Mount Lafayette, NH: A Solo Winter Ascent

Mt. Lafayette

Looking back at the summit of Mt. Lafayette from Franconia Ridge.

What is your favorite day-hike in the White Mountains? For me, the answer is Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge, which is why I set my alarm for 6 am and headed for the Lafayette trailhead early last week.

Franconia Ridge Loop (White Mountains, NH):

  • Date: January 22, 2014
  • Activity: Winter Hiking/Day Hike
  • Total Mileage: 8.9 miles
    • Old Bridle Path – 2.9 miles
    • Greenleaf Trail – 1.1 miles
    • Appalachian Trail – 1.7 miles
    • Falling Waters Trail – 3.2 miles
  • Duration: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, 6 hours 30 minutes
  • Parking: Lafayette Place Trailhead Parking (just off of I-93), 2 privies available at trailhead, open year-round.

Although I’ve hiked the Franconia Loop dozens of times, most of those times have been during the summer or fall when the days are longer and the temperatures warmer. Of the handful of times I’ve hiked it during the winter, the day it was -20F at the base really stands out in my memory… that was the day I decided that there really was such a thing as too cold!!! By comparison, the 14F temperatures that greeted me at the trailhead parking lot last week seemed downright balmy!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path... If that's not motivation I don't know what is!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path… If that’s not motivation I don’t know what is!

The Old Bridle Path (Lafayette Place Parking to Greenleaf Hut) – 2.9 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. The trail gains 2,450 ft in 2.9 miles… anything approaching 1000 ft of elevation gain per mile qualifies as strenuous in my book.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons, snowshoes (optional)…
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, soft-packed powder. Occasional icy spots, easily avoidable.
  • Vistas (8/10): After 1.5 to 2 miles, amazing views of Franconia Ridge ahead and the valley behind are common.
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Greenleaf Hut and the Franconia Ridge as viewed from the Old Bridle Path.

I donned my microspikes and set off, alone, into the quiet, snowy, New Hampshire morning. After two solo thru-hikes it felt both strange and incredibly normal to be heading off into the snow-covered mountains by myself, but mostly it just felt great to be moving in the mountains I loved with beautiful blue skies above and sparkling white snow below. The only thing that dampened my spirit was that I couldn’t find my ‘good’ camera when I stopped to take pictures at the first overlook. I assumed I must have forgotten it back at the car in my excitement to get out on the trail… My iPhone 5 would have to serve as my camera for the day!

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

The trail all the way up to Greenleaf hut was beautifully snow-covered. Even though extra gear and precautions are necessary for winter hiking, one of my favorite things about the snow is that it covers and smooths out the normal rocky backbone of the trail and creates a strangely uniform hiking surface… The nice, stumble-free, snow-covered terrain reminded me of the PCT, but the grade of the Old Bridle Path was way too steep for that! I gained 2,450 ft in the 2.9 miles it took me to get up to Greenleaf Hut (closed & boarded up in the winter), and I still had a mile to go to get the the summit of Lafayette!

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Greenleaf Trail and the summit of Mt. Lafayette as viewed from the trail. How many cairns can you count in frame?

Greenleaf Trail (Greanleaf Hut to Mt. Lafayette Summit) – 1.1 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous, the trail gains ~1000 ft in 1.1 miles
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons recommended. Snow shoes optional
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): partially-tracked, lightly-packed wind-swept snow, some possibility for postholing. Windy!
  • Vistas (9/10): Primarily above treeline with sweeping vistas.

Near Greenleaf Hut I ran into a couple of people on their way down. They assured me that the trail conditions at the summit, along the ridge, and on Falling waters were great… Our excitement about the unusually warm, clear White Mountain weather was almost palpable… and it was certainly visible on all of our smiling faces.

Not long after leaving the hut I left the scrubby treeline entirely behind me, and embraced the blinding sun and whipping winds characteristic of Greenleaf trail in the wintertime.

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The sandy snow made that final mile to the summit of Mt. Lafayette seem to go on forever… I wasn’t postholing, but I could feel myself backsliding a little bit with each step… It didn’t help that I was almost 5000 ft above the elevation I’d slept at the previous night!

