The Greatest High Adventure in the East
Visibility less than 50 feet... Winds gusting to more than 80 miles per hour... Temperatures hovering at 20 degrees below zero... Deep, practically impassable, untracked snow on the ridges...
These were the conditions Dan Doherty and Bill Aughton encountered on their first trip guiding a winter Presidential Traverse together for International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS) clients in 1989 and, believe it or not, they keep going back for more—their next trip is scheduled for this weekend, Feb. 19 through 22.
"It's always an adventure," said Aughton, 52, "because you never know what's going to happen."
"It's definitely a great challenge," echoed Doherty, 30. "I've never done it the same way twice."
Doherty and Aughton say there's no need to head to Nepal, Alaska, South America, or Europe—a winter Presidential Traverse is high adventure of the grandest kind, surprisingly available right here just a few hours drive from the populated East Coast.
Two other local climbing schools, Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School and the Mountain Guides Alliance, in addition to IMCS, periodically offer these guided winter traverses around and over the mountains of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains.
The IMCS trips are scheduled to last for four days and include three days camping at higher elevations, occasionally above treeline. Almost always heading from north to south, these guided bouts with nature start at the Valley Way Trail in Randolph, wind around Mts. Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Clay, usually ascending Washington, the highest peak in the chain at 6288 feet, then continuing around Mts. Monroe, Eisenhower and Clinton. Trails used include the aforementioned Valley Way Trail, the Gulfside Trail, the Westside Trail and the Crawford Path, with the traverse intended to finish at Crawford Notch.
"We usually go around, not over all those mountains," said Aughton, who estimates he's made at least 18 attempts to get across the Presidentials in winter, the first being 20 years ago.
"My success record is miserable," he said. "I think I've made it across three times before starting these trips with Dan and then I've made it four out of seven times with Dan."
"I'm batting about .500," said Doherty, who has attempted the traverse 15 times in the last four years.
What could be preventing these seasoned outdoorsmen from attaining their goal? Both Doherty and Aughton have climbed much higher mountains... They're extremely fit—Doherty is nicknamed "Danimal" by fellow climbers at IMCS—and they train for the ascents... There haven't been any reports of a Sasquatch in this area...
The answer is the wind. Always the wind.
Mt. Washington is considered the home of the world's worst weather mainly because the highest wind speed ever recorded-231 mph—was recorded on the summit of Mt. Washington on April 12, 1934. Three major weather patterns often meet right at Mt. Washington, making the weather extremely fickle and the wind speeds unusually high.
"It's not the cold that drives us down," said Doherty, who has climbed to the summit of the Americas' highest peak, Mt. Aconcagua, 22,800 feet, in Argentina as a guide for IMCS. "We're prepared for the cold—we don't let people go up there without the proper gear. The cold is a constant, but the wind is something that can really knock you around."
“If it's just cold, 30 below or so, you can deal with that," said Aughton, "and sometimes the wind by itself isn't so bad. But, when you get the wind with extremely cold temperatures, that's when it gets dangerous."
It was this deadly combination of high winds and cold temperatures that this adventurous duo found on their first traverse together when they and their three charges were driven down two days into the traverse. Both Doherty and Aughton ended up with minor frostbite—Doherty on his fingers and Aughton on his face—mainly because they were taking their gloves or goggles off to help their clients as they fought their way down off the exposed ridges to the relative safety below treeline.
For Doherty, guiding the traverses and also Mt. Washington day hikes for IMCS is his full time win-ter occupation.
"I think I'm pretty lucky," said Doherty, who added that he wouldn't change it for anything.
Aughton, on the other hand, a climber for more than 35 years and one of the original founders of the International Mountain Equipment store, is now the retail manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club at Pinkham Notch and is also in charge of that organization's search and rescue operation. He works 40-plus hours a week at AMC and has to use vacation time to guide the traverses.
The two, though disparate in age and background, enjoy both working together and hiking together. "Right from the beginning, we hit it off," said Aughton. "We think along the same lines so we don't have to discuss much, unless it's whether we should head down because the weather's turned bad. We have the same enjoyment of the winter scene," he added, "and the same feeling about protecting the environment."
The traverses do not cross designated wilderness areas, but they do pass over the delicate alpine zone on Mt. Washington.
"When we go out, we have a dual responsibility," said Aughton. "Not only do we have to look out for our clients, but we have to look out for the environment, also."
Though Doherty and Aughton are careful of the environment and attempt to pass on the rules of "walking softly" and leaving no trace to their clients, it's the business of actually looking out for the clients that takes up the majority of their time and efforts.
"There's a lot of work for guides," said Doherty. "A great deal of housekeeping, like putting tents up, cooking meals, stressing the importance of eating and, drinking, making sure they stay warm. It's like being a mother," he said, adding, "I think."
The gear needed to attempt one of these traverses can run upwards to $3000 and more and each client carries a pack weighing 50 to 60 pounds, while the guides carry 60- to 70-pound packs, taking on more if clients start to tire at critical points (when it isn't advisable to stop and take a rest).
