Trip Report: Presidential Traverse and Pemigewasset Wilderness

Posted by Matt Scharf on

Sometime after sunset somewhere along the Webster Cliff Trail as Megan, Gen, and I (Prius) were picking our way down another steep, damp, rocky stretch of trail by headlamp the notion occurred to me that just because something can be done, does not necessarily mean that it should. The something in this case, is perhaps the most comprehensive variant of the storied Presidential Traverse (PT) in New Hampshire’s White Mountains possible.

DOC and I had begun talking about a backpacking trip to the Whites that included the PT during our trip to the ADKs in February. After the exhaustive level of planning that only engineers can provide (and think necessary) we arrived at an elegant route that had us completing the PT on Saturday, trekking past a number of the most spectacular falls in the Whites and climbing high into the Pemigewasset (Pemi) Wilderness via the AT on Sunday, and completing a glorious traverse of the Bond Range to finish things off on Monday.

By air and by land a strong group of DC UL veterans; U-Turn, DOC, Megan, Gen, the Baconator, and DOC’s Pennsylvanian trail running masochist pals Brian and Liz, made their way up to the Whites on Friday. Excess food and gear were stashed at the Dry River Campground in Crawford Notch to lighten our loads for the PT, and cars were spotted at the route’s end at Lincoln Woods, just outside the western edge of the Pemi Wilderness. A commercial shuttle brought us all to our home for the night at the Barnes Field Campground, with a slight detour that brought us alarmingly close to Maine, at least in the eyes of the Baconator.

Once at Barnes Field, we ate dinner and took a stroll through the Dolly Copp Campground to the Daniel Webster Scout Trail trailhead so that we wouldn’t stumble past it in a bleary stupor the next morning. We all turned in by about 9 PM and readied ourselves for the madness that was to follow.

At 3 AM sharp a chorus of alarms rang through our site. We broke camp and ate quickly, with various groupings of hikers hitting the trail between 03:15 and 03:45. We made our way over road through the campgrounds and began our long ascent of Mount Madison, the first of eight 4,000 footers we would visit that day. The Daniel Webster Scout Trail makes a long eastern approach to Madison via progressively steeper and rockier trail. We started up by headlamp but after 45 minutes or so the sun crept above the Carter and Crescent Ranges and bathed the woods in beautiful orange light. Not long after, a series of rocky scrambles through krumholtz popped us out above treeline, where we would remain for the next 11 miles. DOC, Brian, Liz, and I marveled at the views as we picked our way from cairn to cairn on the jumble of rocks that constitute the northern Presidentials. We took a break at the intersection of the Scout Trail and the Osgood Ridge Trail for snacks, sunscreen, and photos. After being joined by U-Turn we made our way to the summit of Madison via the Osgood Trail. Once at the summit the immense bulk of the northern Presidentials loomed before us.

After some summit photos we picked our way down to the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Madison Spring Hut, where we filled up with water and took a longer break. A number of trails intersect at the hut, which resulted in Brian and Liz heading for our next summit, Mount Adams, via a detour to Star Lake, while DOC, U-Turn and I, made our way up via the Gulfside Trail (AT).

Mount Adams, is a massive pile of jagged rock with a number of subsidiary peaks. The trails, such as it is throughout the northern Presis, is really nothing more than a series of cairns and the odd blaze pointing you through a Choose Your Own Adventure book of jumbled rock. After a very long mile we arrived at the top of Adams, most of us stopping only for a brief photo as the day was beginning to get on us and there were many miles left to hike before we reached camp.

From Adams we made our way to Jefferson via Edmands Col, where a commemorative plaque to the col’s namesake speaks of ‘continuous, uniformly graded paths’ which are ‘always rising, but never steeply’. Despite much effort, we were not able to locate these most delightful sounding paths.

Matt Scharf posted on

After a summit break at Jefferson we worked our way southward towards Mount Washington, the highest point in the Presidential Range. Some of us made our way to the summit of Washington via Mount Clay which offers some nice views into the glacial cirque known as the Great Gulf while others bypassed it as it doesn’t make its way onto the AMC 4,000 footer list.

