"Open Hut" Team Traverse
March 11, 2004
About a week prior to this hike, I had mentioned to my wife Elisabeth that Cath Goodwin had expressed interest in attempting this route, albeit with reservations about completing the trip alone. In particular, the night crossing of the Southern Presidentials was, understandably, something she would prefer to do with a partner. Elisabeth gamely suggested a solution - a repeat of the route, this time as a team effort. How could I refuse?
Hoping to execute this trip during a phase of the moon which would assist the night traverse section, we carefully watched the forecast for a period that would also provide light winds, reasonable temperatures, and clear skies - all necessary ingredients for a safe and timely completion of this journey. We prepped our gear and went into a holding pattern as midweek approached, hoping that a conjunction of these elements would occur. A false start on the 11th was precipitated by freezing fog and cloud cover on Mount Washington, but the next day looked promising, with forecasted light winds and clear night skies, followed by daytime valley temperatures in the 40's. It looked like a "go".
We met at Lafayette Place, leaving a car for our trip's ending point. So far, so good - a starry sky and light winds seemed to suggest that conditions would be in our favor. After caching some food and replacement clothing on the Avalon Trail at Crawford Notch, we drove to a friends house to outfit Cath's boots with ice racing screws and the required snowshoe modifications, then drove to Great Glen. Starting at about 9:40 pm, we headed up the Aqueduct Path towards the dam crossing at Nineteen Mile Brook. Carrying small packs and a minimum of gear, we slowly hiked up to Carter Notch Hut, knowing our energy would be best saved for when we were "on the clock".
The moon made a seemingly choreographed appearance over the horizon as we approached Carter Notch Hut. The snowy blanket covering the pond, which was cast under Wildcat's moonshadow during my previous trip, was lit up from shore to shore in brilliant white. We beamed back at it's friendly glow, hoping that this lunar searchlight would be a helpful companion on the first exposed leg of our journey.
Heading out the hut door at midnight, we jogged at a moderate pace down the well packed trail. I noticed that I was sweating a bit more than usual, and hoped that my lingering cold symptoms would not be a problem on this rather long trip. Returning to the car at Great Glen, we changed to our heavier boots and packs, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed up the Mount Washington Auto Road. The Presidential Range glowed under the rising moon, with nary a cloud in sight, and the light of the observatory clearly visible. At this point, we were still approximately on the same pace as my previous trip, although I now had some doubts about my energy level.
Making the base of the Lion's Head at about 2:45 am, we put on crampons and wind gear and began the steep climb to the Alpine Garden junction. Unusually light winds forced us to shed our shells as we broke out of the trees, but only until we gained the prow of the Lion's Head. Wearing a face mask seemed to ease the irritation of the cold air on my throat, although occasional coughing spells were becoming a bit annoying. The moonlight was definitely welcome as we made our way across the Alpine Garden Trail, where fox tracks neatly marked the way across the lip of the ravine.
Much like my previous trip, the steep snowfield burying the cairns of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail resulted in a bit of hunting around to find the Tuckerman Crossover junction - we went a bit too far to the left and found ourselves just slightly south of the junction on the Davis Path, and backtracked a few hundred feet to get on the Tuckerman Crossover. Recent snowfall accompanied by light winds made for irregular surface conditions, varying between hard water ice and knee deep powder. Although not as many crampon and snowshoe tracks were as visible on this trip, the moonlight more than offset this by making the cairns and general lay of the land much easier to recognize.
We made the bend around Monroe and across the top of the steep snowfields to the southern end of the summit loop shortly before 5 am, as the first faint hints of daylight became visible. We were hoping to cross paths with the fox whose track we had followed, but were not so lucky. Shortly after passing Mount Franklin, we stashed our crampons and continued through powdery snow, short sections of bare rock, and small ice patches. A pair of campers tented out in the scrub south of Eisenhower were to be the only hikers we saw on this entire trip, as all the huts we visited had a zero guest count for the day.
Pausing at the Eisenhower Loop junction to call home, the daylight finally allowed us to put our headlights away, as the beauty of a clear day high in the White Mountains worked it's magic spell. Gaining the Webster Cliff Trail junction, I was feeling a bit better, although not quite up to a jog down the Crawford Path to our cache. At this point I felt it would be best to complete the journey as a team, even if I was not at 100%.
our cache at Crawford, the sun beamed though an opening in the woods,
which seemed to encourage a rather leisurely transition. A welcome change
of socks and some food, and we were shortly on the Avalon trail for the
moderately steep climb to the A-Z Trail and the col between Mounts Tom
and Field. The footing was pretty firm all the way to Zealand Hut, where
we found caretaker Frankie napping in the incredibly warm sun on the porch.
We were surprised that nobody else was here to bask in such a glorious
Now we began to review the remainder of the Pemi route, ticking off the climbs as we hiked along. The steep climb to Zeacliff. The gradual climb to the Zealand Spur. The thankfully short climb to Guyot. The hopefully packed way to South Twin. And finally, the beast - the rollicking and interminable Garfield Ridge Trail. Somehow, breaking it down into sections has always worked best for me, although for others this approach might be psychologically defeating.
Our spirits were high as the views opened up heading up towards the Zealand Spur, the Presidential Range now looming in the distance. The summit of Guyot was delightfully calm, and we were psyched to find the Twinway leading to South Twin barebootable, although the afternoon sun was creating a few soft spots in the trail here and there. Although I still had an occasional cough, my energy was very much on the rebound, and was glad to have made the decision to continue.
After a few pictures from the summit of South Twin,we headed down the chute leading to Galehead Hut. Although the sun-warmed snow surface would have been great glissading with standard mountain footwear, our screwboots were a bit too grippy to allow this - one of their few minor disadvantages.
The Garfield Ridge trail between the Gale River Trail junction and Garfield was pock marked with postholes left by a party of 3 (or so the story goes), who had traveled through shortly after rain had softened the trail. They had unfortunately decided that snowshoes were not necessary, and we imagined their cursing echoing through the woods as we stepped around the many thigh deep cavities.
Making the summit of Garfield as the light was fading, we finally had to don snowshoes for this lightly used section of the trail. A roll of electric tape we found in the middle of the trail suggested that somebody had recently been through. It was becoming increasongly clear that our finish time would be precariously close to the 24 hour mark. A fairly strong breeze from the southeast accompanied dropping temperatures under a starry sky as we wove our way through the rocky ramparts of Lafayette's north shoulder.
Finally, we gained the summit, made a quick call home, and started down the route to Greenleaf Hut. Conditions were quite a bit icier than my previous hike, but the screwboots were the perfect solution for the mixture of rough ice and rock leading down to the hut. The hike down to the road was made without conversation, estimating that we would arrive at Lonesome Lake with about 15 minutes to spare - we knew that our transition at Lafayette Place must be done very quickly if we were to meet our sub-24 hour goal.
After what seemed to be hours, we at last arrived at the car and quickly dumped our gear and gobbled down some fresh food - perhaps too fast. We left the car at about 10:50 pm, our stomachs protesting the overly quick snack session.
At last we made the hut door at 11:41 pm. Caretaker Tom heard us rustling about and was nice enough to get up and make some hot water for us and talk awhile, as Frankie had radioed him earlier from Zealand Hut letting him know that we were enroute. Descending back to the car, we could finally let our fatigue materialize, and we both looked forward to a good night's rest. All in all, it was another great trip, blessed with great weather, plenty of laughter, and the constant company of glowing celestial bodies.
Copyright © 2004 Tim Seaver vermontphoto.com