A barebones list of necessary items includes double plastic boots, a sleeping bag good to at least 20 below zero, full sets of synthetic underwear, an insulated parka, full wind protection, goggles and a face mask, snowshoes, ski poles... the list goes on and on. Many of the more expensive items can be rented from the organizing climbing school. IMCS provides all the food and the tents, but clients have to help in carrying up the common load, plus they have to carry at least a half-gallon of water each.
To attempt this four-day mountain trek, you need to be fit—couch potatoes need not apply.
"Most people aren't used to carrying a weight on their back for long periods," said Doherty. "Universally, the comment is, 'This is harder than I thought.' "
So, who signs up to pay to spend a long weekend confronting Mother Nature in her exclusive domain, and why do they do it?
"I always ask people why they want-d to do it," said Doherty. "It sometimes puzzles me, too."
Aughton surmised that the clients sign up for the traverse because they don't really know what it's like. But, in reality, a lot of those who embark on a traverse are preparing themselves for something even more challenging.
“Well get the experienced summer backpacker who's looking for the next step," said Doherty, "but a lot of people think of it as a stepping stone—a training thing for something bigger. A fair amount of the clients are thinking of going to Alaska and they want to see some bad weather to test out their gear."
If half of Doherty and Aughton's tales of high adventure and near disaster on their winter traverses are true, then clients really do get to test out their gear. In addition to getting blown off the mountains many times on their repeated attempts to get across the Presidentials, the adventurous team had their most harrowing day on a trip in December of 1990.
As they were guiding three clients—including a woman, Chris Schillig, who was preparing for an anticipated climbing trip to Nepal —between the two major peaks of Mt. Adams on the second day of the traverse, an abrupt weather change brought high winds and rain. Not in a good position to duck down to the safety of the trees, the group was proceeding forward at a slow pke when a strong gust of wind knocked Schillig down just as she stepped between two rocks. The result was a broken leg.
"It was both good luck and bad luck—the break wasn't compounded and it wasn't open," said Aughton. "We've all been blown over at some stage and 20 minutes before she broke her leg, the winds were reported to have gusted to over 100 miles per hour."
As guides, Doherty and Aughton are well-versed in emergency wilderness care (Aughton even teaches groups thoughout the United States for SOLO), but his accident, so far from an exit trail, put their skills to the test. Using sleeping pads and tent poles for a splint, Aughton and Doherty also rigged up a crude carrying litter, using ski poles and a sleeping bag. That was the easy part.
The hard part was transporting Schillig in the worsening conditions.
"It was [pouring] down rain and the wind was horrendous," said Aughton. "We got blown all over the place."
Enlisting the help of a pair of hikers who happened along, the rescue team headed to Grey Knob cabin, a Randolph Mountain Cull cabin a mile away where they knew there was a caretaker and a radio. It took them four hours.
From there, they were able to radio for help from the U.S. Forest Service and Mountain Rescue Service, an all-volunteer group comprised of local climbers and mountaineers who have both outdoor and emergency care skills. Even after meeting up with their rescuers, it was still a long hard trip to get Schillig off the mountain. After breaking her leg at noon, she was in an ambulance heading to the hospital by midnight.
"Everyone turned out to help us," said Doherty, "but it was a long, long day."
Although this accident made them reconsider, Doherty and Aughton still choose not to carry radios on their traverses. "We like to think we're resourceful enough to do without them," said Doherty. "We try to carry the right equipment to be self-sufficient, but we haven't completely ruled it out."
Their "wilderness" resourcefulness helped them another time they were blown off the ridge and retreated into the trees. Coming down near the Cog Railway line on the Crawford side, Aughton used the still-operating pay phone at the snowed-in base to place a call to the Mt. Washington Observatory and get the weather report to see if it was wise to head back up. The Obs weather reports are followed faithfully by those who hike on Mt. Washington, winter or summer, so Aughton knew the number by heart. Good thing he also carried a dime along with all the other "essentials."
So the adventures and misadventures continue. The team is looking forward to their trip which begins this Friday despite weather reports of frigid temperatures.
"There's a rising level of intimidation each time we do this because we've seen things go bad," said Doherty, "but it's exciting getting ready to go up there." "You're excited because you don't know what's going to come, although you don't really like to think of what might come," added Aughton. "We've actually become more cautious as time goes by."
So what if they go up and it's beautiful and sunny with no wind and they walk right across without an incident—wouldn't it be boring? "It's never boring," said Doherty. "You just get to appreciate that it's really, really pretty up there. It's just plain nice looking."
 Editor's Note: The experts advise that unless you are an experienced winter camper, do not attempt a winter Presidential Traverse on your own. For information on winter Presidential Traverses, call the International Mountain Equipment Climbing School at 356-7064, the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School at 356-5433, or the Mountain Guides Alliance at 356-5310.