Arlette Laan Sets Women’s Fastest Known Time for White Mountain Direttissima
I did a thing. I took on the White Mountain Direttissima, what some also call the White Mountain Challenge, and I completed it. Not only did I complete it, but I set the women's fastest known time (FKT) for the route, while hiking it solo and unsupported. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
What is the White Mountain Direttissima?
The idea of the White Mountain Direttissima is to summit all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000-foot mountaintops in one continuous footpath–my route had me traveling from the Gorge Brook trailhead to the Mount Cabot trailhead, carrying all the supplies I'd need on my back.
In September 2014, I completed my first White Mountain Direttissima, inspired by Matts Roing and Anna and Ariel Feindel. While I was happy I finished it, I was disappointed in my time. It took me 11 days and 19 hours. I also had my husband hike with me for a day over the Carter Range, which took away from my sense of a solo journey. I've been wanting to do a true solo in a faster time ever since. So, a few years ago, I tried again. I carried a much lighter load and was off to a better start, but feeling nauseous and less motivated, I quit the attempt on day three.
Recently, a few males have completed or attempted a supported, self-supported, or unsupported White Mountain Direttissima. Bill Tidd set an unsupported speed record in six days, seven hours this past July. A female tried to go for nine days recently, but didn't make it. My own husband recently finished his trek in just over nine days.
My FKT Journey of the White Mountain Direttissima Begins
When I set out for my third attempt of the White Mountain Direttissima this past September, I was hoping to do it in ten days; nine seemed out of reach with my slow uphill speed.
When I completed my first attempt of the White Mountain Direttissima in 2014, I set out with close to 40lbs. on my back. For my recent FKT, I set out with just under 30, including 13lbs. of food and a liter of water. Lowering my weight was important, though during the first three days of my recent White Mountain Direttissima, I regretted my choice of the lightweight Gossamer Gear Kumo backpack. No suspension meant that all of my load's weight was on my shoulders, which threw my balance off a bit on the scrambly downhills. After day three, however, my pack weight was down to a more comfortable level, and I was very happy with my choice.
One Day Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Day two of my recent White Mountain Direttissima attempt was mentally the hardest for me since I knew what was still ahead and I was struggling going very slowly uphill on the Liberty Springs Trail. On top of that, the thought of going out of my way to get Owl's Head was slightly overwhelming. I dropped my food bag at Thirteen Falls Tentsite, but brought all my other gear to go climb Owl's Head in the dark just in I wouldn't have the energy to make it back. The planned bushwhack down Owl's Head got scrapped because I wasn't going to attempt that in the dark. Once back down, I made it to the first stream crossing and cowboy camped.
Two Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
On day three, I was focused on Mount Hale, where I had bailed on my second attempt a few years earlier. Once I made it past that, I felt a sense of relief and pushed on. I was now a day and several miles ahead of my first attempt. I was hoping to make it down to the Pemigewassett River (the Pemi), but after West Bond, I was so slow and sleepy that it made more sense to lay down my pad and bag and close my eyes.
Three Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Being able to cross the Pemi on day four saved me about eight miles, and put me farther ahead of my first trip. I was behind my husband's schedule from the week before, but decided to focus on being ahead of my own, and not be frustrated. After summiting the Hancocks, I allowed myself a good break with a ten-minute nap. I didn't enjoy hiking the Osceolas after that with all the rock jumbles and slanted slab. I started asking out loud in Dutch: "Will these rocks ever stop?" (Oftewel houden deze klote rotsen nou nooit op?). There may have been some other choice words thrown in, as well. I was hoping to push on to the summit of Tecumseh, but slowed down to a snail's pace at the false summit and cowboy camped again.
Four Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Day five had a glorious start with a pre-sunrise view from the Tecumseh Summit and amazing sunrise view from the ski slope. I was feeling good and strong–could I be enjoying this?
