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Asking for Directions: Hiking the Presidential Traverse on a Quad Bike

Coincidentally, in the Scottish referendum and in my time at Canada, I’ve been saying the word ‘yes’ a lot. I’ve been trying to put myself out there, do things I never would have before and simply just relish the amount of opportunities that are presenting themselves during my  year abroad. So when I was asked if I wanted to do a really hard alpine traverse, climbing 7 peaks in a mountain range infamous throughout all of America for its terrible, fast changing weather and winds which have been recorded at 230 mph… What was I going to say?

The McGill Outdoors Club is a wonderful society which organises adventurous trips, accommodatiing spontaneous people wanting to spontaneous things in the great outdoors. I signed up to do the Presidential Traverse, leaving on the 19th of September. It was $25 dollars, and  $25 dollars well spent.

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I got all my stuff together – sleeping mat, sleeping bag, jacket(s), ‘jumpers’, thermals, cereal bars, bananas, waterproofs etc, and then met the rest of the group and headed down through Quebec into The United States. At the border, I was amazed at how American everything was. There were American flags flying above border officers’ heads and pictures of Barack Obama on the wall. The whole atmosphere felt exactly as I had imagined it.

We then arrived rather late at our base camp site, set up our tent, and 3 of us squished into a 2 man tent for what was to be a very tight, cold and frightening sleep. At 3am, I woke up to the noise of branches breaking and a grunting noise. I lay very still, desperate to wake up my friend next to me, but didn’t for fear of making noise. The noise got closer, and the grunts more frequent. I listened for about five minutes until I heard the animal slowly move away from our camp. I am convinced it was a bear, or at least a large animal. I now realise that we shouldn’t have taken our big packs into the tent with us which all had food in them.

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The next morning we awoke to a crisp frost resting on the ground and a beautiful sunrise. We ate our porridge and set off for our hike at 7.30 – early, but late in hiking terms. The walk up was strenuous at what felt like a 90% incline, but it was beautiful. We were in the trees, with leaves beginning to fall around us and little rivers winding their way down the valley. After a few hours of this, and a few 100 metres climbed, we arrived at the top. There was an amazing, extremely random wooden hut there which served hot soup and coffee. That was to be our lunch stop, once we had bagged our first of many peaks. At the top, the clouds prevented us from seeing anything 2014-09-20 13.36.05but the amazingly strong wind provided us with laughter as we tightly gripped hold of our hats.

After lunch, we set off again for our next peak. It was already 1.30, and so we were very behind schedule. I especially enjoyed climbing Mount Adams as it was really challenging. We hurled ourselves over big rocks and through small crevices, occasionally stopping to tug our rucksacks through behind us. Again, as soon as we arrived at the top, the wind greeted us with force, although this time a lot stronger and more relentless. We proceeded to bag our next few summits, but the wind slowed us down. A few hours later, we set off down a track which we then realised was the wrong way, and suddenly it dawned on us that we had about 2 hours until darkness fell and we were nowhere near the shelter we had planned to stay in for the night. We were pretty lost. Asking for directions 3000ft up in a mountain range imfamous for hikers’ death due was impossible, and the sudden, overwhelming realisation that there was nowhere we could go for help was awful. It made me feel strangely claustrophobic.

Ahhh, but you have tents and sleeping bags and mats so you can camp wherever, you say! We did have food, sleeping mats, sleeping bags… and 2 tents, which would sleep 5 people. We were 12. I’m not great at maths, but I knew that didn’t add up.

I remember the sense of panic which saturated my body as I overheard someone muttering ‘I don’t know where we will sleep tonight’. There is something daunting about standing on top of a mountain, in a cloud, in high winds, with a group of people you don’t know well, only to find out you might not have anywhere to sleep.

We found some guys who we had previously seen on the hike, explained our situation to them, and they kindly offered to let two of us sleep in their tent. However, I had noticed prior to our second meeting with them that one of them had a handgun strapped onto his backpack, and a knife visibly on his shirt. I thought I would pass on those two spaces in their tent.

We descended down the mountain into the trees where we hoped the wind would reduce. Funnily enough, we bumped into a few others in the outdoors club who had set up camp. It was really strange that we met them, on reflection – The White Mountains in New Hampshire is a vast area of terrain, and so seeing familiar faces was really bizarre. They said they had room for one person to sleep there, but again that meant that 5 people were left for bear meat outside. It was then suggested we hike back down the mountain, hitchhike on the highway at the bottom, get back to our cars and sleep there. So, our headtorches were taken out, the sighs began to louden and our hike down what was to become a waterfall/river began.

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There was a poor French guy hiking behind me who had never hiked before. He was wearing corduroy trousers, using his iPhone 5 as a headtorch and his backpack was falling to pieces. At one point he dropped his phone in a river whilst crossing it and went to pick it up, only for everything in his bag to fall out. I saw his passport floating down stream…

After a few hours of slipping over mossy, wet rocks, we decided to stop for food and a meeting. We looked at the map and saw that the highway was another 10 kilometres away. The thought seemed unbearable, but somehow, after stuffed some bagels into our mouths, we mustered up the energy to trek on.

Again, after another hour or so, we stopped and decided that this was pointless; it was warmer now, less windy, and the great outdoors was accommodating, grass was comfortable and star gazing in a sleeping bag was fun. So we set up camp, lay down to rest our heads and fell fast asleep (after putting all our food in a bag 30m away from camp, to distract bears).

The next morning we awoke to the noise of a river running close by. It was a beautiful spot to camp, and upon reflection I’m so glad we did. Blue skies felt like a god send! It was decided that some people would continue the walk to the car, then they would drive to the top of Mount Washington, where they would then meet the rest of the group for a spot of lunch complimented with a great view of the White Mountains. And so, after another hearty bowl of porridge, we began  2014-09-21 13.49.24our beautiful trek up the mountain. We crossed streams and waterfalls, walked past bees’ nests and chipmunks and were delighted with the scenery. When we finally got near the top, I heard what I thought were helicopters. Strange sounding cars, I thought, and lo and behold we arrived at the top, only to be greeted by tens of quad bikes. One day a year the road is closed to quad bikes only, and this one day was the day we had arrived at this road.

Great. A2014-09-21 13.06.15nother 10k hike DOWN the mountain to meet the rest of the group. I don’t think I’ve ever had such an accumulation of bad luck before. Heavy hearted, we began. After a few kilometres, we stopped for lunch at a big parking layby. There were some people on quad bikes next to us, and we began to talk to them, reciting our woes about how the  Presidential Traverse had utterly defeated us. They began to give us cereal bars, exclaiming “what poor souls” we must be. The more details we gave them, the more food we got, until finally a woman suggested that we just got on the back of their quad bikes. It may be illegal, but “what the heck – you guys are exhausted!”

So… there was me, on the bag of a quad bike, arms wrapped around an American man called Ray, backpack still on, sweat on my brow and fresh bread and multiple cereal bars in my stomach. We set off on our quad bikes down the road, a possé of 14 smelly hikers, smiles on our faces and our faith in the world restored.

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