Saturday, February 25, 2012

Solo Winter Presidential Traverse - President's Day 2012

I am not sure it has quite sunk yet in that I completed a winter Presidential Traverse last weekend. This traverse is probably the most risky of any hike that can be done in the White Mountains, especially in winter, and certainly the most chancy solo hike I've ever done, but thankfully, nearly everything went right this President's Day, and I was able to add this incredible experience to my list of many so far.

Thanks to my father for waking up at 3am to help me spot my car at Crawford Notch. There were a few cars in the lot at Appalachia, but none that were there starting a hike. It was 5:50am when I set my foot on the trail. I started up the trail with my headlamp, but didn't need it long, as the sun was coming up just minutes later. The hike up the Valley Way Trail was pretty quiet and pleasant. It allowed me to think about what lies ahead.
Treeline on the Valley Way Trail
I reached the hut, it was so beautiful. The sun was shining so brightly and everything seemed to be just so crisp and clear. I dropped my pack and with my ice axe in hand, I followed the cairns up to the summit of Mt. Madison. Madison is my 3rd favorite Presidential behind Washington and Monroe. To me, its dramatic, and has one of the best all-around views of the Presidentials.
Madison Hut
Mt. Washington, Clay, and Adams from Madison
I quickly scooted down to retrieve my pack. I saw some remnants of a track heading towards the Star Lake Trail, so I though it wouldn't be too much more difficult to make the approach from that side. I knew I wouldn't have to follow the trail strictly, so I wasn't worried about the extra distance. As I started around the base of the cone, the wind picked up, and it was ripping around the side of the mountain. It would have been tough either side. I was getting battered by the pellet-like snow, and immediately I was into my first challenge on this trek. As I approached, the snow pack started to increase in angle, requiring me to use crampon technique with my foot placement, by kicking in my toe and checking it. The snow was pretty soft near the top. Even though I approached from the south side, the wind was still coming around and getting me, but with slow and steady in mind on this important stretch, I climbed onto and over the summit of Adams.
Blowing snow from near Mt. Adams 
Jefferson Ravine coming from Adams
Already on great pace past Adams, I set off in a straight shot towards Mt. Jefferson. Along the way, I caught a great shot of the wind blown snow over the peaks (above). As you can see it was so beautifully clear, but to see the snow whipped up like a blizzard all around you was something out of this world. On the approach to Mt. Jefferson until after Mt. Clay was the most spectacular part of this hike. The wind died down just slightly, but not completely, and the sun over Mt. Clay was incredible. Before I got there though, I stood on Mt. Jefferson, which was the last presidential I needed for my second round of the 48, and it was my 40th Trailwright peak. I am still drooling over the view of Mt. Washington I had from Mt. Jefferson.
View from Mt. Jefferson
The most beautiful view of Mt. Washington ever (maybe)
As I moved towards Clay, it felt like I was on a different planet. It felt as if I was walking towards the sky on this beautiful sheet of glazed white ice. I look ahead and see the sun shining brightly among a light blue sky, and behind me was a deeper blue with incredible lenticular clouds. As I neared the summit, I stopped for a moment and stared at the sky. I noticed how quickly the clouds were moving across the sky, and over the mountains. I stood and captured it with on video with my camera. All of this excitement had me thrilled to reach Mt. Clay.
Ascending Mt. Clay
Me on Mt. Clay with Mt. Washington in the background
As I walked towards Washington over the Great Gulf, the wind was treacherous coming up over it from the valley. The gusts were knocking me 3-4 steps off stride every time, but without any problems, I neared the summit of Washington. Everything was so perfectly white. Here I was again, approaching that summit sign for the 8th time and 5th month in a row. There's nothing quite like standing on the top all by your self, except it wasn't easy to stand without holding the sign.
From here to there were heavy gusts over the gulf
Mt. Washington summit in February
I took about break for less than 10 minutes out of the wind by the building doors. I added a layer, ate some of my nutter butters, and had some of my orange juice I decided to throw in my pack. Next I set off into the wind down the Crawford Path. The wind was feisty now, and it would be just about all of the way past Eisenhower. I reached Lake of the Clouds Hut, and a fellow hiker was there who came up the Ammo Trail. After a quick chat, we headed up Monroe, at times walking at a severe angle for about 2 minutes straight. That was insane. Monroe is always fun for me. The wind was brutal, but it was the only time someone was able to help with a summit photo. It was funny when I told him I had to get going. He said, "You're going that way?!" Yup, off I went down Monroe, it was 2:15pm.
Leaning into the wind on Mt. Monroe
Nothing from Mt. Washington to the end of this hike was easy. It was a constant battle with the wind and wind chill. I made my way towards Mt. Eisenhower, and a break was calling, so I went for the trees just below Eisenhower. I made a quick call to check in, and had another snack. It is amazing how much you notice the food give you energy while hiking, which is why I wanted a break now because Eisenhower's not a walk in the park. However, this all took me past the north junction of the loop, I really didn't see it on my way over to the scrub, but I just went towards the south end of the loop, made a quick shortcut, dropped the pack, and bagged it. I was moving quickly through this because I wanted so bad to just be on the Crawford Path below Pierce.
Looking back from near the south end of Eisenhower loop
Finally, I was on my way to Pierce. Thankfully, the snow in this section wasn't as bad as it could have been. However, there was one drift up to my eyeballs, that I suspected formed only today. The path was directly behind it like someone built a wall. I dropped my pack at the sign and darted to Pierce reaching the last President on this traverse. The sun was still shining, but slowly fading. I didn't waste much time, and at steady pace, I walked down the Crawford Path. I reached my car in exactly 12 hours, just as night turned to day in an instant.
Beautiful look back from the summit of Mt. Pierce
It's hard to describe what it was like. You're body is constantly exposed to the wind, the battering pellets of snow, yet at every moment you stand amazed at whats under your feet and how far you can see. It is almost like the wind isn't there and everything is in slow motion. The wind chill was -31 degrees, but it never bothered me, even though my balaclava and goggle setup was giving me hell. I carried snowshoes and crampons, but only needed my spikes, which I feel added to my success. Confidence was the key going in. I had called my time at 10-12 hours, so I made it perfectly. I didn't have to use my headlamp on the way out. Everything was exactly how I wanted it. This was the best winter hike yet!
Solo Winter Presi Traverse In the books!
Hike Stats
Trails: Valley Way Trail, Osgood Trail, Star Lake Trail, Gulfside Trail, Jefferson Loop, Clay Loop, Trinity Heights Connector, Crawford Path, Eisenhower Loop.
Distance: 19.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 8,550 ft
Book Time: 12hrs exactly