Then, my body decided to give me my period early and the skies opened up. Luckily, the two-hour monsoon didn't start until I was at the bottom of Passaconaway, so I was safe to keep hiking. The downside of being low was that the trails were now ankle deep rivers. I was sloshing around dressed in my underwear and rain gear. My torso and head were staying warm and mostly dry with my rain jacket and hooded pack cover over it. I was laughing at the ridiculous sight of me walking down the Kancamagus Highway in the dark in the pouring rain heading towards the Sawyer pond trail. I sloshed right through the Swift river since my shoes were soaked anyways. I was worried the water would have risen too much, but it was only knee-deep. Following the trail got a little more challenging when I got to more rocky creek bed sections. I wanted to conserve my headlamp batteries, but changing them out in the rain seemed like a bad idea.
I was relieved when I made it to the Sawyer Pond Tentsite. I briefly entertained the idea staying in the shelter and not needing to put up my tent in the rain, but wondered–would that break the being unsupported rules? I wandered around the tentsite in the dark, found the shelter with people in it, and decided to suck it up. Thank goodness there was a break in the rain as I set up my tent.
Five Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
I woke up all puffy from the humidity, and packed up my soaking wet gear. It did stop raining, but my shoes were still soaked, so the wet socks went back on as well. Such fun!
A short walk brings me up to the trail to Carrigain where luckily the sun is poking through. With a stiff breeze on the lookout tower, I'm able to dry out my gear. Even my shoes are starting to dry.
The Desolation Trail on the backside is one slippery mess and slow going, but the Shoal Pond Trail is fairly quick. Unfortunately, it also has a mess of flooded rotten bog bridges, and my feet get soaked again. The Ethan Pond Trail is a breeze, and soon I'm climbing up Mount Willey, annoyingly leap-frogging with a group of college kids. Finally, they wait long enough to give me some space. Field, Tom, and the descent to Crawford Notch are quick, and I force myself to get up Mount Jackson. I'm now back on my husband's schedule! I can't believe it! I crawl under some bushes and go to sleep.
Six Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Three hours later, I continue on and soon see pretty morning skies. Near Lakes of the Clouds Hut, it gets busier with hikers, and on Washington Summit it's a zoo. I'm not going to stand in line for the summit photo, so I do a quick tag and take a picture of a cute Mexican family instead. Then it's down Tuckerman's over to Davis Path to tag Isolation. Another out and back.
To my surprise, I run into Philip Carcia, one of the few others who has done a Direttissima. How fun! We briefly chat before I move on. There is a threat of thunderstorms in the afternoon and it's getting really cloudy. Changes in weather/humidity often trigger allergic reactions with me in that the skin around my eyes gets puffy or red. It's red now, and feels like a sunburn. Otherwise, my body is holding up really well.
My shoes have gotten pretty sloppy after the rain, and my insoles are already worn out from me pounding them so hard. I wish I'd brought an extra pair of insoles. I can feel some friction and decide to put on an extra pair of socks and tighten my laces. Hopefully this will help going down the steep Glen Boulder Trail. It seems to never end.
Instead of climbing the steep, challenging Wildcat Ridge Trail, my husband had suggested going up the Wildcat Ski Slope. It's longer, but does seem to make sense, so I go for it. I prefer not to start the day with a big uphill, so am happy to make it almost to Wildcat before settling into my sleeping bag.
Seven Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
By the next morning, I'm moving great, but feel the first real signs of continuous sleep deprivation when I have trouble staying awake around 10am. I want to push through, so I try chatting with some Appalachian Trail (AT) hikers and try to keep the pace up. Just after the steep North Carter descent, I run into Bear Repellant, an AT section hiker I enjoyed guiding earlier this summer. I didn't know she was going to be out here, and I'm so excited to see her! It totally boosts my spirits. I wish her luck on her last little section of the Carters with a fellow guide, and promise to meet up after this is done.
Then, it's on to Moriah and I speed down the Stoney Brook Trail. In fact, I find myself jogging down the trail. What is happening? I'm not a runner.
