Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Franconia Ridge Traverse 2013-08-20

It's been over ten years since I've hiked in the White Mountains. The last time was on September 11th, 2001. It was not a day I'm likely to ever forget.

We learned of the attack upon arriving at Pinkham Notch. At first we thought it was a gag, in poor taste, but the person relaying the disturbing information was adamant. Everything felt askew but there was nothing we could do but continue with our lives. That evening, in the Lakes of the Clouds hut, everyone huddled around the radio and listened to the president's speech. Many questions went through our minds.

The following day we traversed the northern Presidentials, via the Gulfside trail, and looped back to Pinkham Notch. It was a bright and beautiful day; the sky was unmarked by contrails because all flights had been grounded. It was an eerie juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy; all seemed normal but was not. We returned to Montreal and wondered what the future held in store.

The last time I hiked to Lafayette was in the mid-80's. I don't recall much about the trip other than it was with a few friends and we probably ascended via the Old Bridle path. I don't believe the I-93, through Franconia Notch, was built yet. This time around I wanted to see more of the Franconia Ridge and decided to ascend it via the Flume Slide trail to Mount Flume and continue over Liberty, Little Haystack, Lincoln, Lafayette, and descend via the Greenleaf trail to the tramway parking.

My wife dropped me off at the Liberty Spring trail-head and we agreed to rendezvous at the tramway parking ten hours later. We had radio tranceivers and I'd contact her later to refine the pick-up time. I drove from our motel in Twin Mountain to the trail-head and, despite a tour of the area the previous day, I made a wrong turn at the Flume exit (34A). Instead of heading south on route 3, towards Liberty Springs trail-head and the Flume, I headed north to the Basin parking area. Wrong! Given the way the I-93 is built, I was obliged to return to the northern end of Franconia Notch and use exit 34B to get back on the southbound I-93. The mistake added about fifteen minutes of extra driving time. I'll know better next time.

I kissed my wife good-bye and left the Liberty Springs trail-head at 7:15 AM. The first 0.6 miles winds its way through the woods then arrives at the paved bicycle path running through the Notch. A short walk along the path and over a bridge leads one to the Liberty Spring trail. Another 0.6 miles along this path brings one to the start of the Flume Slide trail. Its condition was excellent and suggests it sees less traffic than the Liberty Springs trail which leads to a designated camp-site and the summit of Liberty.

The initial stretch of the Flume Slide trail was a pleasant walk along a well-maintained trail, curving around the base of Liberty. It crosses four major streams, the first feeds directly into the Pemigiwasset River, and the remaining three are tributaries of Flume Brook which also feeds the Pemi river. I stopped for water at the fourth stream-crossing. Hardwood Ridge was now looming above and it was clear the trail would soon begin to climb in earnest.

I guess the only drawback to hiking in Franconia Notch is the sound of diesel trucks using their "jake brakes". The rumbling drone of decelerating trucks can be heard for great distances and detracts from the natural sounds of wind, water, and bird-song.

Having hiked mostly in the Adirondacks, it's natural for me to compare everything to Adirondack trails. The steep portion of the Flume Slide trail left me searching for a comparable trail in the Adirondacks. The ascent of Allen's slide came close except this route was not slippery with "red slime" and not eroded or criss-crossed with deadfall. It had plenty of exposed rock, similar to what one would encounter on the Zander Scott trail to Giant, but it was steeper and more rugged, not like smooth Adirondack rock. All in all, I found it to be a challenging but very enjoyable route. I agree with the guidebook that in wet weather it would not be a very friendly descent route. Although it is called "Flume Slide", it is an old, overgrown slide and there are only a few views through the trees during the ascent.

I reached the Franconia Ridge trail at 9:35 AM. I've often heard the trails in the Whites were less eroded than in the Adirondacks and first sight of the Franconia Ridge Trail seemed to confirm it. A few minutes later I was atop Mount Flume and enjoying the front-row view of Liberty and beyond. Someone had erected a memorial, consisting of an American flag and a photo, atop the summit. The photo indicated the young man, a 19 year old soldier, was from Manchester and died in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. It saddened me to learn that his life was cut short, never to see the beauty of this day in the mountains, by a war initiated under false pretenses.

The route: Flume (right), Liberty (left), Lincoln and Lafayette (far background).
I moved on to Liberty and arrived on its summit a half-hour later. A group of nine hikers, with a tenth appearing to be the leader, was relaxing on the summit. They were the first of many hikers I would encounter along the trail to Lafayette. It's a busy route yet, being a week-day, I'd see far fewer people than what one normally sees on a sunny summer weekend!

