Franconia Ridge in northwestern New Hampshire is one of the two most spectacular ridge hikes in New England; Knife Edge on Mount Katahdin being the other. Franconia has a couple of significant advantages; two 5,000 foot peaks instead of one and hikers can drive to the trailhead in winter as opposed to pulling a sled sixteen miles to Chimney Pond. Given my arthritic hips and old age, Franconia has graduated to a preferred status.
A few weeks ago, I started lobbying for a winter climb on Franconia Ridge. I posted a message on Facebook, but no responses were received. Recruiting efforts with my outdoor club resulted in nothing but polite refusals. Finally, I decided to go it alone.
Winter weather on Franconia Ridge is similar to Mount Washington so I started scrutinizing mountain forecasts for a Goldilocks opportunity. The prediction for a recent late winter day was “just right” with partly sunny skies, light winds, and temperatures in the low twenties. I encouraged a New Hampshire friend who often leads climbs in that area to join me, but he was doubtful.
Since Franconia Notch is a three hour trip from Topsham, I decided to drive over the day before, ski at Jackson Touring Center, and get a room near the trailhead to facilitate an early start. For those critical of my decision to attempt a solo climb (let’s call it social distancing), I submit that the two most dangerous things I would be doing were driving and dodging the coronavirus which had recently infected its way into New Hampshire.
Skiing at Jackson was excellent. The lower elevation Ellis River sector was sketchy but the trails high up on Prospect Farm were groomed to a level that would satisfy Goldilocks. Completing my trek, I stopped in Jackson to check phone messages. In the midst of the White Mountains, the mountain gods smiled down on me. Frequent retired outdoor companion Brent Elwell wanted to join the trip. After a flurry of garbled phone messages and tortured texts, we arranged for him to share my room in Woodstock.
Overnight, the quality of the weather forecast diminished. No longer meeting Goldilocks’ lofty standards, clouds, snow showers, and strong winds were predicted. My New Hampshire peak bagging buddy couldn’t make it. Given the changing circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have made a solitary attempt, but Brent and I were good to go.
Arriving early at the trailhead for Old Bridle Path and Falling Waters Trail at Lafayette Place in the heart of Franconia Notch, it was still dark and only two vehicles were in the parking lot. The trail was hard-packed snow and ice. Foregoing snowshoes, micro spikes were the footgear of choice. With my headlight on high beam, we were cruising up the Old Bridle Path at 6:35 A.M. Conditions permitting, our goal was to complete a nine mile loop trip climbing to the summit of Mount Lafayette, traversing Franconia Ridge, and descending Falling Waters Trail.
Snow showers soon began. Ascending steadily, several overlooks afforded phenomenal views of our upcoming challenge. High above, storm clouds could be observed gusting over the impressive escarpment.
Shortly after passing closed Greenleaf Hut, we met an overnight trekker breaking camp. He had crossed the ridge the previous day but was unsure about returning. The shoulder of Mount Lafayette presented an unanticipated complication, a steep, consequential icy section. Full crampons and ice axes would have been ideal. Instead we tentatively negotiated to the 5,260 foot summit wearing micro spikes and carrying near useless hiking poles.
Snow ended at the summit and winds on the ridge were gusty but manageable. Donning down parkas and balaclavas, we enjoyed a glorious traverse in and out of the clouds on a predominantly icy surface to 5,089 foot Mount Lincoln where two climbers were met heading in the opposite direction. They had the good sense to be wearing full crampons.
Continuing on the breathtakingly panoramic ridge to Little Haystack Mountain, a precipitous descent on dazzling Falling Waters Trail began. Alas, a new old age problem raised its ugly head in the form of intense left ankle discomfort. Ibuprofen provided partial relief. Negotiating around a series of dramatic ice-covered waterfalls, we completed the expedition in a little over 6.5 hours. Not record time but not bad for a couple of retired guys.
As I write, the coronavirus has spread into Maine. Arthritis now seems like a relatively insignificant problem. Stay safe.
Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.