Runners High: Relive an Epic Single-Day Presidential Traverse Trail Run

May 27, 2020
presidential traverse
Ian McClellanEven in summer, the footing and weather can prove tricky along the Presidential Traverse—a 19-mile trek along some of the most dramatic landscape in the East.

 

I’m standing in the dining room at AMC’s Madison Spring Hut, and even though it’s late August, I can’t get warm. Two friends and I have just returned from Mount Madison’s 5,366-foot summit, where a sturdy gale-force wind battered our sweat-soaked bodies already weary from a climb that covered 3,500 feet of elevation in around four miles. With visibility of 20 feet or less and a windchill below freezing, our summit celebration had been short and sweet. We’d scurried back down the granite boulders to the hut to warm up, regroup, and assess if we were ready to do it all over again.

Our plan was to journey onward for 15 more miles, up and over some of the highest peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. For months, we’ve trained to finish the so-called Presidential Traverse all in one day, running along the famously rocky route where we can and power-hiking where we need. In total, we’ll be running, scrambling, and hiking for more than 19 miles, mostly above treeline and fully exposed to the elements for another 10 to 12 hours. That is, if those elements don’t force us to seek shelter or bail out down a side trail.

At the table next to ours, a solo hiker in his early 40s overhears the three of us talking about our journey ahead. He’d had his eye on a single-day traverse (hiking, not running) but got halfway up Mount Adams before turning back on account of the relentless wind and lack of visibility. If the weather keeps up like this, he’ll never catch the last hiker shuttle out of Crawford Notch back to the trailhead in Randolph at 4 p.m. Like us, he was now back at the hut getting warm and trying to decide whether to press on or call it a much shorter day than planned. We’ve sketched out our bail-out routes in case of bad weather, of course, but it pains me to think about taking them. I’m suddenly feeling both warmer and more determined than ever to finish what we’ve started.

The journey to this point, to run one of the East’s iconic mountain routes, has been years in the making. It follows the evolution of a well-trod course, the sport of running, and the exercise rhythms of three city dads determined to remain active and push the boundaries of what’s physically possible. We’re here because we know we can do this; we just need to take those first steps out into the unknown.

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presidential traverse
Courtesy of AMC ArchivesA group takes in the view from the Gulfside Trail on a 1915 “Range Walk” in the Presidentials.

‘A DAY’S WALK’

A proper traverse of the Presidential Range largely follows the Appalachian Trail along the ridgeline of Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce, either southbound or northbound. Many will include Mounts Clay, Franklin, Jackson, and Webster, extra peaks that add another roughly three miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain to the already rigorous run. We’ve chosen to do the basic, seven-mountain “Presi,” this being our first one. Debate persists over whether one must summit each peak along the way. Our take: we’re up here, so why not?

Most recreational hikers stretch a traverse into two or even three days, taking their time over the craggy route and availing themselves of the bunks and warm meals at the AMC huts along the way. The single-day effort has a rich history, though, dating back to the first recorded “Range Walk,” as folks called it then. At 5:03 a.m. on September 27, 1882, George Sargent and Eugene Cook set out from Randolph, where they lived, and hiked south over seven Presidential Range peaks to make it to the White Mountain House in Crawford Notch by 7:14 p.m.—in time for dinner. They did so in an overall time of just more than 14 hours, according to Cook’s “A Record of a Day’s Walk,” published in the December 1884 issue of Appalachia. This was a remarkable achievement at the time, given the limited hut support along the route and the journey’s 10,000 or so feet of climbing. Appalachia’s editor at the time called their “walk” an “audacious tour de force.”

The earliest record of a woman attempting the feat is by Martha Knowles, an AMC leader in Boston. Knowles, described in the March 8, 1889, edition of the newspaper The Epoch as having “a tall straight figure, an iron physique and an indomitable love of nature,” is said to have “covered all the Presidential peaks in one day, a feat that would stagger most men.”

The single-day Presi became fairly commonplace, with some putting a slightly different spin on it. In the 1960s, university outing clubs from Dartmouth, Harvard, and MIT completed moonlit traverses on which they’d leave from Randolph in the late afternoon and arrive in Crawford Notch around daybreak the next morning. And legend has it that all the way back in 1968, Mike Gallagher and Ned Gillette ran the traverse in 4 hours, 46 minutes while training for the U.S. Olympic Nordic Ski Team, though no official proof exists. 

