Monday, August 08, 2011

Franconia Ridge

(Just a warning, this is long. If you want to skip my storytelling, just scroll down to the pretty pictures below.)

This past weekend we went up to New Hampshire for a hiking and camping adventure in the White Mountains. We hiked the Franconia Ridge loop trail, climbing up the Falling Waters trail, summiting at Little Haystack, Mt. Lincoln and Mt Lafayette, and coming down the Bridle Path trail. The hike was a personal victory for me since last year I begged off this same hike.

My hiking history is complicated. Jason LOVES hiking. Going up a mountain is his favorite thing ever and I feel really bad that I haven't quite caught the vision. Last year we hiked up the Beaver Brook Trail to Mt. Moosilauke in the White Mountains. The trail starts out all nice and casual in the woods and then ascends almost 2000 feet in a little more than a mile. Which kind of means you're going straight up. They don't mess around in New Hampshire. No sissy switchbacks in New England. It's straight up the mountain, every time.

I fully admit that I did not listen to Jason and take the proper precautions, and I wound up dehydrated about halfway up the mountain. Which means I went the rest of the way up the mountain, then back down that super steep trail feeling like I was going to die. FYI, in the mountains, Gatorade is your friend. The first and last 2 1/2 miles of the trail consist of these giant granite boulders. Going up, you scramble up and over them. Going down, you have to step on each and every boulder and maintain your balance. It's brutal on your quads, calves and ankles on a normal day. That day, my legs were already shaking like crazy from getting dehydrated, so every time I took a giant step down to the next boulder, I fully expected to just fall over.

For 2 1/2 miles.

Super fun.

And it's not like you can just stop because, you know, you're halfway up a mountain.

Fast forward a couple months later and we were back up in the Whites with a group from Jason's lab. We decided to hike the Franconia Ridge loop trail and everyone started out all excited and fearless and feeling like, yeah, we can conquer the mountain! After hiking for 1.4 miles, we reached Cloudland Falls and took a break for pictures and to assess. One of our group looked at the coming trail and said, "Now we start going up." One person in our group had never been hiking before and his face completely fell. He asked, "What have we been doing so far?!" Because even though the trail hadn't been too bad yet, there had already been a few scrambles and a few out-of-breath breaks (for those of us not in primo hiking condition).

Ultimately, he and his girlfriend decided to turn back. They had seen the beautiful falls, and would get in almost a 3-mile hike this way. They were okay with that. I decided to go back with them.

And it's eaten at me ever since. My experience on the Beaver Brook Trail had scared me out of finishing the trail with the group.

So Jason and I decided to go for it again. At the falls, I almost quit again. Almost. Then I saw a bunch of people up above the falls and decided I would like to see that view so we scrambled up there. Then we kept going.

Two things kept me going. One, on the way up to the top of the falls, there was this really annoying narrow, slippery ledge of rock that I had to scramble over. I did not want to go back down that (which is kind of hilarious to think about now, considering the rock faces I had to slide down going down the other side of the ridge several hours later).

The second thing, and this is really the main one, was Jason. He was being such a dear and assuring me that we could turn back if I wanted to. But I knew he would be so incredibly disappointed. I knew he was already worried that this trip was his last chance to convince me to, if not like, then at least not hate hiking. He loves it so much, and after I pushed myself to go up the trail over the falls, I just couldn't turn around.

He gave me a couple of more chances on our way up the mountain to turn back, but at that point, I was determined to do it for myself.

So I did it. It's kind of an amazing route. In one loop, you can get in 3 4,000 foot peaks - though technically Little Haystack doesn't count since there is less than a 200 foot descent between it and Mt. Lincoln, the next peak on the ridge. Whatever. It's the first summit you get to from the Falling Waters Trail and in my mind, it counts.

Starting out - take the Bridle Path .2 miles to Falling Waters (or you can go straight up the Bridle Path to Greenleaf Hut and on to Mt. Lafayette).

The Falling Waters Trail runs parallel to the river, interspersed by lovely waterfalls. The water was pretty low this time of year, but the Cloudland Falls were still lovely.
After this point, the trail veers away from the water and starts going up. New Hampshire is called the Granite State for a reason. There are huge granite boulders everywhere, including on the trail.
Heading up, still fairly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, even if I am a sweaty beast. It was about 75-80 degrees the whole time and pretty muggy (there were storms coming).

One of the reasons I am not the biggest fan of hiking is because I am extremely self-conscious. I've written on here so much about my struggles to lose weight. On Thursday night I tried on the hiking pants I wore last year and they are too small. Such an awful feeling, especially when I've been working so hard with my swimming. So I feel like I'm the fat girl on the mountain and everyone must be looking at me thinking, What is she doing here? (Though if I've learned anything from my experiences at the gym and the pool, it's that people are nothing but encouraging).

Here's the thing, though. Despite my extra weight, despite my flab and cellulite, I was right there with everyone else. I was keeping the same pace as the guys and the skinny girls. They were feeling just as much pain as I was.

