Cake at Zealand Falls Hut and Galehead Hut. None of that was enough. I was famished by the time we got to Greenleaf, and hit the wall really hard. I fooled myself into thinking that I was going to have trouble eating, like in an ultra or Ironman triathlon, but as it turned out, we could have consumed whatever we wanted, like on any long hike. Some salt and vinegar chips and chocolate coconut water grabbed from our car at Lafayette Place Campground parking area gave me the calories to get to Lonesome Lake Hut. Without that, I wouldn’t have made it.

Planning/Logistics
We looked at several options to get to the start. Between a full work week and coordinating childcare for our kids, we had from 8:00 A.M. on Saturday until 6:00 P.M. on Monday to complete the whole trip. With Route 302 and the Kancamagus Highway closed, the AMC Hiker Shuttle was suspended. We didn’t want to take the 4-hour ride from Franconia Notch to Pinkham Notch anyway, but we would have if necessary. We couldn’t arrange a ride with friends at an optimal time, so we just decided to ride our bicycles. I’m glad we did because it made for a great experience. I’m sure it took a little bit out of our legs. The trailhead parking was insane. We ended up completely on the lawn up against the trees, and if I wasn’t a good parallel-parker, we could have circled the lot for hours waiting for someone to pull out. We wore cycling clothes and had our traverse clothes in our packs. On our bikes, we carried everything, including our trail running shoes,which were strapped to our packs. We stopped at the Appalachia trailhead for a snack, and again in Gorham. Thanks to our friend, Matt Schomburg, we left our bikes at the Androscoggin Ranger Station along with our bicycling gear. Matt joined us for dinner, and then dropped us off at the Nineteen Mile Brook Trailhead.

The Route/The Huts
Carter Notch Hut-we started at Carter. We hiked the 3.8 miles up to the hut in darkness. At the hut, we chatted with guests and with three Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who were sleeping on the floor of the main dining room. We joined them on the floor for a three-hour nap. The Hut Croo was kind enough to give each of us a wool blanket so that we didn’t have to lie on the dusty floor. We still tossed and turned with no padding. Debbie eventually said to me, “Let’s get going.” We were ready. We grabbed our gear, used the bathroom, and set off at 1:39 A.M. The sky was a clear as could be, and the stars were gorgeous.

Madison Spring Hut-we took the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail to Rt. 16. Nineteen was mostly downhill, but was very rugged and a bit muddy. We ran the whole way. We crossed the road and ran to the Great Gulf Trailhead. We took Great Gulf Trail to the Osgood Trail Cutoff and then to the Osgood Trail. The brutal 4,000 foot climb to the summit of Mt. Madison was tough. On the Osgood Trail, we came face to face with a large moose. She was about 15 feet off of the trail. I paused so Debbie could see her. Her huge eyes reflected in our headlamps. We talked nicely to her and scooted past. She eventually walked farther into the woods. After pausing at the 5,367 foot summit of Madison to take in the sights and sounds, we descended to the hut. While coming down, we intercepted a lone hiker who was walking to the summit from the hut to see the sunrise. He was the first person we saw in 3.5 hours. I went in, signed the hikers log, and filled a water bottle. Debbie stayed outside. We didn’t want to wake people up since the hut was full and it was 5:10 A.M. It took us 214 minutes to go the approximately 10 miles from Carter.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut-we took the Gulfside Trail from Madison to the Westside Trail to the Crawford Path, which led us to Lakes. After three minutes on the trail, we stopped and turned back because we hadn’t seen any white blazes. Osgood and Gulfside are the Appalachian Trail. The blazes were fresh on Osgood, but we didn’t see any on Gulfside, so we thought we made a mistake. It turns out that we didn’t, but we ran back to the junction near the hut just to be sure. Back on the trail, we avoided the summits of Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Clay, and Mt. Washington. Gulfside and Westside were slippery and rocky, but we still ran most of the way. The sunrise was spectacular and wispy fog rose from the valleys, making it one of the most beautiful mornings that I have spent in the mountains. Lakes was the first hut where we saw people and we saw a ton of them. They had just finished breakfast and the hut was rocking. I actually had to wait in line to use the bathroom. We spent 10 minutes there. The Croo was doing dishes with the music cranked and hikers were bustling about readying their gear for the day. It was a little weird considering that we had only seen one person until we reached the hut and then boom, the place was like a zoo. Outside the hut, we had a hiker snap a photo of us. After he took the shot, he looked up at this big mountain with towers on the summit and asked with no hint of humor, “Is that Mt. Washington.” I glanced at Debbie, smiled, and then we both said, yes. He was ecstatic and said he couldn’t wait to get up there. It took us 146 minutes to go the 7 miles to Lakes.

Mizpah Spring Hut-we skirted around Mt. Monroe and Mt. Eisenhower while taking the Crawford Path to Mizpah. We did go over the summit of Mt. Pierce before taking the steep Webster Cliff Trail down to the hut. We walked some and ran some on the 5 mile route which took us 79 minutes. We only stayed at the hut for 4.5 minutes, enough time to fill our hydration packs. The steep descent to the hut really hurt my legs. Debbie led me into both Lakes and Mizpah. The day was getting harder.

