NH-48 Velocissima

An Unsupported Hike of New Hampshire’s Four Thousand Footers

“Why?” my wife Melanie asked, as I loaded my pack with gear and food.

I didn’t answer her.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said.

I didn’t say it out loud, but, yes, I did have to do this. I had spent several years studying the trails between New Hampshire’s Four Thousand Footers, searching for the fastest way to traverse the peaks. After expending all that effort, it was inconceivable that I would not make an attempt to hike the route I had spent so much time researching.

I have watched others struggle to answer the “Why” question. For me, the answer is simply, “Because I am human.” You don’t have to look very hard to see that we humans are naturally inclined to explore the limits of our capabilities and knowledge. We do this continuously in all aspects of life: in education, in business, in art, in sports, and in our play. The limits that we individually choose to explore vary, as do the reasons we explore them. Sometimes we undertake challenges in hopes of economic or personal gain or for the greater-good, but sometimes we indulge ourselves with a challenge or a project because it’s just plain fun. My search for the fastest way to traverse New Hampshire’s Four Thousand Footers is a case of the latter.

This project began in December 2013 when I was Christmas shopping with my daughter Brianna. We were browsing in a local outdoor retailer’s store when a map of the White Mountains caught my eye.  One of the map’s subtitles was “The Four Thousand Footers.” At the time, I had hiked quite a few of New Hampshire’s Four Thousand Footers, but there were still many I had not hiked. I picked up the map, and while standing in the checkout line with Brianna I asked: “I wonder how fast this can be done”? I took the map home, and before long I was poring over it trying figure out the most efficient way to traverse all 48 peaks.

During the summer of 2014, Brianna and I prepared to make a supported speed-hike of the NH-48. We spent much of our free time in the White Mountains exploring routes and training on the White Mountains’ brutally technical trails. As Brianna would later write, the summer was a gift. We got to spend many quality hours together enjoying the beauty of the White Mountains. Then, in September, with my wife Melanie supporting us from a rented RV, and my son Michael monitoring our progress and supporting Melanie remotely, Brianna and I made an attempt to hike all 48 peaks in one go. The hike was much more difficult than we anticipated, but we completed it in 4 days, 20 hours and 19 minutes, which was just fast enough for Brianna to a make a slight improvement on the women’s fastest known time. That experience was one we will never forget. Brianna’s report on the hike is available here.

My interest in speed hikes of the NH-48 could have ended there, but two days after Brianna and I finished that hike, Arlette Laan completed a White Mountain Direttissima, an unsupported thru-hike traversing all 48 of New Hampshire’s Four Thousand Footers. Her time was 11 days, 19 hours, which remains the fastest known time for an unsupported solo female today. I was immediately interested in the unique challenges of an unsupported hike. What was the optimal route? How light could I go? How much food would I need?

I began to pick away at answering these questions. I was in no hurry. I wasn’t certain I would ever do an unsupported hike. Other things were often a higher priority. When I had time to do a hike in the White Mountains, however, I often designed it to answer a question, provide data about a possible route, or test out a given piece of gear.

Of course, as I invested more and more time in the project, it became more and more likely that I would one day attempt an unsupported hike. Things in which you invest a lot of time have a tendency to become obsessions. My brother John says you have to be careful about your obsessions. I think that means you have to be careful about the things in which you invest your time.

 

Choosing the Route

I attacked the problem of choosing my route as any engineer would. I recorded the data from my hikes and running experiments in a spreadsheet, and I developed a mathematical model of the problem. I apologize in advance if your eyes glaze over as you read this section.

To compare the relative efficiency of routes with different distances, elevation gains and technical factors, I needed a single metric that encapsulated all these variables. The metric I used for this was Equivalent Track Distance (ETD). ETD is an estimate of the distance I could traverse on a track in the same amount of time that it would take me to hike a given trail segment.

To calculate the ETD for ascending trail segments, I ran experiments to see how elevation gain affected my speed. I found that at grades above 15%, my speed was not affected by either the horizontal distance or how technical the trail was. My speed was determined solely by my vertical velocity, which was relatively constant at a given effort level (heart rate).

One experiment illustrated this finding particularly well. For the experiment, I hiked up North Tripyramid, once via the North Slide Trail, and once via the Scaur Ridge Trail. The route up the North Slide Trail is 1.2 miles long and is very steep and technical. The route up the Scaur Ridge Trail is 2.2 miles long and much less steep and technical. On both ascents, I tried to maintain my heart rate at around 145 bpm. The ascent via the North Slide Trail took me 43:16, and the ascent via the Scaur Ridge Trail took me 44:59. In other words, the ascent via the Scaur Ridge Trail took me only 4% longer than the ascent via the North Slide Trail, despite the fact that the ascent via the Scaur Ridge Trail was 83% longer, distance-wise, than the ascent via the North Slide Trail.

The small difference in the ascending times of these two routes was attributable to the flat and lower-grade sections on the Scaur Ridge Trail. In my model, ETD for grades less than 15% was a function of the elevation gain, the distance, and the technical factor of the trail segment. The weight given to each variable varied linearly with the grade. At grades near 15%, the ETD was determined mostly by the elevation gain. Conversely, at grades near zero percent, the ETD was determined mostly by the distance and technical factor of the trail segment.

The trails in the White Mountains are notoriously technical. To determine how much the rocks, mud, and grade of a given “flat” or descending trail segment affected speed, I would hike/run the trail at a given effort level (heart rate) and compare the time required to traverse the trail to the time required to traverse the same distance, at the same effort level, on a track. The average technical factor I came up with for trails in the White Mountains was 2.3. In other words, according to my data, it takes me, on average, 2.3 times longer to run a flat or descending mile in the White Mountains than it takes me to run a mile on a track.

The flip side of the North Tripyramid experiment illustrated the importance of having accurate technical factor estimates for the trail segments. It took me 36:10 to descend North Tripyramid via the North Slide Trail, but it only took me 27:41 to descend via the Scaur Ridge Trail. In other words, it took me 23% less time to descend via the less technical Scaur Ridge Trail than it took me to descend via the highly technical North Slide Trail, despite the fact that the Scaur Ridge Trail was 83% longer, distance-wise, than the North Slide Trail.

