Things to Consider when Planning a Direttissima
Direttissima is a climbing term that means a direct climb to a summit. For hikers in the Whites, it means tagging all 48 4000’ peaks in one contiguous journey. Last summer I set the Women’s Fastest Known Time (FKT) for a White Mountain Direttissima completing the trek in 8 days, 23 hours, 9 minutes!
This blog answers the “Burning questions” from Liz Dooley from the New Hampshire Women’s Hiking Group.
1. Please explain “supported” vs “unsupported” regarding a Direttissima.
These are the definitions from the Fastest Known Time website:
Supported means you have a crew that meets you along the way. This can range from one person handing you water once, to an entire team that accompanies you the whole distance giving you everything (except physical assistance — FKTs are self-powered). Whether it’s just once or continuously, any support at all means it’s a Supported trip. Supported can enable the fastest trips due to the ability to carry less weight. To get a Supported FKT you also have to beat the fastest Self-Supported and Unsupported times.
Self-Supported means you may have as much support as you can manage or find along the way, but not from any pre-arranged people helping you. This can range from caching supplies in advance, purchasing supplies along the way, to finding or begging for food or water. Most long thru-hiking routes are done Self-Supported. To get a Self-Supported FKT you also have to beat the fastest Unsupported time.
Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind. This means you carry everything you need from start to finish except water from natural sources (public taps along the trail are acceptable, but if you get water from a store, even if free, that’s Self-Supported). This naturally limits the length of an Unsupported trip. If a person is accompanied or paced for any distance, it automatically becomes a Supported trip. Teams, however, can be Unsupported as long as they all travel and finish together. A mixed gender team can be Unsupported, but an individual traveling as part of such a team cannot claim an Unsupported FKT in their gender (they could claim a Supported – paced – FKT in their gender).
My summer direttissima was solo and unsupported. The winter one was with my partner and self-supported. I chose an unsupported manner since that makes it interesting for me. Otherwise it’s just a regular backpacking trip. Making it a fastest known time goal makes it’s a challenge.
2. How do you approach route planning? Is there a preferred starting point? Is there a specific order for the peaks that is more successful? Do you aim to get tougher peaks out of the way first? How do you address mileage versus elevation?
For a regular (not winter) Direttissima there are usually two preferred starting points. Either start at Moosilauke or Cabot. If you start at Cabot you have to tackle a long roadwalk in your first 30 miles which can cause blistering on the feet. Then you have to traverse the northern Presidentials with your pack still full of food. But doing this section with nice cushy new shoes first is a plus, and you get to finish on Moosilauke which is very satisfying.
Starting at Moosilauke may be an easier start but you have to climb down the Beaver brook trail with a full pack (although most seem to do it as an out and back with a small pack, not me) and you end up hiking the northern Presidentials when you’re pretty sleep deprived. The road walk towards Waumbek can be terrible if your shoes are starting to fail. I also don’t wish the Kilkenny ridge trail on anyone for the last day. But Kinsman ridge may feel the same way in the other direction.
Psychologically I like to start with Moose because I like that mountain and it also means I get Owls Head over with earlier in the hike. I mostly don’t like Owls Head because it’s so far out of the way. Same with Hale. It’s a mental thing.
The current men’s fastest unsupported time took a different approach. He started at Passaconaway, added a long roadwalk to Moose and bushwhacked from the Hancocks to Carrigain.
There are a few variations along the route on how to get to Owls Head and Hale and Andrew Drummond for example included a lot of out and backs so he could trail run with a small pack and minimize having to travel with his overnight gear. My approach is the opposite, I prefer a more direct line, hate out and backs, and I don’t run.
3. How do you track your mileage? What device do you depend on to prove your time? What about GPS?
I have an ideal plan on paper which is based on how many days I hope to do it in. So I know ideally where I want to sleep every night. The hikes usually don’t follow the plan exactly but it gives me an idea on how I’m doing in regards to my goal. At the end of the day I calculate how much I’ve done by using the route planning feature on the Guthook White Mountains app. (in 2014 I would just use my paper map for that). I tracked my hikes with a Garmin Inreach and used the Guthook app to stay on trail in the dark and fog in the Presidentials when it was hard to see.
4. How do you track weather before you depart and while on trail?
My husband loves the weather so he actually told me that a good stretch of weather was coming up. Being self employed and not having any guiding trips planned I could take advantage of that and just go. While on trail nowadays you can pull up a weather forecast on your phone but it usually doesn’t mean much to me and most of the time I don’t bother. If you’re going for a fastest known time you have to keep on hiking if you can. And if conditions turn out to be unsafe you have to make a decision to set up camp and/or bail out to a lower less exposed location in that moment. The heavy fog and wind gusts I experienced in the northern Presidentials were not predicted for the time I was going to be up there. You just deal with it and hope for the best.
