Sunday, July 4, 2010

AMC Huts Traverse 7/3/2010

In the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire the Appalachian Mountain Club operates a chain of eight mountain refuges known as huts. They extend from East to West across the highest parts of the range including the famous Mount Washington Massif and the Franconia Ridge and are situated roughly "a day's hike apart". Dating back to the 1930s it has been a traditional challenge for strong AMC Croo members to enchain all the huts into a single monster day hike in under 24 hours. With roughly 50 miles and 15,000 feet of elevation gain over extremely rugged terrain, the traverse has also become a fun challenge for hikers looking for something beyond the Presidential Traverse and Pemi-Loop.

When I first heard about the Huts Traverse I was just beginning my hiking career and I had almost no way to fathom what it really meant. Traveling that far, that fast seemed inconceivable to the point where I wrote it off as something I would never subject myself to. As time went on and I got stronger and more experienced, I began to wonder. The turning point came with a vote of confidence from someone experienced in these sorts of things that I both admire and respect, though it would take a few years and false starts before I finally got around to attempting the traverse for myself.

I've been debating whether to post a report of the traverse for some time, but ultimately decided to because I've been unable to find a complete published account of a summer Huts Traverse anywhere and it's something I would enjoy reading if someone else did it.

At 12:15 AM I finished my final preparations and set off alone in the dark at a leisurely pace up the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail to Carter Notch Hut. I was equipped very lightly with the following items:

Gregory Stimulus hydration pack with a 2 liter water bladder
GoLite hand-held bottle with Succeed Clip2 sports drink
Brooks Cascadia 3 trail running shoes
synthetic material running shorts and t-shirt
Drymax socks
Wild Things Epic wind shirt
Dirty Girl gaiters
lycra arm sleeves
wool skull cap
LED headlamp
1 bagel and about a dozen gels
a handful of electrolyte tablets
digital point-and-shoot camera

I borrowed the gaiters... They're not mine! I swear!

My past experiences have shown me that this is all I need to for this sort occasion. I never was cold enough that I required my wind shirt or hat and my plan for an unforcasted weather change was to simply bail down one of the many side trails and hitchhike back to the car.

I arrived to a dark and quiet Carter Notch Hut where I topped up my fluids, and rested with my light off for a few minutes. Judging by the squeaking and scurrying noises around me, the hut seems to have a sizable rodent population.

Just before 2:00 am I stepped outside and stood looking up at the stars and moon through a partly cloudy sky. The hulking dark masses of Carter Dome and the Wildcats bracketed me on either side. At 2 on the dot I started my watch timer, stepped away from the door and jogged down the trail back toward route 16. The trail wassomewhat rocky but descended at a moderate grade and I was able to make good time by running most of it. 45 minutes later I ran past my car at the trail head and took off down the centerline of the deserted highway.

The Great Gulf Trail came quickly and I took it to the Osgood Trail which runs steeply up to Mount Madison. The night time critters were out and I saw a lot of big toads hopping around on the trail. Many of the rocks were covered in slugs and I accidentally smashed one with the palm of my hand while clambering over a boulder. Gross.

Breaking out above tree line I got a wonderful view of the lights of Goreham. The Eastern horizon began to lighten and turn red while the birds began to tweet as they do at dawn. There was a bit of a breeze but I was able to stay comfortable with just my arm sleeves which are very warm considering their size and weight. On a bit of an impulse I opted to take the Parapet trail, bypassing the summit cone of Mount Madison. The popular advice I heard was the the Parapet is so rough that the extra 500 vertical feet over Madison's summit is worth while. I didn't find the trail too bad at all and, after exploring the over-the-top variation last weekend, I'm firmly convinced that the Parapet is the faster way to go.

I arrived at Madison Springs hut in 3:01, at 5:01 AM according to the time stamp from my camera, signed the guest log, refilled my water and stowed my headlamp before quickly heading out the door on the Gulfside Trail.

By now it was fully light out and I made quick progress past Mount Adams, Jefferson, Clay and Washington, bypassing each summit.

I was particularly impressed with the Westside Trail, which I'd never been on before. At a mostly level grade, the footing better than nearly any other trail in the Presidential range.

As I descended Mount Washington I began to see other hikers, the first of many I'd see on this holiday beautiful weekend. I made it to Lakes of the Clouds Hut from Madison in 2:10 at 7:11 AM where I again signed in and refilled. The Croo was busy giving their morning spiel to the guests and paid me no mind. Gone as quickly as I came, I jogged down the Crawford Path past the summits of Madison, Franklin and Eisenhower. I didn't feel bad bypassing the summit loops as my goal today was huts, not summits, and I've been to each many times before.