Once I had a formula to calculate ETD estimates for individual trail segments, I then needed to apply the formula to all the trail segments that might be part of the optimum route. I defined 88 waypoints that I could envision possibly being part of the optimum route, and I created distance, elevation gain, climbing distance, and technical factor matrices in which I recorded the variables for the trail segments between the waypoints. I didn’t attempt to fill in all the cells of the matrices; I only filled in the cells corresponding to trail segments that I judged might feasibly be part of the optimum route.

Once I had ETD estimates for trail segments that might be part of an optimum route, I then needed a way to identify the optimum route from among all the possible routes. This was a classic Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP). The Traveling Salesman Problem is classified as an NP-hard problem, which means it is very difficult to solve when the number of waypoints is large. Excel Solver, for example, can solve TSP problems with about 12-13 waypoints, but I had defined 88 waypoints. This was far beyond the scope of anything Excel Solver could solve.

I organized the spreadsheet so I could quickly create worksheets by hand that would calculate the ETD of a candidate route. Using this method, I was able to identify some good routes, but I wanted more certainty that I wasn’t overlooking better routes.

Eventually, I bit the bullet and spent a couple of months writing a program that used a branch-and-bound strategy to search the set of feasible routes for the route with the minimum ETD.  The program still needs some work to enable it to be used by others, but it seems to work. It takes it several hours to search all the feasible solutions I defined, but it finds what appears to be the route with lowest overall ETD (based on my estimates, of course).

The route that my program found, was the route I took on my hike. By my calculations, the route was 240.9 miles long with a total elevation gain of 68,977 feet, and an Equivalent Track Distance of 577.7 miles.

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In the end, many candidate routes had Equivalent Track Distances within a few percentage points of the ETD of the route I took. And since the accuracy of my ETD estimates for the individual trail segments is far less than a few percentage points, I cannot say if the route I took is the fastest. It is certainly not the most direct route. It is about 8 miles longer, for example, than Mats Roing’s route. It is also not the most aesthetic route. It has a 12 mile road segment on Rt. 112.

Given that my route wasn’t the most direct route and that it made heavy use of roads, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to call my hike a Direttissima (Italian for “most-direct route”), the traditional name for NH-48 thru-hikes.  My route was, however, a fast NH-48 route. In Italian, it might be called a NH-48 Velocissima.

 

Choosing the Gear

In addition to identifying the route, I needed to work out the gear that I would require. I wanted to go as light as possible, and I wanted to be able to run flat and downhill sections. I tried a 20-liter fastpack, but I found it was difficult to run with a pack that big. Race vests were much better for running, but I wasn’t sure I could fit everything I needed into a vest.

One of the largest race vests I could find was the Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0. It has large stretchy pockets that expand and hold stuff close. I did a couple of two-day practice hikes with the vest, and it worked well. I was able to fit most of what I needed into the vest, but there were two things I had trouble fitting into it when it was full of food:

  1. A sleeping bag/quilt
  2. Extra water

The large stretchy pocket in the back of the vest was large enough to fit my ground cloth,  a 3/4 length NeoAir sleeping mat, and either a jacket or a small quilt. It wasn’t large enough, however, to fit both a jacket and a quilt. Given the unpredictable weather in the White Mountains, I decided it was more important to have a jacket. I wasn’t planning on sleeping very much anyway, and not having a quilt would help ensure that I didn’t oversleep.

The sleeping setup I went with was a ground cloth, a 3/4 length NeoAir mat, and a cuben-fiber poncho tarp as a blanket. I would also change out of my wet clothes into a pair of tights, a fleece top, a hat, and a puffy jacket. A couple of nights I slept without anything on my feet, but my feet got cold later in the hike. I ended up putting my wool mittens over my feet to keep them warm. With this setup, I would wake up periodically shivering, but after shifting around a bit to get warm, I was always able to go back to sleep.

As for the water, the vest could carry a little over a liter of water in its front water bottle pockets, but there were times on the hike when I would need to carry 3 liters of water. The vest had a section for a hydration bladder, but virtually any volume taken by the hydration bladder took away from the volume for food. Worse, when I tried using the bladder on practice hikes, it took forever to get the bladder in out out of the vest to fill it. I usually had to take the food bag out of the pack to get the bladder out and back in.

I didn’t come up with a solution to this problem until a couple weeks before my hike. The solution I came up with was to wear a Solomon 5 Adv Skin vest underneath my Ultimate Direction vest. This worked surprisingly well. When it came time to fill the bladder, I had to take both vests off, but it was easy to get the bladder in and out of the Solomon vest. The Solomon vest also gave me me a bit more volume and added some padding between me and the heavy Ultimate Direction vest.

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Two vest system (photo courtesy of Andrew Drummond)

Also, my plan was to drop my heavy vest on out-and-back segments. The Solomon vest was ideal for this. I could just grab the water bottles and satellite tracker out of my Ultimate Direction vest, drop the Ultimate Direction vest, and be off to the races. Sadly, this was a benefit I would not get to enjoy.

 

Food

The volume constraints of my pack limited the amount of food I could carry. Given these constraints, no matter what kind of food I carried, it would probably provide fewer calories than I would need. This meant that some percentage of the energy would have to be supplied by my body fat. For obvious reasons, I wanted to minimize this percentage.

I had read that Andrew Bentz had primarily used maltodextrin powder on his unsupported JMT hike. This seemed like a good way to go. I could fit the powder into my pack without losing any volume to irregular shapes and packaging, and the powder would enable me to consume my calories in liquid form. I have a hard time consuming solid foods when I’m exerting myself, so having liquid calories is good for me. This would also help keep me hydrated.

I was concerned about being able to drink the powder mix for 6+ days, so I practiced using it. I used it almost exclusively in 100-mile races without problem, but 100-mile races are only about one day long. When I started my hike, the longest I had been able to test fueling with the powder was about 36 hours.

