Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Honest Understanding

If I’m honest, the mountains scare me.

When I first visited the Adirondacks as a young kid, I had a sense that some malevolent spirit hid in the peaks above and valleys below. Years later, when I was ten, my father and I got caught in quick moving hail and lightning storm ascending Tuckerman’s Ravine. I remember huddling around some rocks, convinced I wouldn’t make it off the mountain. At eleven, I faked altitude sickness on a family hike up Lone Mountain in Montana to turn around. On the same trip, I refused to climb the Grand Teton. I was too scared.

Even today, when I head to the mountains for runs, I am scared. Will I get hurt (or worse)? Will I suffer? Will I not be “fast”? It is this last fear that plagued much of my “competitive” running career. Am I really “good”? What if I’m slower than I think I should be? Why can’t I do “better”? A focus on times and “winning”, for me, meant it was impossible to escape these doubts and fears. They would always lurk in the back of mind. It’s why I would run races or long test-pieces like the Pemi Loop and feel bad after. My times weren’t good enough, or I could have gone faster. I should have trained smarter, or longer. I’ve slowly evolved over the past four years, but it wasn’t until three weeks ago, that I came to an honest understanding of these fears. I think.

. . .

The roads and trails around my house, in greater Boston, provided the grounds for a personal epiphany: Runs are usually measured in time and/or distance (genius, I know). Those are objective: “The watch doesn’t lie.” Easily communicated to others, a way to see if I am “good” via comparison. If I wanted to be “good” I needed to be the fastest. On this particular run, muddling along a trail I’ve run countless times, focusing on my breathing, hearing the sound of each footfall on the dirt, thinking about nothing and everything at once, I was able to articulate a new understanding of why I want to run long distances: Not for these objective measures, but to seek engagement in the present moment. I want to be fully conscious of what I am doing. Instead of seeking a win, or a faster pace, I want to seek presence. Use running to accept any situation and not judge it as “good” or “bad,” but be open to what it is. That seemed like a worthy ambition, one that could bring more meaning to my life than the time (or distance) on a watch. Those nagging fears, the worry about not being “fast”, or getting hurt, or not being “at the top” became irrelevant (except, maybe the getting hurt one . . .) if my goal was presence and awareness of what I was doing. Audacious goals seemed possible, because they were about a process, a focus, a conscious effort.

With this new mindset, I reserved a spot at Carter Hut, and a space on the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiker shuttle, both for the first official day of my summer vacation. Six years after my first attempt, when I sought the FKT with a friend, and one year after scouting the route with another friend chasing the FKT, I was returning to the Hut Traverse, seeking something very different along the 48-mile route connecting AMC’s eight mountain huts.

. . .

Friday, June 29, 11:44 PM. I didn’t even need an alarm to get up.

The forecast in the White Mountains for Saturday, June 30th was calling for unusually high temps, summits in and out of the clouds and afternoon thunderstorms. Weather for the day of my Hut Traverse “Enlightenment Quest” 2018 looked about as good possible (Sunday was calling for record heat). I’d waffled between a midnight start and a “more reasonable” 4:00 AM start, but when the body woke up shortly before midnight it was ready. A moonlight traverse of the northern Presidential Range was in my future. But there were many miles between here and then. At 12:06 I was moving. At 12:06:30 I came to a dead end at the Carter Hut woodshed, decidedly not the right direction.

Take two: 12:08, on the correct path, stars visible, clouds suggesting a nice day above treeline. I’d packed much more than I needed, my pack weighing close to 15 pounds fully loaded with water, emergency gear, and food. I found comfort in the added weight, knowing that, should anything (short of the worst) happen, I would be able to take care of myself (given the hospitality of the Hut Croos, I would have brought much less with me, especially given the forecast. An extra pair of socks would have been nice as well - 14+ hours of wet feet led to some interesting blisters). The pack bounced on my back, but the night was calm. The air was sticky, and even running downhill, after a short time sweat and moisture dripped off me. Two cars passed on Rt. 16 just before I hit the road. It was still “Friday night” for some people and my day had just begun. The Great Gulf Trail crossed the Peabody River, the bridge giving a slight bounce to each step. The air off the river provided a moment of natural air conditioning. For the first six or seven hours I was determined to breath in and out through my nose, a technique that would keep my effort aerobic and measured. It had the added benefit of taking in the ever-changing smell of the trail (and later, my ever changing smell. Not sure if that was a benefit).

