Thursday, July 10, 2014

Don't Try This at Home

"Overcoming Fear” was supposed to be title of this Hut Traverse blog entry.

Or at least, that was the working title for the story I was writing in my head at mile 40 of my 50 mile journey. Then the darkness happened - both physical and emotional. And, I realized that fear is a good thing. Fear is healthy. Fear is what keeps us from doing something stupid…

…like climbing a rocky mountain ridge, by yourself, at night, in howling winds, with 40 hours having passed since last you slept…

The trip started well enough. I met Tim Mallard at Runners Alley in Nashua early Saturday afternoon and we headed up to Franconia Notch, in two separate vehicles. The plan was to leave my car at the finish of the traverse, then drive his car to the start, with a quick stop at the halfway point to drop a gear bag. After two traffic jams, a short-cut that proved to be anything but and a long-cut that lived up to its name, we were finally hiking/swimming our way up the 19 Mile Brook Trail to Carter Notch Hut - our stop for the night and the start of the traverse.

Carter Notch is a beautiful place, tucked into the steep groove between Wildcat Mountain and Carter Dome – two of New Hampshire’s 4000 ft high peaks. 1600 feet below the summits of these eastern behemoths are two small, but connected glacial ponds. The hut sits perched between the ponds and a cliff which overlooks the valley below. On the night we arrived, Hurricane Arthur had just brushed past New England on his way out to sea. And in his wake, he left an unsettling wind, which was amplified by the narrowing of the notch, and directed right into my bunk room. Or, so it seemed…

The aforementioned fears I had about this trip centered around three main issues: Distance, Duration and Darkness. At 50 miles in length, this jaunt was almost 15 miles further than I’d ever hiked in a single day - with approximately 4,000 more feet of elevation gain. At about 20 hours, this would be the most hours of hiking I’d ever attempted in a day - by nearly double! And with my start time being well before sunrise and my estimated finishing time being well after sunset, I’d be doing more than a few of those hiking hours in the dark – something I’d never done before. Needless to say, when I settled into my small but uncomfortable bunk, I had a LOT on my mind.

As the wind howled above my head (and my brain refused to shut itself down within) I did my best to relax and let the sleep come to me. But it never did. After 6 hours (and two bathroom breaks) I finally got up, grabbed my gear, slipped out the door and headed over to the oversized outhouse platform to prepare for the day - headlamp, contacts, powerbar, banana. I had a bagel and Gatorade breakfast with Tim when he awoke at 3:00. At 3:30am we signed the hut log and by 3:31 we were already headed down the 19 Mile Brook Trail to begin our adventure.

The early going was rather slow. The trails were dark and slippery. Tim’s headlamp was not quite bright enough and we were both still trying to wake up. It took almost a half hour longer to climb down than it did to climb up the previous evening. But by the time we hit the road (literally) and the Great Gulf Trail beyond, we had found our stride. We chose to take the Madison Gulf route to the hut because it was the most direct and allowed me to red-line yet another trail in the Whites. Even with the hand-over-hand climbing at the waterfall headwall, it proved to be a good and stunningly beautiful choice.

We made good time on this section and arrived at Madison just in time to catch the Hut Croo’s breakfast skit. A rousing adaptation of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, where the “good sir knight” was instructed to remember “these things three” – fold your blanket once length-wise and twice width-wise, pack out your trash and tip the Croo. At the conclusion of the show, we cheered, signed the hut log, filled our hydration packs, and headed back out to tackle the Presidential Ridge. Fortunately for us, the rocks were dry. But what we lost in wet we gained in wind. And plenty of it!

The Presi Ridge is my all-time favorite place for above tree-line running. The climbs are tough but doable, the descents are divine, and the views are nothing short of phenomenal. We were buffeted by the wind on the west side of Adams, but got some welcome reprieve once the trail shifted to the east side of his neighbor Sam. The Cols were the absolute worst for wind velocity. At Edmunds and Sphinx the wind was blowing between 50 and 60 mph. It was all we could do to stay upright and moving forward. Needless to say, I was very happy to reach Crawford Path and the glorious run in to Lakes.

I spent a few extra minutes at Lakes waiting for Tim - who was having a bit of a rough go. He had fallen a few times and had good-sized scrapes on both his knees. Once he reached the hut (and thought about it for a nano-second) Tim decided that he’d be stopping for good at Crawford Notch. By this point we were about an hour behind schedule, so we booked it towards Mizpah in order for him to catch the 1:25pm Highland Shuttle back to his car. Running along the ridge at well over 3 miles an hour - it was, by far, the most enjoyable part of the trip!

It was a quick “splash ‘n go” at Mizpah. Well, except for the two chocolate chip cookies and two glasses of ice-cold lemonade that I consumed. Then, it was back out to the Mizpah cut-off where we once again rejoined the Crawford Path down to the Highland Center and the “half-way” point (25 miles) of our trip. I stopped for a good long time at Crawford Depot. I drank two Pepsi’s, inhaled a powerbar and a bowl of chicken corn chowder, re-shuffled my pack with the supplies from my drop bag, changed my socks and shirt then bid a fond farewell to my travelling companion.