A four-mile road walk brings me to the Daniel Webster Scout Trail. I feel a lot of friction on the balls of my feet, but only one little blister, which I tape up. A short food and nap break prepare me for the climb up to the Presidentials. All goes well until I hit the ridge and encounter thick fog and strong wind gusts. I know these trails well, but add in darkness, and it's easy to get disoriented. On a small sub-summit, I get blasted by a wind gust and wonder if it's safe to continue. I scan my memory for possible drop offs, and conclude that as long as I move slowly and carefully, I should be fine. I check my Guthook GPS app frequently to stay on track, and it happens a time or two where I'm at a cairn and am not sure where to go next. I'm relieved to make it over the summit and into even more familiar terrain.
At this point, my phone is doing double duty as an extra flashlight propped up in my shoulder strap pocket and as a navigation backup. If I'd had less experience with this terrain, I would have bivvied somewhere.
Knowing that after Madison Hut the trail is fairly easy to get to Thunderstorm Junction, I push on. Once there, it seems to clear and I start the out and back to Adams. To my dismay, fog rolls back in and I strain to see the next cairn. The Guthook app is again appreciated. Back at Thunderstorm, I wonder what to do. My gloves have gotten wet and I don't want to push on and get in trouble on Jefferson. I decide to bivvy behind the big cairn at Thunderstorm. I'm not very comfortable and everything gets soaked from the fog, but what to do? Finally, it clears and I continue on. The stars are amazing.
This stretch has taken a lot out of me, and once at Jefferson, I decide to crawl into a little cave and sleep some until sunrise. Caps Ridge Trail is better done in daylight anyways (in 2014 I fell off one of the slabs in the dark).
Eight Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
With a sub 9-day finish still within reach, I speed down Caps Ridge as much as I can and cross the parking lot like a bat out of hell. I must have been a strange sight for the early morning hikers starting up. A long road walk lies ahead. And, while it goes quickly, it's not good for the feet. About 12 miles later, I arrive at the busy Waumbek Trail. It's hot and humid and I can't stand wearing my dress any longer. I'm embarrassed for my shorts and sports bra look, but it is what it is.
I debated whether I wanted to do a Waumbek Summit tag and back, roadwalk to the old Mount Cabot Trail and tag Cabot out and back, or stay on the Kilkenny Ridge Trail to Cabot. I change my mind halfway up and stay on the Kilkenny Ridge Trail. It's much cooler on the ridge, and the trail won't trash my feet as much as a road.
I'm doing fine with this decision until just after Terrace Mountain. There is so much extra up and down that it's tough on the mind. I just want to go to sleep. But, I also want to finish in under 9 days. I dig deeper than I ever have, and keep going. But then, I'll sit down in the middle of the trail, closing my eyes for five minutes. And then I will myself to get back up. Once I'm moving, my speed isn't bad, but the struggle to keep moving is. I guess this is what endurance racing is like. I'm pretty sure this will be my first and last taste of that. After what seems like an eternity, I make it to the summit of Cabot. By now, my headlamp is almost dead and I've been using my phone as my main light source. It's awkwardly strapped underneath my headlamp strap until I stash my pole at the Mount Cabot Trail turnoff and just hold it in my hand. I have now become one of those people navigating by iPhone flashlight. Oh dear.
Back at the cabin, I laid down on one of the gross bunks and doze off. Probably no more than ten minutes later, I'm back up and soon my slow-mo pace going up is replaced by a speedy downhill pace. I surprise myself. I now have a sense of urgency. If I want to get to the trailhead within the nine days, I have to cover about two miles in 1.5 hours, and I need to finish before my phone dies. I splash through the muddy, unmaintained Mount Cabot Trail and feel all kinds of wrong happening to my feet. Even my fingers are blistering from gripping my trekking poles. When my phone does eventually die, I'm luckily almost to the trailhead, and my dim headlight gets me there– just barely.
I push the stop button on my tracker.
My total time is 8 days, 23 hours, and 9 minutes.
Special thanks to Rich Gambale and Rachel Lewis for being there to pick me up in the end.