Conflicting advice found me standing at the junction of the Great Gulf and Osgood Trails in the middle of the night. Should I go to Madison Hut (the second of the eight visited) via Osgood, maintained as part of the Appalachian Trail, and the “not so great” Parapet Trail? Or take the more direct, albeit ridiculous (in very good and difficult ways), Madison Gulf Trail? I used the pause to eat, to think. I chose Madison Gulf, a trail I’d been up and down before.

Three weeks ago I would have been frustrated by my time up Mad Gulf. It seemed to take hours to get up (It did. 3:18 from Carter, an hour slower than friends have run it on their Traverses). The trail was lost in the dark multiple times. It was overgrown down below, making footing difficult to see, the headlamp’s beam reflecting off branches inches from my face. Focusing on breathing in and out through the nose, I was calm. The night was stellar. The smells from the river, from the trees (that were slapping my body), from the rocks, all enthralled. I drank (with a filter) from a small waterfall that was crossed. The goal was the hut, but this trail, the conditions, was the reality. The world reduced to the bubble of the headlamp. I was present. Time was irrelevant to the reality. I climbed the part of the trail I call “the cliff,” knowing I was getting close to treeline. I crested the ~30 foot climb and had to duck under, what, exactly? A hammock? How could I be hallucinating this soon?

I’m lost. I was looking for the Hut, and couldn’t find it. I thought it would be on the Madison Trail so I followed this. It’s just . . . this trail. I’m 70 years old. This trail is too hard. Will I reach civilization if I go down?
It was probably around 2:30 in the morning when I came across this man, camping in his hammock, lost and (rightly so) in dread of the Madison Gulf Trail. I should have done more. I talked to him, offered food, offered to bring him to Madison Hut with me, told him how to get out to Rt. 16, but ultimately, after he declined all of these things, I left. I didn’t even leave a note for the Croo at Madison. My goal. The Hut Traverse. It was still there. Was this a test? Should I have been present enough to recognize helping this man may be my journey now. My ego held fast. I didn’t know what else to say. I kept moving from this spot, quickly returning my attention to the trail, my breathing. Foolishly, I did not even ask the man’s name. If I’m honest, I’m disappointed in myself for that.

. . .

Friday, January 26, 2018. 2:44 PM. On Monday, January 29, 2018, I would be launching Intrepid Academy, an outdoor-semester program for students in the Boston Public Schools based at Hale Reservation in Westwood. We are in the middle of what will be a more than eight hour meeting to prepare for Monday, the culmination of nearly six years of planning and thinking to bring my love of running and the woods to the students I work with. A phone call from the headmaster of my school. I take it outside at the fire ring just outside of Powisett Lodge, where I’ve started races and held TARC Camp:

Josh, I have here a letter of involuntary excess. We are looking for someone else for the History position.
This is Boston Public Schools speak for “You’re fired.”

If I’m honest, I was disappointed in myself. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what exactly I had done to cause this, but my first two thoughts were, one, what this meant for Intrepid (I was assured it didn’t affect it at all, although months later the school decided not to participate in the program again), and two, I’ve just let down everyone who has worked so hard to start this program before it even had it’s first day.

Monday, January 29 was a practice in being present. Focus on the students in front of me, not the uncertain future, or the surprising news from Friday. The rest of the semester was a study in antipodes, polar opposites. It was the most fulfilling semester of teaching I’ve had, something that was not totally clear to me until the end when students shared their experiences and personal stories of growth. It was also the worst semester I’ve had, full of fear and self-doubt, believing I was a sort of cancer on this program that I had worked to create. I was a failure. If I’m honest, I was lost, and I didn’t understand what I’d done to get there.

. . .