I was now a soloist on a solo list. 10 hours down. 10 hours to go. Or, so I hoped…

Next up was the lightly-travelled and seemingly endless Avalon/AZ trail into Zealand Notch. 2000 feet of climbing followed immediately by 2000 feet of descent – over the course of just 5 miles! I picked up the pace a little bit during this section to try and take back some time. A mere 2 hours later I was pounding down water at Zealand Hut, just trying to cool myself down. Ugh. It was 3:30pm and the daylight would soon be dwindling. I pushed myself away from the cooling stream of water at Zealand Falls and started up the unrelenting Twinway towards Galehead.

After more than 12 hours of moving I still felt OK, given the circumstances. But, the biggest problem I was having at this point was nausea. I choked down a couple Gu’s, but anything more solid then that came charging right back up towards me. As I crested Mount Guyot, I felt the cooling breezes and expanding view of the Pemi Wilderness. Just what I needed to recharge my batteries and carry me towards South Twin - running most of the 2-mile segment to the summit. I then picked my way very carefully down the 1000 foot drop (in just ¾ of a mile) to Galehead Hut. It was now almost 7pm.

I stopped a little longer than normal at Galehead - to have some delicious chicken rice soup, prepare my headlamp and steel myself against the task of tackling the “crucible” which is the Galehead-to-Greenleaf Traverse. A “time-warp trail” which is listed at 7.7 miles but always feels twice as long as that. It features lots of pointless ups and downs punctuated by a gut-busting summit (and descent) of Garfield and a never-ending approach to Mount Lafayette. I had done this section at least half dozen times before. But this time, as an added bonus, I got to do most of it in the dark.

I rode the roller coaster of bumps and bruisers that lead to the base of Garfield. I ran where I could, but power-hiked the majority of it. By this point, I had been going for 16 straight hours and was starting to tire. I climbed the steep and rocky trail slowly, but deliberately. Eventually I reached the top and was rewarded with both a moonrise over the Pemi and a sunset over Franconia. It was amazing! I soaked in the view for a couple brief moments before digging the headlamp out of my pack and heading on towards Lafayette - which seemed so very far away.

Once below tree-line, things got dark in a hurry. The trail seemed to close in around me and I suddenly felt very claustrophobic. I couldn’t wait to start climbing Lafayette and get those woods behind me. So, not surprisingly, I started running again. Of course, running in the dark, through the woods over very bumpy ground can pose some serious safety problems. And, as one might expect, I fell flat on my face – repeatedly. After the third time, I got up, took a deep breath, laughed at myself and continued on at a much more conservative pace.

As previously mentioned, I’d traveled this route a number of times and I knew darned well what the northern approach to Lafayette was like - numerous false summits, one right after another, in an ever growing succession. You’re climbing one peak thinking that it’s the final summit and just as you crest the top, you see an even bigger one beyond. It’s very disheartening during the day and, now I’ve learned, it’s absolutely soul-crushing at night - especially when the lights of the hut can plainly been seen way down below (and to the right) but the trail keeps climbing higher (and to the left), in ever increasing wind.

It was at this point of my journey that I grew numb to the task. I don’t know if it was the wind, or the miles, or the hours on my feet. But all I really wanted to do was lie down.
I wasn't bonking and my legs felt perfectly fine. I was just very, very sleepy. Eventually, I crawled over the final summit, found the correct trail sign that would lead me to Greenleaf and slowly stumbled my way down towards it. I was literally falling asleep as I was walking. Which is a pretty scary prospect, considering that one wrong step on this steep descent could send me sprawling (and falling) many painful feet below.

Reaching the hut brought bittersweet relief because I knew it meant I was finally safe, but I also knew it meant that my day (and my adventure) was over. I couldn’t bear the thought of traveling even one more mile in that condition, never mind the 4.5 miles up to Lonesome Lake. I was in no state to continue and I felt that doing so would have seriously risked my health and safety. So, I did the smart thing (for the first time all trip) and stopped. It was 11pm. I had been hiking for 19 1/2 hours and I’d reached my limit. So, I crawled into the nearest bunk and drifted off to sleep. The first I’d had in 42 hours.

In the morning, I shyly (but eagerly) gobbled up my breakfast alongside the other hut guests. Happy to have my appetite back and yet keenly aware that my mud-covered legs, grungy brown toenails and lingering trail stink set me apart from the rest of my dining companions. In between glorious bites of bacon and egg frittata I wondered to myself just what they thought of me. Did they know what I’d been through? Could they tell that I’d come up just shy of my goal? Would they understand if I told them that I’d travelled over 45 miles the previous day and yet, somehow, still felt defeated?

After breakfast, I thanked the hut-master and headed on down the final trail of the day. It was now 8am, and I’d failed in accomplishing my mission of completing the hut traverse in less than 24 hours. And so, I was going to hike the 2.5 miles back to the car and drive home to a well-deserved shower. But a funny thing happened on the way to the trailhead. It all started to be fun again. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the Old Bridal Path trail opened its welcoming arms to me and invited me to run. And, so I did.