5. What clothes wear you wearing the day you departed? How do you layer?
Lightheart gear hiking dress
Spandits spandex shorts
Ibex long sleeve baselayer
Melanzana fleece hoodie
Merino wool hat
TrailHeads convertible gloves
2 Pairs Injinji socks
1 Pair Darn Tough socks
Sunday Afternoon visor
Dirty Girl gaiters
Lightheart gear rainjacket
Lightheart gear pack cover hoodie
ULA rain skirt
Altra Lone Peak 4
I mostly hiked in the dress and spandex shorts. And layered over them as needed. During the monsoon afternoon/evening I hiked in my spandex shorts and bra with my rainjacket and pack cover hoodie over it. This layering kept me warm enough without drenching my other clothes which were stowed away. Even the best rain jacket would have eventually gotten saturated. Getting wet is okay as long as you are warm enough.
6. For your first attempt in 2014, your pack weighed almost 40lbs. In October 2019 you set out with your pack weighing just under 30lbs (including 13lbs of food). How did you cut that 10lbs of weight? What else did you change based on your previous experience.
I saved a few pounds from switching from a Granite Gear backpack to the Gossamer Gear Kumo. It was definitely top heavy in the first few days but it was totally worth it.
I also ditched the stove, pot and fuel. Cooking took too much time and I like crackers and cheese for dinner. With not cooking, I ditched the heavy pasta I carried the first time. I also carried less bagels. I also carried two beanie baby Monkeys which were replaced with feather light sock dolls. ; )
Gossamer Gear Camo Kumo
Gossamer Gear The One
Various stakes (10)
Gossamer Gear Thinlight Foam Pad 1/8″
Therma Rest Pro Lite plus X-Small
Nemo inflatable pillow
Montbell Downhugger #1 800
1 Liter Platypus plus hose
2 Smart water bottles
First Aid kit + Shoe goo
2 Anker Batteries plus 2 power cords
2 Head lamps Petzl + Black Diamond
12 extra batteries + 3 in one of the headlamps
I Phone 7
Leki Trekking poles
Tooth brush + Diva Cup
White Mountain Map by Map Adventures
Gossamer Gear Quicksack
7. Describe your approach to food and water. What was included in that 13lbs of food? Do you worry about going hungry? Thirsty? How do you stay hydrated?? Do you know if you are dehydrated?
I’ve done so much backpacking that I have a decent handle on what I eat although I do tend to over pack sometimes on long distance hikes when the hiker hunger kicks in. Having just finished two weeks of backpacking I knew exactly what to pack and it worked out pretty well. I go with a light breakfast like Belvita cookies, a light snack and a bar between breakfast and lunch, cheese and crackers for lunch, one bar, dinner. I have some floating snacks I can munch on throughout the hike, like potato chips, a bag of M&M’s, jar of Nutella. My favorite was fully cooked bacon with potato chips wrapped in a tortilla. I had packed supposedly for 10 days but my food was almost gone when I finished. The long days required more bars and those were all eaten by the end. I’m pretty good with staying hydrated. I added Nuun tablets to my water once or twice a day.
8. Do you plan for sleeping breaks, or just hope you find a safe spot to lay down your sleeping pad? You described in your blog post that you napped for a few minutes on the trail at times. How does that work?
In the morning I had an idea of how far I wanted to make it based on miles but also on where I think there would be a good spot to sleep. Sometimes I made it, sometimes I didn’t. But if I was close that was a good mental boost. I would basically keep walking until I got so slow and tired that it didn’t make sense for me to keep going. For the night or a nap, I would just find a semi flat area to lay down a pad and sleep. I only set up my tent once and that was because it was raining. I wasn’t camping, I was just sleeping. I only needed a spot that fit my body and wasn’t too slanted.
9. How do you prepare mentally for the toughness of a Direttissima? What gave you an edge last August?
I did better this time around because I knew the route and I’m more used to the terrain. You just have to be stubborn, know how to pace yourself and hope for the best. The first time I did it was to test how far I could push myself. I made a bunch of wrong turns that time, stopped early one foggy day because I wasn’t as familiar with the terrain as I am now and did some other stuff that cost me time. This time I had the knowledge and the experience to improve.
10. Do you have a bail-out plan in case of an injury or adverse weather event?
Not particularly but I know most of the trails and tent sites/shelters and huts in the Whites so I know my bailouts by heart. I did have an Inreach and cell phone with me.
11. Speaking of weather, is there an ideal time of year to attempt a Direttissima?
It depends. If you can deal with heat and humidity summer would be good. There is more daylight then too. I hate the heat and humidity so a little later is better for me. Early October may still be okay but you don’t want to get caught in early snowstorms and strong winds. Spring could be tough with some of the water crossings and possible lingering snow. Winter? I don’t recommend it. Hahaha
12. Anything you would have changed in retrospect? Any big “takeaways”?
Bring more batteries. Haha. I surprised myself by doing it in just under 9 days. I didn’t think I could with me not being a particularly fast hiker compared to those who just run up mountains. So that was cool.
13. Do you have a “luxury item” in your pack that you cannot hike without?
I had my little sock dolls which was fun and they don’t weight much. I also recently added a little inflatable pillow which was super nice.
14. For those of us trying to challenge ourselves with longer and/or more difficult hikes, do you have any pointers for how to get to the next level?
Just set a goal and work your way up to it. If it’s conditioning, just push yourself a bit more each time. If it’s something you don’t have the skills or knowledge for, read up on it, take a class or find someone to go with who is more experienced or up for an adventure to figure things out along the way.