Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Adventure Report: Swan Song Loop

"What if you took all of the climbing of Manitou's Revenge and condensed it down to half the mileage?" asked no one ever.

Nevertheless, the Swan Song Loop exists, and it is utterly ridiculous.

Mount Washington from the summit of Mount Adams

A Brief History Lesson

The Swan Song Loop came into its full existence in 2014, the brainchild of a bold NH hiker named Robert Rives, who himself modeled the loop after a decades old traverse conceived by AMC volunteer Bradford Swan. It is necessary to understand the history of the route to fully appreciate how difficult it is, because it was designed to be just short of impossible.
"Swan's Traverse came into being as a joke ... It originated one night at Madison Hut, in 1953 or 1954. I had been remarking on the way some hikers paid absolutely no attention to the contour lines on the guidebook maps, and to show how serious this oversight could be, I set out to devise a route from Ravine House to Pinkham Notch Camp that was reasonably direct yet would go 'over all the humps,' utilizing notoriously hard trails. Fancy loops, to include especially tough sections of trail, were not indulged in, but two of the hardest headwalls - King Ravine and Great Gulf - were made parts of the route." —Appalachia , 1958
Many years later, Robert would then extend the traverse into a full loop using similar principles. He wrote of his loop:
"I wanted the numbers to be big, the obstacles nauseating, the footing horrifying, the exposure real and tangible.  More than anything, I wanted to leave New England with a lasting idea, a new challenge fit for the next-level mountain athletes of the decade.  I don't count myself among this group, but ambitious ideas and routes can come from anyone of any ability.  All it takes is the audacity to sit down with a map, a pen, a sense of dark humor - and then to slip on a pair of shoes and dive down the rabbit hole." Blog entry, 2014
And my god, are the number ever staggering...
  • 28 miles
  • 15,700' of climbing, and 15,700' of descent
  • Five ravine headwalls
  • Three Presidential summits

The Route

True to the principles of its conception, the Swan Song Loop makes a bee-line from the Appalachia trail head to the summit of Mount Washington, and just so happens to pass over the summit of Mount Adams on the way. Oh and incidentally, it takes the steepest possible route to both summits: the King Ravine Trail and Great Gulf Trail respectively. It then descends to the Pinkham Notch visitor center by way of Boott Spur, which adds an extra 1,000' climb and descent to an already massive 4,000'+ descent.

Swan Song map. Click for more detail.
(North is to the right)

From Pinkham Notch, it then climbs the notoriously difficult Huntington Ravine Trail to the Mount Washington Auto Road before barreling down the Wamsutta Trail to the Great Gulf Trail. After that, the only thing left is to ascend Mount Madison via the Madison Gulf headwall - the steepest section of trail in the entire route - and descend back to Appalachia via the Watson Path.

Swan Song Loop elevation profile
Four major climbs descents

Easy peasy, right?

For each climb and descent, I'm going to list the distance and elevation gain of the steepest pitch. Bear in mind that a climb of 1,000' in a mile (20% grade), is considered pretty dang steep by most runners and hikers.

Mount Adams ascent via King Ravine

Steepest section: King's Headwall, 1,287' in 0.51mi, 47% grade

My goal was to do this entire loop in daylight and to finish with plenty of energy left, so I drove up to NH the night before, stayed at an Airbnb 20 minutes from the trail head, and was on the trail by 5:20am. I was still digesting my morning coffee and bagel as I began hiking up the Airline Trail, but I knew that my stomach would have plenty of time to settle down in the hours it took to reach the summit. It was an odd feeling knowing that my initial 20:00/mi hiking pace would be some of my fastest miles of the day, but such is life in the White Mountains.

This is gonna hurt

About three miles in, I reached the King Ravine Trail, which almost immediately splits into the Subway route and the Airline route. The Subway crawls under and through house sized boulders and is much more difficult and time consuming than the Airline. I didn't come here to mess around on any pansy-ass regular hiking trails, so the decision to take the Subway was easy.