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Map by Jon LavalleyThe trio’s planned route would begin at the Appalachia Trailhead in Randolph and end at AMC’s Highland Center in Crawford Notch.

A DAY’S RUN?

Over the last few decades, the increasing global popularity of trail and ultramarathon running has upped the stakes for the Presidential Traverse, as thrill-seekers set out to cover well-worn routes faster and lighter than their forebears. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, more than 10 million Americans say they regularly hit the trails for a run—up from just over 4 million in 2007. Last year, 611,000 Americans participated in an ultramarathon—an off-road race that is longer than 26.2 miles—an increase of more than 1,600 percent in the last 23 years, according to the International Association of Ultrarunners and iRunFar. Activity tracking applications like Strava bring athletic challenges like the Hut Traverse (Scroll down to read about its new record-holder.) or Presidential Traverse right to the masses—encouraging many either to pursue a certified “fastest known time” (FKT) or simply to set and achieve a personal endurance goal.

“What was once the province of a few extreme athletes,” writes Appalachia Accidents editor Sandy Stott in Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, “is becoming the terrain of legions of backcountry runners and hurriers.”

One of those “hurriers” is Tristan Williams, a former AMC construction team member who now lives in Tamworth, N.H. Williams has completed at least four single-day traverses of the Presidential Range—both north- and southbound—his fastest effort clocking in at around five hours. (Williams doesn’t track his runs with GPS, but this is believed to be among the fastest known times over the route.) Williams has garnered a reputation both for his speed and for an encyclopedic knowledge of the White Mountains; in 2015, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek tapped the 33-year-old to guide him over their peaks during Jurek’s successful FKT attempt of the entire Appalachian Trail.

“There’s nowhere anywhere on the East Coast where you have an alpine zone that you can run for so long—essentially a whole day above treeline,” Williams tells me. “It’s a cool place.”

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Rob PylesLittle of the first half of the Presidential Traverse is truly runnable. The author (foreground) and friends stop for a break on the steep ascent to the Mount Adams summit.

PRESSING INTO THE UNKNOWN

I think the foreignness, the otherworldliness, of the high peaks is what initially drew me to the Presidential Traverse. As a city guy, the boulder field atop Mount Adams and the alpine blooms on Mount Washington’s shoulder stand in such sharp contrast to my everyday surroundings in downtown Boston: cranes stacking steel beams ever closer to the clouds; the honks and sirens of traffic congestion; tunnels, taxis, and trash.

My friend and neighbor Bryan Schnittjer told me about the Presidential Traverse in 2017. Bryan had backpacked a few times in the White Mountains, and as a relatively new runner, dreamed of doing a single-day Presi. I’d been a long-distance runner since high school and completed three full road marathons, but had never hiked in the Presidentials. Bryan and I meet up on Sunday mornings to run trails near Boston, a weekly tradition another neighbor and father, Rob Pyles, joined in late 2017. The three of us mostly run to stay fit and connect with fellow dads. Our morning runs rarely include extreme elevation gains or exceed 10 miles—child’s play compared to the more than 19 miles and nearly 9,000 feet of jagged elevation gain we were considering.

Bryan and I started to get serious about completing a single-day Presidential Traverse in 2018, setting a goal to do it in the summer or early fall the following year. We wouldn’t shoot for any land speed records, however; our goal was to finish. Rob, who’d never run more than 10 miles at a time but is always up for a physical challenge, joined the party in the spring of 2019. Like me, Rob would be experiencing the trails along the route for the first time. We’d take the summer to continue to get comfortable running on dirt, roots, and rocks and building the aerobic foundation we’d need to comfortably push ourselves for 10 hours or more. (My longest effort to date was just under four hours, during a marathon.) We’d also assemble the necessary gear (Scroll down to see the contents of my pack.) and consult with White Mountain experts about what to expect. I sat down with AMC’s Director of Risk Management, Aaron Gorban, who reminded me that alpine weather can turn in an instant and injuries abound along the rocky range—especially when speed enters the equation.