Shepherd and his flock on Liberty.
It was a pleasure to hike along the wooded trail between Liberty and Little Haystack. Before long I caught sight of the summit of Little Haystack and a few minutes later, at 11:15 AM, I arrived on its summit. I now had a clear view of Lincoln as well as the throngs of hikers ascending the Falling Waters trail. What I found interesting was, from the vantage point of Little Haystack, how Lincoln completely obscures Lafayette. I guess if you didn't know better you might assume you were looking at Lafayette.

I suppose I shouldn't have said "throngs of hikers" because I merely saw about a dozen hikers. If I believe some of the reports I've heard, that's a tiny number compared to the hiker traffic seen on Lafayette on an average summer weekend.

Open ridge-walk to Lincoln.
Beyond Little Haystack, the trail remains above treeline and exposes one to the elements. Fortunately, I had chosen a lovely day with sunshine and cooling breezes. Nevertheless, my pack contained clothing for foul-weather in case nature decided to pull a fast one. The path was so smooth and dry I couldn't think of anything comparable in the Adirondacks.

The first time I visited the White Mountains, some thirty years ago, I immediately fell in love with hiking above treeline. The unobstructed views of dozens of four and five-thousand foot peaks was a feast for the eyes. Fast forward to the present and I was once again enjoying a veritable banquet of views from Franconia Ridge. Small wonder this is a very popular trail.

A sample of the ridge trail.
I passed the full spectrum of hiking humanity along the ridge. Packless vacationers seemingly equipped for a day in an amusement park, a fellow looking like he fell off the page of a 1980 equipment catalog (frame-pack and heavy leather boots), gear-hounds dressed for an 8000 meter peak, and all sorts of other folks that fall somewhere in between. Most people looked like they were having a great time. I know I was!

I normally take a selfie on each peak, to capture the moment in time, but for some reason I just cruised over the summit of Lincoln. Maybe it was Lafayette's siren call but there was more ridge to cover, and savor, before reaching the day's ultimate goal. I passed one last couple and then I was alone on the ridge with just the sun, wind, and my thoughts for companions.

What a spectacular route!
I reached Lafayette's summit at noon, a little under five hours from the trail-head. The sky was hazy and the views weren't as crisp but that didn't matter a jot. I could see Greenleaf Hut and Cannon mountain to the west, Garfield in the east, and all the way southward to Flume. Three other hikers asked to have their photo taken and I obliged them. Afterwards, they retreated to the stone-wall remains of a building and that's where I eventually ended up to get out of the chilly breeze.

Looking south from atop Lafayette.
While snacking, I had a great view of Greenleaf hut, Echo Lake, and the ski runs on Cannon. A solitary hiker, who had ascended via the Greenleaf trail, asked if I knew of another route off the summit. With a smile I quipped "No map?". He indicated he had experienced a problem with a mapping app on his phone. Given that he arrived via the Greenleaf trail, I suggested he could return via the Falling Waters trail and the bike path. He thanked me and continued south. After about a half-hour on the summit, I began my descent to the tramway parking.

The footing was a little rougher, featuring the haphazardly strewn boulders characteristic of the exposed summits of the Whites, and required a little extra care during the descent. Before long I emerged at the Greenleaf hut and was treated to its impressive view of Franconia Ridge. A few hikers were preparing for their departure and others pored over a map while their Great Dane sat quietly nearby. I paused to savor the moment, looking back at the morning's route, and then entered the woods to follow the Greenleaf trail down to the tramway parking.

What a great spot!
The Greenleaf trail is mostly in the woods. It offers one good view of Cannon Cliff when it skirts the base of Eagle Cliff. Just below Eagle Cliff, my radio crackled to life and I heard my wife's voice. I indicated I was less than 45 minutes from finishing my hike and we agreed upon a meeting time at the tramway parking.

Cannon Cliff seen through Eagle Pass.
The lower portion of the trail parallels the highway for about a mile and serenades you with the drone of passing vehicles. It's not the most interesting stretch of the trail. I emerged at the trailhead, which offers no parking, crossed under the highway and spotted our vehicle in the parking area. My wife surprised me with a picnic lunch. We ambled down to Profile Lake where, in bright sunshine, I proceeded to recount what I saw. It was a great finish to a lovely hike.

Total time: 6h 45m.


See all photos.

No comments:

Post a Comment