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Monday, May 14

A Climb Amongst The Founding Fathers: Single Day Presi Traverse

Monday January 3rd:

Nick: “Let’s just do a single day Presi Traverse.”

Me: “Ok!”

Tuesday January 4th (2:30am)-

That was our wake up call only a few hours after, it seemed, we had decided to tackle something we’d always talked about. As one is probably able to infer from the above-mentioned dialogue, there wasn’t an excess of planning that went into this trip. We did all the prep and route planning the night before. While Nick (and Ma) prepared dinner, I pulled out the trusty AMC White Mountain guide and the maps that accompany it to get a few of the logistics ironed out. After about an hour and a half of poring over the guide, maps, and trip reports posted online, I had finally nailed down the exact route, with various escape options off of the ridge in case the weather got out of hand, etc. The term “Presi Traverse” gets thrown around a lot, so there is a medley of opinions of what a “true” traverse entails. I wanted there to be no doubt about it so decided we would be tackling the 8 high peaks (Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson) as well as the intermediate peaks in between (Clay and Franklin). With the route planning out of the way, we got down to business packing up gear. Our theory was light and fast equated to safety. Being bogged down with an excess of gear would most likely accomplish nothing other than placing additional fatigue on our bodies (which often leads to hazard, if not just making things miserable). So, after much deliberation we narrowed it down to: snowshoes, crampons, down jacket, heavy top, two pairs of liner, 2.5 L of water, sandwiches, snacks, goggles, mid-weight top, hand/toe warmers, gaiters, headlamps, mountain axe, poles, and face masks. All fit in small day packs.

 After eating and heading to bed, our alarms at 2:30 came much too soon. I did have a feeling of angst the night before and upon waking – not unlike pre-race nerves. Nick made breakfast (see a recurring theme here? :) which consisted of eggs on bagels and salad from the night before. We did a final gear check then headed out in separate cars. On I-93 North just south of Franconia Notch I saw a spectacular shooting star. I immediately called Nick to ask if he had seen it too, which he confirmed. Yeah, this was going to be one badass trip. We stashed one car at the end of the traverse near the Highland Center and then made for the trail head of Valley Way Trail. By the time we arrived, suited up and hit the trail it was 4:36am. It wasn’t long before we were both stopped and stripping off gear. So much for my motto of starting cold J We climbed and came upon a junction of Watson Path. Originally we had decided to take alley way up to Madison hut then take a quick up and down approach to pick off Madison – the first of the high peaks. Nick suggested taking Watson Path so we could avoid the out and back. It’s not the wisest thing to deviate from any given plan, but since when do I stick to plans anyway? We agreed to make this slight change in route, and perhaps paid for it when it became increasingly steep. After a somewhat sketchy water crossing we both elected to strap on the snowshoes because the trail was far from packed out. As the trees began to thin and we passed one of the signature signs of the Presidentials:
From this point forward it was going to be all above tree line – nothing but windblown snow and rocks. It’s a pretty stark landscape here in the winter…nothing but blacks and whites. We headed into the wind and snow, trading snowshoes for crampons. Our goggles proved to be an early asset as well. The summit came fairly quick, and we were even graced with breaks in the clouds.
Ascending Madison

After a hasty snapshot we ventured down to Madison hut where we grabbed a bite and I messaged mom to let her know our progress. I normally shun technology like phones in the mountains, but she was more than a little worried and rightfully so, what we were doing has more than a minute amount of risk associated with it. From here we made way for Adams which came and went with a photo and before we knew it we were crossing the col to Jefferson. It was at this point that the sun came out in her full glory and shown down on the beauty around us. Our spirits soared! We joked lightheartedly and seemed to bounce across the uncharacteristically calm landscape towards Jefferson. It wouldn’t be until we had to search for the next summit that our spirits would come down. As if to warn us not to become complacent, the sun dipped behind clouds and the weather grew inclement once again – our visibility decimated. Each cairn seemed to blend into the setting around them. I foolishly wanted to just keep climbing “up” while Nick insisted we backtrack and find the cairns. I obliged and we eventually happened upon the trail and slowly made way towards the summit. 
View From Adams

Cresting to the summit cairn, we spared no time and were on our way down to make way to the mighty Mt. Washington, but not before hitting the sub-peak Mt. Clay. The latter proved to be quite the kick in the ass. A leg burner in the truest sense of the phrase, and I really don’t know why. Upon the descent of Clay we once again lost track of the trail but came across the cog railway, which we proceeded to follow to the summit. The rail provided comfort, both as a guaranteed path to the summit (provided we followed it the right way of course:) and it reminded us of our ski trip up Mt. Washington the previous year. We reminisced and ticked off the footsteps until before us loomed the summit observatory. Towering into the sky, the outline of the various summit buildings produced what appeared to be the shadow of a strange medieval castle. We sought refuge here and ate our lunch. However, as had happened every time we halted, I grew cold to the point where I shivered uncontrollably, so I loathed hanging out motionless for long. We hit the summit sign for a quick Kodak moment and set out in search for the Crawford path; the trail that would take us a vast majority of the rest of the way. This proved to be a bit of a conundrum however, because you see, one needs to actually find a cairn to know the whereabouts of the trail. We searched for what seemed to be an eternity to no avail. Nick suggested we just abandon ship and hike down the cog railway, but this time I insisted we find a way. So together we backtracked a bit and somehow found a cairn in the terrible visibility. This section was sparsely populated with them so we had to exercise extra caution as we proceeded. 
Descending Into he Unknown