Sure enough, despite months of research and training, the mountain nearly beat us there near the top of Mount Madison, just a couple hours into our adventure. But it didn’t. A hut croo member says the weather is expected to improve through the day, so after a last bite of an energy bar and sip of room-temperature coffee, the three of us muster enough courage and core heat to leave the warmth of Madison Spring Hut and set out toward Mount Adams. With the wind blowing from the opposite side of the 5,774-foot peak, Star Lake Trail is mostly protected from the strongest gusts, but visibility remains close to zero. Despite a distance of less than a mile, getting up Adams is slow-going. The terrain is composed of huge, jagged rocks jutting out of the mountain and long scratches left by glaciers sliding down Mount Washington at the end of the Ice Age, 6,000 years ago. Maneuvering Adams’ geology requires hands-and-feet scrambling at a 40-plus percent grade in many places. With each foot strike, I feel grateful for the advice of every mountain runner I’d consulted to choose our trail running shoes wisely. “The White [Mountains] love to eat up trail shoes, so look for something with a Vibram sole and excellent grip,” says Andrew Drummond, who owns outfitter Ski the Whites in Jackson, N.H.

At the summit of Mount Adams, we’re met again with sustained winds of 60 miles per hour. Visibility is still close to zero; we can barely see to the cairn ahead of us. Somehow, despite being completely socked in by clouds and fog, we’re awed by the eerieness. We hang around just long enough to let out an adrenaline-fueled scream into the abyss and snap a few photos before descending through Thunderstorm Junction to the saddle between Mounts Adams and Jefferson.

To this point, frustratingly little of the traverse has been runnable. Only now, on the ridge between Adams and Jefferson, are we finally able to break into a modest jog, albeit in fits and starts. The conditions have improved slightly, too, with winds subsiding and the sky brightening a bit. We even spot a fleeting speck of blue through the clouds. Our solo hiking friend from Madison Spring Hut has caught up to us. He, too, had decided to press on and, like us, now relished the much-improved conditions. To relieve the pressure of hurrying back to Crawford Notch to make the last shuttle, he’d handed his car key to a trustworthy-looking hiker headed in the opposite direction, who’d drive his car back to AMC’s Highland Center.

Continuing South along the Gulfside Trail, we take the craggy Mount Jefferson Loop Trail a half-mile up to the summit and continue on toward 6,288-foot Mount Washington. On the Jefferson–Washington shoulder, the low clouds lift, offering a brief glimpse out across Western New Hampshire. We swear we can see all the way to Vermont. We’re euphoric. We can’t help but stand and marvel, for the first time, at how far we’ve climbed and how absurdly small we are against the vast geology of the White Mountains.

Besides stopping to take in a vista or two, we’re diligent about pausing to hydrate and replenish our calories. We’re each carrying a two- or three-liter hydration pack, as well as electrolyte powder for an occasional extra boost. Given that the refill locations are spread out evenly across the range, we were careful not to overpack water. And to replenish the nutrients we’re hemorrhaging during the effort, we each suck down around 100 calories per hour in the form of a nutrition gel, energy jelly beans, or granola bars—a plan we’d practiced during our long training runs.

Despite the steady snacking, by the time we begin our climb up Great Gulf Trail on Mount Washington’s northern slope, we feel depleted and crave a proper lunch. We speculate about what delicious fare we’ll find in the café at the top, but, to be honest, we’d devour just about anything at this point. Maybe it’s the prospect of lunch or the fact we can see the trail and observatory buildings laid out ahead of us, but we wind up jogging most of the way up. We cross the Cog Railway tracks; a train chugs down the mountain behind us, a reminder of the handful of ways one can visit the Northeast’s highest point.

Some who attempt the Presidential Traverse skip the touristy circus of Mount Washington’s summit altogether, favoring instead a snack and a water refill a mile and a half beyond at AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut. We welcome the break, however, ordering trays full of chili in bread bowls, clam chowder, shepherd’s pie, and pepperoni pizza. I’d learn later that in availing ourselves to Washington’s culinary luxuries, we were following in the footsteps of super-hikers Cook and Sargent, who, in 1882, arrived at the small summit house and “luxuriated in refreshing rest, feasted with the greatest relish and desire, and ended by enjoying the fascination of the inexhaustible view,” according to Cook’s 1886 Appalachia account.

