Early Winter Presidentials Traverse
Early Winter Traverses of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire Albert L. Lamarre D’71 4746 Chestnut Court, Dublin, California 94568, firstname.lastname@example.org December 2016
Introduction One of the many nice things about being retired is having time to do things just because you want to. One of my more-fun projects lately has been reviewing the history of wintertime Presidential Traverses. This was prompted by my coming across a photo of the successful traverse that six of us from the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) did in February 1969. I became curious as to how many winter traverses had been done by that time, so I've been doing some research. This report is what I have come up with. Winter hiking was just taking off in the 1960s, and the DOC Presidential Traverse was part of that. In his book, Reaching That Peak: 75 Years of the Dartmouth Outing Club, (1962), page 416, David O. Hooke says: “The outdoor revolution of the mid-late 1960s sparked vast improvements in outdoor gear, and this made certain trips far more possible than had ever been the case before. The transfer of Billings Cabin to the club in 1967, provided beds ¼ mile from the Appalachian trailhead, inspired the ultimate gear-hound trip – the Cabin and Trail [a division within the DOC] winter weekend Presidential Range Traverse.” In the book, A Fine Kind of Madness, by Laura and Guy Waterman, (2000), page 187, they say that by the winter of 1968-1969 the so-called backpacking boom had begun but it "had little effect on the winter hiking population." Only about a dozen individuals had climbed all the four-thousand footers of the White Mountains in winter, they say.
The Presidential Range in Winter But who in their right mind would want to do a traverse of the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains in the dead of winter? Remember, the summit of Mount Washington is reported to have the worst weather in the world!
The October 2008 issue of Backpacker Magazine says: “The hike known as the most dangerous small mountain in the world, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington boasts some scary stats: The highest wind velocity ever recorded at any surface weather station (231 mph) was logged here on April 12, 1934.” It goes on to say: “A winter traverse of the Presidential Range is the most coveted–and riskiest–mountaineering feat in the Northeast. The 23.3-mile route includes 11 miles above tree-line, 10,000 feet of elevation gain, and 10 peaks above 4,000 feet. Rime ice, massive drifts and cornices, and fierce winds combine to create an amorphous landscape–a cubist masterpiece, painted entirely in white.” Then the magazine describes the usual route, starting from the north: “From the Valley Way Trail, you’ll gain 3,500 feet in the first 3.8 miles, reaching the base of 5,366-foot Mt. Madison. From here, the route arcs counterclockwise past Mt. Jefferson and over Mt. Clay to Mt. Washington, completing the northern half of the trip. Take the Crawford Path down to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut to camp. The next day, weather willing, you’ll snowshoe or crampon seven exposed miles over Mts. Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Pierce, Jackson, and Webster as you drop more than 5,000 feet to the Crawford trailhead.”
Successful Wintertime Traverses Through 1970 1. December 1896 – Herschel C. Parker and Ralph Larrabee, two proficient AMC hikers, completed the first (documented) winter Presidential Traverse. Parker was head of the physics department at Columbia University and was one of the founders of the newly formed American Alpine Club. Larrabee was a practicing physician in Boston who spent his free time almost exclusively in the White Mountains. In the article “Winter Climbing on Mount Washington and the Presidential Range”, in Appalachia, (1902), v.10, 19-28, Parker gives a full account of his many winter climbs.
2. February 22, 1918 – Willard Helburn and Henry Chamberlain completed a winter Presidential Traverse a little more than twenty years after Parker and Larrabee. “While we’re mentioning fabulous one-day Presidential traverses, let us slip in a word on the first one-day winter traverse by Willard Helburn and Henry Chamberlain in 1918. They went up Mt. Madison via the Osgood Trail from the Glen House, encountered a full-scale snowstorm with high winds and low visibility, yet persevered across all the high summits and down to Crawford Notch, doing in a single day what most parties 100 years later take three days to do.” From: The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping, Laura and Guy Waterman, (2016), Ch. 6 “The Greatest Walkers of Them All.”
3. 1961 – The Harvard Mountaineering Club (HMC) in 1958 began annual winter attempts at completing Presidential Traverses. Their fourth attempt in 1961 was their first success. “After three years of being blown or frozen off one or another part of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, the H.M.C. finally made a successful winter traverse of the entire range from Randolph to Crawford between semesters this year . A semiautonomous group [of three] made the traverse taking in all the peaks on the way, while a larger group [of seven] followed their general route, but missed most of the peaks. The next morning it was blowing hard with gusts up to fifty or sixty miles an hour. The group of three decided to continue on down the ridge to Crawford in spite of the wind. They did so, arriving shortly after mid-day, having completed the first H.M.C. winter traverse of the Presidential Range.” From: Harvard Mountaineering, No. 15, May 1961, pg. 50 & 51, under “Winter Traverses.”