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Either way, I didn’t hesitate to take a break when I encountered a rare site on Mt. Lafayette… a group of 5 skiers struggling up the slope. Sure they were struggling on the uphill, but they were going to have it made on the way down!

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

After a few more photo breaks than were probably absolutely necessary, I made it to the windy summit of Lafayette! As I looked around I couldn’t help but smile… There’s nothing better than a beautiful clear day on the summit of Mt. Lafayette. I was kind of curious though, where exactly were those skiers going to go from the summit?

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

Appalachian Trail (AT/Franconia Ridge Trail – Mt. Lafayette Summit to Little Haystack) – 1.7 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Moderate, some ups and downs with drifting snow.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons
  • Trail conditions (9/10): well-tracked, windswept powder. Windy!
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely above treeline. Amazing views of the ridge you’re on (Franconia Ridge) and of the Presidential range… Absolutely phenomenal!

It felt good to be back on the Appalachian Trail (AT)… The last time I’d stood on the summit of Mt. Lafayette looking out at Mt. Washington was on my 2013 AT thru-hike… The sense of accomplishment I felt standing at the summit was for more than just climbing the mountain that day, but for the incredibly journeys of the last two years… It was a beautiful moment full of memories of the past and excitement about the new memories that I was creating right then and there.

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Franconia Ridge is one of my favorite stretches of trail. It is incredibly beautiful, but it is also incredibly exposed… definitely not to undertaken lightly when hiking solo in the wintertime. I scrutinized the distant clouds… the weather was still miraculously clear, which was good, and I did a time check. It wasn’t even 1pm yet, but since it was the middle of the winter sunset would be come early, ~5pm… did I have enough time to do the ridge and descend to my car before dark? Yes. Plenty. If I got caught out after dark was I prepared? Yes. Were there any suggestions of iffy weather? No. Since I was winter-hiking solo, I did a quadruple check… Would another hiker with my level of skill and preparation think that this was a risky decision? No. Phew… Safety checks passed, I texted my parents, “heading across Franconia Ridge now, will descend via Falling Waters.” I’d given them an itinerary before I left, but sending them time-stamped updates seemed prudent.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Every fiber of my being rejoiced at the opportunity to prolong my time on Franconia Ridge. It was such a gorgeous day, and as winter weather goes, it was as good as it gets! The winds weren’t too strong, the temperatures (in the teens) were moderate, and I had plenty of gear to keep me warm. I also discovered that as soon as I wasn’t going uphill anymore my toes completely warmed up!!! I was definitely excited about that!

The Appalachian Trail's familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge

The Appalachian Trail’s familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge.

About halfway across the ridge I encountered a northbound hiker, “How’s the trail ahead?” I queried. “Well, the ridge isn’t bad, but Falling Waters Trail is Icy… It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it! It was so bad I had to use my ice axe to get up it!” he replied sounding slightly rattled… “Hmmm…” This was directly at odds with the trail report I’d gotten from the last person I talked to!

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I'd come.

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I’d come.

After some contemplation, I continued hiking South along the AT.  I remembered the sweeping vistas from my Northbound AT thru-hike, but somehow the snow made it all feel more magical!

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The windswept rocks of Franconia Ridge iced with snow! (On the AT, looking South).

As I neared the end of the ridge and headed up Little Haystack I ran into one final group of people (total number of people encountered: 9). I asked the group of 3 guys how the trail had been. “It was great,” said one guy. “No Problem,” smiled one of the other guys.

“That’s good to hear,” I said feeling relieved, “there have been conflicting reports about Falling Waters trail.”

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

“Oh?” replied the third guy, curiously. “Well… the last guy I talked to said it was the worst he’d ever seen it and that he’d had to use his ice axe.” Almost immediately they chimed in and admitted that they’d used their ice axes too, but assured me, “it’s not that bad, you won’t have any problems with it.” I looked at them kind of skeptically before quizzing them a bit more about where they’d used their axes… I tried to picture the trail ahead and the spot that they were talking about..but I had trouble imagining a spot where I’d need my ice axe… Well, I’d find out when I got there!

