By Randy Pierce
It was my intention to begin our final hiking season with a bang–and starting on Cannon was the ideal first shot. Cannon is where we ended our single season winter quest and is for many the heart of NH as the home of the Old Man of the Mountain. His immense craggy profile collapsed ten years ago in a massive boulder slide. An iconic image gone from the world provided some reflections even as our crew began part one of our epic cross-notch journey!
Six of us set upon the trails a little before 9 a.m., knowing the first stage of the day was only 4.4 miles along the Northeast Kinsman Ridge Trail. It’s a reasonably steep trail with respectably challenging footing in many locations. This presents two challenges and the clear sky and unseasonably warm temperatures added a little unexpected heat to the mix as well.
Still, the sounds of laughter made clear how quickly the mountains may overshadow other challenges of a normal day and help to guide us back to a serenity rare in other places. Jimmy Buffett would call it a “Latitude Adjustment” and Dan Gagne prefers “Altitude Adjustment” though the results are rather the same. The majesty atop East Cannon’s ledge is spectacular and the Lafayette ridge across the notch dwarfs most other considerations quickly. It was daunting to consider that later that day we’d be on the edge of that ridge having hiked both sides of the notch in a single day.
With that sobering thought, we packed away lunch and hiked to the rim trail. We took special note of the bench honoring all these mountains share to those who open themselves to such. An all-too-brief climb of the summit tower let us descend the still slightly icy trail that separated us from the next stage of our commencement hikes. Reaching the bottom is usually the end of a day, but we had only set the stage to make our launch more epic and worthy of our 2020 Vision Quest goals!
Greenleaf hut sits above 4,000 feet on the shoulder of Mt. Lafayette. The Old Bridle Path winds reasonably steeply with several sections known as the “Agonies” for good reason! Many of our crew departed and one new member joined us. Ultimately, three of us and the Mighty Quinn would undertake the next phase.
We had feasted and hydrated as best possible as the lower elevation heat remained respectable. As the path worked into the Walker Brook Gorge, we all noted how quickly the sounds of traffic fell to the mountain’s solace. It was our latest start ever for a mountain, but we knew that only 2.9 miles separated us from the hut and the rest we would need for Sunday’s Ridge walk.
While we already had obtained the summit of Lafayette several times, its neighbor across the ridge, Mt. Lincoln, was still necessary to reach our original goal of summiting all 48 in the non-winter. There is no direct ascent of Lincoln by trail and so a loop over Lafayette delivers the reward of an incredible ridge while adding very little to the total mileage. In fact, by adding in the hut stay we made our Sunday goal less than our Saturday work. Perhaps “less mileage” is a better description than “less work” since our final traverse through Falling Waters would prove to be the most difficult stretch of trail to date in our project!
We reached the hut as daylight was fading and not without some difficulty from weary legs and tired minds. The final scramble over the Agonies had drained me significantly and in hindsight a touch of heat stroke may have been at work. While my counterparts celebrated later into the evening, I trusted water and sleep to rejuvenate me for the next day.
Sunday began leisurely with much of that intended rejuvenation achieved. There was a good breakfast and much water before idyllic temperatures enabled a 7:40 a.m. start up the summit. Rising quickly above tree line, we reached the summit of Lafayette ahead of schedule and with views beyond the expectations of the team who had been told to expect an overcast day. Those views and perfect temperatures would continue for the entirety of the mildly challenging ridge walk over Mt. Truman and then up to Lincoln’s pointy peak. A brief summit celebration for our 38th peak obtained was short lived because the most challenging part of the entire weekend ordeal was still ahead.
Down into the col and across the knife edge of the ridge, we then strode up to Little Haystack and found the turn for Falling Waters Trail. Most choose to climb up this difficult, steep, slippery, and narrow trail and the reality of our choice was quickly upon us. True to trail reports, icy coatings on the steep upper section required a little traction for best risk management.
It was still slow going and required all the human guide skills and my own mental efforts. We traded out guides to allow for needed mental rest but my own concentration was tested repeatedly. Each greeting of a hiker heading up past us was a welcome mental break but always the miles ahead needed our attention. By the time the slope had eased considerably, we had reached the series of cascades and waterfalls which–while beautiful–provided a different style of challenge with slippery slab steps, narrow-edged ridge walks, and nearly endless tricky footing.
As the five stream crossings required yet a different bit of work for my blindness, it was not surprising that physically and mentally the day slipped a little closer to gruelling than ideal. But perseverance has its place; the rewards of what we had experienced were probably foremost on our minds after the final bridge crossing was achieved and we knew that officially only ten peaks remain in our quest.
While that might be dramatic enough to culminate our epic first weekend, there’s one further detail deserving of our attention. It wasn’t the many friends encountered along the trails either from our new community of hiking friends, or the encounters with folks on trails repeated often enough that acquaintances have begun. It was instead the smell of a grill and fresh steak tips and the surprise of finding my wife had set up a glorious tailgate of food and beverages to revitalize the most weary of hikers. It was the glorious moment of sitting in a comfy lawn chair and removing bruised and battered feet from the confinement of well trodden hiking boots and socks! It was revelling in the overall accomplishment and the potency of loving support.
The journey held many wonders and inspirations for me and our mission. Ten more peaks await this summer and I believe we’ll achieve our mission. It won’t be easy nor assured but with good friends, my faithful though aging Quinn, and a lot of perseverance, we will celebrate with another tailgate on August 24 and I hope many more of you may be there to revel in the experience with us!