4. 1964 – “H.M.C.’s annual traverse of the Presidential Range in February met with its greatest success ever, as 14 members covered the route in a record three days.” From: Harvard Mountaineering Club – American Alpine Journal.
5. 1966 – HMC reported, “The Winter Traverse has become the standard H.M.C. intersession activity.” “…the first time in H.M.C. history the annual winter traverse of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire was accomplished from the south.” … “In 1966 two parties simultaneously assaulted the Presidential Range from either end and for the first time in Club history a northbound party traversed the range without missing a peak. While the southbound group faltered in deep snow the swift northward team in one middle day passed over all summits between Pleasant Col and Madison Huts.” From: Harvard Mountaineering, No. 19, May 1967, pg. 61 under “H.M.C. Activities, 1965-67”.
6. February 7-10, 1969 – This was the Dartmouth Outing Club’s first (documented) successful winter traverse of the Presidential Range. In his book, Reaching That Peak: 75 Years of the Dartmouth Outing Club, (1962), pg. 417, David O. Hooke says: “One of the few fully successful traverses was made over Carnival Weekend in 1969, the year that Mount Washington got a total of 554 inches of snow over the course of the winter, beating the previous record by over 200 inches. Details of the expedition, apart from the stories of flawless weather, are scant, but it appears from the dates that the group (George Kain ’70, Thomas Goldthwait ’71, Robert Lamarre ’71, Albert Lamarre ’71, Dudley Thompson ’70 and Charles Allen ‘71) completed the trip successfully . . . The next record of a successful traverse does not appear until the winter of 1976.” To put this feat in perspective, look at the weather conditions we faced. In the book, A Fine Kind of Madness, (2000), page 187, authors Laura and Guy Waterman report that “… the year 1969 broke all records for depth of snow in New Hampshire. In November 1968, Mount Washington had 87 inches. December added 104 inches. During February 1969, 173 inches of snow fell on Mount Washington, making for an amazing total accumulation of nearly fifty feet!” They go on to say that in early January 1969, “The [Mount Washington] summit weather observatory recorded winds of more than 100 miles per hour for twenty-three straight hours at one point, with peak gusts well over 150.” The six of us were certainly lucky to have had the good weather that we did during those February days of 1969. I have a report dated February 6, 1969 by Bill Glanz, Dartmouth Outing Club Trip Director, outlining the details of the planned Presidential Traverse that week-end and naming its participants. The report says that in addition to our traverse from the north, six other outing club members would attempt the traverse at the same time from the south: William Glanz ’70, Ed Spencer ’70, Bill Locke ’70, Mike Middleton ’70, Larry Riggs ’70, and Steven Ruhl ’72. I have no recollection of this happening and they are not discussed in the David Hooke book, so I assume they were not successful.
7. 1970 – The HMC was successful again this year. “There have been of course the annual attempts at the Winter Traverse of the Presidential Range during intersession. In 1970 two eight-man parties assaulted the Range from either end. The northbound group was turned back in the Mt. Pleasant area by freezing rain; the other group was blessed with relatively fine weather and completed the trip in two and a half days without missing a summit.”
From: Harvard Mountaineering, No. 19A, June 1972, pg. 43 under “H.M.C. Activities, 1970-72.”
Also of Interest • 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969 – The HMC attempted winter Presidential traverses but were not successful.
• 1642 – With two Indians, Darby Field was the first European to climb Mount Washington, then known as Agiocochook. This was done in the spring or summer and was not a full traverse. From: Into The Mountains, Maggie Stier and Ron McAdow, (1995) pg. 245.
• February 1980 – The first all-women team successfully completed a winter Presidential Traverse. This team consisted of Laura Waterman, a homesteader and writer; Natalie Davis, a high-school English teacher; and Debbie O’Neill, a physical therapist. From: When Women and Mountains Meet: Adventures in the White Mountains, Julie Boardman (2001), pg. 125.
• 1981 – The first-ever ski traverse of the Presidential Range was conducted by the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, based in Jackson, N.H. “The party consisted of Thom Perkins; Ned Gillette, adventure skier who competed in cross country at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics; Walter T. "Tyke" Weed, [Dartmouth ‘71] who competed in cross country in the 1972 Sapporo Olympics; Sam Osborne, hut-master at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, and John Halupowski, tellie skier and guide.” From: “A Tale of Adventure In New Hampshire's Presidential Range”, www.onthesnow Newsletter.com/news, Roger Leo, January 4, 2010.
Observations Looking back on it 47 years later, I’ve come to the conclusion that our traverse in 1969 was indeed quite an accomplishment. I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time. But I do have to admit that we were extremely fortunate in that the weather Gods treated us kindly. Curiously, I could find no document that contained a compilation of all successful winter Presidential Traverses. And surprisingly, our February 1969 traverse is mentioned only in the David O. Hooke book. Nowhere else did I find it cited. Perhaps this is to be expected since we never did document the event, like the Harvard guys did!
Below is the only photograph I have of our big event.