Wish's perspective: Humans woke up at 4am, why? Pet me! Breakfast. Favorite meal, predictable, tasty. Car. Huh, car. Sleep more. Parking lot. Parking brake!!! EXCITEMENT. "Wish, wanna go for a run??" YES, ALWAYS WANT RUN. Gosh, sucks waiting. Humans always have stuff. Dog don't need stuff! Just RUN. Oh darn, little run with leash. Dang. Standing around. "Let's go Wish!" NOW FAST. Wow, fast. But, I faster. Smell everything. Human slow. Two legs bad. Wow, found animal! YIKES, animal makes scary sound, flee! (Editor's note: no idea what she met in the woods, it shrieked and Wish was scared. Marten? Bobcat? Some other small predator?) Explore, run, explore, run. Up high! No tree. See everywhere. Smell everywhere. Run everywhere!! Up, down, up, down, up, down. Unfamiliar sensation. Maybe tired?? No more explore. No more wander. Just follow. "Good girl Wish!" Salami tasty! Found Liz! Pet me! Car! Pet me!!! FOOD!!! Ok, now sleep.
Almost exactly ten years ago, I hiked in the Presidentials for the first time in winter conditions climbing Mt. Adams. That day had 40mph winds, near white-out conditions and wind chills way below zero and we were all wearing goggles and face masks. Today was a bit different. Warm, sunny, almost no wind AND FAST!
Winter 2021 attempt #1: breakable crust, impossible to run at all
Winter 2021 attempt #2: postholing for the second half, couldn't run very fast
Winter 2021 attempt #3: Solid, supportive trail. Run like the wind!
And Liz was the best today waking up super early and then driving around to pick me up!!
After attempt #2 only twelve days ago, I thought I was done with this project for the year. I planned to take a big rest and a couple weeks almost completely off running. But, I had gotten in a habit of compulsively checking the various forecasts for the presidential range. And it just sucked me back in. I saw a series of four or five beautiful, sunny, low wind, freeze-thaw days coming. I recovered/tapered as much as I could. Liz and Wish and I got a place to stay for a few nights. And then, yesterday, I did an exploratory hike up to Mt. Clay to see what conditions were like. On both my previous runs, Clay was the point where everything went sour. Breakable crust, postholing. But, my little exploration showed that the route over the Clay summit was nicely broken out. And, also, being up there the day before in similar conditions with Wish and seeing that she had plenty of traction, I felt comfortable bringing her along for the ride. She was super happy to finally get out for a longer run after I had been keeping the runs to just 30 or 40 minutes while recovering and tapering.
I think some future Presi Traverse FKT action will happen in the winter. Overall, the route is maybe 5-10 minutes faster in perfect winter conditions and competitive with summer even in pretty good conditions. I'll go out on a limb and predict that March and April (along with September!) will become Presi race season. So, if you want to run a fast presi in the winter, here's some advice I learned the hard way:
* The late winter and early spring are the time to do it. I think early winter or late fall in a year with a big November/December dump might be an alternative. Mid-winter is too cold and it's rare to get the freeze-thaw cycles necessary to get a solid surface on the low-traffic parts of the route up high on the ridgeline.
* Freeze-thaw cycles are your friend. They make the snow surface hard and supportive, especially at night and in the early morning. I have a theory that a big mid-winter rain might achieve the same thing. But, that might also just result in horrible breakable crust or a surface too icy to be safe for running.
* Go south to north. It's downhill. In the summer, there's a decent argument that going northbound involves rougher, slower descents. But, in the winter, those rocks are covered up and you'll fly down. And going northbound puts the descents mainly on the north and northeast-facing slopes which will still hold snow even after several freeze-thaw cycles because they get less sun and get less wind.
* Run early in the morning on a nice day. Nice days in the late winter/early spring are often warm enough that you'll start getting soft snow and post-holing on the south facing slopes by 10am. Take advantage of the frozen surface from the overnight lows and try to finish before 10am, which means starting before sunrise. I started at 5:45am with a headlamp. Sunrise was at 6:40.
* Test the conditions the day before by hiking up the Cog railway or Jewell trail to Mt Clay at around the time of the day that you think you'll hit Clay. Clay gives a good sense of what the second half of the route will be like. If Clay is slow, the whole section from Clay to Madison Hut will probably be slow and that's game over. It's only 5-6 miles roundtrip to go up to Clay and under 3000 feet gain, so it's not going to tire you out for the next day.
* Be careful on the Jefferson snow fields!
* Poles are amazing for winter mountain running.
* Lightweight spikes help a lot. I disassembled some strap-on spikes and screwed the spike plates directly into my shoes. I highly recommend it. The total added weight of my spikes was 35 grams per shoe. A full pair of microspikes or hillsounds is about 200 grams per shoe and most of it comes from the chains and straps. Weight on your feet matters a lot on the uphill.
* Since it's winter, I only brought 1L of water, but I did camel up a bit before leaving the car.
I deviated from Jordan's route in three obvious places, two intentional and one accidental. I hope this is okay and there's some flexibility to allow for winter runs where the exact route that makes sense is different than in the summer. But if the conclusion is that it's not okay, I'll definitely accept that. Overall, I think I went somewhere between one and two minutes faster because of these deviations.
1. I ran along the Cog down from Washington. Running on the Gulfside trail in that section in the winter is a risky proposition. You're literally inches from a steep drop and sometimes there's a cornice. I don't think the route along the Cog is any faster. It's just safer.
2. I followed a direct line from the Crawford Path/Westside intersection to the summit. When it's snow covered, I don't really think it makes sense to worry about precisely where the trail goes. In the summer, we need to stay on trail to prevent damage to the alpine vegetation. But, when it's snow covered, it's both normal and, seems to me, fine to take a more direct route. If I had to guess, this probably only cut about 30 seconds off, if anything at all because the snow conditions were worse than they would've been on the trail. The trail had a few sets of tracks which would've been more supportive with less sink into the snow. The route I took had some ski tracks most of the way, which helped a bit, but otherwise, I had a few small postholes and some sections with bad traction.
3. I totally missed the lump just west of Monroe. I was just running hard up the existing tracks and it's much less common to go over that lump in the winter. I didn't intend to take this shortcut. On the other hand, I don't really think that lump is a worthwhile component of a "Presi Traverse". In the summer, it's normal to go over it because the trail goes over it. Anyway, I think we should establish for any future runs whether this lump is required or not. I think it would've added around 60 seconds to go over it, so this would not have affected the end result, but letting people skip that lump does give a little bit more of a winter advantage.
4. I also was not precisely on the summer trail in a million other snowy sections. It's just not possible to stick to the precise trail when it's snow covered. I stayed on-trail on the snow-free sections.
For the reasons above, I'd argue for a view of the Presidential Traverse as any route that starts/ends at Crawford/Appalachia and summits Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, Madison. In the summer, you need to stay on trail to protect the alpine vegetation. But, in the winter, feel free to take whatever route seems best so long as the snow coverage is good enough.