We eventually made our way to the Lake of the Clouds hut, indulged in some water, and made way past the frozen Lake of the Clouds up the shoulder of Mt. Monroe. The climb was moderate but it was at this point that my knees and ankles began to ache like nothing else. I suspected the culprit were the crampons. We trudged on nonetheless and ticked off Monroe and continued onward to Eisenhower. In my mind I set a goal to reach the summit before needing to put on headlamps, which we did, but barely – and no thanks to another navigational mishap (interlacing trails threw us for a loop for a quick minute… or ten). We trudged onward towards Pierce after donning headlamps. The peak came, but not before I began to become extremely fatigued. Over 20 miles of rugged winter climbing will do that. My spirit began to slip and hit a low as we finally made the .9 mile descent to the Mizpah hut. Here we saw the first people of the trip, a group of NC State students being led by a professor. It was at this point that we decided to ditch the crampons – what a brilliant idea, one I wished we had partaken in earlier! We cruised for the last summit of the day, Jackson, and did so making great time considering how long we’d been on our feet. We strapped on the crampons for one last time to traverse the icy summit of Jackson then enjoyed a fairly quick descent aided by a fair bit of glissading.

16 hours after we had started we stumbled out of the woods to the car. It was a great feeling (especially because we had inadvertently parked RIGHT near the trail head). A drive through a snowstorm and back to the house where pizza and beer were waiting for us provided the best ending to an incredible day. I had only one beer but I felt drunk – not from the alcohol, but from having pushed my body and accomplishing a great feat. There were many lessons learned and some great memories formed from this adventure – one I’ll never forget!
Parking lot glee!

Some stats from the day:
  •      Weather: Freezing Fog
  •      Temp: -2°F
  •       Visibility: 200 ft
  •        Relative Humidity: 100%
  •      Peak wind gust: 126mph
  •      Average Wind speed: 76.2mph

Wakely Dam Ultra

Ultra running
The following recollection is a synopsis of an ultra-marathon:

Beep, beep, beep,… The alarm indicates that it’s 4:30AM. 
My mind is telling me it’s the middle of day due to my vivid alertness and the excitement of what lies before me this morning. 
I’m lying in a tent next to my brother. 
We drove 4 hours the night before in an attempt to avoid a long drive this morning (July 23, 2011) and to make an effort at catching some shut eye prior to today’s race. 
However, my mind’s inability to quiet itself works to undermine all physical efforts we set forth upon. 

I slip out of my bag, unzip the tent and head for a clear patch of woods to empty my bladder which is urgently alarming me that nature’s ring tone is more painful than it is audible.  My agitated brother would most likely disagree with this audibility statement given my repeated unzipping of the tent and desperate groans and grunts as I barely complete my brief (no pun intended) missions throughout the valuable hours of the night.  *Over-hydrating the night before a race definitely has its draw backs despite its numerous advantages during the race.

On this day we are near Wakely Dam in the southern Adirondacks between Piseco and Indian Lake townships.  The race we have been preparing for, both physically and mentally, is the Wakely Dam Ultra (WDU). 

Ultra is short for Ultra-marathon and is a foot race that consists of running any distance longer than 26.2 miles (aka a marathon).  The WDU is unlike most ultras, it is 32.6 grueling miles which takes place on a section of the Northville-Placid trail between Piseco and Wakely Dam.  What distinguishes this race even further is that during this distance you will not cross one road and are completely unassisted; all runners must carry their own food, water, necessary supplies and perseverance for the duration of the race.  

My goal on race morning was to hold down a consistent pace of 9min/mile (4:54:00 to complete the race).  My average pace for half this distance on trail is about a minute per mile faster.  This, for me, was a progressive goal worth striving for. 

After an early morning snack followed by a relaxing bus ride, we arrived at our destination, the starting line.  The energy before the start of an endurance event is exhilarating.  Camaraderie is more common than competitiveness throughout the ultra community.  These races are more of a test of one’s own abilities and endurance than trying to be well placed in the pack.  

At the start of race I it began to occur to me that the first section of the course was too narrow to pass comfortably.  Luckily, I was able to place myself in 4th from the start. Quickly realizing the 3rd person wasn’t keeping my desired pace, I announced “on your left” and smoothly skirted around him.  I continued in 3rd for the first hour of the race following 1st and 2nd place runners closely as to feed off their energy and pace. 

