This was the big one: Franconia Ridge, including a pair of five thousand footers, Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette. All of the White Mountain hikes and training I’ve been doing this winter have been in preparation for this traverse, one of the most picturesque and strenuous, above-treeline hikes in the White Mountains, with a total elevation gain of 4,200 feet.
We had pretty good conditions on Saturday, all things considered, with temperatures in the 20’s (F) and winds from the southwest at 20-30 mph. Still we ended up hiking the ridge in cloud, which was disconcerting since there are steep drop-offs along the western cliffs.
We took the normal route up to the ridge, climbing the Falling Waters Trail from the base of Franconia Notch and popping above treeline at Little Haystack Mountain (4,780 feet.) The trail up was reasonably well packed out, so we left our snowshoes in the car and bare booted it for about a mile before switching to traction. Although steep, this is a well graded trail that passes by many frozen waterfalls as it climbs 1000 meters to treeline, over a distance of 3.7 miles.
Just below treeline, we changed into above treeline winter garb including heavier gloves, balaclavas, face masks, and ski goggles. Most of us put on a thermal mid layer and regular hard shells, but it was still warm enough that people could expose their hands for short periods of time without gloves.
The trail up top was a combination of ice, wind slab, and some smaller snowdrifts. We proceeded to hike down the ridge which is only 1.6 miles from Little Haystack to Lafayette. It all went by eerily fast and I really couldn’t discern any landmarks, including the summit of Mount Lincoln, until we came to the summit sign on Lafayette.
For safety, we kept the group of 12 (9 hikers and 3 AMC leaders) close together because visibility was poor, but it took a certain amount of vigilance to keep the front and back halves of the group in sight of one another. It’s definitely a challenge for leaders to instill strong group cohesion (looking out for one another) in a group of individuals, many who’ve just met for the first time, even more so in such an alien environment.
Don’t get me wrong: we had an experienced group, but for above treeline winter hikes like this, it seems that having a slightly higher participant-to-leader ratio than normal made it easier for us to keep the group together and deal with contingencies as they arose (something for me to file away for when I become a winter leader.)
We took a short food break as we neared Mt Lafayette and I moved to the front of the group to lead the way to the summit. I knew the bearing and I could see the slope gradient so I knew we were headed in the right direction. Still I was cautious because we were under heavy cloud and it would have been very easy to walk right past the summit sign and continue north along the ridge.
One of our participants had a GPS and was insistent that he knew how to get to the summit. I let him take point and he brought us right to the sign! That was an eye opener for me. I’m not a big fan of GPS devices because I’m wary of them being mis-calibrated or experiencing battery failure, but it was really helpful to have one in these conditions, at least as another navigation tool.
While I’m sure we could have found the summit sign eventually, I knew we had a few tired hikers in our group. You really need find the summit sign on Lafayette in order to find the western cairns down to Greenleaf Hut. While it’s conceivable that you could find the cairns another way, you can easily overshoot them in a whiteout, and descend into the next valley below the northern shoulder of Lafayette.
After we all got to the sign, Stephen led our descent down Lafayette and down to the relative safety of Greenleaf Hut. Visibility was about 20 yards, tops, and we had to keep the group tightly packed so that people could keep sight of the person in front of them. I counted the group as they filed past and took up sweep at the end of the line.
Just below the summit, we encountered an area of hard wind slab where the easterly winds hit Lafayette and compress the snow into a hard slippery crust. Two members of our party who were wearing microspikes, slipped and slid down the wind slab. It was a little scary because they didn’t have axes to self-arrest and I wasn’t sure how far the slab extended down-slope. The first one to fall was slow getting up, just as the second hiker fell and slid into him. I crunched down in my crampons and helped pick up some dropped gear; they were both ok, but it highlighted the limitations of microspikes on a peak like this.
As we continued our descent, the clouds over Layfayette and Franconia Notch began to break up and we could see limited views of Greenleaf Hut and Cannon Mountain, beyond. Within an hour, the whole ridge cleared off. By that time, we’d made it down to the hut, which is closed during winter, but still makes a good wind break, and enjoyed a good rest in the sunshine.
From the hut, we had a fairly routine, but steep walk down the Bridle Path back to our cars at the trail head. This was good hike and I appreciate being asked to co-lead it. Despite the fog, the temperature and wind speed on the ridge were quite comfortable and it was nice to be able to descend Lafayette and the Bridle Path with such grand views. Franconia Ridge is definitely one of the more challenging hikes in the Whites and even more so in winter.