by Randy Pierce
Riding up Interstate 93 into Franconia Notch, John Lacroix – known to many as Sherpa John – explained how the cloud dome over the summit of Mt. Lafayette is caused by the powerful winds riding up the ravine. The presence of the dome also confirmed the weather forecast for us that day; a stormy summit with hurricane-force winds likely. Snow had fallen during the evening, but we pulled into the parking area, made our evaluations, and decided on how to proceed.
Sherpa John took the responsibility for being the “bear bell“ lead on this hike, as he has helped me evaluate and practice the new and challenging aspects of my White Mountain forays in the past. UNH Outdoor Education student Robbie Caldwell was a last minute addition to our group so he could gain some collegiate leadership hours. At the trailhead, the weather was calm but very cold; the red glow of the sun striking the top of Cannon Mountain offering a bit of encouragement.
It was 8:30 a.m. on February 13th, and my hands struggled for dexterity as the biting cold caused mere seconds without gloves to be a problem. We all gathered swiftly and began the trek so that our bodies could get working and warm. There is little small talk – just enough to be clear on our plan, which is to head to Greenleaf hut and then up above tree line to gauge the force of the winds. We would turn around at any point necessary – undoubtedly at that tree line – due to the storm on the summit.
One early detriment to the hike was the discovery that the tube of my Camelbak was frozen and most likely was so even before we began. Despite the warm water in it, the exposed tube was solid, and my water would now have to come from my less-convenient Nalgene bottle. We tucked the tube into my clothes to let my body heat melt it, but it wasn’t until we neared the hut that I finally had water flowing from it.
We called lunch on a rock that provided good seats for our weary legs and a great view of the three hills known as ‘The Agonies’. These three hills were our next challenge on the way up. We took time here to eat, reflect on our hike so far, and to appreciate the various summits all around us: Lincoln, Haystack, and the cloud-enshrouded Lafayette high above them all.
As I had learned on the previous day with my first blind snowshoe hike up a mountain (Pack Monadnock), previous hikers had made a packed-down path that was lower than the surrounding snow. The packed trail made for an easy groove to guide my steps; the edges curled up almost like an ice luge to help guide me, and the flat footing for each step was an absolute treasure, as I’m used to struggling for footing during summer hikes. The bear bells hanging from my guide helped me as well, though the sounds of the snowshoes ahead were an easier source for me to track. Therefore, while each step was considerably easier to manage, the concentration for direction required a bit more work and practice. Fir traps beside the trail became an occasional hazard, as one of my legs sometimes plunged down into them. Without Quinn’s presence to warn me of low-hanging branches, that task fell to the folks in front of me, and it took some adjustments to learn what level of communication worked best. Still the pace was considerably quicker than my normal stride and we made excellent progress. In no time at all, no one was feeling the cold. And while we hiked, gently falling snow decorated the incredible winter landscape for the eight of us…