The story of the opening days of Intrepid Academy mirrored my arrival at Madison Hut. I was happy to have made the first inter-hut distance. Yet I was at least 45 minutes slower than my expected pace. Years ago, and to some extent still to this day, I wanted to be “the best.” To be the fastest and swiftest runner. I can still feel how my body and mind would have reacted to this “slow” arrival to Madison just a few months ago. It is almost like a surge of rage that builds in the gut, builds into the shoulders, before clouding my mind, becoming almost a sense of panic. Usually the result is trying really hard to “make up” the time. But time wasn’t the aim. Presence, simply “being,” were. I did not experience the angst and rage building as I slid into Madison.  The Hut, first built in 1888, silent, save a few snoring guests. Water refilled, in less than four minutes I followed the bubble of the headlamp into the northern Presidentials, watching the nearly full moon dance in and out of clouds, peaking in and out from behind the ridge above me. My late arrival, my “involuntary excess” were not good or bad. They just were (alright, I’ll admit, the “involuntary excess” thing felt really bad). Right now I was moving through the mountains, not impacted by either. I was moving, eating a chicken sriracha jerky bar at 3-something in the morning. I was choking on a pepper flake that just got stuck in the back of my throat. I was coughing from that pepper flake. I was drinking water to wash it down. It wasn’t good or bad. It just was.

Looking back along the shoulder of Mt. Adams to the first hint of twilight. Lights from (I believe) Gorham, NH can be seen on the left.
The northern Presidential Range is a place that is worth spending much more time. In the dark I followed a path, sometimes the correct one, with exquisite trail work of carefully placed stones paving the way, sometimes the correct one, with a jumble of rocks dumped there by creation, and other times the wrong one, with sharp rocks that shifted underfoot. The approaching day was echoed by my forward progress, twilight emerging behind the peaks on the horizon. At one point, I could tell I was caught in alpenglow, the rocks, small plants, my hands all bathed in that particular golden, pink light. Headlamp off, the twilight of day emerged, fog and clouds clinging gray and wet to sections of the trail, only to be broken by the ever-brightening dawn.

Clouds and fog danced over the peaks as dawn emerged from night. Shortly after this I was bathed in alpenglow, the magical light illuminating everything around me.  The colors were more red than shown.  
Rounding the shoulder of Jefferson, along the saddle to Mt. Washington, I looked off to my left and there, perfectly framed by two piles of rock, the very thinnest sliver of the sun, burning so far away, rising a deep red over the mountains far on the horizon. For several minutes I stood in awe, appreciating that had my speed been any faster or slower up Madison or across the Presidentials I would have missed this moment. I would have had another, equally valuable one in its stead, but this moment . . . Wow was I could muster. Lake of the Clouds. Mizpah. Zealand Falls. Galehead. Greenleaf.  Lonesome Lake. Each Hut after this, and the space between, brought its own moments. But this one site, this experience of absolute awe, was held in my mind’s eye all day.  And the days since.

A sunrise that technology could not capture, a moment of absolute awe that filled the soul.  The rising sun, here in the center of the image, was not orange as shown, but a red like the color of the Japanese flag.
The remainder of the day's journey, draped in early morning fog, laid before me on the shoulder of Mt. Washington.
The summit of Mt. Washington shines in the early dawn light, as fog lifts from the valleys portending the day's heat.

The last picture I took of the whole journey. Shortly after sunrise, looking south along the ridge of the southern Presidential Range. Lakes of the Clouds Hut was less than 30 minutes away. Along this ridge I experienced a moment of perfect flow, cruising the beautiful trail, seemingly having the entire Presidential Range to myself.
For 80% of this journey I succeeded in being present in the moment. A moment of flow in the southern Presidentials, bathed in early-morning light. Gratitude for the Croos at each Hut who welcomed me and made sure I was fueled and happy before going about serving the guests in their charge. Joy in the fluidity of movement along the A-Z and Twinway Trails. Coming across Dima and Karen, and walking with them for a couple minutes. The happy voice of Eleni, a friend who I don’t know as a hiker or runner and hadn’t seen in over a year, calling my name and bringing me to a halt in utter shock to see her, there.

Cresting South Twin and seeing my dad, “Papa Richie,” in his Western States hat and TARC100 shirt, the former where he looked after me, the latter where he looked after others, volunteering as an overnight doc for the inaugural event. He had reserved a bunk at Galehead (the 6th of 8 huts, marking the beginning of the Garfield Ridge trail, arguably the most grueling section of the Hut Traverse), and hiked up Cape Cod chips, two cans of Coke, and cold-brew coffee that the Croo graciously kept in their fridge. It was not until I wrote these words that I got emotional thinking of this, my 72-year-old Da, who introduced me at an early age to the mountains, to environments that I feared, but have now come to love and appreciate, still worrying about me, doing what he could to help me along. He must have done the same all those years before as the storm came in on Tuckerman’s Ravine. He stayed on South Twin as I descended, and I sat in the hut, munching chips and sipping Coke, in a happy daze, vaguely reflecting on what I’d experienced over the past twelve or thirteen hours. Fueled by the love I felt, I experienced the easiest climb I’ve ever had up Garfield, a mountain that is anything but easy. I finished the climb and immediately thought, “All I have is Lafayette.” And that’s when I lost the present moment for the first time all day.

