Adventure is Where You Find It
In the early 1980's, I decided to attempt a traverse of the Presidential Range of White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had been looking at the Presi-range from all angles for years. It's big mountain, above treeline skiing. Weather on the Range is notorious for its sudden changes and many have perished there, even in the summer. One must prepare well for this trip. To enter this realm unprepared one would be foolhardy.
Over the years, skiers have done routes all over the Presidential Range. However, research showed that no one had ever skied the entire Range from end to end. That was the adventure. That became the goal. The plan was to do the entire Range and do it in one day.
This mountain range is only a few miles from my home, and so this was truly a backyard adventure for me. I had skied all over Mount Washington – Tuckerman Ravine, Gulf of Slides, Great Gulf, the “Alpine Garden” and the summit cone. I had winter-climbing experience on Lafayette, Adams and Jefferson. I had hiked the entire Range in the summer and had built up a knowledge base of what to expect.
I invited a strong team of friends to accompany me on the attempt. Joining me was world adventurer and Olympic skier Ned Gillette, Olympic Nordic-combined skier Teyck Weed, veteran AMC Lakes of the Cloud hutmaster Sam Osborne and John Halupowski, a founding member of the “Pigs on the Hill” backcountry skiers.
Mount Washington has a reputation for severe weather. A good-weather window is the first priority. Considerable planning was involved, including route selection, safety escape routes, gear selection, food and logistics of staging transportation. The route is 33 kilometres long with more than 7,000 feet of vertical climbing beginning with a 3,500-foot ascent from the Appalachia parking lot to Madison Springs and ending with a 2,400-foot descent off Mount Pierce. We planned on doing this eight-mountain traverse in one day. We packed light, with only emer-
gency overnight gear. Packing more would have slowed us down to the point that we would have to spend a night out. We waited for weeks for the right weather/snowpack window. A combination of light wind, fair weather, longer days and a snowpack sufficient to allow staying on skis for the entire trip were the requirements for success. Ideally, we would go two days after a high-pressure front had passed through, which would give us a day of settled weather.
The weather was studied closely day after day. Finally, in early April, the weather forecast and snow conditions gave us a chance. The team spent the night at my house so that we could get an o'early hundred start. The perfect day had arrived. As dawn broke, we were already on the trail, having started in the pre-dawn twilight from the Appalachia parking lot on Route 2 in Jefferson. Condensing super-light frost made very fine snowflakes that blended silently with the stars lingering in the calm early-morning air. As we ascended Mount Madison, the snowpack was deep and steep. We crested Thunderstorm Junction and dropped down into Edmunds Col on a route that ended with a dicey combination of extremely narrow snow-covered rocky shelves and blind turns. With the speed that we were making, I was glad that the shelves didn't end with a cliff.
At the bottom of the Col between Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson, the hiking trail that we had planned to use to ascend Jefferson had been blown clear of snow. We spied a snow-gully to the east that looked promising. We made a traverse to our left and entered the gully 1,000 feet above the floor of the Great Gulf Wilderness. Too steep to herringbone, continuing meant carefully sidestepping up 500 vertical feet, mindful of the consequences of an unstoppable fall into the Great Gulf. The snow that I kicked out with each step landed on the heads of my two friends below me.
Once over the top of this headwall, the snowfields turned to glorious corn snow in the sunlight. We spent way too much time playing on the sloping snowfield and taking photos. As we started up again toward Mount Clay (also known now as Mount Reagan) and Mount Washington, a brown storm cloud approached rapidly. Within moments, we were hit by a substantial snowstorm, dimming the spring sunlight and dropping several inches of snow in a very short burst.
In 50-foot visibility, we followed the cairn line across the west side of Washington. One skier followed another, always staying in sight as the group moved across the western cone, cairn to cairn. The snowfall finally abated and the visibility improved. While unobstructed by fog, the visibility nonetheless became as strange as I have ever experienced. There was absolutely no depth perception. Snow surface became sky, with no line of demarcation. It was like skiing inside a milk bottle. There was no sense of space. One could feel the texture of the snow beneath skis, but we couldn't tell if we were slipping sideways, going backwards or moving forwards. Our pole-plants gave us the directional information we needed. If the pole-plant went back, we were going forward; if it went off to the side, we were going sideways. Lake of the Clouds hut came into view below us and we just kept aiming at it, absorbing unseen bumps and holes during the descent. As tempting as it was, there was no time to explore the incredible snowfields that dropped away to the west into Ammonoosuc Ravine.
We finally arrived at Lakes of the Clouds hut where Sam had spent three summers as hutmaster. A late lunch was enjoyed while sitting on the roof peak. It was the only time during the day that we took off our skis. After an all-too-brief break, we mounted our skis again and traversed the east side of Mount Monroe, the most challenging part of trip for me. It was blue ice, so hard and so cold that a mark from the edges of the skis from the others in front didn't even show. With the possibility of a 1,000-foot unstoppable plunge into Oakes Gulf if one slipped, we tra- versed this tilted ice rink very, very carefully. After crossing, there was no evidence in the ice that anyone had passed.
The group scrambled over Eisenhower and Pierce. Even though the summit of Eisenhower had been blown clear of snow, we kept our skis on, too tired to bother with the extra effort of dismounting and remounting our skis. We lost our way as we descended into the scrub pines. Everything looked like a trail. A number of dead-end openings were tried. After approximately 45 minutes, the route was found and our band of merry sportsmen descended in thigh-deep dry-powder snow, carving separate lines through a magnificent wide-open pine forest. Lower down, the undergrowth closed in tight, forcing us back onto the narrow Crawford Path hiking trail to follow its narrow zigzag route to Crawford Notch. We descended past the very last of twilight. When I broke out of the forest onto the roadside at the trailhead, a car passed with its headlights on. Our night vision was gone. None of us could see in the blackness of night as we felt our way to our awaiting parked car. Thirteen hours had elapsed since getting on skis at the north end of the range. We were five happy but exhausted skiers, thrilled to have pulled off a first. Ned commented, “That was as adventurous as many of my expeditions. Sometimes adventure is right in your own backyard.”
Inaugural Presidential Traverse team circa 1980s (from top): John Halupowski, Sam Osborne, Ned Gillette, and Thom Perkins with John Halupowski