Now I'm not the claustrophobic type, but when it's 6:00am and you're squeezing between house sized boulders that are so close together that you are touching rock on all sides, you start to question what you're doing with your life.

Okay, that's a lie. A normal sane person would question what they're doing. My dumb ass was having a great time, and I kept trying to take selfies during the scramble. But none of my photos do justice to how tight these rock crevices were. So here's a picture of pre-school girl going through a section of the King's Subway.

Now picture a full grown human trying to wriggle through here
Photo by Trish Herr, http://www.trishalexsage.com

Shortly after the subway was another spur trail called the Ice Caves Loop, which is a similar scramble/spelunking experience, except the boulders are so big and insulate the ground so well that there are patches of ice and snow under them year round.

Once I emerged from the caves, I found myself at the base of a massive rock scramble leading 2,000' up Mount Adams. This was the King's Headwall.

Looking back from King's Headwall.
The Subway and Ice Caves go through the boulder field that's still in the shadows.

The headwall rose sharply up the side of the mountain, covered in sharp car-sized rocks. As Ben Nephew would say after setting the fastest known time on this loop, "This is a full body workout, with all sorts of moves that have absolutely nothing to do with running." I couldn't have said it better myself. I would soon learn that the Presidential ravine headwalls are more like extended bouldering routes rather than actual hiking trails.

It took just over an hour to cover the single mile that I was on the King Ravine Trail. This would set the tone for the remainder of the day. After a final scramble up the Gulfside Trail, I reached the summit of Mount Adams after more than two hours of continuous climbing. I paused to take in the views and marveled aloud to another hiker about the perfect conditions.

First summit of the day!

Mount Adams descent via Buttress Trail

Steepest section: Star Lake Trail, -961' in 0.83mi, -21% grade

After a rocky descent on the Star Lake Trail, I made a quick detour to the Madison Spring Hut to refill on water, adding half a mile to my total trip. Then it was on to the Buttress Trail, which makes up for a lack of sheer steepness by being completely overgrown and littered with off-camber rocks.  The Buttress Trail is so narrow that it can scarcely be called singletrack. It is halftrack at best, perhaps even zerotrack. This fun combination of difficult factors means that you are constantly feeling out each footstep with the knowledge that a momentary lapse in concentration could mean snapping an ankle miles from civilization.

So, you know, my kind of fun.

Mercifully, this descent was short by Presidential Range standards, and I reached the intersection of the Great Gulf Trail only 50 minutes after leaving the hut.

Mount Washington ascent via Great Gulf

Steepest section: Great Gulf Headwall, 1,625' in 0.76mi, 40% grade

I first remember hearing about the Great Gulf Trail years ago when Alex's Uncle Chris was advising us on a planned Presidential Traverse. He was adamant that we understood the fact that the only good bailout routes were the ones on the west side of the Presidential Range. The trails on the east side were rocky, slow, and dangerous. In particular, he said, the Great Gulf Trail should be avoided because it leads to a vast wilderness and doesn't get close to civilization for miles. It was not until I hiked the Great Gulf Trail that I truly appreciated his advice.

Madison and Adams as seen from the Great Gulf Trail

The blazes on the Great Gulf Trail can generously be described as faded. They can - perhaps more accurately - be described as sparse to nonexistent. And they can be cynically described as goddamned irresponsibly poor.

Let's put it this way: I was following the trail blazes when possible, confirming my location with a trail mapping app that showed my exact position on a topographical map, and I was moving at a snail's pace, and I still managed to lose the trail several times. Normally, I would chalk this up to me being an idiot, but human/mountain goat hybrids Ben Nephew and Adam Wilcox had similar issues during their attempts on the Loop.

Despite my whining, the Great Gulf Trail is a beautiful trail with stunning views of the northern Presidentials. The boulder scramble on the headwall was one of the most fun parts of the day, because whenever I was tired I could turn around and admire the scenery. As with most of the ravine headwalls, the trail also followed a stream almost the entire way up the mountain, meaning I could cool off in the water whenever I started to overheat (I also could have drunk unlimited water had I thought to bring a filter).

