Saturday, September 10, 2011

New Lessons From an Old Friend - Franconia Ridge - 9-10-11

It's been two weeks since we did this hike and it has taken me this long to decide to publish this post. I actually wrote most of it the day after the hike but I wasn't sure that I wanted to put it up.  I've continued to debate with myself but finally decided that all stories from the mountains are worth telling.  If you want to skip the story and just experience a spectacular day in one of the most beautiful spots in the world then skip to the pictures.  Otherwise read on...


There are days that are just made for exploring new trails and new peaks and then there are days when the call of an old friend can't be ignored.  Today was one of the latter.  When our original plans to hike Mt Carrigain for Flags on the 48 were foiled by the closing of Sawyer River Rd after hurricane Irene we had started to work on an alternative.  The forecast for Saturday was perfect and it seemed like a great day to hike the Kinsmans for the first time.  Our plans were set and we were ready to go but there was this little voice that seemed to be calling.  I knew that when we were standing on those summits and looking across the notch to Franconia Ridge that I'd be wishing we were there.  The Kinsmans were going to have to wait for another day.  The call was just too strong.

Since long before we began any serious hiking in the Whites I had spent many hours gazing at the peaks of Franconia Ridge and dreaming about the day we'd walk across it.  That first time came three years ago on day when peeks of blue sky tempted through drifting clouds.  We were on our first leg of a four day hut hike and our destination was only 6 miles away at Greenleaf Hut.  The forecast was for possible afternoon thunder storms and from the time we left the car all that was on my mind was not getting caught out on that ridge.  We rushed across and down to the hut much more quickly than we needed to.  We still greatly enjoyed this first experience but we should have been able to linger for hours and just savor the beauty.  The storms of course never came.  The next morning we returned to Lafayette on the most perfect of mornings and looked back across the ridge, knowing that we'd return many times.

The following September we returned on what promised to be a beautiful fall day.  Hikers in shorts and t-shirts shared the trails with us but we had heard the morning forecast and had prepared ourselves for what a late summer day can can offer on the high summits in the Whites.  When we arrived at treeline we were greeted by frosted trees.  On the ridge the temperature in the upper 20s, the wind was blowing 40+ MPH and the clouds that hung over the summits were now freezing fog.  We donned all our warm layers and walked across the ridge through a frozen wonderland. It was a wonderful hike and although we had no views along the ridge, the sun broke through as we were standing on Lafayette and we were treated to views on the descent of the ridge in all its glory.  None were any more spectacular though than had been the frozen landscape in that icy cloud.  The following day we looked back across to the ridge from Lonesome Lake on a perfect bluebird morning.  The mountains were giving me something to think about.  Reminding me that perfect days may not always be about blue skies.  Another lesson.

And so we returned again, lured by the promise of another perfect September day.  While hurricane Irene had devastated many parts of the Whites (and northern New England in general) two weeks earlier she had been kinder here.  The signs of her power were evident in the washed out trail on the first quarter mile and the evidence of just how far the torrent coming down the brook had reached.  Past this section though there was no sign that anything had ever happened.  The brooks had returned to their normal peaceful levels, the waterfalls were just their typical lovely cascades, no trees blocked the trails.  We ascended Falling Waters with great anticipation of the beautiful day that awaited on the ridge.  It felt great to be back on the trails after more than a month away.  When we reached Little Haystack the wind was blowing, the air had a sharp bite and the skies were the deepest of cloudless blue.  It was the most perfect day to be in this incredible place.

As we started toward Lincoln I felt the first twinges in my knee.  For the last few years I've had bouts with tendonitis in my right knee when hiking, but recently it had been fine.  Now it was the other knee.  This happened for the first time in July when we hiked Mt Adams.  It had not spoiled that day but it did keep me from hiking the following day.  So annoying.  I couldn't believe that it was back now, trying to spoil our perfect day.  As we made our way across the ridge the views were spectacular.  All of the Whites opened out around us and a few puffy clouds cast their shadows over the Pemi.  By the time we were going up Lincoln the knee pain was getting worse.  Now I was mad.  How dare my body do something to keep me from enjoying this!

We had started the hike early to give ourselves maximum time to enjoy the ridge.  Now I realized that the descent was going to be very slow and that we really needed to keep moving.  By the time we reached the summit of Lafayette my knee was screaming.  Every few steps there was a hot, sharp stab.  I was now thinking about how this was going to spoil not just today, but the rest of our fall hiking plans.

Lafayette was the typical madhouse that it is on a beautiful day.  Several gliders were soaring above the summit - playing in the updrafts and diving down and swooping along the ridge.  It looked like great fun.  We found a quiet spot away from the summit and sat to eat our lunch looking out at the beautiful views over the Pemi.  I tried not to think about the four miles and 3500' of descent that lay ahead.  But it was time to go.

The way down was painful. Thankfully the trekking poles helped to keep some of the pressure off of the knee but it was still a slog.  Part way down Lafayette on the way to the hut we passed a man who was by himself and struggling even more than I was.  He was leaning on a single pole and laboring with every step.  The pain was obvious in his face as he stepped aside and let us go by.  I made a comment that we weren't going to be any faster and how I understood "how it sucks to have old knees".  He gave a bit of a laugh and said he agreed.  We got to the hut and took a long break - enjoying sitting in the beautiful afternoon sun and gazing back up at the ridge.  The handful of ibuprofen that I had taken at the summit was kicking in and the knee was feeling a bit better.  I thought how nice it would have been to be spending the night at the hut.  We dragged ourselves away and started down.