Thanks to my daughter Brianna’s suggestion, I made a last minute addition of some Gatorade powder. This became my treat food on the hike, and it got me through some of the bigger lows.

In the end, I started the hike with the following:

  1. Perpetuem Powder: 64 servings; 17,280 calories
  2. Gatorade Powder: 23 servings; 2,070 calories
  3. Honey Stinger Waffles: 10; 1,300 calories

All totaled, this provided just over 20,000 calories. Not much for 6 plus days of nearly continuous effort. Under the best of circumstances, I would be using a lot of body fat. And due to a mishap on Day 2, I would end up using almost all the fat I had on my body.

 

Final Preparations

My original plan was to do a 2-3 day dry run over the July 4th weekend. I didn’t have good data on how much my pace would decline after 24 hours, and I didn’t know how much sleep I would need. Without this data, I couldn’t predict how long it would take me to complete the hike.

As July 4th approached, however, the weather forecast was looking ideal for a full hike. It’s rare to get a string of good weather days in the White Mountains. In preparation for my dry run, I had already gone to the significant effort of putting together all the gear I needed for the full hike. Given this, and given that the weather looked good, I decided to go for it and try to get it done. This hike had been hanging over my head for a long time, and I wanted it done.

My daughter Brianna and my wife Melanie helped check me on my final preparations. I told them I planned to go without trekking poles, and they convinced me that I should bring them. Also, I told them that I planned to drop my heavy pack on out-and-backs. Melanie asked me if this was allowed, and I told her it was. Andrew Drummond had frequently dropped his pack on his hike three years ago. There had been questions about how to classify his hike because he had cached backup batteries and had invited people to accompany him on his hike (I had joined him for the final miles of this hike), but there had been no mention (at least to my knowledge) of the fact that he had dropped his pack for out-and-back sections. I had no reason to think this wouldn’t be allowed on an unsupported hike. By dropping my pack during sections of my hike, I wouldn’t be receiving support from anyone or from myself.

This is how I reasoned on the evening before my hike. I would come to question this reasoning on the following day.

 

Day 1 – Thursday, July 4th (45 miles, 13,200 ft., 107 equiv. track miles)

I went back and forth on the start time for my hike. The key segment of my route was a bushwhack from Mt. Hancock to the bottom of the Desolation Trail. I projected that I would reach the start of the bushwhack about 13 hours into my hike, and that it would take me about 3 hours to complete it. The first part of the bushwhack was through incredibly thick brush with many blowdowns and root clusters that often give way when you step on them. The rest of the bushwhack involved wading and rock-hopping down a stream. The bushwhack was pretty risky during the daylight. I couldn’t imagine doing it at night. I needed to do it during the day.

To reach the bushwhack in time to complete it before dark on the first day, I calculated I should start by 4 AM. I wanted to start with a decent amount of sleep, however, so I compromised and shot for a 5 AM start. With this start time, it would be nearly dark at the end of the bushwhack, but I could navigate this section in the dark, if necessary.

Melanie drove me to the start. As luck would have it, Google Maps sent us the wrong way, so we arrived at the Ferncroft Trailhead a little late. I started at 5:15.

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The “Before” Picture

My pack weighed about 22 pounds at the start. It was tough to run with that weight, but I jogged the flatter sections on the lower part of the Dicey’s Mill Trail. When I reached the junction with the Rollins Trail, I dropped my Ultimate Direction pack and hiked to the summit of Mt. Passaconaway with just my Solomon vest. Shedding the weight was fantastic. In no time, I was up to the summit and back down to my Ultimate Direction pack.

From there I took the Rollins Trail over to Mt. Whiteface, and then the Kate Sleeper Trail toward the Tripyramids. I was most of the way over to the South Slide, when, for some inexplicable reason, I began to wonder if I was right about it being okay to drop my pack on out-and-backs. I had cell reception here, so I looked up the guidelines on the FKT web site. They said: “Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind.” Check, got that. Then: “This means you carry everything you need from start to finish except water.” That was pretty clear. I couldn’t see how dropping a pack for sections of the hike could meet this requirement. I would have liked to have been able to get clarification about this, but that was not possible given that I was already underway.

I contemplated what to do as I hiked down the trail, conscious that every step I took was putting more distance between me and Mt. Passaconaway. How could I have been so careless? I had re-read the guidelines a few days before, but I had totally missed this. After all my preparations, I had botched my hike right at the start. I considered all the options I could think of. Should I start over? Should I continue to drop my pack and shoot for a self-supported FKT?  Should I continue on and carry my pack on all future out-and-backs and hope that having dropped it for the first one wouldn’t disqualify my hike from being unsupported?

I knew this hike was going to get very difficult before the end, and I knew that I would only be able to complete it if I was confident that when I reached the end that I would have achieved my goal of doing it unsupported. This was something I could fix. I just needed to go back and summit Passaconaway with my full pack. It would cost me 4 hours, but I reasoned that 4 hours would add only about than 3% to the total time of my hike. I was quite certain that other things would add much more to time than that over the coming days.

I retraced my steps approximately 6 miles back over the summit of Mt. Whiteface to Mt. Passaconaway, summiting it this time with my pack. Then, I hiked the same 6 miles again, for a third time, back to where I had turned around. By my calculation, dropping my pack on the first ascent had saved me about 5 minutes. That 5 minutes ended up costing me over 4 hours.

I continued on, over the Trypyramids and down the Scaur Ridge and Livermore Trails. It was quite warm in the valley, and I had to take frequent walking breaks on the easy Livermore Trail. From the Livermore Trailhead, I took the Pipeline Trail up to Waterville Valley Ski Area and started up Mt. Techumseh.

For some reason, I experienced what was probably my worst low of the hike while I was climbing Mt. Techumseh. I had no energy. It was so bad that I sat down to rest at one point. My guess is it was due to the heat. It was very hot on the run/walk down the Livermore Trail, and I was quite warm when I started the climb up Mt. Techumseh. Fortunately, the low passed on the descent down the Mt. Techumseh Trail.

