The Franconia Ridge Loop consists of two five thousand footers, Mt Lincoln (5080′) and Mt Lafayette (5242′). In addition to their summits, the highlight of the loop is the above treeline Franconia Ridge Trail connecting Lincoln and Lafayette, with magnificent views of Franconia Notch to the west and the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the east. However, by December, this hike resembles a mountaineering expedition more than a casual hiking loop. Snow, ice, high winds, poor visibility, and artic temperatures can make it very dangerous for poorly-prepared people that lack winter hiking experience.
Most people hike the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, climbing first to a peak named Little Haystack Mountain which is also on the ridge, before heading north to Lincoln and then Lafayette. From there, you drop down the west face of Lafayette, pass the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut, and descend on the Old Bridle Path down Agony Ridge. Overall, it takes considerable effort to climb to the ridge from the Notch trailhead, including multiple stream crossings, and a gain of 3000′ of elevation over the distance of 3.2 miles. The total distance and elevation gain of this loop is 8.9 miles w/3900′ of elevation gain.
- Falling Waters Trail: 3.2 miles w/3050′ of elevation gain
- Franconia Ridge Trail: 1.7 miles w/850′ of elevation gain
- Greenleaf Trail: 1.1 miles
- Old Bridle Path: 2.9 miles
When I hiked this route on Dec 5th, I was accompanied by two regular hiking pals who are very experienced winter hikers. We all carried multiple forms of traction, including crampons, ski masks, full face protection to prevent frostbite, multiple glove layers, and a collection of mid-layers and jackets that we could mix and match depending on the conditions up top. That, in addition to insulated water bottles, food, emergency gear, navigation tools, and satellite messengers is the kind of stuff you want to carry on a hike like this. While I’ve been up on the ridge in winter conditions a half-dozen times before, it’s not a hike that I take for granted and one that I’d never want to do alone.
We didn’t really know what the weather or trail conditions would be like up on the ridge because so few people have been up it recently. The AMC Hut located partway up Mt Lafayette is closed for the season and there have been very few trip reports posted on New England Trail Conditions which is where winter hikers in the Whites share beta about trail conditions.
But, I’d been tracking a potential weather window for a few days and it looked like we’d have a 1-day weather window to climb Lincoln and Lafayette in reasonable weather. That meant sunny skies, temperatures near 20F with a 20mph breeze which is really a good forecast. In actuality, I think the winds were probably closer to 30 mph based on how much we were getting pushed around up top. But for the wind, the weather conditions were primo. We had great views and blue skies.
We met at 8:00 AM at the Falling Waters Trailhead in Franconia Notch, which would let us hike the entire loop in daylight. Our group consisted of myself, Tom who’ve I’ve done 5 or 6 big hikes with during this past year, and Wanda who writes articles for SectionHiker and whom I’ve been hiking with since around 2017. They’re both top-notch in terms of experience, skills, and good judgment and it’s really easy to hike with them.
After a few water crossings, we started up the Falling Waters Trail to Little Haystack Mountains, at the point where we’d pop above treeline. This trail climbs steadily until its reaches a side trail to Shining Rock, just over 4000′. In warm weather, it’s nice to follow the side trail to this huge cliff face and a great viewpoint.
We took a short food and water break and changed into our above treeline garb, positioning our face protection gear where it’d be easily accessible if required. I swapped out my thin fleece gloves for much fluffier ones and Gore-tex Mitten shells to cover them with. I took off my wind shell and put on my hard shell, which has an adjustable hood, wrist cuffs, and pit zips. I put on my sunglasses and checked to see that my North25 balaclava was easily accessible along with my ski mask. Then came the final ascent.
We climbed the next 500′ straight up on ice that got thicker underfoot the higher we climbed. Before leaving treeline, we agreed to meet behind the big boulder at the top of Litte Haystack which is a good windbreak where you can rest, change layers, or have food and water. I was the first to pop above treeline and into brilliant sunshine. The wind seemed mellow and the views were gorgeous.
We regrouped around that boulder and got ourselves organized for the ridge walk. The sun was shining brightly so my friends put on sunscreen and heavy sunglasses and then we set out along the ridge trail, encountering heavy ice almost immediately. Our Hillsound Trail Crampons were sufficient but full crampons would not have been overkill: we just didn’t want to stop and change into them just yet. The problem with hiking this time of year is that you encounter a combination of rock, snow, and ice so most people hike with what are called their “rock spikes” which are already beaten up and duller than what you’d wear later in the season. I compensated by stomping my feet harder on the ice to get a better bite. A little butt-sliding also helped.
Once we were out in the open, the wind really picked up. The forecast had called for winds from the southwest, so we thought we’d have the wind at our backs on the ridge. But the wind was coming from due west instead and hitting the left side of my face. It was strong enough to blow us around on the ice and I was concerned that my face would get frostbiten. My friends also wanted to don face protection.
But first, we needed to get a break from the wind. There are clumps of vegetation along the ridge trail so we stopped when we got to one below Lincoln and put on our face protection. Naturally, we all had different gear for this. Wanda used an OuterU mask that covered her nose and upper cheeks. Tom used a Serius neoprene balaclava and I used a wool North 25 balaclava, which is the best system I’ve found to date that prevents my glasses from fogging. After a quick buddy check to make sure we were all properly covered up, we set off to finish the climb up Lincoln.
From there, the ridge walk went pretty smoothly, we topped the peak, and hiked down the other side before climbing up to the summit of Lafayette. The wind didn’t let up except when we hiked behind rock outcroppings or vegetation.
I had Tom snap a few pictures of me at the Lafayette sign since this was my 500th summit on the Grid, which is a major milestone that people hiking the Grid like to celebrate. It’s called the 500 Club. But, there’s plenty of hiking left in those final 76 peaks to finish the list.
The wind was still blowing so we decided to hike down Lafayette and take a break at the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut instead of trying to eat lunch at the top. The hut is closed for the season, but it makes a pretty good windbreak.
It can be difficult to follow the Greenleaf Trail down from Lafayette because the cairns marking the top of the trail are confusing. If you’ve been following the news lately, someone died because they missed this turn or the one below it, which is also hard to see, and hiked down into a ravine where they froze to death. They were hiking solo on a bad weather day and they weren’t terribly well equipped, but even very experienced hikers have problems following this section of trail. I thought I’d lost it on the way down (I was leading), but we found it again buried under wind slab further down.
The rest of this hike went by pretty quickly. We made good time to the hut, had our snack, and headed down the Old Bridle Path. It had pretty heavy ice because it’s usually a fairly wet trail, but it just required due care to descend.
As you can imagine, this hike was a big milestone for me and I’m glad I was able to share it with my hiking friends. Onward and by all means.