Standing on the Incline Railway tracks near the summit

Reaching the Gulfside Trail near the summit of Washington was a huge mental victory, because it meant that navigation would be much easier for a little while. With the summit in view and dozens of massive rock cairns marking the trail, I was able to relax for the first time in a few hours.

I tagged the summit sign, cutting in front of a huge group of slow-moving tourists in the process. I figured that a runner who was in a rush carried more urgency than a group of people who drove to the top wearing crocs and sandals to mill around aimlessly. Maybe I'm a jerk for doing this, but at least I'm a jerk who didn't waste time standing in line.

Mount Washington summit
No way in hell am I waiting 5 minutes to take a picture with a sign

I took a few minutes inside the visitor center to refill all my water bottles and indulge in a cold bottle of Coke from the cafeteria. I nearly bought a bowl of buffalo chicken soup that smelled absolutely hypnotizing after being in the woods all morning. But I figured that it wouldn't sit well in my stomach on the next descent, and the thought of vomiting buffalo chicken while running was unappealing. Instead, I grabbed a pop tart out of my pack and chowed down while taking pictures from the observation deck.

View from the observation deck. Not a bad place to have lunch.

Mount Washington descent via Tuckerman Ravine

Steepest section: Tuckerman Headwall, -2,313' in 1.56mi, -28% grade
Honorable mention: Boott Spur Link, 735' in 0.31mi, 44% grade

Tuckerman Ravine is famous for being a ski destination well into the spring and summer months. In the winter, snow blows into the "bowl" from the surrounding area, and the snowpack can reach depths of 150' by the end of the season. When Alex and I hiked Mount Washington on July 1, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail was still closed due to the risk of avalanches. The point I'm making, is that this is a crazy and dangerous place. Naturally the Swan Song Loop descends this headwall.

Descending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail

This was the first section of trail where I started to see other people, and most were nice enough to yield to me as I "ran" by. Or they were terrified by the sight of a sweaty smelly man flailing wildly as he barreled toward them. Either way, they gave me plenty of space.

I refilled my water from a spigot near the Hermit Lake Shelter, making sure to splash some water on my face and limbs to cool down. From there, I had a short but brutally steep climb up Boott Spur Link before I would continue my descent down to Pinkham Notch.

And what can be said about Boott Spur Link that hasn't already been said about colonoscopies...

They're both a pain in the butt, is what I'm saying

Despite this being the shortest climb in the Swan Song, it packs a punch. The entire climb is less than a third of a mile, but ascends 735 feet, making it one of the steepest sections of the route (44% grade). As with most trails in the Presidentials, it is also littered with jagged unstable boulders. It took over 20 minutes for me to cover this small section of trail, for a whopping 1-hour-and-6 minute-per-mile pace. The good news is that the view was pretty good.

Mount Washington from Boott Spur Link

With that climb behind me, it was back to the descent down to Pinkham Notch, which was a leisurely 2,500 feet in 2.4 miles. These miles were fairly uneventful, and I quickly found myself at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. I refilled my bottles, and headed back up the way I came.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the last potable water source for the next 5+ hours.

Mount Washington ascent via Huntington Ravine

Steepest section: Huntington Headwall, 1,322' in 0.55mi, 45% grade

A quick turn off from the Tuckerman Ravine Trail brought me to the trail head for Huntington Ravine. Right away, I knew that this wasn't going to be like the other trails I had done. At regular intervals, there were warning signs posted to deter hikers from attempting the trail. Naturally these only encouraged me to press onward.

Well I wasn't sure before, but this sign definitely made me want to do it

The meaning of these signs slowly became clear to me when I turned a corner and saw the ravine headwall several miles in the distance. It appeared to be an impenetrable wall of rock with no clear path from the base to the summit. This is the sort of stuff that brings me to the White Mountains!

This is going to be fun
(The headwall trail runs just to the right of the shadow in the middle of the image)

The trail quickly grew more rocky and technical as I approached the base. For the second time that day, I found myself slithering between house sized boulders with patches of snow under them. I heard water running through the rocks far below me, and chilled air breathed up through the gaps like a natural air conditioner. The whole experience was haunting, and I knew that the most intense section of trail was still to come.

