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  1. #1
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    Default Winter Presi Traverse Attempt

    Nawfel, Ottman and me left at 5 in the morning on Feb 19th from Montreal towards Crawford Notch. As we drove through the eastern townships to a beautiful sunrise on that cloudless day we were excited to embark on an adventure that had been 4 months in the making.


    Some people go hiking because they enjoy the scenery, others because they like to spend quality time in nature, and a few more are driven by the physical challenge of navigating a specific route in a certain time frame. For us on that trip, our motivation was to hike against the elements. To go through something tougher than we ever had before, and build the foundation to tackle an greater challenges.


    One can oftentimes be safe in environments most would deem unsafe, it's only a matter of preparing for these situations. When safety is part of your values and you're venturing into unknown territory though, it takes a whole lot of thinking and testing before you reach a point you are comfortable enough to push forward.


    As I think preparation is key here, I'll be going through some components of my gear list and explain the choices that were made. It should be noted one of my goals was also to build that gear stock on a budget as I was missing many key pieces for extreme weather multi-day backpacking.


    Speed and endurance play a role into safety. One can train as much as they want, but a reasonable pack weight is important for success. I wanted to have what I needed to survive mostly anything reasonably expected in the Whites, but not much more. My net pack weight for this trip was 37 pounds.


    A note on light backpacking though. Some say that speed is safety because you minimize your time exposed to danger. I do not think this mantra applies well to a winter presidential traverse. I believe this only applies to dangers you really cannot overcome, such as avalanches or various debris falls in precarious areas. The caveat here is dangerous events will always happen anyway. The danger on a presidential traverse is weather, which you can be prepared to survive under mostly any conditions. I'd hate to end up dead like some hikers because i tried to go light and fast and got unlucky. 100 mph wind or -30 temperatures are not freak accidents on that mountain range.


    The first step in our preparation was to be ready for the cold. For me it meant having proper clothes, a proper sleep system and a reliable source of drinking water.

    - Sleeping bag, Canyon Baffin by Yanes. 4.75 pounds thermolite extreme filled rated to -20F. This bag was the cheapest -20 bag i could find and it was not too heavy.
    - Double Diamond (Costco) 1 pound down quilt. Bag liner for extreme cold.
    - Closed cell pad.
    - 1inch R5 foamboard pad. Again for extreme cold.
    - Tyvek bivvy bag. For extreme cold and emergency.

    I spent the night with that $215 CAD setup the Saturday before the traverse. I was totally warm bivvying outside by -25 with just my base layer. For this trip given the forecast I did without the bivvy and the foamboard pad which is light but bulky.


    I made a bottle parka out of an old closed cell foam pad to hold a 1 liter nalgene bottle. I tested with cold tap water at -10 and there was barely any ice after 6 hours. Probably 75% was still drinkable after 8 hours. Combined with a slightly larger pouch and properly sewed loops, my water supply and snacks were accessible right in the middle of my chest on my pack's shoulder straps cross buckle.


    As I would only be carrying 1 liter of water with me, I needed to make sure my upright canister stove would not die on me if it got too cold. So made a 1/4 inch flattened copper pipe heat exchanger. It loops once around the canister and is wound to a tighter radius so it holds on its own. It tested really well at -10 with an old isobutane bottle. We also carried a white gas stove for redundancy as water supply is a critical point of failure.


    Clothing was pretty straightforward. Lots of layers.

    - Avalanche hooded ski jacket
    - Large polyester over vest
    - Light cross country skiing wind blocker
    - Cycling rain jacket (unused)
    - Heavy fleece jacket (unused)
    - Small polyester under vest
    - 2 mid weight fleece tops (unused)
    - 2 lightweight merino blend tops (one unused)
    - 1 lightweight microfleece bottoms (unused)
    - 2 pairs of heavy wool socks
    - 1 pair of Stephenson VBL socks
    - 1 pair of liner gloves
    - 1 pair of 15mil nitrile gloves
    - Superior Glove extreme cold weather leather mittens
    - Light running beanie
    - Light neck warmer
    - Ski beanie (unused)
    - Ergodyne n-ferno windproof balaclava
    - Kelty ski bibs
    - Black crystal gaiters
    - Good old Asolo 520 leather boots (resoled by RMR, had to plug them!)


    As we were nearing Crawford Notch we got our first good view at the majestic range from the road right by the Mount Washington resort. It was glimmering like the biggest of diamonds from all the now frozen rain that fell during the week. At that point my thought was this was a perfect day for a one day traverse on microspikes, but that's not what I was after.