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

Falling Waters Trail (Little Haystack to Lafayette Place Parking) – 3.2 miles

  • Difficultly Level: Strenuous, steep downhill descending 2800 ft in 3.2 miles. Snow-cover decreases impact on knees compared to summertime conditions.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons. 3/4 people ascending cited use of ice axe on one section. I did not use an ice axe nor did I feel the need to.
  • Trail Conditions (6/10): mostly well-tracked powder, however, some extremely icy sections are present on the lower 1/3 of the trail… Confidence traversing ice flows a must on this section.
  • Vistas (7/10): The majority of the trail is below treeline. However, the views from Shining Rock are worthwhile and the ice formations and flows of the ‘falling waters’ make up for the lack of more sweeping views.

Sometimes the trail seems even steeper when you are going down than when you are going up, and this definitely felt true as I headed down the Falling Waters Trail. It was steep, well-tracked powder, and it would have been a lot of fun to do some glissading… Unfortunately, I was below treeline and would have to navigate around a lot of trees in order to safely glissade… I was also afraid that I would end up going faster than I wanted to, so I decided to play it safe and stay on my feet.

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When I reached the falling waters section of the Falling Waters Trail I was fascinated by all the different ice formations in and around the stream. They were absolutely beautiful!

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

The ice formations were so beautiful that I couldn’t help but stop and take pictures of all of the the different kinds of ice… The feathery plumes were something that didn’t remember ever seeing before!

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Despite discovering lots of beautiful ice and water as I descended, the trail had remained nicely packed powder…

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

… until all the powder disappeared and was replaced with a wall of ice. There was no doubt… the wall of ice below me was where everyone had used their ice axes. I stood at the top of the steep ice flows contemplating my options for a couple of minutes.

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

It was clear that most people had used the ~5-6 ft long ice chute (pictured above) to my right instead of following the main trail with it’s steep 20-30 ft long ice flow (pictured below)… I continued contemplating my options… I didn’t like either of them, but eventually decided on the ice chute/glissade… once I was sitting down with my legs extended I’d be most of the way to the soft powdery snow below.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes... though I'm not sure how.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes… though I’m not sure how. Check out that blue blaze up there? The trail is somewhere underneath the beautiful blue ice.

Sure enough, the powder cushioned my short slide, no problem. Despite the icy trail conditions, the thing that was really slowing me down wasn’t my footing… it was all the time I was taking to admire and take pictures of the cool ice formations along the way!

A different kind of icicle… ice sheets maybe? near Falling Waters trail

Luckily for me, the icy section of the trail… the section where the trail held more ice than snow, was relatively short… about 1/4 mile, but I treated that section with extreme caution!

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

Even though I wanted to linger on the icy sections of the trail taking pictures and enjoying my hike for as long as possible, the magical low-angle light that was making everything extremely photogenic also signaled the fast approaching sunset.

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I reluctantly put my phone camera away and continued towards my car.

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Back at the car I searched for my ‘good’ camera, which I’d assumed I’d forgotten in the car during the hub-bub that morning… It wasn’t there… Doh! Was it possible that it was somewhere in my pack and I’d just missed it? I frantically emptied all of the contents of my pack out into my car… Still no camera… Oh sh**! My camera really was lost… My beautiful Sony Nex was somewhere between the car and the first overlook where I’d first noticed that it was missing.

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I took a deep breath… at least 5 people had descended that trail, maybe one of them found it and left it or a note about it for me somewhere… I circled the parking lot looking for clues… Nothing… My heart sank as I contemplated retracing my steps from that morning to look for it… Somewhat exasperated I decided a bathroom break, a snack, and some more water were in order before making any decisions…

As I rounded the corner to the women’s privy I saw it, right in front of the privy, lying on the snow… my camera!!! It must have fallen out when I stopped there before my hike. Since I was the only woman on the trail that day, nobody else had ventured over to the women’s privy, and nobody else had seen it! Phew!

With my camera in hand, and the sun beginning to set, I returned to my car and headed home… I was definitely a happy hiker! It had been an amazing day and the hike up Mt. Lafayette and across Franconia ridge kept its place as one of my favorite hikes of all time.

