My previous White Mountain Hut Traverse was anything but the classic route (wrong direction + peak bagging) but the experience was similar. There’s no easy way to traverse the Whites.
The loose goal was to run it for time and fall somewhere in the 12 - 13 hour range going east to west. I’d also start at the FKT paces set by Jeff Colt (10:57) and Liam Davis (11:46) this summer to see what that felt like although well aware that an 11 hour traverse wasn’t in the cards. Hopefully I wouldn’t cook myself too badly and make it to Lonesome Lake before dark.
I didn’t do myself any favors by getting a late start. I was trying to get up to Carter Notch Hut for a start at first light. Running down the 19 mile brook trail isn’t something I wanted to do with a headlamp. Well there was plenty of daylight since I started about 20 minutes late - 06:55 - I was off. Descending out of the cool cloud layer, the 3.9 miles back to the parking lot was a nice warm up. Early fatigue in my legs pointed towards a rough day but nothing I could do about it now, I was locked in. I stripped my windbreaker and found a rhythm. I’ve started to really enjoy descents and was on pace as I exited the trail and turned onto route 16. I relaxed as I crossed the West Branch River and entered the Great Gulf Wilderness. The slow climb up to the base of Madison Gulf was an exercise in patience. I’d glance at my HR to ensure I wasn’t overdoing it. After the Osgood intersection I was in uncharted territory.
This was my first time up Madison Gulf and all I knew it was direct and steep. It was disorienting because I was back in the clouds. I missed a cairn and started scrambling up a rocky stream bed (see photo below). After taking some photos and scrambling up a couple pitches I realized I wasn’t on the trail. I pulled out a map on my phone and while I waited to pick up GPS, it looked like I could have missed an junction. I hiked back down to where I crossed and found the cairn and continued on the trail. It was just a few minutes lost but a lot of fumbling and ultimately a non-issue. It’s the challenge of running a new technical trail. There were a couple other places where I questioned the if I was heading in the right direction but made sure to keep my head up. For a lightly traveled route it was pretty clear of blowdowns and only grown in on couple sections. Things get spicy on the headwall where it’s just slab going straight up, much like some of the other ravines. I popped out near Star Lake and was at Madison Hut in just over two hours.
Since the Hut was closed down I filled up directly from the spring near the Gulfside Junction. Now that I had gained the ridge it was a pretty easy traverse over to Lakes. I was still in the clouds and spent some time messing with my phone trying to post realtime photos of all the huts (a waisted effort in hindsight) but finally locked in and started making progress. It was nice to not have to bag all the summits along the way and before I knew it I was up at the col between Clay and Washington. I stopped for a moment to say hi to a group of hikers - there were very few people on the trail up to this point, one of the perks of a mid-week off-season traverse I suppose. The clouds had started to clear and the sun actually felt hot for a day where the high was 41 degrees. I couldn’t imagine doing this in typical mid-summer conditions. I took my first fall arriving at the Lakes and since Lakes of the Clouds Hut wasn’t open, I filled my water from the lake and added iodine tablets. In hindsight, I could have made it to the spring off the backside of Eisenhower but the break was nice.
From Lakes it’s another runnable stretch all the way to Crawford Notch and a little way up the Avalon Trail before the next climb. My legs were starting to feel it as signaled by the early cramping - adductors were seizing up forcing me to stop a few times as I skirted around Monroe (Clearly the result of pushing it up Mad Gulf). Jeff had really hustled on the Mad - Lakes stretch and I had his and Liam’s splits on my phone. I left Lakes on pace with Liam but was already 20 minutes behind Jeff. The next goal was to not stop until I got to Mizpah. The descent off Pierce felt long and I was anxious to see how I was doing with my pace. I was looking forward to the three miles down the Crawford Path too since that was in the shade and I could relax a little.
