Last weekend, we completed our second ever White Mountain Hut Traverse, but it was an ugly affair. Our first traverse was Labor Day Weekend in 2011. I thought that was a rough day, but it turned out to be a piece of cake compared to our most recent trek. The first traverse had more individual physical suffering, and I was stronger this time, but the conditions were horrific. Debbie had her own challenges, so collectively, this was one nasty experience, but we are thrilled to have still finished. This was a great way to celebrate the AMC’s 125th Anniversary of the High Mountain Huts.
The traverse itself took 24 hours and 30 minutes. That included the 49.5 +/- miles from Carter Notch Hut to Lonesome Lake Hut, with another two to three miles tacked on because of a wrong turn. Add in the four miles from Rt. 16 to Carter, then a couple of miles down from Lonesome to Franconia Notch and you have a pretty long day-plus of suffering.
Mercifully, this year we had a ride from Franconia to Gorham. Two years ago, we rode our bikes to the “start” and that tacked on several more hours of physical effort before the big run/hike. This year, our long time friend and legendary super-hiker/National Forest Ranger, Matt Schomburg, was our savior. He has come to the rescue in the past. This time, it was his taxi service that got us to the start after a pit stop to feed a friend’s chickens and pigs. Thank you Matt!
The major reason for this year’s troubles was the weather. It was abysmal. We hiked up to Carter from the Nineteen Mile Brook Trailhead where Matt dropped us. We hung out at the hut for 90 minutes or so. We were getting itchy to start and didn’t want to attempt restless sleep on the floor of the hut like last time, so we planned an early departure. We also figured we would have a better chance of beating any late afternoon thunderstorms, and if we met our goal and best our previous time, then we would get to Lonesome with time for a swim before dinner.
Hah, what a plan! We left at 10:30 P.M. The first four miles of mostly downhill set the tone for the rest of the trip. Weeks of rain had changed the trails dramatically. Everything was wet, including the rocks and roots. Erosion had exposed more rocks than ever, and that is how it was the entire day. We were slower on that first segment and got slower and slower. About half way up Mt. Madison, the clouds parted to reveal the spectacular Supermoon. We were ecstatic and thought that was a positive sign. But, as we approached the summit of Madison the weather changed dramatically and we could tell, even in the darkness, that the clouds were back and looking much more ominous.
Then, it poured on us, and poured on us even harder, and then it hailed on us. The wind was blowing something fierce as we scrambled over the top of the mountain. The rocks were treacherous. Many were covered with green lichen, especially the north facing ones, and they were more slippery than ice. The night was filled with hard falls as we attempted to push the pace. It was a crash-fest.
We refilled our packs at Madison Spring Hut and then began the long trip across the ridge to Lakes of the Clouds Hut. That section was downright painful. We each fell multiple times because it is all rock and they were soaked. It rained on and off, but the real challenge was the fog. It was pea soup and at times you couldn’t see five feet ahead. Navigating the trail with headlamps in the dark, rain, and fog was a wild experience. We got turned around several times and it was very hard to see the next cairn.
As the dawn broke, we made our way to Lakes. We got there around 6:00 A.M. and there were a few folks up at the hut. We took a little extra time to use the bathrooms and refill our hydration packs. It rained on us again as we left the hut in the fog. We went around Mt. Monroe and Mt. Eisenhower and then over Mt. Pierce.
The weather conditions improved dramatically on the way to Mizpah Spring Hut, but the trails were waterlogged and still very slick. We arrived at Mizpah in the middle of breakfast and got some motivating cheers from the assembled crowd of hut guests and Croo. We also grabbed some food right off of the breakfast platters (after asking). Next thing you know, we were flying down the trail towards Crawford Notch….but we went the wrong way. We missed the Mizpah Cutoff and instead, took the Webster Cliff Trail for nearly a mile and a half before realizing we had made a very bad rookie mistake.
In our glee, we blew it. We had been running the whole time from the hut, so we had to backtrack, rather than going up and over Mt. Jackson. I don’t know if it was the right decision to go back, but in the end, it didn’t matter. I hit a low spot when we made it back to the Crawford Path. We stopped at the Highland Center in the Notch and I ate a bowl of oatmeal. I needed some solid food. We were more than two hours behind our 2010 time at the 25 mile mark. We thought we could make up time and pushed the pace out of the Notch, up Mt. Tom, and then down to Zealand Falls Hut.