From the Mt. Techumseh Trailhead, I took the Tripoli Road up to the Mt. Osceola Trailhead. The climb up Osceola went smoothly. I summited Osceola and East Osceola, and I made it down to the Kancamagus Highway a little after dark.

I knew I couldn’t start out on the bushwhack from Mt. Hancock until it got light. I could camp up high, near the start of the bushwhack, but it would be colder up there. I decided to camp down low. I started out on the Hancock Notch Trail and set up camp alongside the trail at the first suitable place I found. I stopped just before 10 PM.

 

Day 2 – Friday, July 5th (47 miles, 8,900 ft., 102 equiv. track miles)

I slept about 4 hours and got underway again a little before 3 AM. In reality, the pack-drop mistake cost me more than the 4 hours because I had to wait until it got light to start the bushwhack. On the plus side, I got 2 more hours of sleep on Thursday night than I had planned to get.

I climbed South Hancock in the dark and then made my way over to Hancock. It was starting to get light when I reached the summit of Hancock. I retraced my steps back down to the col and started the bushwhack.

WARNING: Do not “try this at home.” This part of my route was a highly technical bushwhack with many risks and potential pitfalls. It should only be attempted by people well-equipped for an emergency who have experience hiking off-trail through dense undergrowth and over unstable ground. Some portions are over extremely slick rocks, and seemingly stable earth and rocks are prone to give way unexpectedly. Falls are virtually unavoidable.

I had done this bushwhack two times before. The first time was with Brianna back in 2014, and the second time was a few years later. The first part of the bushwhack is horrendous. The brush is super thick, and there are blowdowns piled on blowdowns. Climbing over them is difficult, and you often end up many feet from the ground. The ground is often very difficult to see, and when you reach it, you find that it is often just a loose clump of roots that your feet punch through.

The target during the first phase of the bushwhack is the stream bed at the head of the west Carrigain Branch. I listened for water as I descended, but I got lucky and came right to the head of the stream bed where it was still dry. I had collected a few good scratches on my legs during beginning part of the bushwhack, but so far so good.

The beginning of the stream bed has lots of brush and blowdowns crisscrossing it, and it is very slow going. As you work downstream, however, the stream gets wider, and there are fewer obstacles.

When I got further downstream, I noticed that I had lost my trekking poles. They had been attached to the back of my pack with shock cord. They had apparently been stripped off by the brush during the roughest part of the bushwhack. Fortunately, my poncho tarp was still attached to my pack.

Then disaster struck while I was refilling my Camelbak bottle with Perpetuem. I unscrewed that cap of the bottle and placed the cap in the bottle pocket of my vest. Then as I leaned over to scoop some water out of the stream, the cap spilled out of the pocket and was sucked down a hole between some rocks by the current. I quickly dropped down and stuck my arm down in the hole and fished around trying to find it, but it was not there. I looked downstream hoping that it would pop out somewhere, but no luck. The cap was gone.

The full ramifications of this event would not become obvious for a few days, but I knew this was bad. Virtually all my food was powder-based, and I had just lost my primary means of mixing it and storing it in a mixed state. I could mix the powder by placing my hand over the top of the bottle and shaking it, but then I had to drink whatever I mixed immediately. I had some rubber bands and plastic bags from which I could improvise a lid. Such a flimsy lid was unlikely to hold up, however, and I would lose a lot of time taking it on and off. I considered putting the Perpetuem in my bladder, but that would require filtering the water when I filled my bladder, which would be very time consuming.

The solution I chose was to put a small amount of water in the bottle, dump in about a scoop’s worth of powder, mix it, and then swallow it as quickly as I could, much like swallowing a pill. I tried to do this every hour, which was the schedule for my food ration. It necessitated short stops, but I could usually get it done in less than a minute.

I continued on and came to the set of falls that’s on the stream. I descended down through the woods along the right side and took a photo looking back from the bottom. The water was coming down the left, outside the view of the picture.

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I continued on down the stream. I fell a few times, but I managed to avoid injury. When I got down to 2,300 feet, I knew the Desolation Trail was not far to the east. I left the stream, and after a short bushwhack through the woods, came onto the Desolation Trail.

This was one of the places where I had planned on dropping my pack. It would have been very nice to drop it, but I kept it on, ascended to the summit of Carrigain, and then made my way back down.

From there I took the Wilderness Trail toward Lincoln Woods. I had originally planned to cross over the Pemigewasset River at the site of the old washed-out bridge, but I missed this spot. I ended up crossing about midway between where the Bondcliff Trail comes down near the river and the junction with the Franconia Brook Trail.

When I reached the junction with the Franconia Brook Trail, I took the Franconia Brook Trail to the Lincoln Brook Trail, and the Lincoln Brook Trail to Owl’s Head. According to my model, it was more efficient to get to Owl’s Head this way than descending down the Lincoln Slide or coming in from Garfield or Galehead.

I tagged Owl’s Head and then made my way back to Lincoln Woods. I had envisioned running most of this, but I ended up walking a lot, I expect due to the heat and the weight of my pack. In the end, I probably didn’t get as much value out of these flatter sections of trail as my model had predicted I would.

From Lincoln Woods, I ran/walked down the Kank into Lincoln. I stopped along the road in Lincoln and changed my socks. My feet had been wet most of the day, and they were getting pretty sore. I hoped that dry socks would help me avoid getting blisters. After changing my socks, I continued on Rt. 112 toward Beaver Brook Trailhead. This long road section was the real downside of my route. I knew that going into it. This road section was also why I wore my hunting cap; I wanted to be visible on the road.

I arrived at Beaver Brook Trailhead around 11:30 PM, and I set up camp not far from the road. I took off my shoes and socks and inspected my feet. I had developed some blisters.

