Pres­i­den­tial Traverse

Ad­ven­ture is Where You Find It

SkiTrax - - Contents - by Thom Perkins

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

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