I came into Mizpah Spring Hut (4:44) right on pace with Liam’s time (26 mins behind Jeff). I popped in to say hi to JP and was right back out the door. The next stretch is a big one, perhaps the crux of the day. It’s where you commit to the traverse and many attempts have bailed at Rt 302 in Crawford Notch because it’s an easy exit. Once you get to Zealand you’re pretty much locked in to getting over to Franconia Notch. It wasn’t bad descending, everything felt ok. I think my right forefoot was starting to get ‘hot’ (blister) but not bad enough to stop and look at it. As I crossed 302 (5:13) I thought how doing what I had just done (23+ miles) felt like the perfect length long run and would have been satisfied with my effort calling it quits right there. I was still feeling good so quitting wasn’t even an option.
I walked a little bit heading up the Avalon Trail. It’s steep enough that I couldn’t run comfortably. I passed a few large hiking groups and when I got on to the A-Z trail, that’s when things really got tough. I was really tired - like sleepy tired - and stopped to make an instant coffee (cold) with maple syrup, hoping that would revitalize me. The ascent to the Mt Tom junction was proving to be a tough effort. I knew once I got over this ridge, it was a cruiser all the way to Zealand Falls. My hiking muscles weren’t cooperating and it took much longer than it should have - I’m sure I lost 10 minutes on this climb. Once over the ridge I took a few deep breaths and looked forward to some of most runnable terrain in the Whites. Seriously, this section of trail is one of my favorites. I did my best to keep up a steady jog. I took my second fall in this stretch, wrenching my neck on a tree in the process. I’ll blame it on size 14 feet.
Once in the valley, I started to think about the next stretch - Zealand to Galehead. It was going to be really tough getting out of Zealand notch given how difficult the A-Z climb was. I popped in the hut to get some water but really just take another break. I came into the Hut around 6:40, only 9 minutes behind Liam, but 45 minutes behind Jeff. But I was done chasing time, for now.
My climbing muscles were toast. I definitely didn’t see this coming, usually power hiking is my thing but not today. As I struggled up to Zeacliff, I promised myself a break at the top. It was a struggle to “hike with purpose” and it felt so pedestrian to plodding along. I thought of all the bailout points and motivation to get it done was waning. After taking a quick breather I focused on getting to the Mt Zealand junction where I’d get some food. At this point the views started to open up and there were more hikers on the trail to distract me. There wasn’t much notable on this stretch so I’ll move forward to the twinway ridge where I took another breather. From here you can see how far you’ve come but also how much you have left. Looming ahead was South Twin, Garfield, and Lafayette. This is some of the most challenging ridge line running in the Whites (in my opinion).
Grinding. Happy to have gained yet another ridge I jogged the flat / downs and hiked the ups. Food definitely helped the cause and for most of the run I was probably undershooting my calories (200/hr) but no serious bonks to this point. On South Twin I ran into Eddie who Croos at Galehead. It was a nice opportunity for an extended break to chat with him. Here I finally started to work out a finish time since I had to let Hilary know what time to meet me at Lonesome. I pushed back the pickup time to 8pm to allow me plenty of time to get out of the Pemi Wilderness. It was 15:30, I was fading and was dreading to the the Galehead - Lafayette stretch.
I descended off South Twin and the legs were shockingly still great on the downs. I attribute much of that to Chamonix and runs down Chocorua but still surprised. At Galehead I got some water and a piece of chocolate cake. It was a nice sendoff and perked me up a bit. The next landmark was the spring at the Garfield campsite. I picked the pace back up but still had thoughts of how easy it would be to bail off the Galehead or Garfield trails.
More grinding. I eventually reached the spring, sat down and forced down a Clifbar. I tried to wash my face and it was nearly impossible to get the salt off. After a few more minutes of rest, I started to get cold and had to keep climbing. Slowly I made it up and over Garfield and now just stared at Lafayette.