Note:

  • Consider checking out trip reports and forecasts here before heading up Lafayette.
  • The weather in the White Mountains is notoriously bad (even in the summer), so when planning a winter hike in the Whites finding a good weather window is my primary concern… If I’m considering a climb of Mt. Lafayetter (5250 ft) I check the Mt. Washington summit forecast and look for a day with high temperatures > 5-10 degrees F, wind speeds < 30 mph, and no measurable precipitation predicted for that day or the next… Even with appropriate gear, low temperatures and high windchills significantly reduce the fun factor of the hike for me… been there, done that (like the day it was -20 degrees F at the base… brrrrrrrr!!!).
Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

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Thru-Hike Snow Gear Review (The High Sierra)

Heading into the high Sierra at the end of May I knew that I was going to be in for some cold, wet, snowy conditions, here are the three things that I found most useful:

1. Kahtoola Microspikes
Size: Medium
Weight: 13.6 oz
MSRP: $64.95

On icy terrain my Kahtoola microspikes were a godsend. They allowed me to dance up and down the icy crust of the snowfields of the high Sierra while those without would timidly slip and slide down the slopes. 13.6 ounces may feel like a lot of extra weight, but they are definitely worth it. If they are sized correctly for your boots they are fairly easy to slip on (even with gloved hands) and they stay on your feet even when you are moving at weird angles and on strange slopes. I did occasionally fumble with getting them lined up correctly on my boots and had to sit down to put them on (not always the most convenient when you decide you need to use them, but all in all I’ve been very happy with my microspikes. I own two pair of full crampons and I would say the major disadvantage of the microspikes relative to the crampons is that you can’t really kick steps with the microspikes. The advantage of the microspikes is that they are lighter weight and easier to put on and take off.

2. Hanz Waterproof Calf-Length Socks
Size: Large
Weight: 3.2 ounces?
MSRP: $39.95

I used my waterproof socks for three purposes: 1. To keep my feet dry for the many many stream/creek crossings in the Sierra, 2. To keep my feet warm when the temps were below freezing and I was crossing creeks or walking through drifts of snow, and 3. Instead of winter gaitors to protect my feet and lower legs from the snow while postholing like mad going across snowfields in the late afternoon. Since most thru-hikers are hiking in highly ventilated, poorly insulated sneakers or trail shoes, the insulating properties of the waterproof socks helped keep my toes happy in the icy conditions of the high Sierra. The liner that comes with these socks was really nice as well… Washing them out periodically to keep the stench down is a good idea.

3. Guthook’s hiking guides phone app
MSRP: $6.99

With 3+ feet of snow obscuring the trail in places route finding in the high Sierra can be a real challenge. Having an app that used my phone’s GPS and showed me both where I was and where the trail was on a topo map was incredibly useful. I still carry paper maps and a compass, but as long as my phone is working and my battery is charged, I turn to Guthook’s app when I’m trying to figure out where the trail is!

Asides:

* snowfields cause interesting and sometimes unexpected sunburn problems, like sunburn on the underside of your nose, and weird sunburns from the light reflected off of my metal earrings.

* rock hopping across streams in the early morning can be dangerous… The rocks were often coated with black ice even when the water was flowing and there was no snow in sight. Frost on on the log bridges can also be slick.

* I carried an ice axe through the high Sierra, but typically preferred to use my trekking poles as I traversed the snow fields.

If you can’t walk, then crawl (PCT Days 57-62): Part 1

“If you can’t fly, then run
If you can’t run, then walk
If you can’t walk, then crawl.
But whatever you do you have to keep on moving forward.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The quote that I actually had running through my head as I was on my hands and knees trying to crawl across one of the snowfields at the base of Glen Pass was from an Episode of Firefly (“the message”), where the character Tracey says, “when you can’t walk, you crawl. And when you can’t do that…”

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There was snow, and lots of it, and somewhere underneath all of that snow was the trail. The PCT. In some places I’d just been able to follow other people’s footsteps through the snow, but I’d been warned that the footsteps in the snow on this section of the trail had been leading people astray and that I should figure out where the trail was myself and stick to it (always a good plan).