I ran down the early steep, then ever-flattening trail. I ran the switch backs, jumped the streams and leap over the boulders. I ran like I hadn’t run in days. And, when I got to my car, I ran right by - under the road and up the trail on the other side. To Lonesome Lake and the final stop on my journey. I reached the hut and clicked my watch one last time. It read: 30 hours, 8 minutes and 58 seconds. I signed the hut log, then trudged down the steps to soak my feet in the lake.

After a few minutes, a Croo member came down to say hello. He’d noticed my log entry and wanted to congratulate me on finishing the traverse. I sheepishly told him my “tale of woe” and how I wasn’t able to finish it ALL in one day. Immediately, he recognized me from a stop I made last year at Zealand Hut during my quest for 4000 footers. We talked about my trail running experiences and he told me that our conversation last year inspired him to do more of that himself, including his first ever Seven Sisters race the past spring - which I thought was pretty cool.

And, at that moment, with my tired feet soaking in Lonesome Lake, and me chatting with my new friend Scott about our trail running adventures, it suddenly didn’t matter to me that I hadn’t done the whole traverse without stopping. I’d finished it! Regardless of how long it took, I’d done what I’d set out to do - and that’s what counted! Sure, it didn’t turn out EXACTLY the way I planned. But, so what? Tell me something that ever does.

As I was leaving, Scott asked me what I planned to do “next”. I told him about my First 100 Miler this fall, but that I was going to take a break from mountain running for a while and leave it to the “professionals”. To which he replied, “But, you ARE one of the professionals”. And I guess, to some extent, he’s right. This kind of stuff is what I do. People often ask me why I attempt these crazy things. Things that make me feel afraid. And my response is always the same: If it doesn’t scare the crap out of me, then it’s not worth doing!

However, after this trip, I find that I’m no longer scared about running the 100. And, I guess the only problem is, I can’t really tell if that’s a good thing, or not!

Post Script - For those who do, in fact, want to try this at home, here are a few things I learned along the way …

What didn’t work:

  • Sleeping at the hut – Obviously, this was a big problem for me. Not sure what I could have done differently to get myself to fall asleep. Except maybe bring along a 6-pack.
  • Pack choice – The Nathan 2014 HPL-028 was just a bit too small for all the food/gear I was carrying. Had to take everything out to fill the bladder and had to use 3-safety pins to keep things from flying out of the open pocket while I ran. Lost a bunch of time, and had a few stabbed fingers dealing with this issue.
  • Hut time – I spent far too much time at the huts. More than 12 minutes on average. If I had been able to cut that down to around5 minutes each, I would have saved 45 minutes overall and might have been able to climb Lafayette before it got completely dark.
  • Start time – The 19 Mile Brook & Great Gulf Trails were fairly easy to follow and run. So, I could have certainly left earlier than 3:30am and run more of this section in the dark without too much trouble. Leaving me more daylight for the trickier Franconia Ridge.

What did work:

  • Bladder size – The 1.5 liter bladder I carried was the perfect size. I never ran out of fluids even on the longest stretches between huts. And I drank early and often.
  • Electrolytes – Both the Nuun tables (2 per fill up) and Endurolyte capsules (1-2 per hour) kept me from cramping on what turned out to be a very warm day.
  • Running Shoes – I have used the Mizuno Wave Ascend for ALL my trail running since Stonecat in 2012. They worked well during the Summer of 48 last year, and with this year’s adventure as well. Smooth ride even on rocks, with plenty of cushioning and grip.
  • Sock strategy – Very rarely do I ever have a problem with blisters. Even with the very wet trails and shoes I encountered this year, the 1 layer of vaseline, 1 layer thin sock and 1 layer outer sock plan worked like a charm.
  • Chafing strategy – After the debacle that was last year’s Presi-Traverse, I have resorted to wearing bike shorts under my running shorts to prevent leg chaffing. Worked great!
  • Drop bag – Definitely worth the extra prep and drive time to not have to carry ALL of your food/gear. Plus, having a change of dry socks and shirt were an added bonus!
  • Trekking poles – Saved my legs. Period. I won’t do another long trail run like this without them. Helped on both the descents AND the climbs. Plus they helped me negotiate the wet trails and river crossings with relative ease.
  • Tim Mallard – Having Tim there to support me, even for just the first half of the trip, was a huge boost. As I found out later, doing an adventure of this magnitude with friends is epic, but doing it by yourself is a little bit stupid.



  1. Great writeup Mike, and great to have some first hand advice. Awesome work pushing on to the finish, but it sounds like you definitely made the right decision stopping when you did.

  2. Awesome story, Mike. I love to read about your adventures.

  3. Hey Mike, great write up. This coming weekend a buddy and I will do doing our own h2h traverse. We're following a similar plan to you and dropping a bag at the Highland center for a halfway refill of supplies. MY QUESTION: where did you store your bag around the highland center? Inside? Outside? A locker? Thanks and any answer to this question and/or guidance for us would be appreciated.

    1. We used the lockers that the Highland Center offers in their basement.