Solo Hiking Presidential Traverse - Backpack

words and photos by Ashleigh McEuen ::

My packed bag sits by my door. My alarm, set for 4 a.m., is unnecessary: I am drifting anxiously in and out of slumber due to an unfounded fear of twisting my ankle.

In the morning, I’ll set out to complete the Presidential Traverse as my first solo overnighter.

Located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Presidential Traverse is an infamous trek that takes hikers over seven mountains named for U.S. presidents: Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. Each of these mountains is over four thousand feet; five include extensive boulder fields. The trails, some of the oldest in the nation, go straight up their sides; no time to catch your breath on switchbacks.

This solo endeavor could not have come at a better time. I had pitched several projects aimed at bringing light to all the beauty the East Coast has to offer. Each was denied. One company I loved finished the rejection by saying, “You are neither unique nor pushing the envelope.” This statement hit hard. The next day, I set the date a week from then to begin my challenge.

. . .

Solo Hiking Presidential Traverse - water

Photo taken in the White Mountains – CC0

Once at the trailhead, my qualms about my first solo overnighter disappear in the calming effect of the surrounding trees and the trail ahead.

Ascending the first peak, Mount Madison, I pass two parties of hikers heading for the same goal. I slow my pace as the trail rises into steeper and rockier terrain, observing the trees stunted in height as I near the alpine zone. When Madison’s peak comes into sight, a jolt of energy pushes me and I increase my pace.

After the last half mile to the summit, I slide my backpack off my shoulders and down my sweaty arms to the rocks at my feet. I look right and left, each providing me a view that goes on for miles. Grabbing my camera, I set it on a rock and take a self-portrait. The sky is clear and the sun is warm upon my neck and shoulders.

But I don’t want to spend much time not moving. After giving some time to enjoy this first summit, I begin down the boulder field, stepping carefully to avoid the slick rocks that are not yet dried by the morning sun.

I stop in at the Madison Spring Hut, located in the saddle between my last summit and Mount Adams, my next objective. I sit for 15 minutes and eat the pancakes provided by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) for hikers. Fueled for the morning, I begin my second ascent to Mount Adams.

Others are beginning to take advantage of the day. Hoping to avoid the crowds that are starting to make their way up the trails, I increase my pace to reach my second summit, feeling droplets of sweat run down my back. At the top of Mount Adams, I catch my breath while pausing for the view of Camel’s Hump, a Vermont summit that is visible from this New Hampshire peak.

Feeling physically and mentally strong, I move on toward Mount Jefferson.

Solo Hiking Presidential Traverse - Storm

But then the effects of the traverse start to kick in. The closer I come to my third summit, the more I realize there’s a problem. My lower back feels like an anaconda wrapping itself around my spine. My legs aren’t able to take normal strides.

Taking a glance up the mountain, I whisper, “I can do this. I got this. Keep pushing.”

Nearing the last section of Mount Jefferson’s summit, a group of Polish hikers stop to talk. I place my hand on my back and relish this excuse to pause. They ask what I’m doing out in the wilderness by myself, and I tell them my goal. What I heard next was exactly what I needed to get myself up the last stretch to Jefferson: uplifting words from others. I made my thi