Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Aristocrat of Franconia

"Ordinary riches can be stolen; real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you." -- Oscar Wilde

July had been a wet month, a cloudy and cool month. It was the first of August and I was suffering from cabin fever. As Oscar Wilde said, we all have infinitely precious things in our souls. I have those precious things as well. I take them in the hand of my imagination and hold them close to me. They comfort me and inspire me. They turn back the dark thoughts that sometimes steal into our minds and sap us of hope. One of those precious things for me is my relationship with the natural world. On this first day of August 2009, that relationship needed a new breath of life. It was time for me to visit the Aristocrat of Franconia. It was time for me to return to the White Mountains.

Throwing my gear in the truck I headed north. This would be an ironman trip. Drive 200 plus miles to the trailhead, hike the mountains for 7 plus hours, then drive the 200 plus miles home. I've been doing these things a very long time. I almost always do these trips alone since few people are quite a crazy as I am. This is probably a good thing for society in general, but I am digressing here. The hike I was planning would take me to Franconia Ridge. I would ascend Falling Waters Trail to Franconia Ridge Trail. Heading north on Franconia Ridge Trail I would cross the 5,089 foot Mt. Lincoln and ascend The sixth highest peak in the Whites, Mt Lafayette at 5260 feet. From that summit I would descend Greenleaf Trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club's Greenleaf hut and descend the rest of the way on The Bridle Path over the "Three Miseries" of "Agony Ridge" back to my car. The portion of the ridge trail I would cover today is all above treeline with spectacular views of mountains in all directions. Ample opportunities to add to those precious things.

Walker Brook below the trail crossing

Falling Waters Trail is aptly named. Very soon after leaving the trailhead it crosses Walker Brook on a footbridge. I stopped to look at the brook below the bridge and I immediately felt it. You need all your sense to experience a mountain stream. You see there are two streams, one you see and hear, and one you feel. One is the cold water streaming down from the slopes over granite, gravel, and sand. It fills your ears with its churning voice and it fills yours sight with roils, swells, cascades, and the dancing gems of splintered sunbeams. But there is another stream passing downward. It is the air cooled by the stream. It flows like an invisible twin above the stream. When you stand on the bank you can feel the deliciously cool air flowing past, invigorating and magical, it strips the years from you and makes you feel like child experiencing the world anew. I can not adequately describe with these simple words the wondrous sensation of experiencing these twin streams.

One of the many falls on Dry Brook

Falling Waters Trail crosses Walker Brook and then heads up hill to Dry Brook, which it follows for some distance. Dry Brook was certainly not dry, indeed after all the rains of July it had an above average wetness about it. There are many waterfalls for the hiker to savor on this stretch of trail. And much savoring was happening today, for you see this hike is one of the most popular in the White Mountains, and it was a Saturday to boot. So the trails were getting proper use. When there are many hikers using these narrow trails there is a certain etiquette that is in play. Admittedly it is tribal knowledge, but generally speaking, when it becomes clear that you are holding up faster hikers, you move aside and let them pass. This usually happens as a matter of course but this hike sees many one time hikers and many tourist hikers. You have to be patient with them but eventually they'll let you pass.

Cascade on Dry Brook. Certainly a cascade, but a dry brook?

I soon came across a family of four Czech hikers, two of which were teenagers. The parents soon let me pass but the boy and girl were having none of it. I soon realized they were trying to stay in front of me so when we came to a stream crossing at a wide shallow fetch I seized my chance. Rockhopping on wet slippery stones let me get around them. However they were very wet and very slippery stones indeed. One was a bit too slippery and I took a sudden and very cold seat in the stream next to the teenage girl. She let out a surprised "Oooo!" which I took to be Czechoslovakian for "Oooo!" but I could be mistaken. I muttered "Very Slippery..." and with water and dignity streaming off my butt I continued on, no doubt having impressed this foreign visitor with my acute appraisal of the obvious.

Base of "Shining Rock"

The trail eventually leaves Dry Brook behind and uses switchbacks to climb the steep slope towards treeline. Shortly before the trees fail a spur trail heads off to the right to a vast slab of exposed granite called "Shining Rock." This stone face is constantly bathed in water sheeting across its face, and it can be seen from Rte 93 all the way down on the floor of the notch. A number of hikers have unwisely tried to scramble up its slippery face and serious injuries have occurred. I chose to touch the rock with my eyes only and to admire the view offered from this spot of Cannon Mountain visible across the notch.

Cannon Mountain rises on the west wall of Franconia Notch.

Returning to Falling Waters Trail I pushed onward and upward. Soon I reached treeline and gained the ridge crest at the summit of Little Haystack Mountain. There were many hikers sitting among and on the boulders of the summit. I stopped and took in the spectacular views. Spreading out in all direction were peaks of the White Mountains. A bit of a haze hung in the air blurring slightly the details but the beauty and majesty of these crystal hills blazed brightly. Looking south along the ridge I saw the cones of Mt. Liberty and Mt.Flume, these peaks I would visit another day. Today I needed to visit the aristocrat and he lay to the north.

Mt Liberty close and Mt Flume far. Viewed from Little Haystack Mountain on Franconia Ridge

After taking a few photos I headed north along the trail. This is the alpine zone and its fragility has been sore tried by the soles of many boots over the decades. Happily, intrepid and selfless souls have spent many back-breaking hours lining the trail with stones and boulders to try and keep all traffic to a defined narrow trail. I tip my cap to those of you who undertook this work.