Knowing Lafayette was the last peak, I became solely focused on finishing the climb and “being done.” The journey between Garfield and Lafayette was the longest, most grueling I’ve ever experienced on this stretch of trail. The miles seemed to never end. I just wanted to start the long climb. It never came. I kept going down. Then it was flat. Finally up! Here it is! No. Down again. Then flat. If I ever felt frustration or anger all day, this was the only point. It was my old mindset - cover the ground as quickly as possible. “Win.” My feet had been wet for about 12 hours and blistered. My shorts and shirts had been soaked all day from the high temps and humidity, leading to excessive chaffing along my back. These things bothered me now. I was failing because I wasn’t going fast enough. 

The summit of Lafayette eventually came, as it always does. I sat there, looking down at Greenleaf and Lonesome Lake Huts, places I had visited with my sons the year before, the rest of my route laid before me, the way paved by the happy memories of those trips. Four miles of downhill running were in front of me. But I didn’t want to move. Blisters running half the length of my foot had developed on the bottoms of both feet, nothing to be done about them because I had no dry socks, the skin macerated from the constant moisture of the past fourteen or fifteen hours. I sat next to a gentleman who was hiking the Appalachian Trail. For 24 years he had been walking a little bit at a time. This week he was doing the Whites, covering much of the route I'd just traveled. I’d waited a mere six years to finish a Hut Traverse and was just a short distance from the end. I looked back to the East at the path I’d taken that day. The lost hiker. The pepper flake in the throat leaving Madison. The Croo member cooking breakfast at Lakes who took a break to offer up some cornbread. The Croo at Mizpah, in the midst of the breakfast rush, taking time to find me some food. Bill, the former Croo member from the '60s, who I’d met last year at Madison, and saw again at Zealand, encouraging me. Grace, the Croo at Galehead, who put those Cokes in the fridge. I turned to the trail ahead of me, where the journey continued. My feet hurt, I was moving slow, but all I could do was concentrate. “Now. Here. This.” The mantra that had carried me through much of the day. Time was not the objective. Presence. Awareness. “Now. Here. This.” I touched Greenleaf, and carried on down the trail.

. . .

The final 1.6 miles to Lonesome Lake marked the culmination of a six-year journey. The trail was steeper than I remembered, and I laughed when it seemed to never end. Six years ago I approached this run as a training objective, the goal of going under 12 hours paramount to all other objectives.  At the time, a worthy ambition, I'm sure.  Still, as I ran the last 0.4 (flat) miles of trail, a section I had walked after dinner the previous August with my younger son Jacoby, when we spent the night at the Hut, I couldn't help but be happy, my time well off that elusive 12 hour mark. I ran the short hill to the hut and stopped the watch. I went in, and was greeted by the Croo, who were busily getting ready for dinner. I managed something like, “I just came from Carter," and was provided a yogurt-quart jar of Tang, the magical orange elixir (why hadn’t I been drinking this all day?). I went to the porch, laughing to myself as I looked back to the Franconia Ridge and the summit of Lafayette, where I had just been, talking to a man who has been working on the AT for 24 years and still had a couple years to go. I laughed because for so long I had put so much value on this one day, on finishing this route, and on the time I could do it in. Listening to dozens of families playing games and enjoying the place, oblivious to what I'd just done, I came to understand what Kevin Sullivan, a top-10 finisher at Western States had told me years ago when I had a disappointing finish there: “These things don’t matter.” He was talking about the races, the time on the clock, the place we finish. I finished the Hut Traverse in 17:33, several hours slower than I’d thought I would finish. It didn’t matter. I had been present (almost) the whole day. I hadn’t felt fear or worry. The time didn’t matter. The presence, the experience, did. And just like the man on top of Lafayette, I realized that this journey doesn't really have an end. Just a now. Of the beauty and magic of the Hut Traverse, I cannot say more.

. . .