Zealand Falls Hut-we ran the Mizpah Cutoff back to the Crawford Path for the big descent to Crawford Notch. We ran the whole way down, but it pounded my legs. Debbie was just warming up. We crossed Rt. 302, which was the 25 mile mark, in 8 hours and 16 minutes of total time. We cut through Crawford Depot, went across the tracks, and up the Avalon Trail. We knew this was going to be a tough section. We have stayed many times at AMC’s Highland Lodge in Crawford Notch. On Avalon, we were back in the trees and the trail was overgrown in spots. It was slow going with lots of uphill on rough trails. We hit the A-Z Trail and the climb up the flanks of Mt. Tom was really hard. I led Debbie most of the way. We had our poles out again and the day was heating up. It was still only 11:00 A.M. The descent off of Tom was equally steep before it leveled out. When it did, we ran the rest of the way until the final uphill to the hut, which we reached right at noon. It was more than 8 miles from Mizpah and took us 165 minutes. We spent 12 minutes at Zealand, changed our socks, washed our faces, filled up on water, and enjoyed Apple Sauce Cake compliments of the kitchen Croo member who was in the midst of his dinner preparations.

Galehead Hut-right out the hut, the Twinway Trail climb to Zeacliff is a doozy. It levels and then climbs again to Zealand Mt. We were both hurting in the mid-day heat and then we heard our first thunderstorm in the distance. We were hoping to beat them, but the forecast was for late afternoon t-storms with heavy rain, lightning, and strong winds. There was nothing we could do, but press on. I was really hurting on the way up to the summit of Mt. Guyot, but recovered a bit and ran quite a bit until the climb to South Twin Mt. It was slow going to the summit and then the Twinway down to Galehead was the death of me. This is one of the steepest trails in the White Mountains and it crushed me. Debbie got a big lead as I went from rock to rock, repeatedly stubbing my toes and slamming my ankles into the granite. I fell hard on my back and slammed my left forearm into a rock. It dazed me a bit, but I recovered and gingerly worked my way down the trail. Debbie was waiting for me at the hut. We had more cake, refilled our water, and discussed our plan. We were still making good time, but we had really slowed in the past few hours. It took us 162 minutes to go the 7 miles from Zealand. We spent 10 minutes at Galehead.

Greenleaf Hut-the section to Greenleaf is where it really fell apart, at least for me. Both of us really suffered on the 8 mile section as our pace dropped off. It took us 222 minutes and the climbs to Mt. Garfield and Mt. Lafayette on the Garfield Ridge Trail, were wicked hard. I slowed dramatically and could only run the smoother downhills, of which there were few. The steepest climbs are among the hardest in the Whites. It was slow and painful. We kept remarking to each other that it was amazing that we came down this trail two years ago on a hut-to-hut trip with our three-year old son on our backs and Debbie six-months pregnant. The whole time, we could hear distance thunder, but we never hit a storm. It took forever to make it up the multiple stepped summit section at the top of 5,249 foot Mt. Lafayette. It was a huge relief to get to the peak without a t-storm. We paused for a moment and took a few photographs. The summit was shrouded in late afternoon clouds and the wind was brisk, but not uncomfortable. The descent to Greenleaf from the summit was hard on the legs and I was really bonked at this point. I was hoping to press on. Debbie was waiting for me on the porch of the hut. I didn’t go in and I didn’t need water. It was dinnertime at the hut, so I didn’t see anybody. We had passed a few hikers on the trail, but it was getting quiet in the mountains agin. We had planned to be at Lonesome Lake by dinner, so it was a bit frustrating to be 4.5 miles away.

Lonesome Lake Hut-we took the Old Bridle Path down to Franconia Notch. This is where I lost it, and Debbie turned into a drill sergeant. The camera got put away for good. I didn’t have any energy left. I ran a good section of the descent, but I was woefully slow. Eventually, my legs couldn’t take any more pounding and I told her I had to walk, even the easy sections. We switched our headlamps on and I weaved my way down the trail. I was out of it at this point and kept telling her that I needed to sit or lay down. She wouldn’t let me. I needed more food and she told me that we had to make it to the parking lot where our car had a stash of snacks. We eventually came upon a group of hikers who had gotten caught in the dark with no lights. Thats a cardinal sin. I was barely coherent, but I knew that Debbie was helping one of them down with her light. I just put one foot in front of another and in between complaints, slowly made my way down in excruciating pain. We got to the bridge that goes under I-93 and then we found our car. I laid down and Debbie pulled out chips and coconut water. We ate the whole bag and stayed there for about 30 minutes with my legs propped against the bumper. Our time goals had long since gone out the window. It was about survival now. I told her I couldn’t make it up to Lonesome, but she wouldn’t let me quit. We were both hoping that the emergency calories would kick in and give me the energy to walk the final 1.6 miles to the hut. At this point, it started to rain. I switched shirts and put on my fleece hat because I was getting chilled. The ground was pulling the heat out of me, so I mustered the strength to get moving again. We added some gear to our bags for the overnight at the hut and pushed on. The last bit felt like an eternity. The skies opened up, the thunder boomed, and the lightning flashed. It was an epic finish to an epic day. We reached the hut in 19 hours and 48 minutes of total time. The final 4.5 miles from Greenleaf took 162 minutes, much longer than expected.

