Presidential Traverse
While working in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec for about three weeks, I had an opportunity to travel to New Hampshire's White Mountains to hike up Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern United States.  While researching routes, I was intrigued by the Presidential Traverse--a point-to-point hike that follows parts of the famed Appalachian Trail (AT) over several summits including Mount Washington.  Depending on the exact route chosen and the number of summits that may be bagged, the Presidential Traverse entails over 30 kilometres of hiking and more than 2500 metres of cumulative elevation gain.  Huts along the route make it easy to break the trip over two or three days, but many intrepid hikers do the entire traverse in a single long day.  Such hikers usually journey from north to south in order to get the bulk of the hardest climbing out of the way earlier in the day.  The biggest logistical hurdle is that a car shuttle needs to be arranged.  The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) operates a shuttle bus during the summer months specifically to accommodate one-way hikers, but unfortunately, the shuttle schedule is not convenient for day-trippers wanting to get an alpine start.  Without camping somewhere overnight and without a second car, there was no escaping the fact that, to do the Presidential Traverse in a single day, I was going to be hiking some parts of it in the dark.

This trip almost did not happen when I nearly gave up trying to find the Enterprise car rental shop in Saint-Jean late in the day on 3 June 2016.  As it turns out, the shop is a tiny one located in a rather obscure part of a strip mall, and at the time, it was partially hidden by some nearby construction work.  Once I found the shop though, the rental process was really fast and easy, and I even got a nice upgrade (2016 Buick Verano).  I was all set until I got corralled into going out for drinks later that evening with my co-workers.  I had a good time that night, but I got back to my accommodations much later than I would have liked and got only about three or four hours of sleep.

I got up early on the morning of 4 June 2016 and made the long drive to Highland Center Lodge, the southern terminus of the Presidential Traverse.  Although the AMC strongly recommends calling ahead to book a spot on the shuttle bus, they will allow walk-ons if space permits.  As it was still early in the hiking season, I had no problems getting a spot on the bus ($23 USD flat fee for non-AMC members).  It took about an hour for the shuttle bus to drop me off at Appalachia trailhead, the northern terminus of the Presidential Traverse.  The day was already quite warm when I began hiking at 10:09 AM.

Shortly after starting up the trail, I noticed that I had forgotten to load maps of the area into my GPS.  In my haste to plan this trip, I had also neglected to acquire maps of any sort, but I was not overly concerned as I knew that there would be plenty of signage along the traverse.  What I failed to realize was that there are more trails than one, and many of these side trails also lead to the summits albeit in more roundabout ways.  The potential for confusion is great especially without a map.

From the Appalachia trailhead, the Valley Way trail rises gently but steadily through forest along the west bank of Snyder Brook.  The warmth and humidity had me sweating profusely, and I felt weary already at this early stage.  At the junction with Watson Path, I was a bit confused by a sign pointing the way to Mount Madison along the side trail.  I was uncertain about where this side trail went, but taking a chance, I followed it anyway.  As it turns out, Watson Path is a more direct route to the summit of Mount Madison than the Valley Way trail, but it is also very rough and relentlessly steep.  I gained an enormous amount of elevation over a short distance, but the hike from tree line to the summit of Mount Madison still seemed to take forever.  I eventually topped out at 1:23 PM, and although it was nice to finally tag my first summit of the day, a quick glance southward brought home the sobering reality that I had a lot of walking left ahead of me.
For people who do the Presidential Traverse in a single day, some might call this the "short bus"... A couple of hikers wait to board the shuttle bus.
I am about a 30 km-walk from my car and committed now... After all the logistics just to get to the northern terminus of the Presidential Traverse, Sonny is happy to be finally hiking.
A little serenity before the storm... A short waterfall cascades over some rocks along Snyder Brook.
Whoever built this "trail" evidently had never heard of the term, "switchback"! The Watson Path is the most direct route to the summit of Mount Madison, but it is rough and relentlessly steep.
"Worst weather in America"? That's a bold statement! A sign at tree line serves as fair warning to hikers venturing into the "alpine zone".
And it is always further away than it looks! The rounded summit of Mount Madison is visible ahead.
That's one President down! Sonny reaches the summit of Mount Madison (1634 metres).
The toll road is a bit of a rip-off if you ask me... Mount Washington is visible to the southwest.  A toll road which runs to the summit is also visible.
This is not going to be the cakewalk that I thought it would be! Mount Adams is the next objective along the Presidential Traverse.
After a brief stop on top of Mount Madison, I quickly dropped down the southwest ridge and picked up another rugged trail which climbs up the northeast face of Mount Adams.  A few spots along the way require hands-on scrambling, but otherwise, the route is fairly straightforward.  I reached the summit of Mount Adams at 3:11 PM, and while it would have been nice to linger and socialize with the crowd of people up there, I felt some urgency to keep moving and perhaps even pick up my pace.
Not too shabby for a backcountry hut! Madison Spring Hut is operated by the AMC and is located near the saddle between Mount Madison and Mount Adams.
I first thought this was a big lingering snow patch! A very large quartz outcrop sits near Star Lake below Mount Adams.
Man, do I ever feel sluggish right now... This is looking back at Star Lake and Mount Madison from partway up the trail to Mount Adams.
One of the few places along the Presidential Traverse that actually requires hands-on scrambling. A couple of hikers are about to scramble up a steep rocky gully just below the summit of Mount Adams.
I had to take this photo a short distance away from the very crowded summit. Sonny stands near the summit of Mount Adams (1765 metres) with Mount Madison behind him.
The Traverse is going much slower than expected... Southwest from the summit of Mount Adams is Mount Jefferson.
Dropping down the west ridge of Mount Adams, I quickly picked up the Gulfside Trail which is the name for this particular section of the AT leading up to Mount Jefferson.  As I was making the long, gentle descent to Edmands Col, I had a chance to take notice of the rugged nature of the AT, at least as it pertains to the Presidential Traverse.  The AT is marked by numerous cairns and is easy to follow, but the trail itself is eminently rocky which can be taxing on the feet, especially over long distances.  Furthermore, the trail constantly demands a certain degree of concentration with respect to foot placement in order to avoid energy-sapping stumbles or potential ankle sprains.  As far as I can remember, I do not recall ever being able to "relax" while on the move throughout the Presidential Traverse.