Both of those things ended up being being easier said than done. Firstly, the trail was buried under drifts of snow 3+ feet deep. That made it hard to find without using the GPS in my phone and Guthook’s app, which showed me my location relative to the trail. Secondly, I was hiking through the pass in the early afternoon, which meant that the snow crust on top of the drifts was soft and occasionally failed to hold my weight. Suddenly, and unpredictably, one leg would punch 35 inches (the length of my inseam) down into the snow drift and I’d have to struggle to pull myself out… This exciting phenomenon is known as postholing.

The thing that had brought me to my hands and knees was double postholing. As I tried to pull one leg out of the drift the other leg had punched through the surface of the snow and I was suddenly stuck waist deep in the snow and each time I tried to lift myself out and get a leg above the snow it punched back down into hole in the drift that I was already in. It was incredibly frustrating!

The snow wouldn’t support my weight. I sighed grumpily and looked longingly at the pile of rocks 100 feet away. They would definitely support my weight. I just needed to get out of the hole I was in and over to those rocks, but how?

Surface area, the key was clearly surface area. I needed to spread my weight (and that of my backpack fully loaded with nine day of food) out across the surface of the drift. I knew that it could bear a distributed load, just not all of my weight when it was concentrated in a single step. I must have looked like a beached whale as I sprawled my upper body (fully loaded with my pack) up and over the top of the snowdrift, clawing at the snow with my hands and kicking my legs up behind me, but it worked. I got out of the hole.

I inched forward on my hands and knees thinking that I needed to either put gloves on or I needed to switch from crawling back to walking. Though crawling was working, I definitely liked walking much much better. Very tentatively I switched my posture from crawling to standing and then walking.

“Think light thoughts, think light thoughts,” I repeated to myself as I tried to glide across the crust of the snow. I postholed once or twice more before finally reaching the safety of the rock outcropping. I wanted to be near the trail, but definitely not on it if it was going to be underneath a 3+ foot snowdrift.

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As I slowly made my way up the trail (avoiding snowdrifts and postholing as much as possible) another thru-hiker caught up to me. I was glad to have company as I navigated my way through the pass. Based on my maps I would chose a trajectory and then shout out “I’ve got trail-trail,” anytime the muddy footpath of the PCT peaked out from beneath the snowdrifts. Though the going was slow, and the final head wall was a scree-covered scramble, we eventually made it to the top of the pass and were able to relax and enjoy the amazing scenery of the high Sierra!

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As I prepared to head down the pass I looked at the cold expanse of snow ahead of me. There was a single row of footsteps (somebody had already done the postholing/trail breaking) disappearing around the contour of the mountain. The slope was very steep, so I put on my microspikes and payed very close attention to matching my steps to the ones already on the hillside, and hoped that whenever the trail turned and headed downwards it would be at a shallower angle.

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Unfortunately, it wasn’t a shallower angle. Suddenly the trail went from being one single set of footsteps along the contour of the mountain to being a mishmash of footsteps and signs of people sliding/glissading down the slope!! The trail was way way to steep for me to feel comfortable glissading, so I tried to slowly sidestep my way down, but it was so steep that that didn’t make me feel much better!

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Eventually all of the tracks whittled down to a shortish glissade headed towards a pile of rocks. I was tired of postholing so decided what the heck, I’d give glissading a try… Everyone else had done it… It was like peer pressure, but after the peers had long since gone. I hadn’t seen any helicopters so clearly everyone had survived the glissade.

I shortened my hiking poles all the way down so that I could use them as brakes and then sat down on the snowfield (incredibly easy because it was so steep) and whoosh!! I was sliding down the slope… Fast… Faster than I wanted to be going. I tried using my hiking poles as brakes like I’d done on numerous occasions before… But they weren’t helping out much…

“Glissading is not a good idea,” I yelled up to the thru-hikers above me as I tried to get my glissade under control. I carefully used the spikes on the bottoms of my shoes to slow myself down (I’d sprained an ankle doing that with crampons once, so I was being extremely careful) along with my hiking pole breaks. It was working, I was slowing down, but not as quickly as I’d hoped. I steered my slide over towards the rocks, knowing that I’d be able to safely stop there. “Next time I attempt a glissade, I’m going to pull out my ice axe,” I thought to myself.

