Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Fabulous Friday Traverse of Franconia Ridge

Date of Hike: March 6, 2015
Route: Old Bridle Path, Greenleaf Trail, Franconia Ridge Trail, Osseo Trail, Lincoln Woods Trail
Peaks: Lafayette (5260', NH4K), Truman (5000', TW72), Lincoln (5089', NH4K), Little Haystack (4760', NH4K), Liberty (4459', NH4K), Flume (4328', NH4K)
Mileage: 14.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 4700ft
Book Time: 9hr 35min (actual 8hr 35min)

With a quiet stretch at work and the itch all winter to do another winter traverse of Franconia Ridge, I was on the watch for the right day. That day came on the first Friday of March, and after talking to the Friday hikers I know, a plan was set for Denise and I to meet bright at early at Lincoln Woods. In the week before this hike, our entire route had been traveled by several folks, which meant that the rarely-traveled stretch between Little Haystack and the Liberty Springs Trail ought to be at least somewhat broken out for us. The weather was calling for temps in the low single digits and winds in the 20mph range, but also for very sunny skies.

Right off the bat it was clear this was going to be an awesome day. A single-day traverse of this entire ridge is one of my favorite hikes in the Northeast, and to do it on a clear, sunny, calm winter day had both of us eager to get above treeline. We left the parking lot at the Old Bridle Path Trailhead ahead of a couple of other folks still hanging out in their vehicles presumably waiting for the temperatures to warm some. One of the trucks belonged to the well-known New England hiker Ed Hawkins, who seems to have a knack for picking days to go above treeline. Since he was going where we were, clearly this was going to be great weather for it!

Down low, the trail was very hard-packed, but we threw the snowshoes on immediately, as neither of us particularly likes to carry them when we don't have to. Denise and I hadn't hiked since our awesome hike up Madison Gulf back in the summer, so we spent the early stretch of trail warming up and catching up. It's been several years since I was on the Old Bridle Path, but the trail was as I remembered it from many prior visits: fairly easy going early on, followed by a steady but not really steep climb through a switchback up to the end of Walker Ridge, where the famous viewpoint ledges begin. In here, the trail was pretty badly postholed by those that weren't wearing snowshoes when they came through (most of these holes were a minimum of 2 feet deep!), along with some new wind drifts. We took a short break at one of the ledges, enjoying the gorgeous weather. There wasn't a single cloud to be seen!

Lafayette (L) and Lincoln (R) from Walker Ridge

The "Agonies"

South (L) and North (R) Kinsman
Above the viewpoints, the trail climbs somewhat steeply up over the "Agonies", reaching the AMC's Greenleaf Hut (closed in winter) shortly thereafter. We took a nice break in the sun on the porch of the hut, drooling over the always-awesome view of the ridge we were about to tackle in front of us. After starting up the final mile to Lafayette, we put on facemasks and shells at treeline, not really sure what we were going to get for winds. It turned out that the facemask was not completely necessary, as the winds were fairly mild, but it didn't hurt to have and we actually kept them on until returning to treeline after Little Haystack. As we climbed, we made sure to look back several times and wave over to the Kinsman Range, where our friends Chris and Whitney were working on their Single-Season Winter 4000-footers on that set of peaks.

Greenleaf Hut and Mount Lafayette

Franconia Ridge from Greenleaf Hut

The climb from the hut to Lafayette always seems to drag on, but with great weather and the crystal-clear blue winter skies, we took ample short breaks to take pictures and just enjoy the views. To this point, we had seen no one, though as we neared the summit we could see some folks breaking treeline below us. The nicest surprise was as we crossed below the summer-time spring a short ways below the summit. In wintry times, there is usually a fairly tricky and potentially dangerous stretch of ice with a no-fall zone here, but on this visit there was no ice at all, just nice, grippy wind-packed snow. The summit of Lafayette was the windiest spot of the day, with roughly 10mph measured winds, and temperatures in the upper single digits. Finding a spot out of the wind, we took another of our many short breaks of the day.

Breaking treeline heading to Lafayette

Mount Moosilaukee

Mount Mansfield and the Stowe Ski area, roughly 75 miles West!

Moosilauke, Kinsmans, Cannon. I love how from this spot it looks like Cannon is an easy stroll from the hut. Instead there is a 2000+-foot ditch in the way!

Nearing the summit crags

Garfield, the Twins, and the Presidentials in the distance.

