Two for the price of one

(Full disclosure: This post was started weeks ago, right after the actual events described below took place. But, true to form, it was only recently finished. Oh well.)

This weekend was a first for us: our first attempt to hit two 4000-footers in one go. The targets: Mt. Lafayette (5260 feet) and Mt. Lincoln (5089 feet), both part of a popular trail loop up, across, and down the Franconia Ridge. And not only would it be our first two-fer, but these would also be the two tallest peaks we’ve attempted all summer. Well.

We set up the the night before at the Lafayette Place Campground north of Lincoln, conveniently located across I-93 from the trailhead. And let’s just say that it was more than just a little windy that night, and it only got stronger as the night progressed. I think we spent half the night listening to the wind thunder through the pines (and “thunder” is indeed the correct choice of word, as it sounded like a train rushing by overhead!). Morning broke, and the wind was still with us, plus it was more than a little chilly, solidly overcast, and just generally blah. A few groups of intrepid hikers passed by our tent, but by this point, we had decided to change our plans and blow off the hike for the day, instead hoping for better conditions the next day to try again. We decided instead to go into town to grab some breakfast at a diner we knew was there, then head over to the New Hampshire Highland Games, also going on that same weekend in town.

As we were sitting in the diner finishing off our breakfasts, we noticed that the winds had pushed some of the clouds out of the way—in fact, you could catch a handful of patches of blue sky on the horizon. It was already getting a bit late in the morning (nearing 10:00), but we made an executive decision on the spot—weather be damned, right now it was “good enough” for us to attempt our hike. We’d keep an eye on things as we went up, and if it started to get too crappy, we’d simply bail and chalk it up as a good try.

We went back to the tent, geared up, and headed off to the trailhead (there was a walkway tunnel underneath I-93 that took us from the campground directly to the trailhead… convenient, that). And at around 10:00ish, we started up the Old Bridle Path, with the stretch goal of at least being able to ascend Mt. Lafayette (saving Mt. Lincoln for another day). About a quarter mile up the trail, our path met up with the Falling Waters trail coming down from the top of Little Haystack Mountain, with a bridge crossing the stream that paralleled our path. But that trail was for another day, so onward and upward we went.

Our first goal was to reach the AMC Greenleaf Hut a couple of miles up the Old Bridle Path. And honestly, the first leg of the hike (up to the hut) really wasn’t too bad—mostly sheltered by the trees (meaning no biting wind blasting us constantly) and not too steep. But the weather… well, it was looking as cheery as it had just before the start of the hike. Looking up towards the ridge, all we saw were frost and ice. One thing you couldn’t actually see were the tops of the mounts along the ridge, owing to the low clouds and lingering fog. This might be a short hike after all.

The view to the Franconia Ridge early in the hike. Hmmmm.

We made it the hut without incident, none the worse for wear except for being more than a little damp (you sweat a little climbing up a mountain, even if sub-40 temps). Apparently, we weren’t the only hikers making a go of things this morning, as the hut was packed to the gills. The ranger on duty, Josh, gave us a heads-up about the weather up ahead—freezing temperatures, 20-30 mph winds sustained, with gusts of up to 70 (!) mph along the exposed ridgeline. He was predicting that we’d likely be facing icy conditions the higher we went, and his suggestion was to poke our heads above treeline, then make the call then (he was strongly indicating that we’d likely have to turn around then). Seemed like a good suggestion, so we strapped our gear back on and went back out to face the elements.

The only thing was that the elements decided to take a break. Yes, it started out as a continuation of the gray blah that had been with us all morning so far, but in the blink of an eye, there were wide swaths of brilliant blue sky all above us. Still windy as hell, but it looked like that was actually working in our favor. We passed a number of hikers making the descent down the Greenleaf Trail, and the forecast from them was decidedly rosier than what we’d received at the hut—windy, yes; cold, yes; but mostly clear and hardly any ice on the ground, not just atop Mt. Lafayette but (according to a few of the hikers) all along the ridgeline as well. Which led to another excecutive decision: it was back to our original plan for the day—both Lafayette and Lincoln in one giant loop.

The view to Mt. Lafayette after clearing Greenleaf Hut.

From there, there really wasn’t anything out of the ordinary the rest of the way to the summit of Lafayette. You know, nothing out of the ordinary for being totally exposed above treeline, being buffeted by high winds, with nothing but rocks and boulders for the next few hundred vertical feet up. (And I do mean “up”, as it sure got steep all of a sudden.) But we did make it.

Looking along the ridgeline towards Mt. Lincoln.

After the obligatory (and necessary) stop at the summit, we decided to stick with the plan and continued our way along the ridgeline. I have to tell you, it really wasn’t that bad. With the exception of the actual summit ascent to the top of Mt. Lincoln (from the col between Lafayette and Lincoln) and the similar ascent to the summit of Little Haystack at the end of our ridge walk, it was a relatively flat and well-defined trail. OK, yes, we were almost literally leaning into a crosswinds that regularly gusted up to 70 mph, dropping the wind chill down into the teens. But the sun was out, the ground was clear, and we were dry—it was all good. And before too long (again, relatively speaking), we were standing atop the summit of Little Haystack Mountain, thus completing our hike along the Franconia Ridge.

(It should be noted at this point that although the summit of Little Haystack Mountain itself sits at 4800 feet, it does not “officially” count as one of the White Mountain 4000-footers due to an esoteric rule that defines the official peaks—a peak must rise 200 feet above any ridge connecting it to a higher neighbor in order to qualify for the list, and in this case, Little Haystack does not sufficiently clear the col connecting it to Mt. Lincoln. So we were atop a peak at more than 4000 feet—but not really. Hmmm.)

The descent down Falling Waters Trail really wasn’t all that noteworthy. Don’t get me wrong, it felt long as hell (especially since we had already been hiking for the better part of 5 hours). And once we found the waterfalls that give this trail its name, it became very difficult in parts to even find the trail. (Dear AMC: You might want to reblaze that part of the trail soon…) And yes, the constant downhill rock scramble that defined the first half of the trail got old. OK, so maybe it was a little noteworthy.

The real problem towards the second half of the descent was daylight—or rather, the rapidly diminishing amount of it. We were already tired, and now it was getting darker, and getting darker faster with every passing hour. Fortunately, by now, the trail had flattened out considerably compared to the first half of the trail, meaning we could make much more rapid progress—and I say “fortunately”, as we felt we needed every minute of remaining light to keep us from having to blaze our way out by flashlight. We just kept telling ourselves that all we needed to see was the bridge that we had seen earlier, the one at the junction of this trail and the Old Bridle Path, ’cause we knew we were pretty much free and clear from that point back to the trailhead.

At this point, we were waiting (read: hoping) to see that damn bridge around every corner. And finally… there it was. “There it is!” I yelled back, and we practically ran (or the closest thing to it we could muster) to it, now knowing we were almost finished with our trek. A quick stop to finish off our remaining water bottles, a short quarter-mile (now made much shorter in our heads) back to the trailhead, and we were finally done. Our first two-fer (though I still contend it was a three-fer) was in the books.

Vital statistics:

  • Total time (round-trip): about 8 hours
  • Total distance (round-trip): 8.9 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4150 feet