I can only describe the summit of Washington as surreal. Here high on the roof of New England, and all of the east coast north of the Smokies for that matter, one finds cars, trains, snack bars, and an endless stream of tourists in loafers and flip flops. On this day the annual foot race up the Auto Road was being held so we were also joined by many runners and their cheering sections. On my previous summer trips to Washington I’ve generally made my way off the summit as quickly as possible, but we were happy to linger and enjoy coffees, Cokes, and chili and this was to be our symbolic halfway muster point. DOC, Brian, Liz and I arrived at the summit around 11:45 and U-Turn mosied in about a half hour later. As we rested and ate lunch, DOC, U-Turn and I began to eye the clock and the remaining mileage with some concern. To that point we had covered about 11.5 miles in 8-ish hours. Land speed records we were not setting. Still on the docket were 15 more miles, 3 more 4,000 footers, and a 3,000 foot descent on the aptly named Webster Cliff Trail.

After a leisurely lunch U-Turn got underway towards Mount Monroe, followed shortly by Brian and Liz. We agreed to muster at the Mitzpah Springs Hut later in the day to assess our options. At this point it was about 12:30 and DOC and I were beginning to wonder about the Baconator, Megan, and Gen, who we hadn’t seen since camp. The Baconator rolled in around 12:50 and made a beeline to the snack bar for ice cream and soda. DOC and I continued to scan to the horizon northward looking for Megan and Gen. The Baconator bid us adieu around 13:30 and we continued to wait for Megan and Gen, our two remaining backpackers. At this point our thoughts began to run towards the dark end of the spectrum, envisioning broken ankles somewhere on Adams and the like, but before long we picked them down near the cog railway tracks and breathed a sigh of relief as they slowly trudged to the summit. Upon arrival they assured us they were tired but otherwise fine and had been soaking in the scenery and taking many photos, we left them to the snack bar with instructions to rendezvous at Mitzpah Springs and began the knee pounding descent off Washington.

DOC and I met up with the Baconator again at the Lonesome Lake Hut where he was enjoying a cup of coffee (he likes coffee even more than bacon). DOC stopped to chat while I pushed on towards the summit of Monroe.

The footing south of Washington was markedly improved and the summits shorter and soon I found myself atop Monroe with a group of ADK 46ers, some of whom had hiked with our dear departed Hua. DOC and the Baconator arrived shortly thereafter and together we made our way down Monroe and up and over Eisenhower and Pierce, the remaining peaks in the range named after Presidents. Atop Eisenhower we began formulating options for a bailout as continuing with the route as planned would assure a long descent on weary legs by headlamp. We decided that after summiting Pierce and stopping at the Mitzpah Springs hut the best bailout option would be to descend to the Highland Center via the Crawford Path and hitch a ride to camp from there.

Matt Scharf posted on

After summiting Eisenhower I pushed as hard as my legs would take me in hopes of catching U-Turn, Brian, and Liz at Mitzpah Springs. Upon my arrival I did not find them at the hut or the adjacent tent site and sat down to wait for the others. At this point I had begun to ruminate on the fact that if I were to bail I would have ‘Scharfed’ anyone who completed the route as planned. For those not steeped in the full lore of DC UL, to Scharf someone or ‘pull a Scharf’ is to plan a diabolically difficult route which is undertaken by others while you yourself do not attempt the route. This harkens back to my ill-fated AT-IMT 8 route from 2014 which I enjoyed from the comfort of home while Beast Mode, Heavy D, and Dave suffered mightily and cursed my name. In my defense, I was in the midst of a couple months of physical therapy for my knee brought on by Joffrey’s Massanutten Madness experiment a month prior. So it goes.

Before long I was joined at Mitzpah Springs by DOC and Steve. I asked DOC what the odds were that U-Turn would have persuaded Brian and Liz to bail on the route and he immediately responded zero. DOC and Steve were planning to bail and my heart sank as it looked like a Scharfing was in the offing, when much to our surprise Megan and Gen materialized, having made great time since Washington by bypassing the summit loops of Monroe and Eisenhower and sticking to the AT. They were still feeling relatively good and planning to complete the full pull, so I cast my lot with them and we parted ways with DOC and Steve. (See +DOC for alternate ending)

The remainder of the Presidential Range after one descends below treeline following the summit of Eisenhower is less inspiring than the long, alpine expanse. One winds their way through spruce trees, and over bog bridges and PUDs. We gained the summit of Mount Jackson (named after Charles Jackson, a former NH state geologist, not Andrew Jackson) and looked back on the long expanse of the range we had covered before turning our attention to the final hump of Mount Webster and our long descent to camp.