 

Day 3 – Saturday, July 6th (38 miles, 15,000 ft., 97 equiv. track miles)

I slept for about three hours and was back on the trail around 3:50 AM. Again, this would have been a very nice section to do with just my Solomon vest, but I climbed Moosilauke with my full rig. I descended back down, loaded up with water and headed north on the Kinsman Ridge Trail.

One of the issues I had to face early in the day was that I now had blisters, and they were likely to get worse. This was a real mental setback for me. I have rarely had blisters. I have very little any experience with them, and I don’t know how to treat them. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Then I remembered that Melanie, Michael and Danielle all got blisters early on our JMT hike, and that they kept hiking day after day in spite of them. If they could do it, I should be able to do it. My feet still hurt, but they didn’t bother me as much after that.

As I was nearing Eliza Brook, I met another hiker on opposite side of a mud hole. He looked tired. He asked me if this was the trail to Mooisilauke. I said it was. He asked how far it was. I guessed about 8 miles. He asked if there was water. I said, not really, but there were some water holes that would probably be okay if he had a good filter. I would later learn that this was Jason Lantz. Jason was about 8 miles from completing his supported NH-48 Direttissima.

I resupplied my water at Eliza Brook and made my way up over South and North Kinsman. As I was descending North Kinsman, Andrew Drummond and his dog Squall came hiking toward me. Andrew had completed a Direttissma hike three years earlier, and I had joined him for the final miles of this hike. I hadn’t seen him since, but I thought it was very nice of him to make the effort to come out and see me. One of his first observations was something along the lines of, “So that’s your pack?”

It turned out that Philip Carcia was also nearby. Philip was doing his second Direttissima as the finale of his calendar year grid project. Andrew was hoping to track us both down. Philip was supposedly a couple miles away ascending Cannon. I told Andrew I was going over the Cannon Balls to Cannon. Andrew and Squall followed along behind me.

I wasn’t sure what to do about this. For my hike to be unsupported, I couldn’t be accompanied. I had told my family members they couldn’t come out to see me. As a current FKT holder, I had notified Andrew I was doing my hike, and I shared with him the link to satellite tracker so he could follow me. I had not invited him to come meet me and hike with me, but I didn’t want to be rude and ask him not to hike with me as he tried to connect with Philip. I didn’t ask him to leave, and Andrew and Squall followed me for the 2.5 miles or so over the Cannon Balls. We caught up on things. We chatted about our hikes, Andrew’s latest running projects, and how my kids were doing.

On the way over the Cannon Balls I made a stop to refill the Platypus bottle in which I carried my short-term Perpetuem supply. It was here that I first realized I was not eating enough. A quarter of my Perpetuem powder was in a plastic bag at the top of my pack. I reached the end of the this first bag here, in the middle of Day 3. I should have been through this bag by the middle of Day 2.

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Learning that I wasn’t eating enough (photo courtesy of Andrew Drummond)

 

As we descended the last Cannon Ball, a thunder storm rolled in. In the col before Cannon, we ran into Philip, who was hunkered down, waiting out the storm. Andrew pulled his expensive camera out into the pouring rain and snapped some pictures.

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With Philip Carcia (photo courtesy of Andrew Drummond)

Philip was super friendly and supportive. Given that only a dozen or so people have completed a Direttessima, it was a quite an event to be standing on the trail with two of the people who had completed the hike.

Philip had not yet summited Cannon. Despite the fact that I was hiking NoBo and Philip was hiking SoBo, we happened to meet at a location where we both needed to hike in the same direction. Andrew left us in the col, and Philip hiked behind me as we made the .8 mile climb to the summit of Cannon. We chatted the whole way. We parted at the summit, and I made my way back down the Hi-Cannon Trail.

From Lafayette Campground, I took the bike path down to the Liberty Springs Trailhead. I then took the Flume Slide Trail to the summit of Flume. From there it was a short hop over to Liberty.

It was dark when I reached Little Haystack. I was in the clouds, and the wind was very strong. As I knew it would be, it was tough to follow the trail with my headlamp reflecting off the fog. I had to scout around on some of the summits to find the way off. Fortunately, the trail is pretty well outlined south of Mt. Lafayette, so there were only a few places where I had to scout around for the trail. I was concerned, however, that I might not be able to follow the trail north of Lafayette because it is not well outlined there. I got lucky, however, and the fog lifted north of Lafayette, making it easy for me to follow the trail. I descended down to the col at the base of Lafayette where I was mostly out of the wind and made camp at around midnight.

 

Day 4 – Sunday, July 7th (38 miles, 10,000 ft., 97 equiv. track miles)

I slept about 4 hours and got started again around 5 AM. Day 4 was pretty uneventful. It was a good day for knocking off some peaks. I was in very familiar territory here. I just needed to make sure I didn’t skip Galehead or any of the other side peaks as I would on a typical Pemi Loop.

I filled up on water at the spring at the Garfield Ridge Tentsite, and I topped off at a small stream on the way up Galehead. I had decided I was only going to resupply water at natural sources. I didn’t enter any of the AMC huts or shelters on my hike.

From Galehead, I hiked up South Twin, did the out-and-back to North Twin, then on to Bond. I met Nate Weeks from Gilford just after passing the summit of Gyotte. Nate’s name was familiar to me, but I had not met him before. Nate said he had grown up with my nephew Adrian. He and the woman he was with were flying along on what appeared to be a very fast Pemi Loop run. Not surprising given that Nate previously held the FKT for the Super-Extended Pemi Loop.

I tagged Bond and Bondcliff and then West Bond on the way back. I then, reluctantly, descended the .2 miles to the Gyuotte Tent Site to resupply my water at the spring. From there it was on to Zealand, then Hale.

After Hale, I backtracked to Zealand Hut and took a short nap near the stream just west of the hut. Then, it was on to Tom, Field and Willey. From Willey, I backtracked to Field and descended down the Avalon Trail, which was a bit rough at the end of the day. I made camp near Rt. 302, about 100 yards off the trail at around 2 AM.