    We got to the AMC lodge a bit past 9 where we had a full breakfast. Remembering the Cog railway sign I saw on the road I asked at the information desk how was the road there in the winter. Originally we thought about leaving a car in Pinkham Notch, but the northern presidentials being the biggest challenge of the trip from an exposure perspective, it just made more sense to have the car closer to more accessible and convenient bail out routes.


    So we left a car in Crawford Notch, another one at the bottom of the Cog and headed to Appalachia with the third.

    When we got there we quickly set up and went on our way around an hour before noon. As soon as we hit the trail head we put our crampons on. I debated on bringing microspikes for this trip over crampons, but with the amount of ice encountered over the trip and the very high winds, I was happy to have the much more solid footing of crampons. One less thing to worry about.


    I had not spent a whole lot of time with my crampons before. They are a copy of Petzl Irvis 10 points C1 crampons. As we started climbing and my boots were flexing my heel was lifting a little and the crampon's heel piece would slide forward. Because of the design of my boot's sole the crampon's back boot stopper would get stuck under my sole. I had noticed this issue before, but didn't grind off the stopper before the trip. I figured that because the boot flexes, the crampon must lengthen if it is to stay close to the sole, which it cant do, so they pull away from the sole and slide underneath. I adjusted the length of the crampons to have a quarter inch of slack at the back when laid flat. Not so much that the toe can pop out with torsion when I walk, but just enough to accommodate some flex. I still had the lift issue quite often, but all I had to do for the rest of the trip was to give a kick forward with the heel piece grabbing the ice to pop the crampon back into place. I still need to find a better solution for the future. Probably something involving a strap from the front of the crampon heel piece over the ankle.


    Ottman also had issues with his Petzl Irvis on his Kayland mountaineering boots. He managed to fix it early into the hike and was good for the day.

    The weather was beautiful as we were going up the Valley Way trail. Bright sunshine with 30-25 degrees for the whole climb. I quickly found myself going up with nothing but my unzipped base layer top. This trip was a very positive adjustment for me on the layering strategy. I used to think I was a heavy sweater and I was sentenced to end all my day hikes soaked. I always started from the basis of taking layers off if I felt too warm. But it's often too late when I realize I need to take a layer off, I'm already sweating too much. This was just not going to cut it for a presidential traverse. I could not afford to risk getting wet at any point.


    I read Mark Twain's Extreme Alpinism book before this trip. In a chapter he talks about layering strategies in a way that totally makes sense and literally turned upside down my perception of what I should be doing. Start cold, climb in a light kit, add layers when you can't warm up or keep warm when you stop. That is exactly what I did and I ended up not breaking a sweat and wearing the same base layer for the whole trip. Even when it defies reason, stay on the comfortably cold side. I was wearing only my base layer top, the cross country skiing wind blocker, my light polyester vest and my wind blocking balaclava with ski goggles on the west face of Mount Clay fully exposed to 70-90 mph WSW winds and 25 degrees temperature. It didnt make sense, but I felt good, and I wasn't sweating.


    Back to climbing up Valley Way, we came across many hikers heading downhill along the way. It struck me how everyone was very friendly and stopped to have a little chat, inquire what we were up to and update us on the conditions higher up. We kept a slow, steady pace along the way. As we were approaching the Valley Way tent site junction, Nawfel started having cramps in his quads. His pack weighing 10 pounds more than mine was starting to take its toll on him. That day he learned the true cost of carrying comfort on such a hike. We slowed our pace further down and made it to Madison hut at 3h30 pm, right on book time. We walked a few hundred feet down the pine link trail until we found a small clearing with a base deep enough to set up camp.

    We set up our MEC Nunatak 3 tent and headed up Madison. Only a hundred yards up the trail Nawfel bailed out. Even now without his backpack his quads were shot and cramping. As he limped back to camp I pushed on with Ottman towards the summit. We met two hikers going down from the top. They were spending the night but hadn't set up camp yet and told us they might be going further. As we kept walking I thought about MacDonald Barr, wondering where he might have collapsed. Preparing for this trip I had also read Not Without Peril, 150 years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range. I was hoping to learn a few things about other people's mistakes, but as much as I enjoyed the narrative and the historical aspect of the stories, it's mostly a recollection of stupid mistakes made by ill prepared people.

