Tuesday, December 6, 2011

12-6-11 Editorial: The Hut Traverse as a Unique, Challenging, Local Treasure


Whenever I mention the hut traverse I get myriad comments and emails from readers. A case in point is the 11-24-11 article, Zealand Falls Thanksgiving, in which George Heinrichs’ 12h:38m time on a recent traverse was noted. I received several comments regarding George’s traverse including one that asked whether it was on the same course I completed in 1963 or whether George had taken the “easy” route.
The traverse is a lovely, unique, and extremely challenging hike/run that not only traverses the AMC hut system, but also traverses one of the most beautiful mountain regions in the United States. It offers enticing varieties of weather, topography and physical environments ranging from Alpine to Northern-forest-wilderness. It has pre-established way stations, the huts, that can be used to cache food/liquids/clothing and are equipped with two-way radios in case of emergencies.
We, and I mean all of us who love trail running, distance trail running, and marathon hikes, are unbelievably fortunate to have this course in our backyard complete with its 80-year history. It’s also noteworthy for its potential to expand into a much longer course by including the Carter-Moriah and Mahoosuc ranges in the east and the Kinsman-Moosilaukee trails in the west. It may even be possible to create an outstanding100-mile course with the traverse as its centerpiece.
The lovely view towards the west (taken in 1967) from the summit of South Twin. Those who do the traverse going east to west are roughly 3/4 of the way at this point and often find this view mortifying because Garfield and Lafayette look so impossibly far away!
The traverse is never easy and there isn’t a separate, easier route. In the first 35 years that the traverse was part of hut history the course generally included Pinkham Notch Camp as one of the huts. Since the 1970’s the traverse became a straight line from Carter to Lonesome Lake or Lonesome Lake to Carter after the visit to Pinkham was eliminated.
The detour to Pinkham impacted the total distance and time factor and would have been a factor in my 1963 traverse except that I started at Madison and went first to Carter by descending Madison Gulf to the Glen House and then running up the Aqueduct Path and Nineteen Mile Brook Trail (hut to hut: 8.7 miles). I went over the Wildcats to the ski area and slithered down a ski trail to Rt. 16 and ran along an abandoned trail (that used to ferry skiers from Pinkham to the old Wildcat Ski Trail) to the old Trading Post at Pinkham (4.4 miles) where I gulped my first food. I then ran up Tuckerman Ravine and Crossover trails to Lakes before heading west.
George started his recent traverse at Carter and went to Madison via Madison Gulf and took Gulfside and Westside to Lakes before heading west. If you do the math (and use the 1960 AMC guide book distances for my traverse) you’ll find that George covered 16.7 miles to reach Lakes and I covered 17.8 miles, a difference of 1.2 miles (even though I included Pinkham). At the western end, after Lonesome Lake Hut was moved to the other side of Lonesome Lake in 1965, the traverse picked up a quarter mile so the difference between George’s and my traverse is about one mile. At 4-5 mph that’s about 15 minutes a mile and means that George’s most recent time is only 27 minutes behind my 1963 time, less than half a minute per mile over the course.
The author (2nd from left in front) in his Adidas, fresh from the hut traverse, starting a fresh cross country season.
I’ve reported that I was in superb shape when I did the traverse in 1963. I was training for something larger in scope than the traverse and was a fiercely dedicated athlete. This is how serious I was: everyday throughout high school I ran a hilly 9.8-mile course and then put in some rigorous speed workouts on the track that added 4-5 miles to my day. I took a blood sample and titrated it for lactose acid content every day before and after practice and every 2-3 months I rotated my diet regimen using the titration data in an attempt to fashion a special diet for distance running (trying to follow in the footsteps of the Australian middle distance runners, like John Landry and Olympic miler Herb Elliot, and their remarkable coach, Percy Cerutty).
Those who attempt the hut traverse with a focus on time really need to think about diet. A fast time is about speed, strength and endurance but efficient energy uptake and hydration, along with pacing, are equally important. (Sorry, I know I promised not to preach.) At any rate, George’s cool, methodical nature is definitely a plus in helping him achieve a fluid pace with good hydration. His recent time of 12 h: 38 m is a good indication that he's in superb shape and may be able to break the 12-hour time that I was trying to break way, way back in 1963. I hope he does.


Jeff List said...

I think you're selling the extra difficulty of your old record route a bit short. Using the AMC White Mountains guide online and Google Earth, I get the "McPhail Route" as 2.95 miles longer AND with 1,625 feet more elevation gain compared to what I call the "Minimal Hut Traverse." (I will grant that I don't include the Aquaduct path, as I don't know where that is (or was), and just go Great Gulf Tr to Rt. 16 up to the 19 Mile Brook Tr. I assume the Aquaduct path is a shortcut from Rt. 16, but does it make that much difference?) At any rate I think we're talking about a good hour longer on your old route even at a very fast pace. I've done both routes in the last few years and the McPhail route also just felt a lot harder. (19.5 hrs for Minimal Traverse, DNF for McPhail Route--I ain't no hutboy.) I have detailed spreadsheets on the mileage and elevation gain for each segment if you're interested.
Also--the idea of a Wt. Mountains 100 is a something a few of us in the New England ultrarunning community have kicked about, but so far there's only an informal annual 50K in the Whites. A simple Hut Traverse out and back would be about 100 miles and have lots of built-in aid stations, and be the 2nd hardest 100 miler in the country, in my opinion.

Alpine, R.N. said...

As George's sister, I have to say that, if he knew that people were even ARGUING this (he doesn't) he would insist on doing BOTH routes, and comparing them. Because he's like that.

Ari said...

While chopping through Irene trees this fall, I discussed a shelter traverse with one of the caretakers, from Speck Pond to Eliza Brook, which would be insanely hard. A 100 mile run from Grafton Notch to Franconia Notch would be outstanding because the Mahoosucs are harder than the Whites (now I'm just trying to plant ideas in George's head for this summer). His plans right now are to run up Mount Washington faster than the (coal-powered) Cog, and to break 12:00 for the Hut Traverse. He needs cool, dry weather. If the lackluster snowpack melts off particularly quickly, I could see late May as a good time to do it (cooler temperatures, lots of light).

A White Mounains 100 would be fun, but good luck getting that to work with the Forest Service, at least for an organized race. What 100 miles is harder?