Sunday, August 31, 2014

White Mountain Hut Traverse

Early yesterday morning I headed up 19 Mile Brook Trail with the intent of completing my 5th Hut Traverse in as many attempts. It had been 9 years since my last Traverse, when I went West to East in 20:10 and 19 years (!) since my first. The previous 3 were in the East-to-West direction (1995 in ~25 hours, 1999 in 18:15, and 2000 in ~21 hours). I have not been doing much ultra-length hiking or running for the past couple of years, but after completing the Mahoosuc Traverse and 30 Wonalancet miles within the past 3 weeks - and feeling like I had something left in the tank at the end of each - decided to give the Hut Traverse another shot.

Interestingly, August 30-31 was also the 81st anniversary of another Hut Traverse. On August 30-31, 1933, Ralph Batchelder and Evarts Loomis, AMC hutmen both, walked from Carter Notch to Lonesome Lake in just under 24 hours. While they skipped Wildcat Ridge, they did include Pinkham Notch Camp in their route. (See Forest and Crag, pp. 518-19.) Impressive considering depression era footwear and other outdoor gear!

My preferred Hut Traverse route is as follows: [Carter Notch Hut] 19 Mile Brook, Route 16, Great Gulf, Madison Gulf, Parapet, Star Lake, [Madison] Gulfside, Westside, Crawford, [Lakes of the Clouds] Webster Cliff, [Mizpah] Mizpah Cutoff, Crawford, Avalon, A-Z, Zealand, [Zealand] Twinway, [Galehead] Garfield Ridge, Greenleaf, [Greenleaf] Old Bridle Path, Lonesome Lake [Lonesome Lake]. I skip all summits except those which the trails happen to directly cross over: Pierce, South Twin, and Lafayette. Using this configuration of trails, it is about 24.2 miles and 5,600 feet of vertical (add another 3.8 miles and 1900 for the initial climb to Carter Notch Hut) to Crawford Notch, 24.8 miles and 9,200 vertical to Lonesome Lake, for a grand total of 49 miles and 14,800 (54.4 miles and 16,700 feet of vertical including 19 Mile Brook approach and Lonesome Lake descent).

Friday afternoon we spotted Car #2 at Lafayette Place (the finish) before proceeding up to Gorham and dinner at the Chinese buffet. I do not recommend this. At the very least order off the menu! However, my fortune cookie - more advice than fortune - seemed rather prophetic: “It is not the end yet. Let’s stay with it!” I decided that THAT would be my mantra for the day, no matter how sucky things got. Being 4 for 4 as far as attempts/completions, the pressure was on!

We snagged one of 4 remaining campsites at Dolly Copp for a few hours of shut eye. Its being Labor Day Weekend, the Whites were a busy place.

At 3:40 am I tagged Carter Notch Hut and was off. The early miles in the dark always seem to pass quickly, and soon I was back at the Route 16 trailhead drinking fresh hot coffee prepared by my husband Chris, who would crew me here and at Crawford Notch and also get in his own hike of Webster and Jackson in the interim. I ran the short stretch down to Great Gulf Trailhead, polished off the rest of the coffee, and headed up Great Gulf Trail. The lower part of this trail is easy and I should have been running but settled on a purposeful walk instead. Hey, it was gonna be a long day. Madison Gulf Trail had the usual tricky route finding at stream crossings - much thanks to the cairn builders - and the expected steepness, but by 7:42 I was filling my water bladder at Mad Hut as the guests dispersed after breakfast. The morning was a beauty, with both settled valley fog and the higher peaks obscured on and off by cloud. I made my way easily via Gulfside around Adams, Jefferson and Clay, then Westside around Washington and Crawford Path to Lakes of the Clouds by 10:23. Up to this point I had seen maybe a dozen hikers on the trail all morning. That was about to change! By Pierce I’d stopped counting at 100, and they just kept coming, quite a departure from the lightly traveled redlining trails I’ve been mostly doing this summer.

I reached Mizpah at 12:07 and Crawford Notch at exactly 1 pm. What a zoo! Cars and people and noise everywhere, barking dogs, screaming kids, the train blowing its whistle… Chris had snagged a parking spot at the depot and made a pot of ramen and more fresh coffee, so we had a front seat for all the entertainment. I tried to make quick work of this “aid station” but ended up staying almost half an hour. If one were going to stop, this is the logical Quitter Point, and I briefly fantasized about returning home and spending the evening sipping wine on the porch instead of slogging across the Twinway and the evil that is Garfield Ridge Trail in the dark, but there was that nagging mantra, “It is not the end yet. Let‘s stay with it!” Well, okay... LET’s!

