(Mt Lincoln from Little Haystack)
I made my first crossing of the venerable Franconia Ridge in September of 1976 with Steve Barton, a friend of many years who had accompanied me on other White Mountain hikes. Steve, along with his wife Linda and brother, Dick, had joined in on my second climb of Mt Washington several years earlier. Steve was planning a road trip around the West before returning to California, and we thought that the best way to say our farewells and honor our friendship was with a trip together to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Steve came by the house in his blue van, a GMC model with a 3-speed standard shift on the column, sliding cargo door on the passenger’s side, and two doors in the rear. I threw my hiking and camping gear into the rear alongside Steve’s kit, a well-stocked cooler, and plenty of firewood. I also included a bag of dry dog food and a plastic bowl for my dog, Niz, a Weimaraner who accompanied us on our adventure.
We departed Connecticut on the morning of September 7, the day after Labor Day. It was midweek and with schools back in session, we knew that the major crush of summer crowds was over. The ride up north was slow and uneventful; we stopped as needed for gas and coffee, and to let the dog stretch his legs and use the nearest tree. By mid-afternoon, we entered the mountain area and soon saw the iconic shape of Franconia Notch rising up in the north directly in front of us. The notch itself is a deep ‘U’ shaped cleft through which the road travels. Above and to the left towered the cliffs of Cannon Mt and along the skyline, the hump-shaped ridge known as the Cannonballs; on the right soared the high barren peaks of the Franconia Ridge.
We drove up through the notch and stopped at the height of land to take in the view of the Old Man of the Mountain. The sky was gray and the temperature cool. We sat at a picnic table and enjoyed a cold beer and snacks. I put out a length of rope for Niz and the dog pranced back and forth on his leash, looking everywhere and testing the air with his nose. Although Niz was a young dog, he had experienced travel and camping in the White Mountains since 1974, and was just as excited about being in New Hampshire once again as Steve and I were.
We drove back into the notch and secured a campsite at Lafayette Campground. I setup my dome tent and put down my sleeping bag and pad, as well as a blanket for Niz; Steve set out his sleeping gear on the floor of the van. We made a large fire, fed the dog, and enjoyed a hot dinner as darkness fell. After dinner, we read trail descriptions from my 1972 AMC White Mountain Guide and studied the contour trail map of Franconia before deciding on the Greenleaf Trail to the summit of Mt Lafayette as our initial route and destination for the morning. Following that, it was time for Brandy and stories in front of the fire; Niz was content to curl up on his blanket and bask in the heat that flowed out from the large campfire.
Around 10 pm, we called it a night and retired to our sleeping bags, excited about our plans for the morrow.
At first light, we rose and made hot coffee, a simple breakfast, and fed the dog. It was gray, windy, and overcast; clouds obscured the tops of the mountains surrounding the notch. At least it wasn’t raining. I struck the tent and returned my gear to the rear of Steve’s van and together we policed up our campsite and dumped our trash before slowly leaving the campground and driving north up into the notch.
Steve found the parking area for the Greenleaf Trail at the top of Franconia Notch, somewhere near the 2000’ elevation mark. This trail climbed steeply to Greenleaf Hut in a little over two miles and from there made its way in just over a mile to the summit of Mt Lafayette, some 3300’ above the trailhead. We put on our boots and readied our packs. We each had a high quality and well-wrapped Italian grinder with potato chips for lunch, and carried plenty of water and snacks as well. I wore shorts and a light top, a windbreaker, and a hat; I knew I would be breaking a sweat soon. I carried warm clothing and gloves in my daypack.
It was still early when we stepped out onto the trail. Niz was a friendly companion and a good dog on the trail; with no people or pets nearby, I was content to let him run without a leash. He would dash ahead then sprint back to me, and he constantly repeated this drill with his nose either high in the air or close to the ground. If I saw or heard other hikers, I put him on the leash. The trail got steeper and we started to ascend in earnest. About a mile in and 1000’ above the car, we crossed through Eagle Pass, a narrow divide that separated Eagle Cliffs from Mt Lafayette proper. The trail area leading up to and through Eagle Pass was particularly beautiful.
We rested in the pass and then continued climbing on the trail until we reached Greenleaf Hut. Finding a place out of the wind, we gazed upwards at the gray clouds blowing above us from across the notch, obscuring the peaks of the Franconia Ridge. To our east, the Greenleaf Trail disappeared into the clouds about a half-mile above us on the broad flank of the mountain that led to the crest of Mt Lafayette.
