As usual before the Thanksgiving break, I was sitting around sometime Tuesday or Wednesday trying to figure out how I can take advanatge of those five days off that I have, during this inconvenient time when it's too cold or wet to climb rock, and too warm for ice, when one of my friends called and said, why not a Presidential traverse? It sounded good to me. We had done it before, last March, in three days, north to south, and had a great time. This time we decided to do it south to north, and in two days.
So, Friday morning after turkey dinner I threw my stuff together, and off we went. Four of us came up from Boston, and two more were to join us at Crawford Notch from a ski trip at Killington. Because one of our group had to be back early on Sunday, we decided to compensate by hiking up to Mitzpah Springs Hut that evening, so as to get ourselves a little head start. As it turned out, between waiting for the other 2, driving to Appalachia to deposit the pickup car, driving back and getting ready it was nearly 11 by the time we started hiking; luckily we had sent half of our group ahead to set up camp and make food.
In short, we were only able to get a few hours of sleep. On Saturday we planned to go all the way to Madison Hut, so we had get going early. We began hiking around 7:30. It had been a clear, cold night with a nearly full moon, giving way to a beautiful morning. The spruce trees on the mountains glistened with fresh frost and snow. We made steady progress over the southern Presidentials. The Crawford Path was a nearly continuous ribbon of ice; doing it without crampons this time of year would probably be impossible. After Mt. Eisenhower, all tracks dissppeared; we were obviously the first ones here at least since Thursday night's snowfall. Around Mt. Franklin it got sufficiently breezy to warrant a shell jacket, and remained so for the remained of the trip.
Arrived at Lakes of the Clouds Hut at around 10:45, and had a nice long lunch. Met a couple of English guys who were planning to head down to Hermit Lake that day. They were the only people we would see during the entire trip. Hit the trail again after about an hour, as clouds started to roll in. Fortunately, they did not last long, and the beautiful weather continued to spoil us for the rest of the day. Once past Washington and on the Gulfside trail, the going began to be a real pain in the ass. As most people probably know, this part is basically one big boulder field, with no trail at all to speak of, just cairns to mark the way. This time of year there wasn't nearly enough snow to cover them up, except for a few drifts in some spots, but at the same time the rocks themselves were covered with a layer of slippery rime ice. Walking across this stuff with crampons on was pretty torturous, especially for me because I was testing some relatively new boots and had pretty bad blisters on both ankles and shins. At one point I tried removing the crampons, but this turned out to be a bad idea; after about 10 minutes I put them back on. Considering how long we had to go that day, we just couldn't afford stopping constantly like this, so we kept them on the entire time.
We managed to make it to Thunderstorm Junction just as it got too dark to see without a headlamp (which was only about 4:45). The descent to Madison Hut was made in darkness, and took a lot longer than I expected. By now everyone was pretty tired and somewhat dehydrated, as we had a shortage of water containers for our group. Fortunately, there was a tiny stream of unfrozen water available, which made cooking a lot faster. While part of the group went about looking for a spot for a tent (the Madison Hut area is actually not that great for camping...it's rather windblown and mostly rocky), two more immediately started making tea. When we finally finished settign the big wigwam-style (single pole) tent, all 6 got into it, and from that point on no one had any plans to go out and pitch the second one. We ended up all sleeping in this tent, and it was actually large enough to fit 6 without being terribly crowded. It's not a great tent for winter camping, however - the single walls flailed about like hell all night in the increasingly strong wind, making sleeping very difficult. At times it felt like the whole thing would lift up and fly away like Dorothy's trailer. But, somehow we survived the night, quickly packed everything up, and, without breakfast or anything, plunged down the Valley Way to the car.
We began the descent in a total whiteout, with light freezing fog and stiff wind. The upper part of the Valley Way is really iced up - which may be an indication that this year will had a good ice season. Even now the volume of ice just on the trail was enormous, and there's a shitload of water in the mountains. Below 3000 feet, ice and snow were melting rapidly, but the big rain hadn't hit us yet. We were down at the car before 11 AM, only to find the window smashed, my wallet and a bunch of other stuff gone and glass everywhere. The same was true of two other cars that were parked there. On the windshield was a note from the Gorham police with their phone number and everything.
Eventually we went to the police station, where I was pleased to discover that they had actually recovered the wallet (albeit with the cash missing), and a few other items. Still, driving back to Boston in the rain and wind with a sheet of plastic wrapped around the entire door was not exactly pleasant. On that note, a heads up to everyone leaving their car for overnight trips in the backcountry: don't think that even remote parking lots are safe (two other guys we met at the police station had their car broken into at the Wilderness lot on rte 16), and don't leave anything valuable inside. I had always left my wallet, and sometimes my cell phone, in the car before out of fear of losing it. Not anymore. Also, you may want to consider leaving the doors actually unlocked, so that at least your window is intact.
Still, minus the unpleasant surprise at the end, it was a fun early winter trip, spontaneously planned and fairly well executed. Thanks to Adilet, Dima, Itay, Ilya and Boris for the good company.
Here's to a good winter season!