After summiting Webster we began our descent on the Webster Cliff Trail (AT), which loses about 2,500 feet of elevation over the course of 3 miles. We stopped here and there to snap some photos of the sun setting over the Willey Range, which while beautiful, was ominous as it meant we would soon be making our way by headlamp.

Down, down, down we went. As darkness set in, my tired mind began to imagine each momentary flattening of the grade or slight bend in the trail to the trail to one direction or the other to be some indication I remembered from the map that we were nearing the end of the descent, but on and on we went. The Saco River and the odd car passing on Route 302 sounded to be just beyond our headlamps for a long while before we finally saw the sign for the Saco River Trail. We turned right and burned through the last of our reserves on the mile and a half into camp. We arrived at about 22:45, about 19 hours after leaving camp, and about 45 minutes after U-Turn, Brian, and Liz. DOC and the Baconator had arrived first, having bailed down the Crawford Path from Mitzpah Springs and hitched a ride with a former thru hiker. We retrieved our food bags, ate, and hastily made camp and collapsed exhausted from the long day.

(+DOC) Matt had befriended a group of day hikers (all ADK 46ers) at some point along the Presidential Traverse and arranged for a ride from the AMC Highland Center to Dry River campground. It was my first trip to the White Mountains, but I had studied the elevation profiles closely and was not at all keen to descend Webster Cliffs with a headlamp at the end of an 18 hour day. When Megan and Gen told Matt that they planned to finish the long route, Steve and I looked at each other with NFW expressions - we had a ride! We headed out with Matt’s New York ADK friends while Matt decided to complete the original route to prevent a Scharfing accusation. The descent down Crawford Path was actually relatively easy even after many hours of climbing and rock scrambling mainly in full sun. We regrouped once since one of the guys in the NY group was hurting. Steve and I were a short distance behind the leaders when we eventually arrived at the parking lot; however, none of our NY friends were there. Baconator’s theory is that they were parked at an overflow lot some distance away - we passed a spur trail starting at a foot bridge near the end of the Crawford Path. While we were wandering the lot looking for NY plates while contemplating a 5 mile road walk, a young guy standing next to a conversion van camper yelled out, “Do you guys need a ride somewhere?” A minor trail miracle. Steve and I hopped aboard - Steve in the seatbelt less passenger seat and me in a directors chair between the front seats. Our savior assured me we would not crash. A few minutes later, we arrived safely at Dry River campground - it was sometime after 7 P.M. We thanked our new friend who turned out to be a 2015 AT through hiker and insisted he take $20 for his troubles. Steve and I set up our shelters and ate our dinners. After we been in camp over two hours, I walked out and found the trail intersection with the campground loop. I also ran into Brian and Liz - they both looked pretty wasted but Brian was pumped that he’d finished his hardest trail day ever. About 30 minutes later, I headed out again and found Michael at the intersection and walked with him to our sites. Since I figured Gen, Megan, and Matt were together, I decided to hit the hammock - about 10:30 P.M. Not long after I got situated, I heard the sound of shuffling feet and low voices. I got up to greet the final group and make sure all was well. They were tired but seemed in good spirits. While preparing their midnight meals, we decided to set the departure time for the following morning to a luxurious 9 A.M - one of the toughest days in DC UL history finally ended. (end +DOC)

Matt Scharf posted on

For all of the hardship of the terrain, this trip offered a variety of amenities we of DC UL are not necessarily accustomed to: coffee and snacks at alpine huts and car campgrounds with running water, flush toilets, and showers foremost among them. Despite the late start we had scheduled for ourselves for Day 2, many of us were up not long after the sun, but made a leisurely morning of things. Megan even got a shower in. Roughing it indeed. After our elongated breakfast and camp breaking we eventually donned our packs and made our way out to Route 302 for our brief roadwalk to the Arethusa Falls trailhead. Once on trail we spread out a bit as everyone coaxed their legs into functioning after the previous day’s exertion. Before long we arrived at Arethusa Falls, the highest in the Whites, where we enjoyed the views and relaxed for a time. U-Turn had looked over the agenda for the next two days and decided that he’d prefer to spend them at the Woodstock Inn, having completed his primary objective for the trip.