When I reached the base of the headwall I finally understood what the fuss was all about. I tried to take a picture that would capture the sheer magnitude of the climb before me, but no static image would do it justice. The video below does a slightly better job, but this is one of those trails that you have to see in person to appreciate. Try to follow the yellow trail blazes as the camera pans up the wall.

The Huntington Ravine Headwall is not a hike. It is an extended, very exposed, poorly marked rock climbing route. The first couple hundred feet of ascent were a slab climb reminiscent of the steepest pitches of Breakneck Ridge in NY. Above that, there were multiple boulder piles where I had to stop and think about where to place my hands and feet. Bear in mind that I have a few years of rock climbing experience and I consider myself pretty confident and sure-footed on exposed terrain.

Looking across the slab near the beginning of the climb
Note the rock climber at the bottom center for scale

A word of advice for anyone who plans to do the Huntington Ravine Trail: there will be times when you find yourself surrounded by impossibly steep terrain with no trail blazes in sight. You will think to yourself, "I must be off trail. It would be irresponsible for the trail to continue in this direction."

Well, the joke's on you, because the Huntington Ravine Trail was built before responsibility was invented! The whole damn thing is an exercise in poor decision making. Incidentally, that's why it is so much fun.

View of Wildcat Mountain and Pinkham Notch from the Huntington Ravine Trail

Anyway, I reached the end of the trail two hours after leaving Pinkham Notch, and had a leisurely saunter along the Alpine Garden Trail to the Mount Washington Auto Road, thus completing the ascent with all limbs still intact.

Mount Washington descent via Wamsutta and Great Gulf

Steepest section: Wamsutta Trail, 1,007' in 0.44mi, -43% grade

The Wamsutta Trail will forever hold a special place in my heart. After a summer spent training on the dark rock- and root-covered Catskill trails, descending the Wamsutta Trail felt like home. It was as if the steepest pitches of the Devil's Path had been supersized. The result was a 2,100' descent in just 1.5 miles of trail, almost half of that coming in just the final half mile.

Looking north from the top of the Wamsutta Trail

My Strava data shows that I maintained a running cadence for almost the entire descent, and yet my pace hovered around 27:00/mi the whole way. The footing was so difficult that each step was minuscule. Each foot placement had to be precise, lest I careen headlong into a tree. Ben Nephew called it "an elevator shaft to hell," but I was having a great time.

After the chaos of the Wamsutta Trail, the Great Gulf Trail felt like running on a paved bike path, and I effortlessly cruised to the intersection with the Madison Gulf Trail.

Mount Madison ascent via Madison Gulf

Steepest section: Madison Gulf Headwall, 415' in 0.10mi, 78% grade

Throughout the descent I had been hoping to reach a campsite or hut with a water spigot so I could refill my bottles. I had left Pinkham Notch with two liters, but with temperatures reaching the 80's in the valley, I only had a few sips left by the time I reached the Madison Gulf Trail junction. My fears were realized as there was no potable water in sight.

Nevertheless I had reached the base of the final climb after 11 hours of hiking. Only Mount Madison separated me from the finish line, and I was determined to get there before sunset.

The first few miles of the trail were tame compared to the carnage that I had experienced in the earlier parts of the day. However, the lack of water meant that I had a hard time eating any food, and the combined hunger and dehydration made my energy levels plummet. The Madison Gulf Trail followed a small stream the entire way up. I stopped frequently to splash the cool water in my face, but I didn't want to risk drinking contaminated water.

Looking south from the Madison Gulf Trail

Finally I gave in. I remembered reading that Giardia took a few days to incubate. Assuming that was true, I would be home well before any symptoms appeared.

I found a mossy section of the stream where the water would be somewhat filtered, and I filled a bottle with the cold clear water. I chugged it quickly and then refilled again just in case I needed more. With some water in my system I was able to eat a couple gels, and almost immediately I felt my energy levels rising.