Two and a half hours later, after passing over the top of Mount Pierce, I arrived at Mitzpah Hut at 8:31 in the morning. One of the croo members noticed my entry in the log and congratulated me on my fast pace so far. We talked about the traverse for a few minutes, he told me he was planning one of his own for Monday, before he wished me good luck and I was on my way again. The Mitzpah Cutoff quickly deposited me back on the Crawford Path where I began to run into a bit more traffic. Fortunately, every encounter was mutually polite, a pattern that mercifully held true for the entire day. Running a bit too fast over one rough section of trail I stubbed my toe pretty hard which threw me off balance. Trying to catch myself I accidentally kicked my ankle with other other foot before toppling headfirst into a dead tree on the side of the trail. Its branches snapped off against my rib cage and made a crashing sound which I found rather comical. Laughing a bit to myself, I gathered my water bottle and hat from the ground, before resuming my descent at a more moderated pace.

Once at Crawford Notch I retrieved my roadside stash of food and dry socks out of the bushes. I took a minor breather here, re-lubing my feet and eating a granola bar before remembering to check the time. It was 9:18 in the morning, or ~7 hours elapsed. Not bad for a Presi Traverse (minus summits, plus Mitzpah Hut).

Avalon to the A-Z trail was where things began to fall apart a bit. Distance-wise, this was the halfway point of my trek. However, I found that hard part was just getting started. I'd been on the A-Z trail a few times before, but it seemed to have gotten much steeper since my last visit and I struggled a bit with heat of the day now making its presence felt. I sweat like a slob and felt a little woozy with the beginnings of a bonk coming on. After cresting the Willey Range and heading back downhill, I still made slow progress as the trail here was very muddy and overgrown. What runnable sections there were, I struggled to take advantage of. At one point I made a minor misstep and was rewarded with an unexpected dunk into a stream. So much for dry feet. My only comfort was knowing that I'd been through this before, low spots are just a part of all day exertions and I can wait them out.

At 11:07 I arrived at Zealand Hut to a very accommodating member of the croo. He provided me with lemonade and offered me my choice of any of the snacks they had. Other than the water and lemonade, I stuck to my own supplies. The Twinway turned out to be another trail that was more rugged that I remembered and I began to think that with the Garfield Ridge coming up, the second half of this traverse must be the more difficult of the two; not what I anticipated while planning.

The brief open sections on Guyot and South Twin offered a refreshing breeze despite the lack of shade and I made my way down to Galehead Hut at 1:55 PM. This section was a bit of a time-eater but I was still making very good progress. Next up: the infamous Garfield Ridge. It was here where I began to have minor hallucinations. Nothing crazy, mind you. No talking to non-existent people or anything, but I was 100% convinced that I saw yellow lab in the trail in front of me. I stared at it for a minute then shook my head and blinked. When I looked again, there was only a tree stump. I suppose 3 hours of sleep will do that do you. I've never had my eyes play tricks on me quite so well in all my races. Nonetheless, I still felt fully competent and was beginning to get some of my mojo back.

Garfield Ridge never feels easy, but I've traveled it enough times in the last couple years to know exactly how many more hills I have to go over before reaching Garfield and Lafayette. The pointless ups and downs aren't so discouraging when they're expected. Soon enough I had powered up the long climb to treeline on Lafayette and was at the Skookumchuck Trail junction. I stopped for a moment to call my wife and let her know that I was going to finish and that I would need a ride soon.

From Lafayette's summit, looking back where I came from on the far horizon...

...and where I'm going. Lonesome Lake Hut is on the pond in the center of the picture.:

Lafayette's summit was as busy as you would expect for a holiday weekend but I was able to easily weave my way through the crowds on the trail. At Greenleaf Hut at 5:53 I ate my last gel, downed my last electrolyte tablets and plunged down the Old Bridle Path. I knew that if I pushed I might make it to Lonesome Lake in under 17 Hours, which would be almost on par with the times of some heavy hitters that have run the traverse in recent years. While I had to be very careful in a few places, I found the path quite runnable and I was at the trail head in no time.

I crossed through the tunnel under I93 and nearly sprinted across the parking lot to the Lonesome Lake trail head. With the temperatures once again back to comfortable evening levels I was able to push hard up the trail, despite my aching legs. 17 hours was drawing close and I wanted to finish badly. I finally crested the top of the trail at the lake and began to run the boardwalks around the shoreline with the hut in sight. Dodging a few muddy spots, I got to the last uphill and ran up the door where I could finally stop my watch at 6:48 PM and sit down. 16:48:10, I'd done it!

Shortly thereafter my wife, Miriam, arrived with my dog. The croo all gave me their congratulations and, after the guests had been served dinner, plied me with leftover turkey pot pie, rice, and peas. After 17 hours of gels, I fairly devoured that, as well a turkey sandwich Miriam had brought me.

I lounged around on the porch for a bit, reflecting on all the wonderful places I'd been in one day. Rather than a senseless blitz, this run made me appreciate these mountains even more. I feel immensely fortunate to have such a wonderful place virtually in my back yard.


  1. Thanks for sharing the journey, I enjoyed the well written account of the day. I don't understand your gators, and doubt your mother would approve.

  2. Just back from a short trip through Presidentials (via Madison and Lakes huts) with my daughter and am in total awe of your accomplishment. Wow! And I thought I was in decent shape...not.