As I bottomed out at Edmands Col and began the stiff climb up Mount Jefferson, a group of hikers that I had just passed going in the opposite direction suddenly called out to me.  They had apparently heard someone call for help somewhere in the vicinity.  I honestly did not hear anything, but another group of hikers far above me had also apparently heard a plea for help.  The two separate groups of hikers began calling out to try and ascertain the location of the person in distress, and quite frankly, I thought it was rather counter-productive as their voices reverberated throughout the area making it virtually impossible to pinpoint anything.  After a lot of fruitless calling back and forth between the two groups, I climbed higher to meet up with the hikers above me and to get a better vantage point to survey the area.  The vicinity of Edmands Col is largely comprised of sub-alpine vegetation with very little cover to hide in.  Still, I could spot nothing out of the ordinary.  The hikers above me apparently tasked another hiker to hurry to the top of Mount Washington to notify the authorities there, but it was uncertain when or if they would even respond with a rescue party, especially without a missing person report or confirmation of an injury.  I eventually did hear a voice that was seemingly acknowledging the need for assistance, and there was even a pathetic-sounding toot from a whistle.  We tried to ask the person their exact whereabouts in relation to Edmands Col, but there were no coherent responses.  Why the person did not keep whistling is a mystery, and after awhile, I was beginning to wonder if we were just hearing the distant voices of the group of hikers I had previously passed.  We all eventually agreed that there was not much else for us to do.  The distressed person, if there was one, had stopped responding, and trying to find someone in that vast amphitheatre was akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  We all moved on in hopes that, if a person was reported missing, the authorities would know roughly where to look (to date, a Google search has yet to turn up any reports of a person going missing in the White Mountains on 4 June 2016).

After the ordeal at Edmands Col, I continued on to the top of Mount Jefferson and reached the summit at 5:48 PM.  Even this late in the day, there was still a small crowd of people here, and I half-wondered about where they were all planning to spend the night.  In fact, I was starting to wonder about where I would be spending the night.
These cairns are invaluable in the dark... Many of the cairns along the Presidential Traverse are topped with a block of quartz which make them stand out from the stark landscape.
So, any guesses as to where the distressed person might have been?? This is looking up the northeast face of Mount Jefferson from Edmands Col.
Hmmm...this guy still doesn't hold a candle to Lawrence Grassi when it comes to building trails! This plaque commemorates a founding member of the AMC.
My 3rd summit of the day is coincidentally named for the 3rd President of the United States. Sonny manages a weak smile on the summit of Mount Jefferson (1740 metres).
I don't feel like walking anymore... Much of the southern half of the Presidential Traverse is visible to the south from the summit of Mount Jefferson.  At left is Mount Washington.
By the time I left the summit of Mount Jefferson, the whole exercise of hiking and bagging peaks was verging on pointlessness.  I was exhausted and my feet were aching.  I began envisioning eating a greasy hamburger and drinking a cold soda at the restaurant on top of Mount Washington.  Thus I deluded myself into thinking there would be a nice reward if only I could reach the highest point of New Hampshire.  In the meantime, I still had to hike over a minor intervening bump known as Mount Clay whose summit I reached at 7:19 PM.

Incidentally, Mount Clay is named after a US senator and not a US President, but the state of New Hampshire passed a law in 2003 to have the name changed to Mount Reagan.  Apparently, the new name has not gained much support from the US Board of Geographic Names or the AMC who continue to refer to this bump as Mount Clay.  It is rare when an obscure US senator can upstage a famous US President!
It is oddly quiet on the trail now... This is looking back at Mount Jefferson (left) and Mount Adams (right) from the slopes below Mount Clay.
This shouldn't even be considered a separate summit, but I'll take it anyway! Sonny exhibits a rare burst of energy on the summit of Mount Clay (1684 metres).
We've come a long way, baby! Here is another look back at Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and Mount Madison from the summit of Mount Clay.
I found a bit of a second wind as I climbed the last few hundred metres of elevation to the summit of Mount Washington.  The promise of a burger and soda at the summit restaurant was a good motivator, and so was the excitement of arriving at the apex of the Presidential Traverse.  I even entertained unrealistic thoughts about sleeping somewhere on the summit for the night.

