The Death March (Part 1)
On Saturday, I learned the difference between being equipped and being prepared. It wasn't my first time in the Whites, it wasn't my first solo expedition and it wasn't my first time navigating, route finding and trailblazing in extreme conditions. I knew what I was getting myself into...I read the reports, studied the maps, learned my mountains and bailout routes. I had the right gear, enough food and emergency survival equipment. I was equipped.
This was my longest solo to date, but the nerves didn’t really set in until the night before. As I was walking from Crawford Notch to my car (where I slept that night), I remarked just how dark it actually got. That’s when it hit me that, in a couple hours, I would be breaking trail in unknown territory in the dead of night, alone. I tucked those fears away for another day and got to sleep. My phone died in the night, but thankfully I had set my bio clock for 1:55am and woke up on time and eager (read more about circadian clocks in my post: Barefooting).
By the time I hit the trail at 3:45am, I realized those fears were silly. The dawn would be breaking in a few hours and other footsteps would eventually follow mine. What I needed to focus on was navigating around downed trees, ice chutes, avalanche territory, cornices, heavy drifts and weather patterns...
Being at the intersection of several storm tracks, the Presidential Range is known to manifest hurricane-level wind speeds, year-round blizzards and unforgiving colds. It has claimed hundreds of lives, mostly due to the severe and unpredictable weather. The AMC Outdoors magazine accurately quotes “Attempting a Presidential traverse in winter is like playing Russian roulette with the weather.”
This time around, the first few hours of my climb were cold but calm, with wind chills only dipping into the -40s. Much warmer than my coldest climb on Washington 2 months prior, which pushed -70.
Though the 152kph gusts of wind bit hard as I walked along 18km of exposed ridgeline, I was graced with a clear sky, warm sun and incredible views for the northernmost region of the traverse. Heading southward, I bagged my first five peaks (and the hardest) in 10 hours, tagging Mt. Washington’s summit post at 2pm. At this point, I had already gained nearly 7'500 feet of elevation and my energy was waning. The voice in the back of my head kept reminding me that there was no shame in bailing out - for fear of succumbing to it, I pushed past Washington without stopping for food, water or layering-up. This wouldn’t have been an issue, except for that game of Russian Roulette I had challenged the mountains to. With only 2 hours of daylight left, I passed my last bailout route for a steep summit of Monroe and a promise of Franklin, Eisenhower and Pierce.
The next 15km is where I learned what prepared would have been. There was nothing left at that point. No energy, not much will. There was no shelter from the dark, rapidly approaching clouds or the wind cutting through my layers. There was nothing to stop the snow from whipping up in my face and whiting-out the unbroken trails. There were no signs and, most terrifyingly, no people. The last of the light had vanished and this is when I realized that as I broke trail in unknown territory into the darkness, nobody would be following me. The dawn wouldn’t break for 12 more hours, and I would be alone on these mountains.
I was equipped to survive, but I wasn’t prepared to have to.
To be continued...