May 18, 2016

Mount Lafayette

The date for our Presidential Traverse is drawing nearer, and with that, Katy and I are working on our hiking training missions. Last week, I planned a hiking trip with Brian to go up the classic Franconia Ridge loop over Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln. Given our schedules, Sunday was the only day that would work. We've had good weather lately, so I didn't think weather would be an issue. However, this early in the season, I knew we would have to be prepared for potential spring snow and ice so would need the appropriate gear. As the hike drew closer, we had been monitoring the weather forecast in Franconia Notch and noted that it called for a fairly dreary day with chilly temperatures and rain. It didn't matter to me - the hike was still on.

The day before the hike, I checked the Mount Washington Observatory's Higher Summits Forecast. Even though we weren't going up Mount Washington and Franconia Ridge is a little ways away, it would still be a pretty good indicator of what we would experience above treeline. The forecast called for temperatures in the 20's, 50-70 mph winds, and a couple of inches of snow. I talked it over with Brian and we decided to stick with the plan, but vowing to make good decisions once we decide to go above treeline. It was 80 degrees and sunny in Massachusetts while we were talking, but I packed up my full winter gear, hats, gloves, microspikes, etc. in preparation for the hike the next day.

Per our usual routine, I met up with Brian at the Park and Ride in Nashua, NH at 6AM. It was cool but nice out at the time with skies mostly clear in southern NH. We continued on together to the trailhead in Franconia Notch where conditions were different. Temperatures were in the 40's and raining with low clouds/fog as we geared up for what was sure to be an interesting day. As we started our way up Mount Lafayette in the rain, we couldn't help but talk about a 2004 backpacking trip that we did with our friend Bob where we hiked up this very same trail and it just down poured on us the whole day. Will this hike be a similar experience?

Lafayette is a big mountain but Old Bridle Path is a trail that sees significant traffic and trail maintenance and is fairly steady in steepness all the way. We moved right along taking almost no breaks. The rain continued to come down, but after only about a mile or so, it changed to snow. The snowfall was actually a welcome change as you are less likely to get soaked through. We continued on, passing several large groups coming down that had clearly stayed overnight in Greenleaf Hut. Several people expressed their disbelief that we were actually going up the mountain and not down. "You just couldn't stay away huh?" said one. "It's going to be pretty windy up there today you know." said another. My favorite comment was from one of the kids in a boy scout troop that was coming down from the hut: "Woah! These guys are actually going up!!"

By the time we made it to Greenleaf Hut, it was full blown winter. Snow was falling at a decent clip with about an inch of fresh snow that had accumulated and it was cold. There were a couple patches of ice just before the hut, but it wasn't significant enough for us to put on our microspikes. We ducked into the hut for a quick break and to have a snack. At this point, we had to make a decision. Do we go above treeline and head to the summit of Lafayette? Should we do the full loop and hike exposed across the ridge to Lincoln? There was no question that danger could lie ahead, but we were prepared and opted to head to the top of Lafayette and make a decision about the ridge from there. We put on all of our layers, hats, and gloves, and were about to head off. But wait! Brian packed two hats instead of a hat and gloves! Well for some reason I decided to pack an extra pair of gloves. Crisis averted. Into the blizzard we went.

Heading up from the hut was cold, snowy, and windy, but the wind was at our backs which made it not bad overall. Visibility was low but not full whiteout as we were still always able to see to the next cairn. As the summit drew closer, conditions became very severe. The wind really picked up speed and it became more difficult to navigate. We made it to the summit but were in universal agreement that we would not do the walk across the ridge and would instead head straight back down. On the hike back down to the hut, the wind was directly in our faces and it was very cold. With a few inches of fresh powder on the trail, though, we were actually able to make really good time and we booked it back to the hut. As the hut drew closer, the wind gradually lessened as we escaped the unforgiving Alpine Zone.

We took another break at the hut, before heading back down the way we came all the way to our car. It rained, it snowed, it was cold, it was windy, but this was a fun hike. I love summer hikes with clear skies, and perfect views, but it's only a hike like this one where you can fully experience all that these mountains have to offer.

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