It was eerily quiet when I finally arrived at the summit of Mount Washington at 8:42 PM.  Normally teeming with tourists and hikers, the summit area was mostly deserted except for a few workers from the nearby weather observatory.  On most days, there is normally a line-up to take photos beside the summit sign, but I had it all to myself on this evening.  Unfortunately, all the tourist amenities, including the restaurant, were closed and locked up by the time I arrived.  I was crushed with disappointment, but faced with no other options other than to continue hiking well into the night, I took about a 15-minute break to re-hydrate and put on some warm clothes.  Thankfully, I was able to fill my water bottle under an outdoor tap, and once that was done, I set off down the south side of the mountain along Crawford Path which is the name for this section of the AT.
The top looks tantalizingly close... The Mount Washington Observatory sits atop its namesake mountain.  Also visible is the Mount Washington Cog Railway.

 Well, this was worth all the pain and suffering to get here!

The sun begins to set on the western horizon.


I feel like the little engine that couldn't... The Mount Washington Cog Railway is the second steepest of its kind in the world.
My 10th US state high point! Sonny reaches the summit of Mount Washington (1917 metres) just after sunset.
Despite the growing darkness, I descended for a considerable distance without having to use my headlamp.  The numerous cairns topped with a hunk of quartz were very helpful for navigating in the dark.  I eventually switched on my headlamp for good as I approached the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.  I ran into three guys who were loitering just outside the hut and asked them which way I should go to continue along the Crawford Path.  They were surprisingly unaware of what the Crawford Path was, but to their credit, they suggested that I should hunker down for the night at the hut and figure things out in the morning.  I was tempted to take their offer, but I was feeling pretty good and wanted to keep going despite my sore feet.

I guess it was inevitable that Murphy's law would take effect just when things were going good because I proceeded to turn down the wrong trail just behind the hut.  Map details in my GPS would have made a huge difference here, but because I had no reference points, I was going strictly by trail signs which I had misread in the dark.  Fatigue may have also played a part in my poor decision making.  It took quite awhile before I realized something was amiss as I happily scrambled down a steep watercourse which was rougher than would be expected for the Crawford Path.  When I had dropped about 175 metres or so, I spotted a trail sign with a small map which confirmed that I had taken a wrong turn back at the hut.  I had, in fact, partially descended the Ammonosuc Ravine trail.  The prospect of climbing back up to the hut was disheartening, but the alternative of descending to another trailhead far from my car was seemingly more unappealing.  Actually, had I done my homework and studied the Ammonosuc Ravine trail more closely, I might have considered continuing my descent as the walk back to Highland Center from the trailhead is not unreasonably far (about 8 kilometres on a paved road).  Undoubtedly, it would have added extra distance, but at the same time, walking on smooth pavement would have felt like heaven compared to the rocky hell of the Crawford Path.  In the end, I opted to climb back up to the hut, and my wrong turn ended up costing me about an hour.

The peaks of the southern half of the Presidential Traverse are not nearly as high or as rugged as those in the northern half, and since it was the middle of the night, I did not see any point in tagging any of the southern summits even though most of them would have required only minimal extra effort.  In fact, I may have even walked over one of the summits in the dark without knowing it!  As I continued trudging along the Crawford Path, I still got the sense that this was probably a marvelous ridge walk on a clear day, and I regretted not being able to enjoy what surely would have been some amazing vistas.  That might be incentive enough to perhaps return in the future to hike this part of the traverse again.

Besides the occasional trail junction sign, my only other point of reference during my hike out was the odometer in my GPS.  I knew that the Presidential Traverse, as I was hiking it, was somewhere between 30 and 32 kilometres long, and I kept checking my GPS periodically to monitor how far I had already walked.  My progress was exasperatingly slow, and although I like to think that an eight-hour walk alone in the dark would be a spiritual experience with plenty of time to reflect on life and family and friends, the reality was that I was really f**king tired!  During the night, I sat down a couple of times to have a catnap, but fortunately, I was always able to rouse myself and limit my stops to only a few minutes at most.  The sky began to brighten up as I descended along the south bank of Gibbs Brook near the end of the traverse, and my rental car was a sight for sore eyes (and sore feet) when I finally arrived at Highland Center Lodge at 4:50 AM on the morning of 5 June 2016.

After changing into some fresh clothes, I drove for a bit until I found a convenience store that was open.  I bought a huge cup of fountain Diet Pepsi and downed a third of it before going to a nearby rest area to nap for about an hour or so.  When I woke up, I felt refreshed enough to drive the rest of the way back to Saint-Jean without incident.
A soul-sucking epic journey! Total Distance:  31.2 kilometres
Total Time:  18 hours 43 minutes*
Total Elevation Gain:  2674 metres*

GPX Data

* Includes about 1 hour and 175 metres added for wrong turn