Presidential Reverse
Heavy Weather Forces a Retreat on Mt. Washington's Presidential Traverse

Click on the small photos to see a larger image.

The group setting off
The mountain was gone. Just a few moments before Mt. Jefferson had stood under a wintry cellophane sky. Now, the summit was engulfed by fog and the ominous weather was heading our way. The weather changes rapidly in the neighborhood of Mt. Washington. At 6,288 feet, the mountain is the highest in the Northeast and has been dubbed "home of the world's worst weather."
Summit in sight

What started out as a partially sunny day with temperatures hovering near freezing was rapidly becoming a fog entrenched, sleet infested, wind-whipping, 150 feet visibility grunt about a mile high above sea level. The wind speed above tree-line was about 45 miles per hour and the wind chill made it feel like an Arctic 17 degrees below zero.

The six of us on an International Mountain Climbing School guided traverse of New Hampshire's Presidential Range had a decision to make. We could plow ahead or retrace our footsteps to the safety of the trees. Quickly, our Presidential traverse became a Presidential reverse. Traversing the Presidential Range during winter is one of the most challenging mountaineering adventures on the East Coast. With extreme weather conditions and possible technical difficulties, these three day, two night expeditions are designed for those with previous mountaineering experience and high levels of fitness.

Crampons and 50lb packs
Reasons for taking on the mighty mountains are twofold: The trip is ideal for those contemplating a climb of North America's highest peak, Alaska's Denali, and for those who want to advance to the next level of alpine adventure. "This is a team effort. You are only as strong as your weakest link. You have to pay attention to that link,"
Above treeline
said Mike Mathews, a 43-year-old engineer from Simpsonville, South Carolina.

Mathews and friend Robert Castrodale, a commercial real estate agent from Ashville, North Carolina were part of the six which also included 17-year-old high school junior Marc Couper from W. Hartford, Conn., two guides and myself.

The goal of a winter Presidential Traverse is simple on paper. Start at the north end of the range and take the weekend to hike between 18 and 24 miles to the south side at Crawford Notch. However, the reality of the situation comes in the form of steep trails, nearly 50 pound backpacks, hiking with crampons, temperatures dropping below zero, fatigue and just plain foul weather. Nearly fifty percent of the time, said guide Dan Doherty, the group will not complete the traverse. Instead, they will bail out to safety. That is part of mountaineering. "If you can't pull off the big goal, you can still have a safe trip," said Doherty.

The group first met Thursday night at the International Mountain Equipment store -- run by noted mountaineer Rick Wilcox -- in North Conway, NH for an introduction and equipment check. Possible routes were identified, goals were explained and alternatives were examined. Early Friday morning, the group met again for a more detailed equipment exam. The guides whip out the philosophy that less is more. Lighter is better.

In the end, packs weigh in the upper 40 pound range. Two three man tents are divided. Fuel bottles and food are distributed. Ice axes, ski poles, crampons, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, goggles, parkas and more are all packed into the bags. Snowshoes are carried during deep snow years.

The camp
We were ready for three days of hiking in the same underwear. Over the next few days, we would sleep in tents, with temperatures plunging to the single digits. Since winter days are short, we would be in camp by around 4 pm, after being up at 5 am, and on the trail three hours later. All six helped set up camp. Snow was gathered to be melted by stoves. This was to be our drinking and cooking water. Meals were simple. Rice and beans, cup-a-soups, coffee, hot chocolate, granola bars, gorp and crackers were the body's fuel.

The terrain was as variable as the weather. Scratchy trails became snow encrusted. Slick trails called for crampons. Hardwood forests would make way for the alpine environment where large cairns marked the way. The wind would start up. It was a whole new rugged, extreme, green, blue, rough and raw world right in your face. The alpine beauty was dazzling, but always in the back of your mind was the mantra, one slip and you're a statistic.

The trip is not without physical effort. The guides, Doherty and Paul DegliAngeli, were supermen. The clients, were all in good shape, but cramps, tiredness and soreness were commonplace. On one level, we were all looking deep inside ourselves to see what was there. On another level, we were learning winter camping, travel technique, safety, equipment options and pacing.

As we came out of the woods at Pinkham Notch base camp Sunday afternoon after completing 16 miles, all I could think of was something that Couper had said along the trail. "I never knew what a mile was," said the high school student. I couldn't agree with him more.

Note: The guided Presidential Traverse trip is offered December through April by:
International Mountain Climbing School
PO Box 1666
North Conway, N.H. 03860
phone: (603) 356-7064
email: climbers@ime-usa.com

Marty Basch, Mountain Zone Contributor
Marty Basch is the author of "Against the Wind," a Maine to Alaska bicycling adventure. He is presently working on a book about bicycling in the Arctic Circle. All photos on this page are by Marty Basch.


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