Twig Adventures

AT Day 21: Franconia Ridge

Saturday August 14th, 2021, 0600-1930
Stealth Camp/ Galehead hut to Eliza Brook, SOBO AT mm 380.8
20.2 miles
7484 gain, 7927 loss

I slept very fitfully all night. Being right next to the trail kind of sucked. A couple came by at 10 pm, talking pretty loudly. I could hear them and see their lights for half a mile in either direction. Then a solo person hurried past at 2:30 am. WTF? Probably a trail runner but maybe someone out for a FKT – fastest known time.

I’ve night hiked plenty and I understand the drive and passion for FKTs, but this seems like the worst terrain to be doing in the dark. It’s treacherous enough in the light of day, but stumbling over the 4 R’s and navigating the stupid steep inclines in the beam of a headlamp, no thank you! Plus, these are supposed to be some of the most scenic mountains anywhere…but not if you can’t see.

Scott Jurek, a famous ultra runner and one time holder of the supported FKT for the AT, set out to break his record this year. His strategy was to go south, getting the hard stuff over first. Hmm, sounds familiar. Sadly, he’s already off trail with an injury. Southern Maine did him in and I can certainly sympathize. While I don’t know what it’s like to be doing 50 miles a day, I do know that 20-25 hurts real bad and is about as crazy with a full backpack.

My feet were also aching pretty bad all night, making me restless. All these rocks, I’ve never experienced anything like it. To boot, it was way too hot. I thought I would need extra layers for the Whites but no. I woke too early, hearing the rumblings of something in the distance. There was a chance of thunderstorms for the morning …just great. I had a ton of big mountains to go over this day, including the very exposed Franconia ridge.

Heading outside my tent to pee, I at least thought to shake out my camp shoes. To my disgust, not one but 3 black spiders came out…both shoes! What’s with a spider rave in my shoes? Perhaps in recognizing Friday the 13th the day before, I had actually activated it for today.

I guess I should be happy to find any wildlife at all. In nearly 400 miles, I had yet to clearly see a single large mammal…not even a deer. And it’s not for lack of trying. Hiking solo all the time, I should be able to creep up on some things…it happens out west all the time, including the time I walked up on a mountain lion. The past few days had been the most concerning. I’d barely even heard birdsong. Above treeline, I’m used to seeing marmots and pika but I guess these alpine zones don’t even have such smaller mammals. Not even a ground squirrel. The only thing I did see were tons of people…I knew this was the case going into this, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. But it is a striking contrast.

It started to rain just as I finished packing. To me this was good timing, since I hate packing a wet tent. Others would prefer to wait out the rain in their shelter. I was already in a bad mood from the overnight disruptions and lack of sleep. Worrying about the Franconia ridge in the rain and maybe even lightning made me even more aprehensive. I have no control over a lot of things out here, so all I can do is just keep walking.

Returning to the rugged and slippery trail was jarring. There’s no warm up with easy walking…it’s instantly in your face rock scrambling and bog wallowing. Almost immediately I ran into 2 trail runners, then another 5 thru-hikers just leaving the Garfield campsite…7 people before 7 am. I decided to keep a tally this day, curious how many I would see in such a popular area on a Saturday, even if the weather wasn’t great.

A steep climb to Mt. Garfield rewarded me with sweat but not much else. At least the rain stopped and the sun peaked out a little. Down again 1000′ just to go right back up 1500′. Here the 2.5 mile exposed alpine section of Franconia ridge began. It’s composed of 5260′ Mt Lafayette, Mt Lincoln, and Little Haystack. I could see a bit of the valley below as I started but the summits were socked in. It was actually quite pleasant walking in the mist. It gave the ridge a very mystic feeling. It was also warm but with a refreshing breeze. This is one of the most scenic stretches on the AT but I didn’t mind missing out on the views. Sometimes the trail has other lessons to teach.

What I did enjoy was some pretty easy trail for a change. Volunteers had done a ton of work to make the ridge trail less boggy and with some stretches of flat tread via gravel and sand turnpikes. It was fabulous. Everyone agrees. By 10 am I had passed 40 people and just 1 hour later, double that. Most were day hikers and trail runners, maybe only 30 thru hikers. There were a lot of people hopeful the weather would clear but I was just happy it wasn’t raining. I figured I better hurry alone in case it started again.

I began one of the biggest drops into Franconia notch, all the way from the highpoint of 5260 to 1400 feet. It felt like I was descending for half the day. So many people were heading up, I had to step aside just about every minute. One stretch descended in a straight line for almost 2 miles, with nothing but soccer ball rocks to dodge all over the trail. It felt like walking under a ski lift, sans snow. This was not my favorite stretch but I got through it. I arrived at some more mellow miles at the bottom just as it started to rain again. I needed a lunch break and had perfect timing in finding a dry rest spot under the highway bridge. I was glad I wasn’t on the ridge.

As I rested, the rain stopped for good and the sun appeared again. Quite literally the winds of change began to blow…the heat wave was finally breaking. I walked a short spell uphill on pretty good tread, well graded. This got me to one of the most popular huts on the trail at Lonesome Lake. Heaps of people were basking in the sun and swimming in the lake, leaving the hut empty for me to enjoy a free bowl of corn chowder and giant piece of chocolate cake. This was the last hut I’d come to, so I needed to use my card for my remaining freebies. It really hit the spot, as my earlier break was pretty short on calories.

With cooler temps and a full belly, I tackled the next climb to the Kinsman mts with a vigor I hadn’t felt in awhile. I stopped to check out a nice shelter at Kinsman pond, chatting with some NOBOs that had been holed up there most of the day. I began to realize that I was nearing the end of the toughest parts of the trail because the most recent batches of NOBOs were all talking about the absurdly difficult rock scrambles and steep inclines. Now I knew what the NOBOs in northern Maine were thinking when I was lamenting such things early on. I smiled and encourage them to just keep going.

I pushed over the Kinsmans, enjoying good trail all the way up. Clearly this was a popular hike, with footsteps gouged out of the rocks or wood steps drilled into the steepest spots. This beat trusting in my traction.

The Kinsmans offered all the views I didn’t get on Franconia ridge, including a gorgeous vantage of the length of the ridge. I took a break for awhile, even though it was getting late.

Looking back at Franconia Ridge, now in the clear

Looking west, I finally got clear views of the Green Mountain range in Vermont…and it was spectacular. I could see so many of the mountains I climbed: Laraway, Belvidere, Haystack, Mansfield, Whiteface, Killington and Camels Hump. This represented Days 2-10 on the Long Trail, all stretched out before me. I was mesmerized and began pointing out the highlights to a NOBO who shared in my enthusiasm. I showed him Old Speck in Maine and some of the Whites that he’d be traversing…not in a effort to scare him but simply to get him excited about what was to come.

A few more NOBOs arrived and when they learned I was a SOBO, they both exclaimed “good luck with the next descent! It’s horrible!” They shook their heads as though it was a forgone conclusion that I was a goner. How had I survived this long even? Fear mongering runs strong amongst hikers. The happy NOBO looked embarrassed by his cohorts because I think he at least recognized that it was probably the same stuff I’d been dealing with for weeks already.

I just smiled knowingly. Poor souls, being so new to this rugged terrain, they were feeling shell shock. Slick rock climbing but with good handholds, footholds and trees to grab onto. It had become a game to me by this point and I passed down it with little thought, just wrote muscle memory.

The trail drops off into outer space

I found a nice stealth spot next to a beautiful stream and pool. Even though it was quite chilly, I took an evening dip and dried in my birthday suit as I pitched my tent…one advantage to camping alone. I’d sleep so much better having rinsed all the sweat off.

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