Franconia Ridge Trail bed. The work of many feet... and generous caring hands

Following this path in the sky, I frequently stopped and marvelled at the sights offered to me. To the east of the ridge lays the Pemigewasset Wilderness, an expanse of forest, mountains, and rivers free of roads. And rising up in the wilderness is one of New Hampshire most remote peaks, Owl's Head. To bag this peak using trails you have to hike nearly twenty miles round trip.

Owl's Head rises in the Pemigewasset Wilderness

Heading north I soon had Mt. Lincoln in view. I would have to pass over this 5,000 footer to reach the aristocrat. I couldn't help but think how Lincoln and the ridge looked like the back of a slumbering dragon from where I stood. I took a few minutes to stop and eat, drink and think. Many hikers were passing me in both directions. There were many languages to be heard but predominately French. As I said many tourists do this hike. I certainly can't blame them. As I was eating, a group of about 10 girls aged 11 and 12 passed me. They were full of the ebullience of youth and they were trailed by two 30-something male chaperones. The girls broke into a chorus of a Hannah Montana song as they passed and one of the chaperones looked sheepishly at me and said "This is embarrassing!" I laughed and assured him that I understood. I had an 11 year old daughter back home.

Approaching Mt Lincoln

After putting a dry shirt on me and some food in me, I hiked up to the summit of Mt Lincoln. There were hikers lounging here as well. It's funny how many friendly faces you find on these lofty places. Of course not all of mankind's faults are left in the valley's below, we take our demons with us wherever we go. However these demons seemed to dwindle and fade on these trails and smiles are readily passed back and forth between strangers. I passed over the summit of Mt. Lincoln and stopped to look back southward along the ridge. There still standing proudly in the distance were Liberty and Flume.

Looking south passed the summit of Mt Lincoln. Liberty rises in the center and Flume stands to the left.

At this point I took a few moments to admire the alpine plants around me. This is a harsh place to grow. Biting cold, high winds, and short growing seasons make this a fragile environment easily damaged by human feet. Any damage due to our passing is slow to heal. It is of prime importance to stay on the marked trail, and thankfully most hikers do.

The fragile alpine habitat above treeline.

Mountain Sandwort (Minuartia groenlandica)

After spending some time examining what was at my feet I once again cast my eyes to the distance. Looking east I gazed upon Mt. Garfield, the Twins, and Galehead Mountain, and to their south stood West Bond, Mt Bond, and Bondcliff, known collectively as "The Bonds."

Mt Garfield, the Twins, and Galehead Mountain.

"The Bonds"

Time was passing and I pushed on. The aristocrat was in sight. Moving through this dramatic landscape you can not help but be reminded of the forces that sculpted it. Some dramatic and cataclysmic. Some slow and timeless. Water, wind, fire, cold, ice. All these things have left their mark on the White Mountains. As I neared Mt. Lafayette I came across one of the silent sentinels that bear mute witness to the forces that shape our world. A balanced column of stone stood vertically just below the ridgeline. How long had it stood thus? How long would it last before time laid it low like the grand visage of the Old Man Of The Mountains?

Silent Sentinel

Leaving the sentinel I made my way northward. Mt Lafayette, the Aristocrat of Franconia towered above. Once called Great Haystack, the mountain had been renamed in honor of a French soldier and aristocrat who offered his services to the revolutionary army of our rebellious forefathers. His name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. The mountain was simply renamed "Lafayette." Cartographers are still thankful for the truncation. Interestingly the Marquis was the first person granted honorary United States citizenship.

The approach to Mt. Lafayette

The Aristocrat of Franconia

The crowning moment of my hike was reaching the summit of Mt. Lafayette. There were quite a few hikers gathered there. One of the features of the summit is the foundation of one of the many hotels, huts, and shelters that stood on the summits of many of the peaks. All that remains now is an empty foundation but it speaks to the herculean efforts of the early settlers of New Hampshire.

Lafayette Summit

The stone foundation on Lafayette

One does not spend hours hiking to such a magnificent place and then hurry away. At least this one doesn't. I spent some time just sitting and thinking. Thinking and looking. There in the hazy distance stood Mt. Washington. How fitting that Washington should still overlook Lafayette. I took one last look at the sweeping panorama like a diver taking a deep breath before plunging into the water and I headed down. Below me, on the knee of Lafayette, stood Greenleaf Hut. I wound my way downward on Greenleaf Trail, pausing to take a few last looks at the ridge.

Greenleaf Hut seen from Mt Lafayette. Cannon Mountain stands across the notch

Looking back at Franconia Ridge and Mt Lincoln as I descend

Greenleaf Hut with Mt. Lafayette

Reaching Greenleaf Hut I took one last breather. The final push down would be along a ridge with an imposing name. It's sometimes called "Agony Ridge," and there are three humps along the ridge called "The Three Miseries." These names really refer to the agony and misery of the poor porters who haul massive loads on their backs from the notch below up to the hut over steep, slippery, jumbles of rock and stone. However there were many tired hikers descending this trail today who looked like these daunting names were justifiably earned, or at least should be replaced with "Is it over yet Ridge?" The trail had long since descended back below treeline and I pushed hard on this last leg of my hike. There were a few places where views could be had and I only paused briefly a time or two to take them in.

Parting view of Lafayette and Lincoln from "Agony Ridge"

I managed to make it down Agony Ridge without any lasting agony, though admittedly I did turn both ankles. Returning at last to the traihead parking lot I once again tossed my gear in the truck. Dirty, sweaty, and tired, I was absolutely satisfied with my day. It was my first visit to the Aristocrat. It was an amazingly beautiful and inspiring place and I hoped to return soon. I had added one more infinitely precious memory that would be mine forever. Walking in the mountains of New England can do that to a soul.

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