The trail is pretty popular so we kept bumping into the same groups of people. We would slog along and come across one or two groups resting. Then we would rest and they would pass us. We would all smile at and say things like, "Slow and steady" or "We're getting there". There's a great camaraderie on the mountain.

First peak! At the top of Little Haystack
Cairn on the ridge.It was my understanding going in that once you get to the ridge, bagging 3 peaks is cake. That's not entirely true. Yes, all 3 peaks run along the ridge. What other people neglected to tell me is that in between each peak is a descent and another ascent. I suppose that's only fair if you're going to count them, but when I was looking up that rocky slope to the summit of Mt. Lafayette, having already come up the trail to Little Haystack, and then gone up again to Mt. Lincoln, I admit to feeling a little defeated.

My motto became "slow and steady" because, really, that's the only way to do it.

We did it! At the top of Mt. Lafayette, the final peak at 5,260 feet.
We ran into an Appalachian Trail thru hiker and his friend at the top, who kindly offered to take the above picture, if we would take theirs. He had a big bushy beard and a huge, beat-up frame pack with camp shoes dangling off the back and when I initially saw him I wondered if he was a thru hiker. Turns out he started in Georgia on March 20th. Amazing!
After resting for awhile at the top of Mt. Lafayette, we started down. It's easy to forget that what you just came up, you now have to go down. 1,000 feet down from the summit of Mt. Lafayette is Greenleaf Hut, which is maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Partway to the hut, we started hearing bagpipes on the wind. When we arrived, a man was standing outside of the hut, playing his bagpipes, which he had carried up with him on the trail

Last year Jason and his dad did a multi-day trek and stayed at 3 huts along the way. Jason had suggested earlier in the week that he and I stay at Greenleaf Hut for the night and hike down the next day, but I thought it seemed silly to stop when we were only 3 miles from the car at that point.

Yeah, by the time we got there, it didn't seem so silly anymore. Alas, Jason had listened to me, and we had no reservations for the hut. We made a quick pit stop, and soldiered on down the Bridle Path. Jason took this picture of a lovely flat section of path just as we came back into the scrub forest.
In reality, this is what most of the way down looked like:
Yes, that is a trail.

I actually love this next picture.
Jason took it when I wasn't really paying attention to him, I was just trying to get down the freaking mountain.

The best way to describe the granite is "unrelenting". That was the word we settled on as we made our way down.

Here's our final shot of the hike, back at the start of the trail. Exhausted, but satisfied.
We went for our celebratory dinner at The Common Man, which is becoming a post-hike tradition, and then headed back to camp, where it promptly started raining. It proceeded to rain for the next 15-20 hours. We went to sleep to the rain and woke up to the rain. We packed up camp in the rain and drove out of camp in the rain.

After we left camp, we went into Lincoln, NH for breakfast, then headed back up to the mountains for some more low-key sightseeing. I'll post more about that next time.

The original plan was to camp for 3 nights. I'm sure it would have been very peaceful at the campsites last night since Rhode Island is the only state that has today, a random Monday in August, for a holiday, but Jason took pity on me and agreed to come home early. I was starting to get really sore and had a headache that wouldn't quit. I knew every campsite would be quiet, but very soggy after the hours and hours of rain.

Besides, I'm not exactly sure what we would have done today if we were still up there since another hike is totally out of the question. Probably would have just laid in the tent all day, trying to will enough strength into our legs to actually get out of the tent. No mean feat after a big hike.

I've learned from strength training and past hikes that the 2nd day after is the worst. I was kind of pleased when I woke up yesterday morning and wasn't in as much pain as I thought I would be. Today is worse. Going upstairs is bad, but going downstairs is just brutal. I feel like an absolute hero for walking up and down the stairs 4 times so far today to take care of laundry and other necessities. I deserve a medal.

Sitting here, comfortable in my house, I feel a huge amount of self-satisfaction. I did the trail that scared me last year. I bagged 3 more 4,000-footers so now I have 5 (Camel's Hump in Vermont and Moosilauke are my other 2). I am sore in that satisfying, wow, I really pushed myself hard way. I shared a neat experience with my husband. I saw views that only a small percentage of people ever see.

But, man, was it brutal.

I have a love/hate relationship with hiking up mountains. I'll leave it at that for now.

1 comment:

Susannah said...

Hi Kelly,

Came here from Sparkpeople low carb forum. Your blog post title caught my eye since I live in NE VT. You should be freaking proud of yourself!! I have not hiked much in the White MTs. and most of my hiking was done when I weighed significantly more than I do now so I fully understand the "fat girl on the mountain" syndrome. We have been too busy to go hiking but if I can use you for inspiration I will try to plan to do this same loop in the fall. I have been to the Bridle Veil Falls but no further. That was 11 years ago. And I am scared about the descent. It is really tough for me to come down and takes a lot of mental strength as well as physical strength. But as you said, you gotta do it, there's no choice.
Anyway, congratulations!!! Thanks for a great post and nice photos.