    We reached the summit by 5h30 pm. The wind was getting pretty strong and we were tired and hungry so we didn't loose any time up there. By 6 pm it was getting pretty dark as we were scrambling down the rock pile. I looked towards Star Lake, wondering where Kate Matrosova succumbed a year ago, and saw two headlamps pushing into the night on the trail. We melted a liter of snow each for the next day and went to sleep after a quick bite, exhausted. I was woken up at 9h30 pm by the wind rocking our tent. This was becoming very real now. The process was repeated throughout the night with increasingly stronger gusts until at one point it tapered off, that or I stopped caring.

    We woke up for good at 6 the next morning. I pulled out my cell phone to check the morning's higher summits forecast, and it wasn't looking good. SW Winds of 50-70 mph with gusts to 90 mph increasing in the afternoon to 55-75 with 95 mph gusts from the West. Based on all the research I had done on the impact of wind, our go-no go threshold had been set to 70 sustained with 90 gusts. This was pushing it and the margin of error was now non existent. We discussed it a few minutes and the decision was made that since we would not have the wind to our back, we would try these wind speeds forfeiting the summits and sticking to the Gulfside trail. Our logistics plan included a high wind schedule, and provided we could still stand on our feet in these winds, we were confident we could make it to the car at the bottom of the Cog railway.

    As a side note about communications up the presidential range for Canadian hikers. I purchased a Roam Mobility SIM card I used in my old unlocked hike phone. I took the extended coverage plan with partner networks. Reception was good along the ridge and it's cheap.

    So as we get out of our bags and look into the vestibule we notice that everything is covered in 2-3 inches of snow. Ottman who was last to get in the tent the night before left the vestibule door unzipped a third of the way down. My boots who were right by the door were filled with snow. We laughed it off, had Ottman clean up the mess while we started packing and ate breakfast. For food I carried 5.5 pounds of energy bars, nuts, cheese and salami totaling around 10k calories. In hindsight that might have been 25-30% too much.

    We left the base of Madison at 9 am. Progress was slow with the fresh accumulations on the lee side of Quincy Adams and Ottman's crampons issues came back to haut us. They kept popping under his heel and this was slowing us down way too much to my taste. I thought the wind was not too bad as we were skirting mount Adams, but I knew it would be increasing. After the fourth popped crampon I was ready to call it off and turn back. I had a good look at the culprit piece of equipment and noticed the link bar wasn't locked properly at the front piece, it was fully flexing. So we reseat the link bar and went on our way.


    It was getting pretty foggy by then. We could still see up to a cairn ahead, but just barely. As we reached the shrubed plains East of Mount Sam Adams the cairns disappeared and the fresh snow pushed on the lee side overnight transformed these into a labyrinth. We wasted 5 minutes trying to find another cairn until we looked at the map and decided we would simply push SW. We had the map folded to show our route into a plastic 11x17 map case that was firmly stretched across Nawfel's backpack. This made for a quick, secure and easy way to navigate. We then reached Edmand's col where I found many good spots to camp.


    As we reached the junction at mount Jefferson we crossed a group of three hikers. They told us they were turning back, having lost the trail to the summit of Jefferson. I explained the trail they were looking for should have been further up on the right. We left them at the junction and followed their fresh footsteps up Jefferson. There's a steep climb West then the trail goes South West and you come across what I would describe as a nicely groomed ski trail probably 75 feet wide and 35 degrees steep. That's where the previous group's traces stopped. We traversed the incline. This is the only time i used my ice axe because a fall there could have led to a long slide on all that firmly crusted snow. And all i could see was a smooth slope being engulfed in a foggy abyss 150 feet below. We found a cairn a little higher up across and went on our way.


    Walking across Monticello lawn was magical. The fog cleared at ground level leaving only a diffuse gray veil overhead, casting the sun's light every which way as if the ground was luminescent. As we were descending into Sphinx col right past noon we spotted a 12 by 12 ledge protected by large boulders 10 feet below the trail overlooking the col's plateau and the great Gulf. The sky started clearing a little and the wind picked up speed. We got some great views across the valley as we ate and melted snow for our afternoon quart. I had the opportunity to validate 3 camp spots i had previously identified from Google earth scouting. I decided I needed to come back give these a try one day.