The steady stream of humanity continued as far as Mt. Tom Spur, but I encountered just one hiker between Mt. Tom and Zealand Trail. Of note, the western end of A-Z Trail is in great shape and has some really nice new bog bridges. After Zealand Falls Hut at 3:31, the climb up Zeacliff has never been one of my favorites but is just a prelude to what lies ahead. The view from Guyot was lovely and the Twinway rather easy, but it took 3 hours to reach Galehead. Unfortunately I needed to refill my water bladder so had to walk through the front door past a very full dining room midsupper. The croo was very pleasant and accommodating when I asked for some hot water for coffee.

For me, this is where the Hut Traverse gets hard. In 1995 I hit the wall around Garfield Pond and remember curling up under a boulder in an attempt to get some sleep. A few hours later I suffered a meltdown while descending Old Bridle Path, sobbing to my friend Al Sochard "WHY is this trail TAKING so lonnnngggg…???!!!” (One of those things you know you will be laughing about the next day.) I was determined to not hit the wall or have a meltdown! Galehead to Greenleaf took over 4 hours (6:30 to 10:47 pm). The headlamp came out around Franconia Brook Trail (Oh yay, I get to climb the waterfall section in the dark!). Along the Twinway and Garfield Ridge Trail I saw many presumably thru-hikers bootleg camping along the trail. One couple even had a campfire going. Not sure if that was legal but it sure looked inviting. Being solo and in the dark, I was extremely careful on all the scrambly sections. There were a lot of scrambly sections.

At treeline on Lafayette‘s north side things got more interesting. There was a steady breeze blowing but it wasn’t knocking me around and wasn’t too cold, 50 maybe? I wore a hat and gloves but no shell, just long sleeves, and was fine. However, a bit disconcerting was the fact that visibility was barely cairn to cairn. In my depleted state, I knew I had to be very careful about staying on the trail, so this entire 2-mile above treeline section was pretty slow. Old Bridle Path was just freaking endless, but a meltdown was assuaged by the knowledge that it was just 1.6 miles and 1000 feet of climb once I hit the parking lot. I made myself walk right past my car because I knew I'd be tempted to get inside and drive away!

At long last, at 1 am, I reached Lonesome Lake Hut. I was TOAST. There was very little left in the tank. I decided to lie on the floor and put my feet up for a few minutes. Unbeknownst to me there was a thru-hiker sleeping in the communal area. Having been awakened by my light, she flicked on hers asking if I was okay, then wanted to know what I had done. I apologized for waking her and told her I just completed a hut traverse. She replied “Wow, you’re funny!”

The final hut-to-hut time was 21 hours 20 minutes. It wasn’t my fastest but at age 48 with a 19-year Hut Traverse spread and now 5 for 5, I’ll take it.


Steve Pero said...

Good job, Sue! Why didn't Chris join you? ;-)
This is on our list of things to do when we get back (Bert talked of joining us)....of course it may have to wait until Spring with Winter about to sock in soon. Wanna do your 6th? ;-)
See you guys soon!

Unknown said...

You crazy kid! Congrats on another traverse! Its on our list to do for sure when we return.

RunSueRun said...

Sure, let's do it !! Looking forward to you guys' return to the Northeast. :) Chris is smarter than me!

Olga said...

I finally read it all mindfully, and not just scanning - I love it! This sounds like a crazy and great thing, actually, all your things are awesome. I was thinking about you lots lately as JMT was attempted by girls, then Leor got his shot at it too...So, so appealing. What a history you have with this traverse, and loved the fortune cookie!

ultrarunnergirl said...

Congrats, Sue! Sounds like a grand adventure. It's key having crew husbands!

Todd Taska said...

Hi Sue - I don't know you, but I enjoyed reading about your most recent hut traverse. Last year, I attempted a traverse with my girlfriend (who sprained her ankle part-way through...but managed to keep going), and we made it to Galehead Hut in 19 hrs., and decided to call it quits at that point (probably a good move,considering your comment about the evil of the Garfield Ridge Trail!).
This year, I went back, and had another shot at it solo, and felt OK, but not great...the food just didn't work out that well. But, I did finish, in 24:25...a little disappointed in not getting under 24 hours...but immensely relieved to be done with that tough ending (the Garfield Ridge was quite a test of resolve, especially in the dark....with steadily lowering energy, besides!).
Anyway, I wish you well in these "crazy" pursuits...and hope that you will continue your series of these traverses. I am 56, and can see that I could do one faster with better food and perhaps by training a little more specifically for it.