The shadows from the mountains were growing longer by the minute, and I knew I was running short on daylight. I had packed a headlamp, but as a matter of pride I didn't want to take it out.

With renewed purpose, I set to work on the steepest pitch of the day: the Madison Gulf Headwall. Composed of vertically stacked boulders, the headwall rises 415 feet in just a tenth of a mile. The footing isn't bad at all, but the climb felt relentless, particularly after 13 hours of hiking and running.

The Madison Gulf Headwall - not for the feint of heart

I crested the top of the last headwall and then had a short walk to the Madison Spring Hut, where I had first filled my bottles ten hours earlier. They were just serving dinner, and the delicious smell of hot food almost stopped me in my tracks as I opened the door.

I had been fantasizing about buying a lemonade at the hut for hours, and I filled and gulped down two cups in quick succession before realizing that I was using a cup from the discard pile. The thought barely registered in my tired brain as I threw a wad of cash into the money jar on the counter. I refilled my water bottles for the last time and was back out the door for the final push to the summit of Mount Madison.

Last view of Mount Washington from the summit of Madison

Like the other northern Presidential peaks, the summit of Madison is essentially one big rock pile, and I savored the last bit of scrambling for the day. I reached the summit just in time to see the last rays of sunlight hitting Mount Washington in the distance.

Mount Madison descent via Watson Path and Brookside

Steepest section: Watson Path, 2,001' in 1.17mi, -32% grade

With all of the climbing done for the day, it was time to see if my legs had enough life left in them for a quick final descent. Unfortunately, the Watson Path is not the best place to test tired legs. After millenia of harsh weathering and assault from lichens, the rocks at this elevation are sharp and unforgiving. This means that the soles of shoes and boots stick really well, but it also means that any fall is guaranteed to draw blood.

With the health of my legs in mind, I cautiously tip-toed down the mountain. Eventually, the Watson Path gave way to the friendlier Brookside Trail, though not before I spent ten minutes lost at an unmarked trail intersection that happened to coincide with a stream crossing.

As I lost elevation, the trail grew progressively less rocky and my pace increased. With two miles to go, I saw that I could potentially go under 15 hours for the whole loop. While I hadn't started with any time goals in mind, this seemed like a nice round number. I picked up the pace for the final few minutes and reached the trail head in 14:58:27.

Adventure accomplished.

Thoughts and Future Plans

The Swan Song Loop is - without a doubt - the most challenging route I have ever encountered. While I treated this like a long training run and never pushed myself too hard, I still gave it an honest effort and finished with an average pace well over 30:00/mile. The Loop is far more difficult than Manitou's Revenge, the Barkley Fall Classic, or the Presidential Traverse, which had been my prior benchmarks for "really damn hard terrain."

I'm happy with how well I handled a 15 hour unsupported effort in the mountains, and this gives me a lot of confidence for future races and adventure runs. I'd like to go back and run this route for time, but I would make the following changes:
  • Footwear: I used an old worn out pair of Scott Kinabalu Supertrac shoes thinking that they would still have enough tread for one last adventure. However, this is a route where you need to have absolute confidence in your footing, so I would bring a newer pair next time.
  • Water: I ran out of water on the Madison Gulf Trail and resorted to drinking stream water.  Luckily, I didn't suffer any ill effects afterwards. Since almost every trail on this route follows a stream, it makes a lot of sense to use a water filter. One of the first things I did when I got home was to order a Katadyn BeFree filter, which simply replaces one of the soft flasks in my pack now.
  • Navigation: Despite extensive planning and the use of maps and a GPS app, I still had some navigation issues. Unfortunately, the only way to learn these trails is to run/hike them a few times. So I guess I need to spend more time in the White Mountains!
  • Other Time Sinks: I spent a lot of time taking pictures and talking to people on the trails, which was great for a training run like this. However, I could probably have saved 30 minutes or more simply by not stopping. Thankfully, I now have enough pictures to last a lifetime.
Since Fat Dog 120 was canceled due to wildfires, my next events will be the Barkley Fall Classic 50K and Grindstone 100.

Happy running!

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