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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Cold War: A Winter Traverse of New Hampshire's Presidential Range

Got guts? Good. Now learn what skills you'll need to bag America's Little Everest—a traverse of New Hampshire's Presidential Range in Winter.

by: Charlie Wood & Casey Lyons

Mt. Washington's humidity makes temps feel ten clicks cooler.
Mt. Washington's humidity makes temps feel ten clicks cooler.

The Hike
A winter traverse of the Presidential Range is the most coveted–and riskiest–mountaineering feat in the Northeast. The 23.3-mile route includes 11 miles above treeline, 10,000 feet of elevation gain, and 10 peaks above 4,000 feet. Rime ice, massive drifts and cornices, and fierce winds combine to create an amorphous landscape–a cubist masterpiece, painted entirely in white. From the Valley Way Trail, you'll gain 3,500 feet in the first 3.8 miles, reaching the base of 5,366-foot Mt. Madison (kick steps up another 557 feet to the summit if winds are calm). From here, the route arcs counterclockwise past Mt. Jefferson and over Mt. Clay to Mt. Washington, completing the northern half of the trip. Take the Crawford Path down to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut to camp (pitch your tent a quarter-mile away from the hut and the lakes). The next day, weather willing, you'll snowshoe or crampon seven exposed miles over Mts. Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Pierce, Jackson, and Webster as you drop more than 5,000 feet to the Crawford trailhead. From Jackson's summit, gaze back on your route; from Webster, look down into Mt. Washington Valley, where beer, burgers, and a warm barstool await.

The Crux
Rapidly changing, extremely cold weather. Winds across this range exceed 100 mph one out of every four winter days.

The Key
Break the traverse into pieces, making realistic judgment calls at each junction on the way. Michael Walsh, the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitors Center Supervisor, says that while there are 11 wicked-exposed miles above treeline, potential escape routes (Jewell Trail, Lion Head, Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, and Edmands Path, in that order) appear every one to two miles. He suggests stopping at each of these junctions to gather your group together, evaluate weather and team conditions, and decide whether to move forward or bail. In the event of a sudden whiteout, rope up with your partner (with about 30 feet of rope between you) and send him or her forward to sweep for the next cairn. Then advance like an inchworm from cairn to cairn. Time your trip for one of the last six weeks of winter: Days are longer (about 12 hours of daylight), sub-zero lows begin to subside after mid-February, and the snowpack is harder (better for cramponing).

The Way
From Randolph, drive 1.5 miles west on NH 2 to the Valley Way parking area. The Valley Way Trail starts at the lot's west end. After the hike, pick up your shuttle car at the AMC's Highland Center, about 10 miles east of US 3 on US 302.

Plan It
Call the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitors Center (603-466-2721) for current conditions. Use the AMC's White Mountain Guide ($25; AMC Books) and its maps. Check for an online subscription-based version.

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Reader Rating: -


Oct 20, 2012

@Deez: Cut 'em some slack. Sometimes its the only realistic option if you don't want to drop 1000+ feet to find a campsite and re-climb that elevation the next morning. Getting something in the treeline is really hard to do especially with stunted pines, which are a massive pain to deal with, and you might be miles away from established shelter like RMC's Gray Knob hut.

1 day traverses go down mostly in late spring and summer. The only way you're getting a 1 day traverse in winter is if you're damn fit and the Prezis are kind enough to give you the rarest of rare: a clear winter day.

Sep 24, 2012

Why would you camp above treeline there in winter? Worst weather in America and they say camp there? The backpacker writers are ridiculous, no wonder people die there all the time reading stuff like this. Mostly all traverses there are done in one day.

Sep 05, 2010

Just fyi, the distance from Lakes of the Clouds Hut to Crawford Notch is more than 7 miles...


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