More climbing, more suffering. The sun was getting low and instead of racing a finish time, it was clear that I had to race the sunset. If I didn’t get off Lafayette before dark I was really going to be suffering trying to navigate that descent without a proper headlamp. Yikes. Once above treeline again I could smell the barn. This was the last major climb and the sunset was definitely going to be one to remember. Once the summit was in view I sat down for a break. I pulled out my phone and pulled up the Fastest Known Time website to see what the previous FKT was before Liam and Jeff lowered it. In 2011, George Heinrichs did it in 12:38. After some mental math, I realized that if I hustled I could duck under his time. Jeff and Liam were able to get from Greenleaf to Lonesome in the hour range. I was on the summit of Lafayette at 11:05 elapsed. Enough time to take a couple pictures and keep moving.
It’s only a mile or so from the Summit of Lafayette to Greenleaf. Now that I had a new objective things picked up. I was able to make good time to the hut and left there at 11:22. That gave me an hour and 16 minutes to get to Lonesome Lake Hut. Totally doable barring any major wipeouts…
More mental math - it was 2.9 miles to the parking lot, and another 1.5 miles up to Lonesome Lake. I knew I could get down in 30 to 40 minutes but the big question what was that hike up in the dark going to be like, especially since hiking at this point was so painful. I clicked off a 12 minute mile and a nine minute mile. I took my third fall of the day that scraped up my knees. It was getting pretty dark out on the last mile but didn’t need a light quite yet. A few other hikers on the trail had already turned theirs on.
I crossed under Highway 93 and had 1.5 miles left. Hilary’s car was nowhere in sight which didn’t surprise me since I was now way ahead of my ETA time. The trail up to Lonesome Lake has a lot of runnable sections before you have to start hiking. I appreciated the crushed gravel traverse and chalked it up as free mileage. I finally turned on the light of my iPhone and slowed to a hike, working up the rock stairs and beat up trail. The balls of my feet were killing me from the previous descent, a pain I’d have to suck up for another 16 minutes. I could see light peeking over the horizon and I knew I was close to Lonesome Lake. I reached the junction and the home stretch around the lake felt like a race track as you stride over bog bridges at sub 7min/mi pace. I saw the light of the hut and relaxed as I could finally see the end in sight.
12 hours 22 minutes. I stepped in the hut and definitely shocked the guests - bloody knees, sweaty, out of breath. The Croo quickly asked if I had just finished a traverse and hooked me up with soup and eggplant parm. As I waited for Hilary and Squall I took a few moments to process the day. I think I left an hour out there but the conditions I had were perfect. Some more mountain running and hiking would have really helped out and with that experience under my belt I’m looking forward to giving it another shot, hopefully sub 12 hours and closer to 11 hours. Mentally, I had tapped out at Zealand so there’s some work to do:
Stay up at Carter Notch Hut the night before. Being well rested is critical. I felt that early wakeup (3:30am) and the 4 mile hike in.
Know the trails. Now that I’ve gone up Madison Gulf, I feel like I could shave off 5 minutes just by not questioning my location.
Water sources. There are a few other spots to get water that I had forgot about. There’s plenty of water all the way up Mad Gulf, there’s the spring on the side of Clay, and the Spring at Eisenhower. There was really never a need to carry more than a 600ml of water. There isn’t water between Zealand and Galehead but I think if the temps are cool that shouldn’t be an issue for most people.
Get in some more specific training. I felt like my specific training leading in was good and my time definitely reflected that. I cramped up way too early though and that’s just a result of not doing much power hiking this year. I was impressed with my running though.
Prevent Chafe! I break off a piece of this chafe stick and carry in an easy to reach spot. It’s a lifesaver on long runs.
Shoes. I can’t say enough about Vibram soles. I’ve yet to find any material that grips better and withstands the abbrasive White Mountain rocks quite like this rubber. I’m a HOKA ONE ONE ambassador but I’ve tried La Sportiva, Salomon, Brooks, and others and the Speedgoats are the best in the business.