After a time we got back on the trail and made our way to Ripley Falls, which are shorter but no less spectacular than Arethusa. Here we enjoyed another break before beginning a long climb up to the AT and eventually into the southern portion of the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

On the climb we all spread out a bit, but eventually regrouped at a lovely (aside from the deer flies) spot along the North Fork of the Pemigewasset River. After we continued on the AT towards higher ground, and our ultimate destination for the day, the Guyot Campsite high on the Bond Range. For several miles we enjoyed sublime hiking on flat, smooth trails. Some detoured to enjoy Thoreau Falls, and all enjoyed passing through the scree field below Whitewall Mountain. Eventually we made our way to Zealand Falls and a few minutes beyond that, the Zealand Hut where we took a snack and coffee/lemonade break before tackling the daunting climb up Zealand Mountain.

Zealand may be my least favorite summit in the Whites. I’ve visited it twice now, having approached from both directions to arrive it the underwhelming treed in summit. The approach this time began with an unrelenting 800 foot climb, which is rewarded with a spectacular view encompassing Whitewall Mountain and the Willey and Presidential Ranges beyond to the east, Carrigain Notch, Mount Carrigain, and the Hancocks to the south, and the Bond Range to the west. Following a brief stop at the viewpoint we resumed the trudge up to Zealand. The mile and a quarter to the summit of Zealand seemed after two hard days of hiking to be a never ending ramble over bog bridges and up rocky outcrops as we gained the final 500 feet to the summit. Eventually, we arrived at the summit and quickly through some food in our bellies to power us through the last few miles to camp.

After departing Zealand, the AT (know here as the Twinway) descends sharply before beginning a gradual, 600 foot ascent to Mount Guyot over extremely rocky terrain. In some regards I enjoy the rockier sections of trail at times as they require a mental focus which helps the distance pass. In any case the ascent of Guyot seemed to pass much more quickly than the final push to Zealand and before long we were delivered above treeline and treated to magnificent views of Franconia Ridge, Garlfied Ridge, and the Twin and Bond Ranges. DOC, the Baconator, and Prius soaked in the views at the large cairn on the southern shoulder of Guyot as the sun started to fade and enjoyed the company of a particularly fearless rabbit, before shambling down the final mile or so to the Guyot Campsite.

Everyone was very fatigued upon arrival, after 16 miles and 6,000 feet of gain on the day. DOC struggled with making change for the campsite fees with the caretaker and needed to ask directions to the spring three times. Brian and Liz were already set up on one of the tent platforms. DOC settled for a lackluster hammock hang next to the privy, while the Baconator and Prius set up in the shelter. Megan and Gen rolled in shortly after and set up in the shelter as well. We all ate voraciously and retired as soon as we were done. Those of us in the shelter pondered the whereabouts of a couple whose bedrolls were set up in the shelter but whom we had not seen hide nor hair of since we’d arrived in camp. We began to speculate that perhaps they had gone to a nearby peak to watch the sunset and become lost or suffered an injury. Our fears were allayed when they rolled in around 11 PM.

Despite two hard days of hiking Megan, Gen, and Prius were up with the sun, enjoying the view of the sunrise over Zealand Ridge from the shelter. Others woke not long after. DOC had suffered through a miserable night in his hammock which hovered a few inches off the ground due to a lack of good trees to hang. We had planned to hit the trail at 0600, but I (Prius) hit the trail at 0530 as my left ankle was locking up painfully when I remained still. I slowly worked my way back up to the Bondcliff Trail and then took the spur trail to the summit of West Bond, which juts out into the interior of the horseshoe of high ridgelines (Franconia, Garfield, Twin, and Bond) that make up the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The others arrived shortly thereafter and we spent a good amount of time admiring the views and picking out different peaks.

