( Photos credited to Clint Sochulak)
Pushing along through ninety seven percent humidity, with a 100 percent chance of rain is not a pleasant experience on any day of hiking, but that is what was on our plates, so the Band of Four persevered through that and more. We were my brother Roy and Jimmy, both from the Boston area, and Clint ( ‘Rangoon”) and me ( “Uncle Tom”) from Maine.
Our plan was to stay three nights at Russell Pond Campground, off the Tripoli Road , accessed via Exit 31 off Rt 93, just south of Lincoln, NH in the heart of the National Forest south of the Kangamangus Highway.
Our plan had us in on Thursday afternoon, with a challenging hike on Friday, a less challenging hike on Saturday, and after breakfast in North Woodstock, NH , head to home on Sunday.
One of the main pleasures of this type of trip is eating, and Roy is a master at cooking outdoors, bringing along a Baby Webber gas grill, as well as prepared dishes to minimize the prep time in camp.
Thursday night supper was assorted sausages with grilled onions and peppers on fresh rolls. It got even better the next night when Roy grilled to perfection four thick 18 oz. bone-in Ribeye steaks from Stockyard Steaks out of Chicago. I supplied the topping of finely chopped onions, olives, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese.
About the hiking. Friday’s weather prediction was 100% chance of rain, high winds, the possibility of hail, and of course thunderstorms. Roy had an Internet access cell phone. The storm was on it’s way. Ever hopeful, we reasoned that the rain would probably hit in the afternoon, and that if we got an early start, we would be able to complete our loop hike before the storm reached us.
Naturally, we zeroed in on the “ Strenuous Hikes” section listed in the 28th Edition of the White Mountain Guide; the 8.9 mile Franconia Ridge loop, which would also net us 3,850 feet of elevation gain ( as well as about 3,00 feet in loss ( descent)) for the day.
We reasoned that if we’d break down the hike into sections, we’d powpow at intersections to determine if we’d be able to handle the weather as we experienced the real conditions on the trail.
We definitely entered the humid zone as soon as we left the car at the parking lot opposite the Lafayette Campground. We were Looping clockwise, and headed up the Old Bridle Path to start. The air was so thick and cloudy that we experienced none of the spectacular outlooks when we finally reached the ravine itself at the 1.9 mile mark. All of us except Jimmy were depending on our Leki poles to assist our foot placement , particularly on the steepest part of the ascent just before we reached the Greenleaf Hut, Rangoon and I arriving there a full hour under the listed time of 2 hrs. and 40 minutes. The Hut Crew ignored us as Clint and I sat at one of the tables inside, snacking and hydrating while we waited a few minutes for Roy and Jimmy to arrive.
We learned nothing new about the updated weather from hearing another party discuss their plans. The wind was strong outside, gusting up to 30 MPH. We decided to chance the next 1 mile section, from the Hut along the Greenleaf Trail up to the Ridge itself, where we’d decide to either turn back or keep going. The 1,000 feet of elevation in a mile did not seem as tough as it could have been, with rock steps between stone walls, and light drizzle and fog everwhere. We all put on our raincoats, primarily for warmth, as we were completely soaked from the exertion plus humidity quotient. We encountered one AT Thru-hiker coming down from the ridge who was planning on staying at the Hut at least one night until the weather cleared. He told us had done the mileage math that had him to reaching Katahdin by Oct. 15 and reasoned he had the time to take a day off. The trail ended at the summit of Mt. Lafayette ( 5,260 feet), where there was a large party on middle aged guys who were also figuring out what to do. At this point, we reasoned that it was still not even lunch time, and that if we headed 1.7 mile south, we’d traverse the Franconia Ridge, where we’d go up and over Mt. Lincoln at 5089, and then down to Little Haystack ( 4760). The option was to go back down the way we came, with complete exposure for 1 steep mile of descent. So we headed over new territory , and even had time to stop for a quick lunch break on top. Mind you, we had NO visibility at any point at altitude, with a limit of approximately 50 feet.
The wind was not so bad. Still no thunder nor hard rain, and we considered ourselves very fortunate to have come this far.
The last section of the hike was going to get us down back below tree line and in relative safety when the weather event arrived.
We just made it down the Falling Waters Trail before the storm hit. The trail is a 3.2 mile ( 3,000 feet in elevation) descent. We were saved by the trekking poles many times, and even Jimmy was seen frequently propping himself up with the stout cedar hiking pole that Roy had lent him.
Rangoon and I were really hoofing it on the last mile, as we could hear thunder in the distance that seemed to be getting louder and more frequent.
All of us were in the car by 3 PM and as we were approaching RT 93 and heading back to the campground the skies darkened and the rains unleashed. The Voyager was crawling along as I was just trying to see out of the windshield. There were rivers overflowing the culverts on the long uphill to the campground. The rain got even stronger as we pulled into the campsite. We just sat there, stunned. None of us were willing to get out of the car and head into the tents. Eventually I had Jimmy pass me an umbrella. I did get soaked to the skin in the few seconds it took to open the door, step out, and put up the umbrella.
I checked the tents.
Rangoon’s was toast. A river was flowing right across the campsite, and was diverted by Rangoon’s little tent, which was struggling to stay upright as 4 inches of forceful water was pushing against the uphill side. The other bigger tent was OK.
The tarp over the picnic table held.
Rangoon moved to plan B , which was his backup hammock and fly for the night.
Here’s a video clip of Jimmy reinforcing the upper section of drainage at the site.
It rained off and on for most of the evening, with the updated weather reporting near to one hundred percent heavy rain for the next day.
All of us agreed that it made no sense to try and walk in the rain for our second day of hiking and we reluctantly started the grimy gritty wet task of dismantling the site.
Even so, we had some measure of satisfaction, having used the best of our our savvy outdoor skills in reaching the fabled Franconia Ridge, even without any of those world-class views.
We dealt with world-class weather, several inches of it, we later learned.
There is always next year.