I've put together a video of my traverse. It features footage from my ascents to Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Washington, along with a few pictures in between. This video was shot with my GoPro using a chest harness.


  1. Wow! Congratulation Dan. That was a huge adventure. Glad it went well.

  2. Fantastic job! Well Accomplished and well documented

  3. Wow! This is really cool Dan. I really enjoyed all your adventures. Great blog.

  4. Kim and Francis - Thank you very much. Its tough to put some of these adventures into words, but I'm glad you get the sense of adventure that I do when I'm out there.

    Camping - Thank you so much. I really appreciate you checking it all out.

  5. I'm doing an EMS guided ascent of Mt. Washington next Sunday and a Google led me to which led me to your President's day post which led me here.

    What better way to pay tribute to our founders on that day?

    Thanks so kindly for documenting with words and photos your whole experience. I'm slowly putting my gear together so I also appreciate your gear list page.

    Anyway thanks this was terrific.


  6. Jim - I'm glad you found my report and that it was helpful to you. You'll be in good hands with EMS, and best of luck. I hope that the weather is favorable and your climb is successful.

    Certainly, I thought of my task as a tribute for President's Day. Although I didn't write about it, people should probably remember them more often, especially in these times. We should go back to what the founders wanted, and keep things more simplified. Before my hike, I looked up quotes from each of the President's and was considering including some of my favorites in my write-up, but I decided not to overdo it, if you will, but it was interesting research before my hike.

    1. I agree with your sentiments Dan about the founders and the wisdom we've collectively decided we don't want or need any longer.

      But the quickest way to put frustration behind you is to be found in the kinds of things you're putting up here, so thanks again for the reminder.

      I'll post an entry at if I make the ascent successfully and make sure to say hello.

      By the way if you know any accountants they'll be sure to love this chestnut from Jefferson: "never buy what you don't want because it is cheap."

      Saw that line among his 10 rules at Monticello last summer and loved it.


  7. Hi Dan,

    Well I'm posting here as my summit to Washington Sunday ended at Lion's head.

    The weather conditions were ideal but despite my efforts to condition and prepare properly my legs weren't up to continuing.

    I was really amazed at how steep the Lion's Head trail becomes and the necessity of using crampons. I'm guessing you used crampons your whole hike?

    Anyway back to the drawing board and I'll hit this again next winter. I'll try some Catskill peaks or something closer for me (I live on the Jersey shore) so the conditioning is where it needs to be.

    Overall great great experience. I did the Ice Climbing 101 with EMS the day before and it was just great. This entire winter experience was new for me; never used crampons, ice axes, etc. Loved it all.


    1. Jim - Thanks for sharing here as promised - awesome! Spikes are usually good to Lions Head trail and then crampons are almost required once you reach the treeline after the Tuck/Lion Head junction. From there, it can be intimidating looking up to Lion's Head, and I bet there is much more snow now than my trips up Lion Head in November and December. I used crampons from Crystal Cascades up on my NYE hike and my climb up Tuckerman Ravine, but didn't need them on my presi traverse.

      That EMS class is very helpful to get you walking with the correct technique in crampons and also where to best place your ice axe whether reaching up or using it as a staff. - That's what I got from it, but walking with crampons does use more energy, so that may have been a factor for you. - Thanks again for sharing and good luck!

  8. Incredible report, Dan. I put off reading this until I had a chance to make it up there myself so that the experience could be as fresh as possible. I can really relate to a lot of what you said here after being up really is like another world!
    It's hard to imagine how difficult a full Presidential Traverse must be after just hitting a couple of the peaks.
    Looks like you had a great sunset.

    1. Thanks Owen - I'm glad you were able to experience it, it certainly makes you want to do it again, don't it? The views you had on those peaks were very similar to mine.

      The sunset was very nice looking back. The door on my freeze-proof camera was frozen, so all I was able to get was that Iphone photo, which does it enough justice. It was hard to walk away from it, but I did so that I could get down without the use of my headlamp.

  9. Thank you for these notes, Dan.

    My hiking partner and I did a one-day Winter Presi yesterday (Saturday, January 12th 2013), had a blast. Some pics and such available at

    1. Very nice Yoav! Looks like you had similar challenges and beautiful views, congratulations. I'm glad my report was helpful. I enjoyed your write-up. Thanks for sharing.