    When we moved out of our cozy spot it felt like a whole new ball game. We were getting out of the col going up on that long exposed flank of mount Clay. It became more difficult to walk. Sustained winds at that time were 70 mph with peak 10 mins gust at 88 mph and fastest mile at 93 mph. In all honesty it wasn't as bad as people made it sound. I assumed a wider stance, kept my arms wide with my poles ready to support me during mid stride gusts. I was only thrown to the ground once and sent dancing a handful of times. The worst part was the torque moment of the wind hitting the backpack from the side and putting a strain on my right shoulder. The wind wanted me to face it. And so I did. It was somewhat easier to walk at an angle to the trail, leaning into the wind.


    At 2h30 pm right by Clay's summit Nawfel wanted to take a break. He had no energy left and his quads were cramping again. He had been dressing up too much since we departed Sphinx's col and had been sweating. Ottman rummaged through Nawfel's pack but couldn't find the gels Nawfel craved for. I walked back to him before he had a chance to sit and told him he had no choice, he just couldn't stay here. He had to sit tight behind me and suck it up. We pushed on past the Jewel trail and as the Gulfside trail kept on getting higher up, I decided to stay on level ground and make a beeline to the Cog railway before we reached the end of the Clay loop. After what seemed like way too long, a dark ribbon started to emerge from the whiteness, stretching on both sides as far as we could see. It was quite a sight and a relief.


    We marched down the road and that's when I started to really suffer. People had skied down there and I wished I had brought a crazy carpet along. As we got below tree line, snow turned to rain and the wind vanished. We crawled back to the car, in pain, we smiled, laughed, and vowed to return.


    As I'm finishing writing this piece I am reading the article on Thom Pollard in the latest Berlin Daily Sun, which I grabbed at the Gulf gas station just West of Appalachia, and I'm already dreaming about my next challenge.


    Martin

  2. #2
    Registered User egilbe's Avatar
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    Good trip report. Glad you didn't die up there.

  3. #3
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    That brings back memories. It's hard to keep thinking clearly while hiking in severe conditions. Well done
    "It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how." ---Dr. Seuss

  4. #4
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    Great report. Thanks for posting. Glad you made it through safely.

  5. #5

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    Like many folks who try, you missed out on good stretch of weather.

    Your concept of hydration is contrary to most recommendations and if your friend was using the same concept I expect that was contributing cause to cramps. One liter is not enough unless you are stopping every three or four hours to boil water. Two liters would be bare minimum and many would go for more along with appropriate electrolytes. Even if your insulation system is perfect, the wind and the breathing are going to strip moisture away and once you get a deficit its hard to catch up. Some folks can tolerate it better than others but wintertime dehydration and cramps is big issue in the whites as its PITA to get to the bottle no matter what system is used. Many folks including myself under hydrate and regret it later. Adequate water isn't a luxury its a necessity.

    One of the first thing S&R folks do when they reach someone is pour hot drinks down the rescued as they expect that the person is dehydrated. I don't know what they use lately but the magic drink they offered used to be hot diluted jello.

  6. #6
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    Two years later, I can finally close the loop.

    A lot has changed in two years, but our desire to complete a winter presidential traverse in alpine style never wavered. So on Friday March 2nd it was time to give it another shot.

    We had quite a bit of time to reflect on things and improve since our first attempt. Two years ago we failed mostly due pack weight and effort management, carrying a bit too much and definately pushing too hard. It took a lot of backpacking and gear changes to get these dialed down.

    Effort management ended up being an easy solution, but it took a lot of experimenting to nail it down. We implemented the no back sweating rule. This rule is very simple, if you feel your back sweating, you slow down. This has three distinct advantages. The first one is you can't bonk. If you manage the intensity of your effort so that it remains in the light aerobic zone and eat something sweet every now and then as you go not much can go wrong. Aditionally, you also don't need to stop as often to melt snow. We all managed with one quart in the morning and one in the afternoon. The third benefit is from a safety perspective. In the cold, if you're wet and become immobile, that's when you quickly get in trouble. If you're dry, you can stay put much longer.

    On the pack weight side we each dropped a good 10 pounds off our packs. I was the ultralight advocate in the group and it took a few overnighters to convince my friends to stop packing their fears, maximize multi-use, think rationally about worst case scenarios and accept that you will be uncomfortable somewhat. In the end it came down to the realization that we were going there to reach an objective, not just spend some time in the woods.