 

Day 5 – Monday, July 8th (32 miles, 12,500 ft., 86 equiv. track miles)

It was cold Monday morning, but I managed to sleep about 4 hours. At 5:26 AM I sent the preset message from my InReach that I was underway again. I forgot, however, to restart tracking on the device. I didn’t discover this until the end of the day, after I had caused my family and others a lot of unnecessary concern. Fortunately, I remembered to unpause my watch when I reached Crawford Notch, so I have data from one of my devices showing what I did during that day.

The climb up Jackson went well. My body had turned into a fat burning machine by this point in the hike, and I had good energy on almost all the climbs from here on out, despite the fact that I was running a serious caloric deficit. I would breathe like a choo choo train on the climbs to provide the extra oxygen I needed to burn fat, but my legs felt strong.

The weather was beautiful on top of Jackson. It was going to be a very nice day to be on the southern Presidential Range.

On the way over to Pierce, I slowly caught up to a fast hiker. I eventually made it past him, but knowing he was behind me kept me focused on moving quickly. I didn’t stop at Mizpah Hut. I had enough water to make it to Lakes of the Clouds, so I kept moving.

From Pierce, I had a clear view of the work I had to do that day. It was on to Eisenhower and Monroe.

Somewhere along this stretch of trail I ran into Jason Lantz again. I didn’t recognize him from Day 3, but he asked me if I was Bill. He told me he had found some water, and that he hadn’t gotten sick from it yet. I asked him what his finish time was. He told me 5 days, 18 hours and something. So impressive. This was by far the fastest that anyone had completed a supported Direttissima. And here he was out hiking on the Presidentials two days later!

I resupplied water at the lakes at Lakes of the Clouds and then continued up to the summit of Mt. Washington. I cut the long line to the summit, tagged the sign, and then snapped a picture from down near the Visitor’s Center.

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Mt. Washington

I walked into the Visitors Center, checked the weather report for the next day, and walked out. This was the only time I entered a building on my hike.

I descended from Mt. Washington and topped off my water at a spring near the top of the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail. Then it was on to Isolation.

I got a nosebleed near the junction with the Glen Boulder Trail. I sat down for a while, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I couldn’t keep sitting around, so I created to a nose plug out of a piece of toilet paper and got moving. It was a bit embarrassing to have to explain my nosebleed to every hiker I passed, but at least I was making progress.

I have to say, the Davis Path Trail to Isolation is one of my least favorite trails. It is hot (it’s in the sun most of the way), there are a lot of mud holes, and there are all kinds of camouflaged booby traps (e.g. sticks and logs protruding into the trail) along the way. Doing it with a nosebleed just added salt to the wound.

Despite the obstacles, I made it to Isolation and back and began my descent down the Glen Boulder Trail. I had imagined things would get easier once I got to the Glen Boulder Trail, but I had forgotten how technical that trail is. There are no easy trails in the Presidential Range.

When I finally reached Pinkham Notch, I considered sleeping there. Andrew Drummond had told me that he had slept there before beginning the Wildcats. I decided to sleep for 20-30 minutes but not break everything out for a longer sleep. I was losing a lot of time setting up and breaking camp despite having a very simple setup. I should have slept for longer.

During this stop, I checked my messages for the first time that day and learned that I had not re-enabled tracking on my InReach that morning. I turned it back on.

After I slept, I hiked up Wildcat D and and then over to Wildcat. This went okay (although not fast). The wheels came off after Carter Dome though. Sleep deprivation reduced my pace to a snail’s crawl. I had no coordination and was stumbling like a drunkard. I tried taking short naps, but that didn’t help. Eating seemed to help a bit at times, but the effects didn’t last. I hadn’t brought any source of caffeine with me on the hike, so I didn’t get to see if that might have helped.

When I was approaching the descent down North Carter, I decided I didn’t have enough coordination to make the technical descent safely. I set up camp on the side of the trail at around 3:15 AM and went to sleep. 

 

Day 6 – Tuesday, July 9th (41 miles, 11,200 ft., 97 equiv. track miles)

It was cold high on the mountain, but I slept for about an hour. I was back on the trail at 5:00 AM. With the sleep and daylight, I was able to move again. I made my way over to Moriah and then backtracked to the Stony Brook Trail. I descended the Stony Brook Trail and took the shortcut at the bottom to Mt. Carter Drive. I then walk/ran Mt. Carter Drive and Rt. 16 to Dolly Copp Campground and the Daniel Webster Scout Trail. From there is was back up onto the Presidential Range.

My nose started to bleed again when I got above tree line. I made another nose plug and kept moving. It was clear, but very windy. I summited Madison and then resupplied my water from the stream near Madison Hut. From there I started up the Gulfside Trail, forgetting that I wanted to ascend Adams via the Sky Lake Trail. I remembered after hiking a couple hundred yards. I considered continuing on, but I backtracked and took the Sky Lake Trail to the summit of Adams. Then it was on to Jefferson.

The northern Presidential Range is especially technical, and the rocks were very hard on my feet, which were now covered with large blisters. During this section of the hike, I noticed that I was disassociating my feet from myself. They were no longer my feet; they were someone else’s feet. When I took a hard step down on them, I wasn’t hurting my feet, I was hurting someone else’s feet. I had read that the mind could play tricks like this, but I had never experienced it. I was beginning to enter new territory.

I had an excessive supply of ibuprofen with me, but I didn’t take any on my hike. I was pretty dehydrated most of the time, and I didn’t want to stress my kidneys any more than I was already. Also, I wanted to be able to feel what was hurting so I could address the underlying issues as best as possible. The pain from my feet slowed me down, but it also kept me from pounding too hard on my joints. Possibly because of this, I didn’t have any significant joint soreness on my hike.

I summited Jefferson. Two peaks to go. As with all trails in the Presidential Range, the descent down the Ridge of the Caps Trail wasn’t easy. When I made it down to the smooth, easy section at the bottom of the trail, I called Melanie. By my calculation, I was falling hopelessly behind schedule at this point. I gave her my best guess for when I might need to be picked up. She had to work the next day, but my son Michael had offered to take the day off from work so he could come get me.

