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Mental Preparations
for Hiking the Presidentials

email Scott Turner

A Free Spirit and a Planner

When two hikers meet in the mountains, the most common preludes to conversation are "Where did you come from?" and "Where are you going?" Most people have a ready answer to these questions. But on the day of which I write, one man's answer was that it was a beautiful day and that he was headed up to a nearby peak and had no plan other than to wander where the trail beckoned and his feet would take him. In my turn I said "I'm not like that; I need a plan." My plan was to hike the 26 miles of the Presidential Range that day.

These two approaches contrast like night and day among hikers. Yet to be well applied, each approach must be tempered with the other. A wanderer is unlikely to stumble on his or her heart's delight without some idea of where to go. A plan rigidly adhered to can lead to disaster. I'll never forget the advice I read in a magazine article about planning a backpacking trip. Along with all of the expected kinds of things about distances to go and camp sites, it said to remember that whatever your plan, nothing could be better than to find the most beautiful, peaceful spot in the mountains and just stay there for an extra day or two.

I believe this and recommend it to you. But for me its truth is more dynamic. I found this out on an early backpacking trip. I had planned a rest day and indeed had found a wonderful lake in the Sierra Nevada of California which I had all to myself, with majestic, high peaks all around, the epitome of what I was seeking. I chose to spend an extra day there, rest and tidy up, read a book, etc. It was great. While enjoying this lovely lake, my thoughts turned to the trail and where I would go after this. I considered the places I might go and the trails I might take the next day. It was going to be really great. After a few hours of contemplation and rest, the active hiking seemed so desirable that, with half the day gone, I packed up and headed away from my wonderful discovery, covering in the remainder of the day almost as much ground as I did in my other days on the trail.

So I don't go for the kind of flexibility that allows for a rest day. My kind of flexibility allows for a wide potential of hiking distances and destinations, depending on weather, my legs, and my whims.

Facing the Challenge

I had one long-lived goal, which has stuck in my head since October of 1990, when I read that the Supreme Court nominee, David Souter, had hiked the section of the Appalachian Trail over the Presidential Range in one day. Most of the mountains in this range were a challenge because I had never climbed them. And each of these 10-odd mountains on its own would make for a day's hike ranging from respectable to strenuous. If he did it, could I? And if I could, it would surely be a rewarding hike.

When I added up all of the hiking times in the Appalachian Mountain Club's guide to the Presidential Range, it came to 18 hours. That doesn't count time for resting and eating. It also accounts very poorly for how slow the going is on the steep rocky downhills of the White Mountains. I calculated a more realistic time of 20 hours. The longest day offers enough light to see by only from 4:30 A.M. to 9:00 P.M, 16.5 hours. Two possibilities could be considered. First, I could plan on doing hours of hiking in the dark. This brought valid fears to mind. The footing on most White Mountain trails is tricky enough during the day. Traveling at night would make sense if (1) I had some experience of hiking at night, (2) I were familiar enough with the trail to be sure of not getting lost, and (3) even so progress would be slower. The first two conditions would be hard to meet, and the third was a decided negative.

Alternatively, I could push the pace, knowing that I have been able to sustain a faster hiking pace for hours at a time (notably on a day when I hiked the Franconia Ridge from Mt. Flume to Mt. Lafayette). However, on that day I had hoped to hike all day and had found that after little more than half a day I was too sore to continue, and gave up. The lesson of that day taught me the folly of a fast pace. There didn't seem to be a reasonable expectation of accomplishing this goal. I put it out of my mind as something for 20-year-olds in good shape, with extra time to prepare, not for 40-year-olds with a family to shepherd. But every year when the summer solstice came, I would remember that this is the time of year when the Presidential hike was maybe possible. I'd play with the idea in my mind and discard it for one reason or another.

Then came 1996. My wife Kathy had of late been encouraging me in my athletic avocation of orienteering, letting me get away from the family for a day at a time for strenuous competition. My body did better than I expected. And I learned that it was possible to compete even when you have an ache in the body going in. Some of these aches will come and go, and avoiding exercise to nurse them back to health doesn't always do the trick. An ache will bother me for days of inactivity, and then go away shortly after I start running through the woods. So my old attitude to aches was changing. I knew that after hiking for half the day I would be aching, but this seemed less of an impediment to the idea of hiking all day.

I worked some more on the distances and projected times for the Presidential hike. They were still at the same daunting level. I made a plan for how this trip just might come off, including a way to ensure that it happens in good weather, places to sleep the night before and after, etc. I checked with Kathy for her advice, and she said to go ahead and try it. So even while I did not believe I could do it or should attempt it, I began watching the long range weather forecasts.


Now came a critical point in my mental preparations. The whole idea looked tantalizingly possible and realistically impossible. What was my goal? As a cautious and experienced hiker I of course had a bunch of alternative descent routes available should the entire route be too much. But realistically it seemed almost certain that I would have to take one of these alternatives and so fail to reach my goal. My experience on Franconia Ridge would repeat itself if I pushed the pace, whereas there would be insufficient time if I did not. The hike looked like a recipe for depressing disappointment given the likelihood of pushing my body to the point of pain and still failing.

At this point I decided to attempt it. I would not push the pace. But I didn't know exactly how fast a moderate pace would carry me, and I would not know if I just gave up. I decided to pace myself as I used to in a long-distance running race. For the first quarter hold back. For the middle half hang on to the pace. For the last quarter give it all you've got left. The decision to attempt it in the face of the likelihood of failure led to an attitude that lasted through most of the hike.

Following Through

The attitude got me through physical strain, enabling me to care for my aches and yet put them out of my mind most of the time. The attitude got me through the logical hurdles of planning and replanning the remainder of the day, because it didn't matter precisely whether I could predict failure or success in the goal of hiking the whole Presidential Range. I would give it a try.

This was a crazy, indefensible goal for a 47-year-old who lately has only hiked a couple of times a year and who has never in his life hiked so far. Kathy knew that I was both nutty and cautious about it, and trusted me. But I had to answer other people when they asked what I was doing. I didn't want to let myself in for a lecture from someone who knew that it was ideas similar to mine that killed people on Mt. Washington. At work, when I asked my boss for the day off, I wanted to explain what I was doing, and came up with "I'm going to climb as many mountains as I can." This is the answer that got me through the day as I met hikers at the huts and on the trail.

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