The air-dried a bit, but the trails were sloppy. One section of the A-Z Trail was like grease. The mud was so smooth and whipped that it was like a buttery spread. There was no way to move quickly on this terrain. The climb up Zeacliff was brutal like usual and the temperature warmed up a bit with breaks of sunshine. At this point, the hike turned into a sweat-fest. We hit the Twinway, went up and over South Twin. The descent to Galehead Hut was my low point in 2010. This year, my legs were much stronger and I was stable, but very slow. It is ultra steep and I had to take it easy. Last time, I was trashed and I didn’t want that feeling again.
Debbie led me all the way down. We filled our packs at the hut, but we were only there for three or four minutes. Folks were lounging on the deck. Moments after leaving the hut, we started hearing the low rumble of thunder in the distance and the sky darkened. By this time, we were letting out frequent sighs, moans, groans, and grunts. The conditions had really taken a toll on both of us. The climb up to Mt. Garfield was very hard and we slowed considerably. We made our way partially across the Garfield Ridge and the thunder got louder and closer.
The lightning began to flash and then the rain came in torrents. It was almost blinding in its intensity. The thunderstorms swept down onto the ridge with crazy force and we decided that we had to hunker down and sit it out. It was freaking scary as pushed through thick brush in the short trees about 15 feet off of the trail. We sat there for a moment discussing our predicament before pulling out our emergency blankets and hastily unfolding them. The cold rain was already chilling Debbie. She loses body heat in these conditions at a very fast rate. Despite being a late June day, these were hypothermia conditions. After 19 hours of running/hiking, now just below treeline, we were being dumped on with cold rain and wind.
We crouched/sat for about 20 minutes before the storms slowed. It was still raining, but the time between the flashes and booms lengthened enough for us to have the confidence to pack our blankets and head up the trail. We didn’t get 1/8th of a mile and another cell swept down the ridge. This time, the thunder was right on top of us. The flash/booms happened at the same time and I nearly jumped out of my skin. We quickly got into the woods again as the rain pelted us. We unfurled the blankets and huddled under them. We were pinned down in that spot for more than 60 minutes as the t-storms continued unabated. It was definitely my scariest moment in 25 years of mountain adventures. I snapped a photo of the two of us (Debbie was under her blanket) and the look on my face says it all.
Lightning is something you don’t mess with. I was concerned about it, but also concerned about the cold. The blankets were very helpful, despite being soaked to the bones. When we were absolutely sure that the storms has moved northeast, we crawled out of our spot in the brush and got back on the trail. The water was insane. The trail was a gushing stream of white water. I hadn’t seen water on a trail like that since our infamous trip to North Brother in Baxter State Park 10 years ago. That is when I used the phrase, “White Water Running” to describe our experience. We literally sloshed our way up, then down, and then up again to the Franconia Ridge.
The climb up Mt. Lafayette was wicked. The sheer rock faces were very slippery. The clouds parted a bit to reveal some nice evening color, but as we gained elevation, the sky darkened again, the wind picked up, and then the fog returned. We were anxious to get up and over the summit before another wave of storms, so we moved as quickly as we could on the steep slopes. Debbie wasn’t a happy hiker, but I encouraged her to keep moving. Once we topped out, she was a bit warmer and she perked up a bit on the descent to Greenleaf Hut. That last mile to the hut took forever.
We got to the hut around 8:00 P.M. There was a lot of post dinner activity. I got a wool blanket and wrapped Debbie in it. The Croo gave us leftovers from dinner including soup, bread, and salad. They alerted the Croo at Lonesome Lake that we were way behind schedule and requested some hot food for us. I thought we could finish by 10:30 P.M. but it was 11:00 P.M. when we finally completed the traverse. The descent on the Old Bridle Path was tricky in the dark and it rained a bit on the way down to Franconia Notch. Debbie led, with both of us running most of the way. We still had decent legs after a day on our feet, which proved that it was the footing conditions that had slowed us. She beat me down and was waiting for me in our car at Lafayette Place Campground in the Notch.
We stuffed extra clothes, Crocs, and toiletries in our packs and hiked the final uphill 1.9 miles to Lonesome Lake Hut. Assistant Hutmaster, Sarah Fischer, was waiting for us. She heated up rice and veggies and welcomed us in the darkness. I washed my legs off in the lake and then we crawled into our sleep sacks. Morning came very quickly. We joined the other guests for breakfast, took a quick nap, and then meandered our way back to the notch. What an adventure!