When I reached Jefferson Notch Road, I turned right and started jogging down the road. Not too far from the top I met a man pushing his bike up the hill. He had dropped his bike at Appalachia in the morning and then done a Presi-Traverse from south to north. He was understandably pretty tired. I told him he was almost to the top and congratulated him on completing such a big day.

When I reached Valley Road, I turned left and then took the closed Carter’s Cut Road up to Rt. 2, arriving there around dark. I walk/ran down Rt. 2 toward the Starr King Trailhead. I was starting to feel the effects of sleep deprivation again. I was weaving quite a bit as I walked down the road. I could hold a straighter line when I was jogging. The higher cadence seemed to make it easier to maintain my balance. Still, I made sure I got well off the road whenever cars were coming.

I reached the Starr King Trailhead at around 10:30 PM. Here, I again had to decide whether to sleep or keep hiking. I calculated that if I could complete this segment in 6 hours, I could come in close to Andrew Drummond’s time. I had previously completed the segment in about 6 hours under moderate effort when I was fresh. I thought if I pushed it, I could maybe come close. If I slept, I would be putting that goal out of reach. This reasoning was flawed on every level, but I decided to keep going.

The climb up Waumbek went reasonably well. The only warning sign was that I had the sense that there was someone hiking next to me coaching me on how to move most efficiently in my weakened state. I was aware that there was no one there, but I didn’t fight it.

As I approached the summit of Waumbek, I knew I needed to be wary and stay focused on the task at hand. A lot can go wrong when you are severely sleep deprived. I needed to tag two summits and make it back down to the trailhead.

Despite the fact that I was watching out for it, I had the first full-on hallucination of my life just after I summited Waumbek. The Kilkenny Ridge Trail is thick with ferns that make the trail difficult to see. Almost immediately after I started down the trail, a guy appeared and explained that the right way to cover this section of trail was to move slowly and take small shuffle steps. He said the shuffle steps compensated for shot stabilizer muscles and prevented you from tripping over stuff you couldn’t see. The slow speed would make it possible to follow the trail without losing it. He then proceeded ahead of me, demonstrated the technique, and set the pace.

I resisted for a while, arguing that it would take forever to cover this section of trail at this pace. He said, no, this was how it had to be done. He persisted and I eventually acquiesced. He disappeared at some point, but I kept up the shuffle steps for the next four hours. I spent the night slowly gliding through the ferns enjoying the sounds and smells of the forest. I didn’t start to snap out of it until it started getting light around 5 AM. When I finally realized what had happened, it lit a fire under me, and I started pushing again, trying to make up for lost time.

 

Day 7 – Wednesday, July 10th (15 miles, 3,000 ft., 33 equiv. track miles)

After I “woke up,” it took me a little over two and half hours to reach Bunnell Notch. When I got there, I was running “hard.” My son Michael was waiting at the trail junction, and he snapped a few pictures. These showed I wasn’t running hard at all.

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I ran past Michael and power-hiked up the climb. I reached the summit of Cabot at around 8:30 AM.

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I started running down the mountain. Half way down to the notch, however, I met a woman who asked me if I had lost a Black Diamond headlamp. I checked and, sure enough, my headlamp had fallen off my head. I told her I had and thanked her for finding it. I think she was confused, however, by how disappointed I looked. I asked her where she had found it. She said she found it by the “trail no longer maintained” sign. That sign was at the bottom of the climb, of course.

Learning that I had dropped my headlamp took the wind out of my sails. I slowed down and contemplated what to do as I descended. The rule was I needed to carry all my gear from start to finish. I had lost some gear, so I had already broken that rule. There wasn’t anything I could do to correct the loss of my trekking poles or my bottle cap, but I could correct this. It seemed rather silly to do it, but I went back down to the notch (missed the sign), and then ascended again, this time going more slowly.

On the second descent, I took it easy, not wanting to do anything that might prevent me from finishing. I finally made it to the gate at the York Pond Trailhead. I sent the “Done” message on my my InReach Explorer. The time of that message was 12:18 PM, 6 days, 7 hours, and 3 minutes after I started. I think I arrived at the gate at 12:16, but the time of the Done message is probably the best official time for my hike.

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The Finish

My son Michael and my daughter Danielle met me there with a chair and lots of drinks and goodies.

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The hike had taken a larger toll on me than I had realized. I was emaciated and a shadow of what I had been 6 days before. My hands were sunburned and swollen, and my feet were a mess.

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My hands

 

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My feet

Danielle doctored my feet. She later told Melanie that she tried to focus on my feet and not look at me. I guess looking at my feet was less upsetting than looking at the rest of me.

When Michael picked up my pack, he was shocked by how heavy it was. I told him I had only eaten about half my food.

After I got cleaned up, we took some pictures before leaving the trailhead. I was having trouble standing up straight.

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With Danielle

Standing next to Michael makes me look small on a good day. On this day, I looked especially small.

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With Michael

When I got home, I weighed the food I had left and, sure enough, I had finished the hike with half of my Perpetuem. I had only eaten about 12,000 calories in the 6 days.

When I weighed myself the next morning (after rehydrating), I weighed 10 pounds less than when I had started the hike. I had lost 6.5% of my body weight on the hike, about 1% per day.

It has now been a week since I finished the hike. I have gained back about half the weight I lost, but I still have a long way to go to be recovered. My resting heart rate is still 20-30 beats per minute higher than it was before I started the hike.

 

Results

The data from my watch is available here, and the GPX export from my Garmin InReach Explorer is available here. There are some gaps in each record, but together they provide nearly 100% coverage of my hike.

The following table summarizes how my actual results compared to the predictions of my model. These numbers are preliminary; I still need to double-check them. These results do not include the extra ascents and descents of Passaconaway and Cabot.

Results

In my model, I estimated that darkness would slow me down by 10%, and that general fatigue factors would slow me down 30% after 12 hours. These factors were rough guesses that were somewhat based on data from other long efforts.