Just don’t die. The words my older son Cooper, who two days before had turned twelve, left me with as I started the drive to the White Mountains on Friday morning. Sage advice, and I’m more than happy to have followed it well. I returned to the Hut Traverse to seek presence, to see if I could set aside the competitive self and face ego-driven fears and doubt, finding new meaning in the act of running through the mountains. I believe I found what I was looking for.  Looking forward, I hope to bring this presence to more runs through New England, and test myself on longer trails like the Bay Circuit and Long Trail.  But those are not Now. Here. This.

They say in mountaineering that the summit is only halfway. The real goal is to get home safely. I’ve often forgotten this idea as it relates to my running. A win, a finish, a course record, a competitive result were always the goal, forgetting about what it meant to “bring those things home.” That is the goal now, to bring the conscious presence I had along those 48 miles and 17 and half hours back “home,” back to the everyday. That challenge is my honest understanding from the Hut Traverse.


The Hut Traverse is steeped in history and I find it enthralling in ever way. Perhaps one day I will return to see if I can get a faster result, if that that is what a day would hold, but at this point, I think the FKT (currently at 12:38 for the route I took, 12:11 for the even more challenging "MacPhail Route" discussed below) is beyond my reach.  Physically it is demanding. Mentally it can be draining. It covers some of the most incredible places in the White Mountains. But the stories of how it came to be, the people who early on blazed fast times, and the people who today continue to use it as a test piece are some of the most inspiring and mind-blowing tales I know of for trail and mountain running. The Huts themselves are so incredible that if you’ve never had the chance to stay in one, I highly recommend it. They have old log books from at least 50 - 60 years ago, and going through those is an incredible experience. Yes, they are expensive (kids stay free at Lonesome Lake during the summer!), but they are a great way to experience the White Mountains. The history of this route, the places, and the people involved is so compelling, it is worth spending some time delving into it!

To learn more about the Hut Traverse, I’d recommend the following resources: 

Klauss Goetze, describing the adventures of his son Chris (a legend in the Whites, who died too young, but helped establish a tradition of pushing limits in the mountains) in the late ‘50s. I love this story and have read it several times for various reasons, not least of which is that it makes me appreciate family. Read it here.

I am willing to argue this is one of the greatest ultra-running accomplishments ever: Alex MacPhail’s 1963, 12:11 Hut Traverse.  His brilliant recounting is here. This story makes my jaw-drop every time I read it. (Note: Bill, the AMC volunteer I ran into last year at Madison and this year at Zealand, worked with MacPhail during the 60s and he mentioned that MacPhail had run from Lakes of the Clouds to Zealand Hut in 2:10. That time is insane. I had just done it around four!  I’ve been lucky enough to email with Mr. MacPhail several times about the Hut Traverse and last year, at Madison, got to flip through the old log books that have records of his incredible feats, as well as the day the helicopter landed at Madison on his birthday!)

Jeff List’s webpage is a wealth of resources and detailed information about the different variations of the route. Jeff crewed for Scott Traer and myself on our first attempt in 2012. A wonderful human being who is a total badass in these environments and mountains.

Adam Wilcox has some brilliant trip reports here, here and here (this is an incredible winter traverse! Adam is seriously hardcore!).

Andrew Drummond (the same one featured in Scott Jurek’s new book with the trail name “Special Forces”!) has a post with great pics, describing his journey from Lonesome to Carter here.


  1. It's not as crowded here as on Facebook. It was nice seeing you enjoying yourself in the Whites. BTW, i can't see any images on this page.

    1. You guys are great Dima - it's always such a pleasure to see you and Karen. I'll try to figure out the pictures. The good news is that they aren't that awesome (the light was pretty low, and I didn't take any after Lakes of the Clouds).

    2. Now pictures are here, they are pretty. We should have snapped one of you, i guess the next time

  2. Josh, Beautifully written and accomplished and being resent along the way...also wonderful. I can taste your joy—in the realization of your newly defined goal and that TANG. Keep exploring! Emily Trespas

    1. Emily! If exploration leads to more “discoveries” such as TANG, well it is all worth it! Hope to see you soon.

  3. Brilliant piece, Josh! Absolutely loved pacing through the post. 48 in 17.5 is an insane pace in my realms..More power to you and hope to catch-up with you on the trails sometime soon!

    1. Srikanth! Great to to hear from you and definitely looking forward to our next meeting. Hope you are well and enjoying the summer.