Dawn is yet to crack. The air is crisp, heavy with anticipation. Some twenty miles lie in front you, curving across nine rugged summits above the tree line in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It is an austere terrain, shrouded in often inclement weather, which coalesce to create one of the most arduous hiking trails in the world – the Presidential Traverse.
Zig-zagging through a string of peaks above 4,000 feet, the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains is often surmounted from north to south. This direction ensures that the roughest, most challenging track of the journey are overcome when you are still bursting with energy and good spirit. After all, hopping over boulders is not an activity that your legs – turned to jelly after hours and hours of trekking – can easily conquer.
The Presidential Traverse is long enough to be done over the course of several days. Yet, it is sufficiently short to be seized in a single dawn-to-dusk bout. If you opt for the latter, carefully consider the options – you can either begin in the dark or finish in the dark. If you start in the wee hours, you curtail your time to rest before the trek. If you wait until first light, you will surmount the last miles of the traverse during the night, when the possibility of getting off the route spikes.
While the Presidential Traverse affords some of the most stunning, high-elevation vistas in the Eastern United States, it also unleashes foul weather with astounding vengeance. Three disparate storm paths converge over the northeast portion of the range to spur deadly conditions. Mount Washington, the highest peak on the traverse at 6,288 feet, is famed for unfurling "the world’s worst weather" with winds over 200 mph. Many have lost their lives here. Proper gear and weather tracking are essential in all seasons. But especially so in winter, when fierce storms can materialize seemingly out of the blue. Although much less tumultuous, spring and summer also call for caution.
Talking about the right equipment, a reliable and versatile mountaineering backpack is a must. One such ruck is Osprey Escapist. Offered in two sizes – 18" and 25" – and a gamut of hues, this Osprey mainstay possesses the grit and durability to accompany you on the Presidential Traverse time and time again. From a BioStretch harness and hipbelt to an integrated rain cover to various compartments, Osprey Escapist is built for the toughest of terrains. So is the Rover Backpack by Topo Designs, a backpack and apparel company dedicated to the outdoors. Available in several subdued color schemes, this mid-size pack boasts ageless appeal and superb functionality. Rendered in the virtually undestroyable 1000D Cordura nylon fabric, the Rover can withstand great weight and grim weather with ease. Another high-profile hiking pack is Mystery Ranch Urban Assault – do not let the name fool you. While a welcomed city companion, it becomes an invaluable accomplice on the trail. Resistant to abrasions and stains, its Y-zipper design offers convenience and character at once.
You are at the foot of the Appalachia Trailhead in the White Mountain National Forest, the gateway to the scenic northern Presidential Range. From here upward, you will gain a head-spinning 8,500 ft. in elevation over the entire stretch of the traverse. But the steep ascent is yet to come. You are treading through a lush hardwood forest. As you go further, you notice the shifts of the landscape - spruce and pines gradually come to dominate surroundings, and the ground turns rockier with each step. In no time, you find yourself in the midst of a delicate pirouette atop granite rocks that can easily turn your stable reality into a flimsy wipeout.
As the vegetation thins out and the boulders cluster together, you reach Mount Madison. The Alpine vistas overwhelm you – as far as the eye can see, jagged hulks dot the surface. The terrain is vast open and, at the same time, secluded. Civilization is somewhere down below, hundreds of feet removed from you. Up here, freedom and frivolity and, believe it or not, fear mix. You realize the cliched melodrama of the saying, but you do feel like you are on top of the world.
You head toward the Madison Hut, where you grab a quick snack, replenish your water supplies and check the weather. Next stop – Mount Adams. And then, Mount Jefferson. The trails are tricky to follow; they often disappear as if dissipating into the ground. A reliable compass or a GPS device is a necessity that keeps you on the right path, which begins to wear you down after the first couple of peaks.
The elevation climbs up as you do. You scale the steep northern slopes of Mount Washington. At 6,288 feet, it is the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. And here, amid the clouds, you will find yourself surrounded by crowds of tourists, who drive up their vehicles right beneath the summit. You patiently wait in line to snap your summit photo. Once done, you do not linger around for long – the southern half of the Presidential Traverse awaits you.
Past Mount Washington, you follow the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained foot trail in the country. Here, the terrain turns gentler – it remains craggy, but easier to stride. You pass by the hut at the Lake of the Clouds, which regularly brims with hikers and tourists. To avoid the bustle, you do not step inside, but marvel at the lake, whose deep blue surface glistens in the crisp mountain-top air. Mount Monroe rises in the distance, not that far away. Eisenhower, Pierce and Jackson string an easy succession, a respite of sorts compared to the taxing northern section of the traverse.
By the time you descend and leave the 4,000-foot Presidentials behind you, the night is in full bloom. You feel the fatigue in your legs but a rush of excitement spills over you – you concluded a coveted journey, grating and exhilarating at once.