After a break, we followed the trail through a depression that held two small mountain tarns called Eagle Lakes and emerged from the scrub, continuing up the broad ridge with the wind buffeting the three of us. The cairns, piles of rocks that marked the course of the trail above treeline, disappeared into the blowing cloud and we dutifully followed their track until all visibility of the notch and mountain scenery surrounding us disappeared, reduced to a wet and close swirling gray cloud that scudded by us on our ascent. Within this cloud, we hiked from cairn to cairn. Niz looked back at me from his position at the end of the leash, his ears straight out in the blow. We plodded on steadily, making our way up the mountain and with no way of gauging our progress, stumbled up onto the summit to join the other hikers gathered there around the trail signs and rocks.
On the summit with Niz - 1976
(Photo courtesy Steve Barton)
After a few minutes, the sky began to brighten and we glimpsed occasional patches of blue sky through the gray mist that swirled about us. Suddenly the clouds broke and blew past us toward the east, and we stood on the 5250' apex of Mt Lafayette in the sunlit clarity of a glorious windy day in September. I gazed about, mesmerized in the sunlight, watching the cloudbank disappear as it receded towards the long ridge dominated by South Twin Mountain.
Steve and I looked at the trail map and had a brief discussion before we departed the group gathered atop Lafayette and continued south along the Franconia Ridge Trail towards the 5108' summit of Mt Lincoln. As the weather was now improved we decided to lengthen our hike and follow the ridge to Little Haystack and from there descend into the notch via the Falling Waters Trail; Steve could then hitchhike up to our original trailhead and retrieve the van.
We enjoyed the extensive vistas as the footpath made its way south towards Mt Lincoln. To our right rose the cliffs of Cannon Mt and far below us was the road that ran through Franconia Notch. Greenleaf Hut sat perched on a shoulder of the mountain, lending a human scale to Mt Lafayette. Lonesome Lake Hut was also visible, nestled close to the shore of the lake in a high forest south of Cannon Mt. Above and beyond Lonesome Lake, the Kinsman Range ran south to Kinsman Notch with the large broad crown of Mt Moosilauke dominating the view to the southwest. Off to the east, on our left, lay the bowl-like depression of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and the hump of the Owls Head within it. Rising up behind, the three mountains of the Bond group, (Bond, West Bond, and Bondcliff), sat connected to the Twin Mountains by the long ridge trail that crossed over the two rounded summits of Guyot. In the distance, Mt Washington stood framed on the horizon. South of the Bonds, Mt Carrigain stood impressively aloof.
We found a sunlit rocky bench on the trail near the top of Mt Lincoln where we dropped our packs and enjoyed our lunch of grinders and potato chips, looking out over the Pemigewasset Wilderness and the mountains beyond.
Returning to the trail, we enjoyed the views from Mt Lincoln. Every viewpoint on the Franconia Ridge is memorable, yet the view from the upper reaches of Mt Lincoln looking south is of the highest order. Gazing down along the Franconia Ridge as the footway curves over the barren crest of the ridge to Little Haystack, with Mt Liberty and Mt Flume rising up to join the Franconia Range some miles further on and below, always stirs within me the finest sentiments and emotions.
(Franconia Ridge south of Mt Lincoln)
The three of us made our descent from Lincoln and worked our way across the treeless apex of the ridge as the trail curled its way to Little Haystack, not a salient peak actually but a point of land where the ridge falls away to the south. It was still breezy but the sky was a deep crystalline blue and the bright sun warmed the afternoon air. We found the place where the Falling Waters Trail began its 3-mile descent to the floor of the notch and spent several minutes at the junction sign discussing our options.
The day was so perfect that we decided to prolong our trek and continue over to the summit of Mt Liberty, more than two miles away. Steve and I both felt great and the pads on the bottom of the dog’s paws looked good and showed no sign of distress. The three of us continued south on the Franconia Ridge Trail and as we approached Mt Liberty we came upon the white blaze of the Liberty Spring Trail, part of the Appalachian Trail, coming up from the floor of the notch. We continued on the ridge past the Liberty Spring junction. The footway soon began its ascent to the rocky barren crest of Mt Liberty where we dropped our packs, and enjoyed what water and snacks remained.
Reluctantly, we rose and donned our packs then followed the rocky track down to the junction with the Liberty Springs Trail. Here we departed Franconia Ridge and started our descent into the notch. At the backpackers campsite we drank our fill of cold spring water, Niz included, and Steve and I each filled up one water bottle.
In an hour and a half, we could hear the sound of cars on the road somewhere ahead of us through the trees; several minutes later we walked off the trail and emerged at the lower trailhead. I sat at a picnic table as Steve continued towards the road to hitchhike up to his van. Niz was content to curl up on the ground at my feet, still looking around at the activity surrounding him but too tired to stand.