As we depart Washington’s summit, bellies full, a quick glance at one of the weather computers shows a temperature of 42 degrees Fahrenheit with winds of just 35 miles per hour—almost half the strength we’d felt on Madison’s summit several hours earlier. Here at the site of the “world’s worst weather,” we can now see for miles underneath the cloud shrouding the summit, with a ray or two of sunshine even breaking through. Despite the beating our legs have just taken in the Northern Presidentials, we’re all feeling strong and motivated. Our steadiness is a testament to the efficacy of the aerobic and hill training we put in. The worst theoretically behind us, will we run into any surprises along America’s oldest recreational trail, the Crawford Path?

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presidential traverse Crawford Path
Rob PylesAfter cloudy and cool conditions in the northern Presidentials, the trio finally caught some rays—and views—on the Crawford Path in the southern half of the range.

FUN IN THE SUN

The Presidential Traverse is really two vastly different journeys mashed together. More than three-quarters of the elevation gains of the entire route happen on Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Washington, its alpine zone comprised largely of granite boulders that even the most skilled mountain runners would consider tricky. Several trails link together to comprise the Northern section, making it much easier to get lost—especially in inclement weather.

Mount Washington changes everything. Beginning at its fabled summit, hikers pick up Crawford Path—which turned 200 years old in 2019—and basically stay on it until they’re safely back in Crawford Notch, the terminus of a southbound traverse. With the blessing of good weather and avoidance of snapped or sprained ankles, the southern half is essentially a gradual, rolling downhill. The clouds have fully subsided and the afternoon sun falls gently on the southern Presidential peaks and valleys. Where we’d made our way virtually blind in the northern range, relying heavily on our map to ensure we were on track, we can now see miles and miles of the Crawford Path winding ahead of us over Mounts Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce.

After a quick stop by Lakes of the Clouds Hut, we’re up on top of Mount Monroe—just half a mile and a 350-foot climb from the hut. As we glance back the way we came, we see that the sun has burned away all the clouds around Washington’s summit.

The final eight miles amount to mountain running bliss. We bob and weave down narrow trails, past alpine scrub, emerging from windy tree tunnels to panoramas on each side of the ridge: to the southeast, the Dry River Wilderness and Maine beyond; to the west, the Franconia Ridge. To the northwest, the yellow Cog Railway engine and car—which we’d passed by just a few hours earlier—chugs its way between Bretton Woods and Mount Washington’s summit like a child’s toy. “Hope you’re running voluntarily and not because someone’s chasing you!” jokes a woman in a group of hikers we pass going the other way.

The final two peaks, Eisenhower and Pierce, seem to fly by. In fact, we run right past Pierce’s summit. After doubling back to tag the summit, I glance at my watch: it’s 4:15 p.m., and dinner will soon be served back at the Highland Center. After 10 hours on our feet in some of the wildest terrain in the East, we begin to fantasize about full plates of hot food and glasses of cold beer. We’re about three downhill miles from Crawford Notch.

After a day above treeline, we’re back in the forest before we know it. Up on our toes as we descend, each step strikes with careful precision on the rocky trail—I dub this stride the “Crawford two-step”—and we’re still ticking off our quickest miles to date. Smiles wide on our faces, we seem to float down the trail.

At 5:10 p.m.—just under 11 hours after taking our first steps up Mount Madison that morning—we reach the Highland Center parking lot, all smiles and high-fives. At dinner, the theme is gratefulness: for the warm meal filling our bellies; for comeraderie of other adventure-loving dads; for a tough but effective training regimen; and for the stunning and respect-commanding White Mountains, which have been wooing and beguiling adventurers for centuries. I’m even thankful for the wind and fog on the northern peaks, which deepened our appreciation for the sunshine and views later in the day.

We agree: These hills have captured our imaginations, and we’ll be back.