The rest of the way down was very slow.  I reminded myself several times that I was glad it was this trail and not Falling Waters that we were descending.  As we passed the Agonies and the views began to open up around each corner I realized though that I did want to go up this way someday and that whatever path down was necessary it would just have to do.

A little more than half way down we once again caught up to the man that we had passed coming down Lafayette.  He had obviously not stopped at the hut and was plodding on determinedly.  He offered to let us pass again but I pointed out that we were going slowly too and were happy to stay behind and at his pace.  We never introduced ourselves but we walked together and talked the rest of the way down.  He had been planning to hike Mt Washington for the first time that day and had changed plans at the last minute when his hiking companion needed to pull out.  Instead he was hiking Franconia ridge for the first time, and doing it alone.  On the way up he had pulled a muscle in his leg and had decided to just suffer through the rest of the day rather than trying to descend Falling Waters.  He really hadn't known anything about this hike and was wondering how it compared to Mt Washington.  I assured him that if he could do this then he would be fine, particularly without the bum leg.  He said how happy he was to hear that and how much he was looking forward to getting to try it again in a couple of weeks.

Soon we were back at the parking lot.  The conversation had made the last couple of miles pass quickly and I think we had both somewhat forgotten about the struggle to get down.  When we parted ways we wished him luck with his hike of Washington and exchanged thanks for sharing the trail the last couple of hours.

It had been a long day - just over 9 hours - and seemed even longer.  It was a relief to be back at the car and heading home.  The knee really didn't feel all that bad now.  By the time we got to Woodstock Station and were sitting on the patio eating dinner I was already reflecting on the day.  It truly had been spectacular. I already knew that my knee wasn't going to keep me away.  I realized that it hadn't actually been the knee pain that had put the damper on the day but rather my mental reaction to it.  Worse, my grousing about it had also at least partly spoiled the day for Nat.  I felt so dumb.

Now two weeks later as I finish this story I know that it was just another lesson.  The mountains have things to teach us each time we visit them.  Sometimes it is something about them.  More often it is something about ourselves.  I know that as long as I am able, I will return to them many times and I will do my best to hear what they have to say.

Enough of pain and lessons learned.  Now to the beauty of a spectacular day...

The power of Irene visible at the beginning of the trail

Stairs Falls

Stillwater Falls

Cloudland Falls

First views of Canon Cliffs as we reach treeline

Across the Pemi from Little Haystack

Mt Liberty and Mt Flume

Mt Lincoln awaits

New slide (or just bigger now) from Irene?

Mt Lafayette ahead on a 10+ day 

Greenleaf Hut perched on the ridge in the distance

Looking back from Lafayette

Glider soaring over the summits

I've heard of mountain pilgrimages, but...  Hmmm...

Cloud shadows on the Pemi from Lafayette

Garfield Ridge

My vote for "best view in the world from a bathroom window"

Mt Lafayette over Eagle Lakes from Greenleaf Hut

Lafayette, Truman and Lincoln from the hut

Franconia Ridge from half way down Old Bridle Path

The Agonies and Lafayette

The complete photo album is here:

And now off to pack.  The Twins and Galehead are waiting for us tomorrow!


  1. Excellent posting, Mark!

    Somewhere I recall reading a particularly poignant piece that espoused thoughts similar to yours. The best I can recall, the author indicated that a mountain peak is a place to relish and enjoy, call it a "mountain-high", if you will! However it's not a place where we remain. Rather, it's just one stopover on life's journey. We eventually leave the peak and then move on. And just like hiking, there will be ups and downs along the trail during our life's journey to new and different "mountain-highs".

    I'm certain that the original author of these thoughts presented them in a more eloquent and coherent fashion. But hopefully, my rendition will be enough to get the point across. :-)


  2. I love it! I've never been on the Falling Waters trail, but those waterfalls look F-ing amazing! I've got to get there.

    I hear you on the bum knee, too. When starting the New England Trail a few years ago, I messed up my knee by starting with a too-high mileage day, and it caused pain and slowed me down for weeks after that first day. Unbelievably frustrating, but what can you do? Just enjoy the trip with what you have. I'd say your Franconia hike sounds like one for the ages.

  3. Mark, great write up and I'm glad you did share it. I think the first time up on that Ridge really is a special time and I don't think that "first" amazement can ever be recreated. I have been putting off hiking it again because I know the second time will never be as good as the first time.

    I am just like you from the standpoint of dwelling on something, like your knee pain, and letting it consume my day. I suppose it's hard not too where I'm sure it was overwhelming. I'm glad this trip gave you a new outlook on the knee pain moving forward!

    Your pictures are awesome! It looks like it really was a beautiful day.


  4. Thanks guys. You've made me glad that I decided to post this.

    John - I love the "mountain high" thoughts. Thanks for relating them.

    Ryan - You'll love Falling Waters. Beautiful trail that ends in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Nuf said. Looks like your knee situation matches mine completely. Last weekend the knee pain was gone and all I can attribute it to was getting in 3-4 miles of walking each of the last few days before the hike. This is a nice remedy. Just means we need to hike more often!

    Karl - I agree that it's hard to recreate that first awe and amazement in places like this, but I also have found that in many of the really special places that the experience actually can get better each time as you see more of the little things that the initial awe made you ignore. I believe that I need to come back to this place and other favorite ones many more times so that I can prove that theory ;)