Owl's Head, with the Bonds behind, and the Presidentials even further back.

The Bonds! Kearsarge North is the prominent peak in the distant center.

The Presidentials behind the Twins.

Mount Garfield summit.

North Lafayette

Summit area of Lafayette.

Owl's Head dominating the heart of the Western Pemi region.
The next roughly 2 miles across the ridge were awesome as always, and thankfully the snow cover was mostly pretty good so we didn't have to bother changing footwear (though light traction would have been more than sufficient for the conditions). We did run into a few people doing the classic loop up the Falling Waters Trail and down our ascent route, but overall it was a pretty quiet day, the wonderful thing about a weekday hike that I normally don't get to enjoy. We took several stops atop the speedbump known as Mt. Truman, Mt. Lincoln, and on Little Haystack. The day couldn't have been better thus far!

Off to Lincoln!
Hikers ascending Lafayette. Based on never running into them, I'm assuming this was Ed Hawkins and his group.

Lafayette from Truman.

Hey George!

The goggles were for the sun, definitely not the wind!
Lafayette from just South of Truman.

Pano from Lincoln.

Lafayette from Lincoln.
The "Knife Edge" section, up next, with Flume (L) and Liberty (C) up after that.
The Kinsmans, with Lonesome Lake on the right.

Lincoln from the "Knife Edge" section.

Carrigain and co.

Falling Waters Trail/Franconia Ridge Trail junction.

Up next, 2 miles of trail-breaking!
The 2 miles between Little Haystack and the Liberty Springs Trail were not as nice as we were hoping. The trail immediately disappeared and we began wading through fairly deep snow and the occasional big drift as we descended down the steep section. With just 2 of us, this was slow going, and we occasionally had to stop and look for the trail (and we even lost it briefly in one spot, but only for about 100 feet). Once we got down to near the col, we began to pick up traces of the snowshoe trench from earlier in the week, with about 5" of new snow in it, and thus the going was a bit easier to the junction. Still, we were both glad to reach the junction and find a well-broken out snowshoe trench to Liberty. The short climb to Liberty netted us official 4000-footer number 3 on the day, and it was here that we took a nice long break. We had earned it.

Franconia Ridge from Liberty.

Cannon and the Kinsmans from Liberty
I love sitting on Liberty and looking at the back end of Franconia Ridge from the open summit. But with the climb up Flume still looming, we eventually had to tear ourselves away and first descend, then ascend, very slowly at this point in the day, to the summit of Flume. Somewhere in the col we ran into a solo hiker on her way back to Liberty after ascending the Liberty Springs Trail and then heading over to Flume. According to her, there was one other solo hiker that had done the same thing a short while ahead of her (we must have just missed him/her on Liberty), but it was an otherwise quiet day.

We took another nice break atop Flume, enjoying the views for the final time before the long descent began. Once we got going, we ran into 2 hikers at the junction for the Flume Slide Trail who had snowshoed up the Osseo Trail, and reported it was in great shape now, for which we were very grateful after the 2 miles of rough walking an hour or so prior. We enjoyed a fast, easy descent down the trail. The hundreds of steps in the ladder section were all filled in, and we actually butt-slid down most of them which was awesome fun, though bumpy in a couple spots. Once below the ladder section, the trail eases in grade and we flew out through the afternoon sun to the Lincoln Woods Trail where we took off the snowshoes and trekked out to the car we had left at the trailhead in the morning.

Pano from Flume.
The Bonds from Flume.

The backside of Franconia Ridge from Mt. Flume.

Carrigain and the Hancocks.

All smiles on a beautiful day!

Chocorua from Flume.


The Baldfaces from Flume. I never realized you could see them from here!

Liberty from Flume.

The Flume cliffs.

Pano over the Western Pemi from the Osseo Trail "Downlook".
The Bonds from the Osseo Trail "Downlook".
We had simply perfect weather for this hike. It never felt nearly as cold as predicted (in fact, while not "warm", it was quite comfortable all day), the winds never gusted above 10mph for us, and I'm pretty sure we never saw a single cloud all day either! It was great to catch up with Denise, and even better to hike on a weekday which I rarely get the opportunity to do. This hike ranks right up there as one of my favorite of all-time, even surpassing the prior time I visited these peaks in winter, solo, on a nearly equally beautiful day in 2012.

Blasting out the flats on the Osseo Trail.