After Steve returned with the van, we enjoyed cheese and crackers along with several cold beers. I fed Niz a good dinner and gave him an aspirin for his pains. Following that, we loaded ourselves into the van and headed for North Conway. Friends of mine, Steven Cooney and Mary Ellen Aronson, rented an apartment in a large old white house on the West Side Road between Bartlett and North Conway proper, and we planned to visit them for dinner.
We left Franconia Notch and drove north before swinging around to the east and descending through Crawford Notch. In about an hour, we found their apartment, announced ourselves, and they welcomed us into their home. After a few moments, Steven Cooney came down to direct us to a parking space for visitors and after letting Niz have a walk, we retired to the apartment for a spaghetti dinner with salad and bread. Dinner was simple yet delicious; Steve and I were famished. By some strange occurrence, Steven and Mary Ellen had a large carton of eggnog in the fridge; Steve Barton pulled out our bottle of brandy and for dessert, the four of us enjoyed several stiff drinks of the sort that one usually reserved for Yuletide celebrations.
The apartment was warm and along with the after-effects of a full meal and several drinks, let alone the efforts of our long day of hiking, our eyelids began to droop and tiredness set in. Our hosts asked us to spend the night on their floor but having the dog we deferred, deciding to spend the night somewhere outside in the relative coolness of the rear of the van.
We said our goodbyes and returned to the vehicle where we walked the dog in the dark then headed out in the van. The road leading to the top of Cathedral Ledge was nearby so we followed it up as it ascended towards the viewpoints. The main gate was open and we drove around the parking loop. As Steve pulled off the road down onto a dirt area, a strange noise came up from the engine area. I asked Steve about the noise and he replied that the second gear linkage had disengaged again; he would reconnect it later.
The popular climbing and picnic area was empty of cars and people. We enjoyed the solitude and views, along with the cool September night air, before returning to the van.
“We’ll just crash here,” said Steve. “I’m exhausted.”
“And if a ranger comes by?” I offered, pointing at a “No Camping” sign attached to a tree.
“We’ll tell the truth, which is we’ve lost our transmission and I’ll fix it in the morning. I’ve no desire to get under there tonight in the dark and try to reconnect anything.”
There was no arguing with that, so after letting the dog make a last walk amid the trees, we spread out our sleeping pads and bags in the back floor of the van and quickly fell asleep; Niz curled up between us at our feet.
In the first light of dawn, we learned about our true predicament. Steve had parked the van on the dirt shoulder at an awkward angle. During the night, both Steve and I, along with our sleeping bags and pads, had slid down the metal floor of the van into the large step-well along the bottom entrance of the cargo door and Niz now lay curled up on top of us sleeping comfortably. Here we lay crammed down into a hole on the side of the van with the dog using us for a mattress. At the time, Niz was 90 pounds of muscle, claw, and bone so his weight and movement jammed us down into the bare metal step-well even harder.
With a shout, a curse, and a jab we got Niz to stand up and get off the two of us, then we all went outside. Later, Steve fixed the transmission in the light of day. Soon, we were driving down from the ledges in search of a local breakfast stop before seeking out our next adventure in the White Mountains together.
The events of that trip transpired thirty-five years ago, and the memories of that day with Steve and Niz, and of my first trip over the Franconia Ridge, never fail to bring a smile to my face and to tug at my heart. Niz, an ever-faithful companion, lived nine more years. Steven Cooney and I would share other adventures and summits in New Hampshire before he met his death in 1980, the victim of a hit and run accident in Hartford, Connecticut. Steve Barton did continue on to California but as the fates would have it, he eventually returned to the northeast and we enjoyed another era where we plied the trails of the White Mountains in unison once again. These days, we both live in California where we have enjoyed many mountain and desert adventures in the West together.
I always look back on the Franconia Ridge with appreciation and gratitude; the eleven miles or so that we spent on the trail that day were truly wondrous. I will never forget the clouds blasting away from Lafayette and leaving the three of us standing on the summit of the Franconia Range in the sunlit brilliance of a perfect September day in the mountains of New Hampshire.
At the time, I was not yet committed to climbing all of the 4000-foot peaks in the White Mountains; I stood atop my first summit in 1972 and felt content to explore, experience, and enjoy the mountains and trails at my leisure, free of any goal or commitment. Yet in 2011, I recall the 1976 trip with Steve and Niz with a special degree of amazement. I had no way of knowing that I would hike across the Franconia Ridge Trail another 15 times before my New Hampshire hiking days ended. Or, that I would eventually come to stand on the broad crest of Mt Moosilauke 20 times, a peak that in September of 1976, I had not yet visited.
In 1976, all of that wonder and joy, the untold hours of fulfillment and adventure found along the trails and atop the summits of the White Mountains, lay ahead of me, awaiting discovery.