For the duration of the first 1.5 hours of this race, the first 6-8 of us were closely spaced.  I could hear my brother bantering back and forth with our friend Zach for a bit of this time.  Around the 2 hour mark the 1st place guy stopped to answer nature’s beckoning call.  At this point it was I and one guy hot on my heels…

To give a first-person sense of the course:  The ground is soft, the trees and plants are close with smells reminiscent of a cool summer’s morning.  Vivid awareness of your surroundings is vital to navigating through the woods on this trail.  At any one time you may only be able to see 10-30’ of the trail before it snakes around a curve or pitches up a hill.  A high level of vigilance is needed on the ground 3-6 feet in front of you to avoid any hazardous objects (narrowing of the trail, rocks, roots, puddles, etc) that could end the running day early if improperly navigated. 

…When it comes to uphills I am well equipped to hold a steady clip (thanks to Ithaca’s hills).  During these moments I could feel the gap behind me widening only to be lost during the decent.  We ‘slinkied’ for well over a half hour until the trail suddenly vanished… He attempted to go ahead until I effectively communicated the absence of the trail. 

At this point the 3rd place man was with us as we did some searching.  Apparently the trail took a sharp right and continued on over a foot bridge to the other side of a stream whose parenting lake we were able to look out across.  The 2nd place runner decided to take this opportunity to dip a quick drink from the sparkling waters of this pristine Adirondack lake.

This was the last time I would see any other runner besides Chad (now in 2nd place).  The two of us continued on softly through the woods.  We talked for miles about such topics as running and racing, our background lives, travels, and of course our favorite trails to run (one of them being the Pemi loop, more on that in a future post)…

It is speculated that a persons ambitions to partake in an athletic event is stemmed in our ancestral past which consisted of physical endeavors such as hunting and/or combat between other tribes.  It was in these times that individuals were required to condition their bodies in preparation for such events.

For me, running offers many benefits depending on the day.  Among these would be physical conditioning, meditative relief from stress, adventure, and a truly visceral way to connect with the environment. 

Running is inherently a great way to increase longevity, if performed correctly of course.  Form is a must as it is a very repetitive activity continuously straining certain areas of the body.  This is why I chose to run in my Five Fingers (aka: toes shoes, monkey feet, socially unacceptable footwear, stinky fingers, or a combination of the above). 

These shoes allow me to correct my form almost automatically only requiring minor adjustments throughout.  It is through this activity that one may strengthen tendons, muscles, bones, lose weight, increase cardiovascular strength and, in my case, increase happiness.  It also allows me to challenge myself beyond the run as I'm not relying on purchased goods to totally take away the discomforts of the surface I'm running on.

…Time check – halfway: 2:31:24 (pace: 9:15 min/mile, oye!).  Around two thirds into the race, I quickly stopped to refill my bottle with fresh stream water.  In a matter of 30 seconds I managed to separate myself and my running friend (Chad) an unobtainable and ever increasing distance.  From this point on it was going to be me and my thoughts for the remaining 12 miles with brief interludes by lone hikers and a forest ranger. 

The absolute exhaustion that one feels during an event like this is like nothing else.  Your mind activates every sense to its loudest alarm:

Eyes – While closing in on the final 7 miles, continuous burning becomes status quo from the constant movement in keeping up with my stammering feet and the ever changing trail.

Nose – With fewer than 6 miles to go and a sweltering sun in mid July, ‘heat’ is the only scent in the air.

Ears – The voices that occur in the remaining 5 miles aren’t fellow racers or inquisitive hikers they are internal, as if your mind is trying to keep you company along this lonely stretch.

Taste – Mile 4, texture sensations lose their appeal as I developed numbness for water with ‘chunks’ in it.  Flavor follows suit as my tongue, and its friend, my stomach, convinced me that eating a clif bar was a bit too cloy for the moment.

Feeling – Egregious in its current nature, 3 miles never seemed so far. 

The feeling of putting yourself in circumstances that require you to give something all you have and then continuing to press on beyond that point is beyond words.  The mental, physical, and emotional edge that a person can take themselves to is incredible. 

As the finish line materialized through the convoluting heat waves in the distance I felt a sudden rush of emotions which translated into a lone tear escaping from the left optical region of my face.  Upon finishing all that I was pining for was graciously fulfilled, fresh, clean, chunk FREE, cold water, REAL FOOD, real people with smiling and welcoming faces, and the satisfaction of completing the race in 5:14:39 (pace: 9:39 min/mile).

1)      Chad Denning – 5:06:10
2)      Nick Kirk – 5:14:39
3)      Christopher Bunyan – 5:47:55
12)  Ethan Kirk and Zach Yates – 6:52:36