    My pack, including consumables and the tent for the group tipped the scale at 26 pounds. We moved from a 11 pounds freestanding expedition tent to a cozy 4 pounds floorless tunnel tent. I ditched my 5 pounds 85 liters pack for a 110 liter diy roll top bag with large hip pockets clocking in at 1.5 pounds. I wore the same clothes all the time with no spares, no need to if I don't get wet. Just a light weight merino base and grid fleece mid. I had only one pair of wool socks which I wore only at night, VBL socks during the day with the wool socks as backups. A North Face progressor hybrid hoodie as an insulated wind breaker. A set of Climashield Apex sleeves to use under the hoodie during the day or on my lower legs at night. Hardshell jacket and pants with tons of zippers for ventilation. This was must to keep me dry. And finally a 22oz big down puffy for stops, around camp or if it got really cold. My sleeping bag was the same -20 synthetic at 4.75 pounds. My snow melting setup was a Stanco grease pot with a BRS-3000t stove, a 110 gr canister with neoprene cozy, alpine bomb strip and foil wind shield. The whole setup was 12 ounces. An ultrasil pack containing puffy mitts, ski goggles, glacier glasses, balaclava, the rest of the 10 essentials, misc tidbits and repair materials as well as 8000 calories of food completed the content.

    We left from the Appalachia trailhead at 11h at the same time as another group of four also going for the traverse. They took the Airline trail as we forked on Valley Way. We were never to see them again except on day two when they crested the flank of Clay in the distance at 2pm as we were melting snow in Sphinx col. We were not to see another single soul until we reached Eisenhower on Sunday.

    We made slow and steady progress to Madison hut which we reached at 4pm. We dropped our packs, I grabbed my ultrasil bag and we tagged Madison. We turned our headlamps on back at the base and progressed over to the Star Lake trail hoping to pitch around the turn up Adams, but unsatisfied with the South-East wind conditions we retreated to the col to set up camp.

    The next morning we broke camp at 8 and headed for Adams following the Airline trail. The clouds were in, but visibility was good enough. We caught our strongest summit winds of the trip at that point, getting thrown off balance a few times, but that was out of the picture heading into Thunderstorm junction. The Isarel ridge was uneventful. The original plan called for reaching that area and camp there on day one, but were fine with our decision as it would have been a really big first day. The weather and terrain was nice and we had fresh legs so it was alright.

    We had a bit of fun on the Jefferson snowfield, cutting off trail to tackle the steepest sections over false summits and finally reaching the summit proper at 30 past noon.

    Descending into Sphinx col the sky cleared up somewhat revealing Washington with dancing white plumes. We watched the show as we ate and melted snow for half an hour then went on our way up Clay.

    Clay pretty much unexpectedly became the highlight of the trip. As me crested the summit plateau we walked off trail to the cornices over the Great Gulf. South Eastern winds roaring up the Gulf and blowing loose snow over the ridge in the clear sky made for an awesome alpine experience on the neve. As we reached Clay's summit the clouds turned off the lights to put an end to the party.

    We continued to Washington and since we still felt stong pushed on with our packs up the Trinity connector, still hoping for a sunset that never came. We reached the summit in the darkening clouds around 6pm and walked down the Crawford Path as the night set in. At that point it felt like the challenge was over. We had done it and all that was left was an easy walk downhill to the car the next day.

    We set up the tent pretty exposed north of the lakes, but the forecast called for low winds so we deemed it fine. There was a lot of ice so I anchored the tent with Ambalakovs. The night was again uneventful, in the mid teens this time and our bags had accumulated some moisture from condensation, but we stayed warm.

    We took our time boiling water the next morning and enjoyed a warm breakfast before we started trodding down the ridge. We hit all remaining peaks until Pierce and reached the car in Crawford Notch at 2h30 in the afternoon. We felt the Southern peaks lacked character and decided the next time we would do a Washington yoyo from Appalachia.

    We were extremely happy with the trip and the fact we hit all peaks with our full packs (except Madison), wearing mountaineering boots and crampons all the way. It was great training for upcoming adventures.

    I was very pleased with my gear choices, except for the snow melting pot. In the future I will trade some 100 grams to get a heat exchanger pot and speed things up. This will come in handy on Kathadin next winter :)

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    It sounds like you had good trips both times.
    I want to emphasize what Peakbagger wrote about hydration. You lose a lot of water just breathing in very cold conditions. 1 liter of water carried is not enough. Dehydration makes you colder. The conventional wisdom for winter hiking is drink and eat whenever you can -- keep water and food easily accessible.
    I would have been skeptical of your stove for cold windy weather, but I imagine in Canada you were able to test that out pretty well.
    Do you have any places you would recommend to us for hiking in Quebec?

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