The weight factor I used was based on experiments I had done that showed that the percentage speed reduction was roughly equal to 1.1 times the pack weight as a percentage of body weight. This factor seemed to be independent of elevation gain and the technical factor of a trail.

The results over individual segments varied widely, but my actual results tracked the model fairly well with the following exceptions:

  1. I had grossly underestimated the amount of stoppage time. I had only planned to sleep 2 hours per night with 30 minutes allotted for setting up and breaking camp. I slept much more than this early in the hike, and I generally lost a full hour setting up and breaking camp. Also, on two evenings, I took approximately 1 hour breaks and slept briefly. Even more significant than this, however, was the amount of time I spent refilling water and moving food from the back of my pack to the Platypus flask in the front of my pack that I used for my short term supply. I had not accounted for this time at all. All totaled, I was not moving for 27 hours of the hike, 17 hours more than I had planned.
  2. In general, I was faster than predicted early in the hike.
  3. I was respectively 41% and 17% slower than predicted on the Livermore Trail and on the ascent up Mt. Techumseh. The was possibly due to the heat at that time.
  4. I was 28% slower than predicted on the road segment between Lincoln Woods and Beaver Brook Trailhead. I ended up walking much of this when I expected that I would be able to run almost all of it.
  5. Similarly, I was 36% slower than predicted on the bike path from Lafayette Campground to the Flume Slide Trailhead.
  6. I was 40% slower than predicted over Lafayette. This was due to the fog and poor visibility.
  7. I was roughly 15% slower than the predicted over the Willey Range. This could have been due to darkness and accumulated fatigue at the end of the day.
  8. I was between 20% and 25% slower than the predicted over the Carter-Moriah Range. This was most likely due to sleep deprivation and end-of-the-day fatigue.
  9. I was 23% slower than predicted over the very technical northern Presidential Range. This was likely due to general fatigue, sore feet and shot stabilizer muscles.
  10. I was 25% slower than predicted on the Kilkenny Ridge Trail between Waumbek and Cabot. This was due to sleep deprivation and my hallucination.

Overall, however, the model was surprisingly accurate. My actual moving time was only 3% longer than predicted.

 

Fastest Known Time?

One of my goals for the hike was to establish a Fastest Known Time (FKT) for a male completing the NH-48 as an unsupported hike. During my hike, I made best efforts to meet the spirit and the letter of the guidelines for an unsupported hike. For example:

  • I carried all my trash with me to the finish.
  • I accepted no assistance from anyone during the hike. When hikers offered me tissues when they saw I had a bloody nose, I said no thank you.
  • I didn’t enter any shelters or huts, and I only drew water from natural sources.
  • I didn’t receive any assistance via my phone. I spoke with my wife Melanie only twice, and only to coordinate a pickup time and ask her to call my employer and explain why I was going to be late returning to work.

There were, however, some areas where I may have fallen short. For example:

  1. I did not carry my Ultimate Direction Pack on my first ascent of Mt. Passaconaway.
  2. I lost my trekking poles and Camelbak bottle cap on the Carrigain Branch bushwhack.
  3. I did not carry one of my headlamps on my first ascent of Mt. Cabot.

Where possible, I attempted to correct these shortfalls by re-hiking the section of the trail with the gear I had not carried. Doing this added at least six hours to my hike. I was unable to recover my trekking poles or my bottle cap, however, so I had to complete the hike without them. In these cases, the time lost by not having the items was almost certainly greater than the time gained by not having to carry the weight. This is certainly true of the bottle cap, the loss of which resulted in me carrying nearly five pounds of uneaten food all the way to the finish.

My efforts to correct the above shortfalls may have been for naught, however, because the guidelines for an unsupported hike state that “[i]f a person is accompanied or paced for any distance, it automatically becomes a Supported trip.” I knew this rule, and I asked my family members to not come visit me on the trail. Melanie talked of finding some reason to “happen” to be in a place where I was. I asked her to not make such an attempt, and she respected my request. Despite these efforts, two people hiked behind me for short distances on Day 3 of my hike:

  1. Andrew Drummond hiked behind me for about 2.5 miles over the Cannon Balls en route to “finding Philip.”  
  2. Philip Carcia, who also needed to summit Cannon, hiked behind me from the col between Cannon and the first Cannon Ball to the summit of Cannon, about .8 miles.

Hiking these sections with Andrew and Philip did not help me complete the hike or help me complete the hike faster than I would have completed it otherwise, but I will leave it to others to decide if these or the other areas where I failed to meet the guidelines disqualify my hike from being classified as unsupported. I have accurately reported what I did on my hike.

 

Acknowledgements

Even though my hike was unsupported, it would not have happened without the support of a lot of people. An unsupported hike is, in many ways, harder on one’s family and loved ones than a supported hike because they must watch from the sidelines and provide no assistance.

My wife Melanie supported me in doing the hike against her better judgement. She cried when she saw me at the end. Michael and Brianna helped me plan the hike, and Michael and Danielle were there to catch me and fix me up at the end.  My brother Jeff was on standby to be at the finish in case others couldn’t be, and if I’d finished earlier, he would have been there anyway. My parents lost sleep, and my mother went on a baking spree to help me gain back the weight I had lost. My employer and coworkers made accommodations and covered for me when the hike took longer than I expected.

Many thanks go to those who previously completed the White Mountain Direttissima. Their experiences and trip reports were inspirational and very helpful. Special thanks go to Andrew Drummond for laying down such a stout record (which remains the time to beat) and for sharing the final miles of his hike with me. I’m also very grateful to Andrew for the fantastic photos he took on Day 3 of my hike. The pictures he took and posted helped comfort my family and let them know that I was doing okay.

Finally, a key player in all of this is my brother John. I learned most of what I know about endurance running from him. This hike would not have been possible without him.

 

Afterword 

The issues noted in this report did not disqualify my hike from being classified as unsupported, and my hike is currently listed as the FKT for a male hiking the NH-48 unsupported. The page on the FKT site with the details of my hike includes the statement I made when I submitted my hike for consideration.

 

 

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