It was already quiet time at the hut, but Ben from the Croo took care of us. Debbie had told the Croo at Galehead that we were running behind. They had radioed ahead to alert the Lonesome Croo that we would be very late and presumably in rough shape. Ben served us an awesome meal (vegan for me and vegetarian for Debbie) in the dark. We ate with our headlamps. There were some thru-hikers on the floor, but the other guests had retired to the bunkhouses. Ben saved my butt with the meal, but it was Debbie who really got me to the finish. This is a pattern that I can’t seem to break, but after 10 years of marriage, and 12 years together, have accepted. We changed in the bathroom, found a couple of open bunks, popped a Tylenol, and went to sleep. It rained heavy all night, but we still slept OK despite being knackered.

The Lonesome Croo fed us again in the morning and entertained us with a fine skit. A highlight was the “oatmeal facial” that they gave each other.

The Injuries
Aside from colossal fatigue, we had a handful of minor injuries. I turned both ankles multiple time. After the trip, I told this to Debbie and without any sympathy, she said, “At least you have ankles.” We both whacked our shins hard enough to bleed. She fell hard on her elbow. I fell hard on my forearm. My hands were cut up from the rocks. We had assorted scratches on arms and legs. I had chafe on my right thigh, but nowhere else, so the Bag Balm that I carried in a Ziploc bag and applied liberally, really helped. I had one nagging blister on the bottom of my right foot, and my usual toes (right foot big toe and little toe) got pummeled. My muscles were as sore as they could possibly be.

Weather
The weather was fantastic. Despite being humid and with the exception of the last hour t-storms, we had a great weather day. The moon and stars were beautiful and the sunrise was lovely.

Trail Conditions
Considering that Hurricane Irene did so much damage in the north country, the trails were in decent shape. There wasn’t much blow-down. There was some erosion and washed out sections. It was wet in spots. The morning dew on the lichen covered rocks caused the most number of slips. Aside from our confusion leaving Madison, the markings were easy to follow.

Critters
I  mentioned that we saw a moose on the Osgood Trail. Also on Osgood, we were chased by hordes of white moths. They fluttered in the light of our lamps. It was neat. Throughout the course of the day, we saw many toads, insects, birds, and a very cute high elevation mouse.

Statistics
Total distance for the Hut Traverse was just shy of 50 miles. It is hard to get an exact measurement. With the road crossings, it is probably 48 or so. The elevation gain AND loss is somewhere between 15,500 and 17,000 feet. It’s a hilly run/hike. With our bike ride, our ascent to Carter, and our descent from Lonesome, total mileage was around 98 miles in 25 hours.

Summary
This was the perfect training bike/run/hike for Debbie’s upcoming 100-miler. We make a good couple. She has seen me in my bonked state far too often. I don’t think I’ve hurt this bad since our 2005 Long Trail End-to-End Hike. AMC’s White Mountain Huts are jewels. Seeing them all in one day was a great experience. I said that I would never do it again, but a week later, I now that we can beat our time now that we know the ropes. We were on track for 17 hours before we slowed. I would also prepare for the attempt, rather than just whinging it. You have to condition your legs to take that kind of beating, especially the descending. I’m in good shape, but I haven’t been on trails like that in a while. We saw so many AT thru-hikers on the trail. Most were 20-something’s. Oh to be care free like that! My competitiveness got the best of me on this trip. All week, I’ve been angry with myself for bonking. Going without enough food is a rookie mistake. Only if I had more time to prepare and less “other stuff” going on in life. Well, I’m happy because, as Debbie said, “We got it done.”

The huts are steeped in a rich tradition of history, the oldest of which (Madison) was built in 1888. Over the years, we have spent nights at all of the huts. Tackling this traverse was a true testament to the strength of the bond that Debbie and I have. It was a great way to celebrate 10 years of marriage. Maybe she and I can do this every 10 years until we celebrate our 50th.

12 Responses to “White Mountain Hut Traverse, Part 2 (Full Story)”


  1. 1 Scott Berkley 6 December 2012 at 1:09 am

    Hey Scott! Great blog you have here. We met briefly in early September when you were staying at Mizpah and I was slogging my way through the hut traverse. It ended taking me about 23 and a half hours (embarrassing, I know…my left knee locked up going up the Twinway after Zealand and I pretty much walked it in from there) with an epic 2 am descent from Lonesome Lake to route 93. But it’s such an amazing, aesthetic route that it deserves to be done twice (possibly south-north to get the Garfield ridge trail out of the way early). Anyhow, happy running, hope to see you on the trails up in the Whites next summer! –Scott


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