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FURTHER READING:

HOW WE DID IT

“The more you train, the less you suffer.” We took this advice from a Presidential Traverse veteran to heart, especially in the month before our run date. Given the volatility of the weather (even in summer), along with the difficulty of the route, no one should attempt to complete a Presidential Traverse without proper training, extensive planning, and the right gear. Here’s how we did it.

Training: The three of us started with a base of strong aerobic fitness. In the month leading up to the traverse, we averaged 30 miles per week, including a multi-hour trail run between seven and 15 miles over a hilly route on the weekend. We supplemented our hill runs by running up and down a long set of outdoor stairs in our neighborhood, totaling around 1,500 feet of elevation gain and loss per session.

Planning:
We studied the Presidential Traverse for months, identifying the optimal trails to take and the meaning of different weather forecasts, and, of course, mining the experience of others, both in person and online. We identified where we’d refill our water bottles, where we’d grab lunch, where we were likely to enjoy stretches of more runnable trail, and bailout trails should weather or injury prevent us from continuing.

Safety: Stemming from an experience getting separated on a training run close to Boston, we established rigorous safety protocol for our traverse. We’d leave our planned route with family back home, ensure our packs contain the Ten Essentials, appoint a lead navigator, and wait for any stragglers at each trail junction. Read more on trail running safety.

Logistics: We spent the night before and after at AMC’s Highland Center, arranging for an early-morning ride the 20 miles up Route 302 to the Appalachia trailhead. —S.H.


IN MY PACK

 

1. Waterproof outer shell; 2. Hooded micro-puff vest; 3. Long-sleeved base layer; 4. Headwrap or buff; 5. Gloves; 6. 15-gallon hydration pack; 7. Dry bag for extra clothes; 8. Space blanket; 9. Moleskine for blisters; 10. Sunscreen stick; 11. Pocket knife; 12. Extra wool socks; 13. First aid kit (tape, gauze, antiseptic cream, rubber gloves); 14. AMC’s White Mountain National Forest Trail Map Set; 15. Anti-chafing stick; 16. Water purification tablets; 17. Microfiber towel; 18. Lightweight trekking poles; 19. Trail nutrition: Clif Bloks, Sport Beans, chews from Honey Stinger and ProBar; 20. GPS watch; 21. Hat; 22. Trail running shoes; 23. Headlamp; Not pictured: electrolyte powder, midweight gloves, matches, sunglasses.


presidential traverse
Andrew DrummondKatie Schide (right) and her partner, Germain Grangier, navigate a particularly rocky stretch of the Hut Traverse.

ANATOMY OF AN FKT

Think the 19-mile Presidential Traverse is impressive? The Hut Traverse is a nearly 50-mile slog linking all eight AMC White Mountain huts in New Hampshire, typically beginning at Carter Notch Hut and ending at Lonesome Lake Hut. To count, a runner must complete the traverse in under 24 hours. Last summer, New Hampshire native Katie Schide ran it in just 12 hours, 23 minutes, 6 seconds—more than two hours ahead of the previous women’s fastest known time (FKT).

Now living in the French Alps, Schide trains as a professional mountain runner. Her July 2019 Hut Traverse with partner Germain Grangier was her fourth and fastest, by a lot.

“In the end, it was cool to have it be a big day out together [with Germain],” Schide says. “Normally, we’re in the Alps, and I’m usually the one getting the tour. It let us switch roles for a day. I got to give the tour.” 

Here’s a breakdown of Schide’s impressive FKT, by the numbers:

9

items carried on trail, including a jacket, hat, sunglasses, two water flasks, money for baked goods, Garmin inReach Mini, and a few sandwiches and snacks

4

cookies or brownies consumed at the huts

5,000 ml

water consumed on trail, carried in two 500 ml soft flasks refilled at the huts

38 min.

total stoppage time to rest, eat, or use the bathroom

15,669 feet / 16,270 feet

elevation gain and loss, respectively, on the southbound route

15:22

average minute-per-mile pace

6

hugs on the trail and at huts. Schide enjoyed “…many, many more hugs with lots of people after!”

3rd

Schide’s place overall on the list of fastest Hut Traverse times. —S.H.


FURTHER READING:


 

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt is the associate editor of AMC Outdoors and edits AMC's Running Wild blog.