Matt Scharf posted on

After a leisurely summit stop we descended and began the climb up Mount Bond. Once atop Mount Bond we took another prolonged summit break to soak in the views, especially admiring the exposed ridgeline to Bondcliff which we would be tackling shortly. We picked our way carefully down from the summit of Bond, moving into dense spruce before popping out on the rocky, krumholz dotted ridgeline to begin our traverse to Bondcliff. The traverse of this ridgeline proved to be a highlight of the trip for many. The views are sublime, it is one of those sections of trail that invites you to slow your pace and savor the surroundings. We stopped for many photo breaks, and during one of them we noticed a figure in the distance who appeared to be participating in Hike Naked Day. As there is only one trail across the ridgeline, we were soon to find out that he was indeed au natural. Brian admonished him to wear sunscreen, while most of us simply avoided eye contact.

Presently, we arrived at the summit of Bondcliff and enjoyed another long stop to enjoy the vistas and photograph one another on the characteristic sheer cliff on the ridge. After our long stay, we bid farewell with some sadness to the alpine zone and slipped below treeline for the long descent out to Lincoln Woods. A few hours and few thousand vertical feet later we arrived at the cars and made our way to the Woodstock Inn where we were reunited with U-Turn. Showers, snacks, naps, dinner, and a well earned sleep followed.

The next morning the Baconator left bright and early for his flight back to Baltimore. DOC, U-Turn and Prius had planned a later, more leisurely morning as none of us had to work. After breakfast and a trip to the country store for maple products we were alerted that our flight had been cancelled due to heavy weather in Baltimore. We made our way to the Manchester airport to confirm that there were no good flight options and in what is becoming a ‘DC UL Heads North’ tradition piled into a rented swagger wagon for a long and uneventful drive south.

All in all this was an extremely challenging and rewarding trip. In the future when tackling trips in the Whites (or ADKs for that matter), it is probably best to err to the conservative side in some matters. While everyone completed the PT in one variant or another and everyone who completed the route as planned did so without incident, there was certainly the potential for trouble undertaking the descent from Mount Webster with tired legs and brains in failing light.

(DOC Note: I am not sure how many times I stated during the Presidential Traverse “I am not descending those f#$%ing Webster Cliffs in the dark with a headlamp after hiking for 16 hours!” I figured this section would have the greatest potential for an injury since I had been studying the elevation profiles for some time. I believe Steve and I made the correct call for ourselves, and I was worried about the remainder of the crew completing the long finish in the dark.)

Given the level of developed infrastructure for hikers in the Whites we could have easily designed a route which had us camping high at Mitzpah Springs or descending to Crawford Notch more directly via the Crawford Path or Webster-Jackson Trail to shuttle or hitch to the Dry River Campground.

Steve G. posted on

An awesome trip report! Thanks for taking the time to write it up, Matt!

One very minor pedantic bit though (sorry):

"DOC and I met up with the Baconator again at the [b]Lonesome Lake Hut[/b] where he was enjoying a cup of coffee (he likes coffee even more than bacon). DOC stopped to chat while I pushed on towards the summit of Monroe. "

That was [b]Lakes of the Clouds Hut[/b] after Mt Washington where I got the coffee. Lonesome Lake is on the other side of I-93.

Michael Martin posted on

Yes, thank you for the excellent trip report, Matt. And for everyone for the awesome trip! I had a great time with the portion of the trip I did, and a wonderful first experience in the Whites.

For me, I would tend to think that future DC ULers attempting this might consider camping at Mitzpah (or even atop Jackson--is that legal?). While it was certainly possible to do the full traverse and descend Webster Cliffs, it is a tall order. At 44--and in middling shape--I was able to do it, but it took a lot out of me. Subsequent hiking on successive days was going to be unpleasant (for me). There is the possibility of injury while descending Webster Cliffs in the dark and while highly fatigued--I think we were all a little worried about each other. Plus, with the traverse done, why not stop and celebrate?

So, it's a thing to consider.

Karan posted on

Nice trip report, Prius. Thanks for sharing the pressure of the tough situation : "To Scharf or not to Scharf".

Sounds like y'all did a bad-ass trip - Kudos! I shall try to take myself out to this area that you highly speak of.

Did any of you (Steve?) record a GPS track while there? I am eager to check out the statistics and a visual glimpse on a map of what y'all did.

Matt Scharf posted on

I don't know if anyone recorded GPS, but this is the CalTopo map of what we did:

Karan posted on

Looks awesome.. Thanks for sharing Matt!