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My butt was very cold by the time I got up and resumed my slow side-stepping/postholing pace down the mountain. It was very slow and careful going and eventually the slope of the mountain got shallower and the hiking didn’t require quite as much attention. Here, on the lower slope, I did feel comfortable attempting another glissade, especially if it meant avoiding more postholing agony. I sat down and began a much slower, more comfortable and fun glissade towards RAE lakes. I kept sliding until my butt became achingly cold…. Brrrr…. I got up and finished hiking across the snow to a sunny granite outcropping at the bottom of the pass.

I wasn’t done hiking for the day yet, but I needed to take a break, warm up, and refocus before crossing the 2 miles of snowfields between me and where I intended to camp that night. From the sunny granite outcropping I was relaxing on I could look back up at the slope I’d just come down. It looked pretty darn impressive even if I do say so myself.

As I sat there a group of three thru-hikers I’d met in town the day before began descending the steep section. I watched them with fascination as they began side-stepping their way down the slope until… Uh oh!!! One of them fell and ended up upside down and backwards on the slope and not moving… I tried to quell the raising panic in my chest. Surely they were ok, but they still weren’t moving… I was too far away to help and too far away to know what was really going on…

I pulled out my camera, took pictures, and then zoomed in to see if I could figure out what was going on! Within a couple of minutes one of the other thru-hikers (that was closer) hiked back up the slope to the fallen hiker and before long they were both on their feet and continuing their long descent down the mountain. Phew! They were ok.

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Now that I found myself safely over the pass I was worried about all of my friends that hadn’t come through there yet… I hoped that they would come through it ok too. Once the group coming down made it to the shallower slopes I picked myself up and started down the trail again. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but I still had a couple more miles to go.

As I headed out across the snowfields I reinstated my mantra, “think light thoughts, think light thoughts.” It was definitely posthole-o’clock as I was picking my way towards camp. I was making slow, but good progess when suddenly my left foot and left hiking stick postholed all the way down.

My hiking pole broke, sheered itself in half from the impact of the vertical force (perhaps aggravated by the cold temperatures), and my left leg firmly embedded itself in the snow. I tried to pull my left leg free but to no avail… It was stuck in the snow, all the way up to my hip.

I looked accusingly at my broken hiking pole and thought that maybe this was the right time to throw myself a self-pity-party as I squinted back tears. Neither the self-pity-party nor the tears were going to help, so I gritted my teeth and started grumpily trying to dig my leg out of the snow bank with the broken halves of my hiking pole.

Stab, flick, grumble… Stab, flick, grumble… It wasn’t the most effective snow removal strategy, but it was making me feel better. As I was in the process of digging, one of the thru-hikers that was behind me caught up, “could you use some help?” he asked.

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It’s not always easy for me to ask for help, but in this case I really could use the help. “My leg is stuck,” I admitted with exasperation. “Hmmm… Is it ok if I try to pull it out?” I nodded and hoped that that would work, if not I could at least have him grab my mittens from the back so my hands would stay warm as I dug.

He reached down with both hands, grabbed my leg, and pulled it free! “Try to avoid the really deep ones from here on out,” he jokingly admonished me as we continued hiking down the slope and postholing periodically. I smiled, i would do everything I could to avoid postholing… Not that it would do me much good!

As we got closer to camp that night I remembered the rest of the quote from the firefly episode were Tracey says, “when you can’t walk, you crawl. And when you can’t do that…” As he trails off, like I had earlier, one of the other characters (Zoe) chimes in to finish the thought with, “you find someone to carry you.”

That single act of kindness, pulling my leg free of the snow, reminded me that I wasn’t alone, that there is a bond that all the thru-hikers out here share… We look out for each other… That thru-hiker had pulled me out of a low point, both physically and emotionally… And I was extremely grateful for that.

The emotional roller coaster of that day, and the reminder of the bond we share as thru-hikers, made it especially hard for me when the thru-hiker that pulled my leg free went missing later that day (to be continued…)

Mount Whitney (PCT Days 52-54)

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“Wooooah!” I was on a steep incline trying to traverse a snowy slope in the dark when the snow beneath my right foot collapsed and skittered down the slope leaving my foot dangling without the foothold I’d hoped for.

Up until then the snow had been moderately firm, and each foothold had been secure, but beneath an icy crust my foot had just discovered a foot and a half of light, fluffy, non-load-bearing powdery snow. A wave of adrenaline surged through my body as I took a deep breath and tried to find another foothold… It was a long way down…

Anytime I’m on terrain that feels sketchy or exposed I pretend that I’m rock climbing and make sure that I have three good, solid points of contact at all times before I try to move forward. In this case I was very thankful for that instinct. I could afford to replace my floundering foot without panicking.

I reseated my foot and this time it held. “Phew!” But my relief didn’t last long, my second foot didn’t hold either. The snow beaneath me was skittering to a stop somewhere at the base of the cliff… Not exactly reassuring, but my pervious foothold was solid and once again I was able to recover and find better footing.

It was just those two steps that stood out as hair raising moments as I night hiked Mount Whitney so that I could watch the sunrise from it’s summit. The rest of the climb was just hard work and beauty.

As we set off from camp at midnight the sky was clear and amazingly beautiful. There were so many stars that you couldn’t count them and the Milky Way was awesomely obvious. We knew if nothing else, we would remember the stars of this night.

As we ascended the mountain the snow got deeper and the temperatures dropped. We donned our microspikes to help with traction and additional warm layers of clothing. Before long the water in our water bottles had frozen and we were wiggling our toes trying to remember what they felt like. At that point I switched to my neoprene socks, which definitely kept my feet warmer.

As I hiked the tune from the Christmas sing “silver and gold” got stuck in my head, but I replaced the lyrics with “fingers and toes, fingers and toes, everyone wishes for warm fingers and toes.” I had plenty of warm clothes, but my fingers and toes were definitely cold. Though it was a hard, slow climb, we made it through the snow and up to the summit of Mount Whitney for sunrise. It was a truly spectacular experience!

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As dawn broke on top of Mount Whitney the temperatures were in the teens… It was definitely cold up there! 10 PCT hikers curled up in sleeping bags and crammed into the tiny shelter on top of Mount Whitney. We were all anxious to warm up our poor fingers and toes before spending more time outside enjoying the amazing vistas.

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As soon as my fingers and toes warmed up I was anxious to go back out and enjoy the views. I had insulated pants and an insulated jacket (or two) on so that I could stay warm out on the summit. In many ways, the scariest part of the day was when the door to the shelter jammed and I thought we were all going to be trapped in the shelter at the summit of Whitney!!

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Lucky for me, the jam was only temporary and I was able to escape the shelter and get outside to enjoy the impressive vistas! After soaking in the views I was actually both excited and impatient about heading down. Since our entire climb had been in the dark (literally), everything was going to seem new as we descended.

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Somehow in the daylight it seemed like there was even more snow than we’d realized as we were going up. Lots and lots of snow. We were amazed that we’d gone through so much snow during our night hike! On the way down I pulled out my ice and used it as I traversed the sketchier sections that we’d come up over. With ice axe in hand I tried to cut better, more stable steps into the snow/ice. I didn’t want to have any of those adrenaline inducing steps on the way down… The two steps of that going up had been more than enough for me!

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After I got through the short, sketchy part, I relaxed and enjoyed the stunning views around me. People had been telling me for months about how amazing the Sierras are and now I was finally there. It would be hard to be more Sierra than this and it would be hard to be more spectacular than this.

When asthma forced me to leave my job, I never would have imagined that a year later I would be standing on the summit of Mount Whitney in May with a bunch of my fellow thru-hikers! Sure, at below freezingf temperatures at 14,000ft I’d had to warm up my inhaler so that I could use it, but I was there… Doing amazing things… Doing things that I hadn’t even dared imagine a year ago!

I’m looking forward to the rest of the Sierras and to what my future holds!

(Rumor has it that I’ve gone through the scariest part of the Sierra, so now I get to sit back and enjoy the snow and the stunning scenery.)

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